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Battle of the Planets, the show that introduced '70s kids in the US to Japanese animation
If you were a kid in the late '70s then you likely had Star Wars fever, meaning that anything space-related was a big deal in your life. You wanted the giant Millennium Falcon toy that nobody had enough money for. You pretended those metal structures at the playground were spaceships. You probably also watched Battle of the Planets.
Battle of the Planets premiered in September of 1978 and was the first English-language adaptation of Science Ninja Team Gatchaman, a popular anime. For many kids, it was their first glimpse at the vibrant world of Japanese animation.
The series was totally engrossing, especially for young geeks. From the intro with the trumpet music and old-timey voiceover, we learned that the show told the tale of five young orphans who were trained almost from birth to battle the forces of evil from other planets. This is set in the future where, apparently, Earth gives away resources, so why would anyone steal them? Seriously, this is a plot in the first episode of the American series adaptation. Of course, there was only one girl in the group of guys, but back then, that was business as usual, and something we’d already seen in Star Wars, among many other films and TV series.
The Force Five team consisted of Mark, the leader (voiced by Ken Washio in the original Japanese series), Jason, the hotheaded second in command (Joe Asakura), Princess (Jun), the engineer, Keyop (Jinpei), the young kid who had a series of beeps and clicks in his speech patterns, and Tiny Harper (Ryu Nakanishi), the pilot. Somewhere in my head, Mark became Luke Skywalker, Jason became Han Solo, Keyop became R2-D2, Tiny became C-3PO (sort of), and Princess was, of course, Leia. They were all coordinated by a robot who loved and worried about them called 7-Zark-7, who lived a mostly solitary existence in an underwater outpost off the coast of California called Center Neptune, accompanied by a little robot dog named 1-Rover-1. He was really there to give a sort of narration which covered the things they cut out from the original Japanese cartoon, a common trope in early American translations of anime. He had a love interest called Susan who lived on Pluto, but who we never saw. She was the girlfriend who lived in Canada of this series.
There were actually a lot of changes from the original series. The Ready Room where the gang would chill out together was added, and there was some new music. We lost Jason/Joe’s backstory, and Keyop was changed to a genetically engineered child with the odd speech. Tiny’s family, present in the original, didn’t exist. The big bad of the series was Zoltar (named Berg Katse in the original series). They were created by merging twins in the Japanese version, giving Katse both male and female forms, but post-translation, Zoltar’s female forms were split into other characters, including his sister. Zoltar was from the planet Spectra and reported to The Great Spirit, the ruler of Spectra. They also cut out a lot more, including civilian deaths, and Zark would explain that the people had been evacuated when we saw destruction.
OK, so we have a gang of very attractive young people who fight space crime. Cool, but that’s not all. They all wore bird costumes, which appeared on their bodies when they swung a wrist communicator (early Apple Watch?) and said, “Transmute!” The costumes, complete with wings would appear, and their vehicles would change as well, as they were all taken up onto the ship The Phoenix, which could change to a fiery bird form.
There are tons of purists who prefer the original series, and that’s totally understandable. For those of us who were little at the time, though, this show was a revelation. A woman was part of the team! We never saw much of that in the ‘70s. She was an engineer! Yeah, she wore pink and white, but she was there! Every kid on the block was making communicators out of construction paper and tape, and yelling “Transmute,” at a time when we didn’t even know the word "anime." We didn’t know anything about gender fluidity, but even in the doctored American version, we pretty much got that about Zoltar. We saw a whole different style of art than we were used to, and began to understand things about different entertainment forms in different countries. Sure, we might not have known what Gatchaman was, but we knew this was from Japan, and that there was so much more out there to learn about and see. Battle of the Planets opened the door to a whole new genre for us all, in a time when the culture of the rest of the world felt a little closed off.
“Always five, acting as one, dedicated, inseparable, invincible!”