Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Zoltar, Zolar, Zordar, Zoltan


Our celebration of space continues today with a reminder that the Japanese animated series Gatchaman, known in the U.S. as Battle of the Planets, had an odd lead villain called Zoltar who, like a lot of Japanese animated villains — but almost no American animated villains — was a hermaphrodite. Interestingly, the inevitable interpretation of the character’s mixed gender cues (deep male voice, big red feminine lips, high heels, no discernible breasts, concealed long blonde hair, occasional skipping while going “tra la la!”) in Japan would be that Zoltar is some sort of she-male, whereas the almost-certain interpretation in the U.S. would be simply “Zoltar is a woman, disguised as a man” — which is less disturbing and destabilizing for the kiddies, though perhaps something that some Gen Xers are still talking about in therapy.

(Next year we can see how they handle it in the computer-animated movie version, not to be confused with this year’s guinea pig adventure G-Force, despite the Gatchaman team of science-ninjas also using that team name.)

Zoltar is not to be confused with the strange space-themed (and fake-language-speaking) rock band Zolar X, nor with the title character in the film Zoltan, Hound of Dracula, a perfect example of one of those trashy movies that has enriched all our lives simply by existing and having a title, without us needing to watch it. (Though with vampires becoming increasingly chic, maybe it’s time for a remake.)

Zoltar also should not be confused with Zordar, the villainous leader of the Comet Empire from the second season of the great Japanese animated series Starblazers about the flying battleship Yamato/Argo. Zordar, as this awesome and solidarity-inspiring second-season opening song reminds us, could “destroy the universe.” However, it’s the season one song that I have memorized from childhood to this day, so listen to that version if you want to sing along with me. It’s almost as moving a love letter to militarism as the Transformers movies. And I’m not sure I can think of another song that works so well while giving such complex plot exposition, with the possible exception of the Gilligan’s Island theme. Beats the crap out of the strangely surreal Gumby theme song, which was clearly meant for hippies and dope fiends (as was that real episode about Gumby and others having fun by crawling into an oven and discovering a magical land inside, something that I don’t think would get past the network brass today).

If I seem to be waxing strangely nostalgic, or just waxing nostalgic strangely, chalk it up to the fact that I will read my final comic book — itself time-travel-themed — tomorrow. But more about that then. (It concerns Superman, which at the moment reminds me that for all the cool animation mentioned above, you sometimes have to wonder whether animation’s ever gotten any better than the Fleischer Brothers’ Superman cartoons of seventy years ago. Where is progress? Likewise, one could argue comic strips have been all downhill since the ornate and surreal Little Nemo in Slumberland a century ago.)

On a similarly mournful note, let us end with the one moment of Starblazers that struck me most as a kid: the moment the long-feared Leader Desslok suddenly becomes a sympathetic character — because his mind cracks as he realizes that duping the Starblazers team into coming to his planet has doomed his world to destruction after a year of struggle against Earth. That’s gotta hurt a guy. I hope our August 5 Debate at Lolita Bar about extraterrestrials proves as moving.

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