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Thursday, March 23, 2017

Static Thoughts - Samurai Pizza Cats

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This Friday marks the premiere of a new Power Rangers movie.  The upcoming blockbuster represents the first attempt by franchise creator Haim Saban cash in on the new superhero craze, which was pretty much inevitable.  See, Saban is an incredibly successful business mogul, and part of that success has sprung from finding profit in the cheapest corners and most exploitable markets.  After all, the Power Rangers’ creation myth has long been that Saban was on a business trip to Japan in the late ‘80s and just happened to see an episode Super Sentai, a kid’s action show, and got the idea to buy up extra footage from that to splice together into an America equivalent.  

That thriftiness and willingness to exploit fertile markets has been a hallmark of Saban’s media corporation since its inception and dominated much of their output during the ‘90s.  However, while there were plenty of Saban produced Power Rangers knock-offs, he also got into another lucrative side of Japanese entertainment imports that led to one of the strangest artifacts of this era- Samurai Pizza Cats. 

The first thing to understand about the Samurai Pizza Cats is the bizarre era that spawned them.  Japanese entertainment exports had always had a hard time reaching the US, but the ‘80s saw a real boom in their production.  Coupled with advancing techniques in animation, Reagan-era deregulation, the video game console boom, and the ‘80s obsession with all things ninja and the end of the decade gave birth to a real demand in American markets for Japanese animation like never before.  This is where the American anime scene first found its footing and would eventually grow into a genuine phenomenon by the late ‘90s and early 2000s with hits like Pokemon, Yu-Gi-Oh!, and Naruto. 

However, it took awhile for companies to actually reach that success, largely because the process of finding worthwhile Anime to purchase the rights to was risky and the cost of regionalizing and importing them was pretty high.  This led a to a number of attempted workarounds to get that anime feel without taking a gamble on a property with no toy tie-ins. 

WB just chose to import Japanese animators to give a more advanced style to their slate of ‘90s features like Batman, the animated series, while Disney ended up partnering with Miyazaki for exclusive import rights.  Most folks, however, didn’t opt for either of those choices and instead bought what was cheap and quickly dubbed it into English, flooding the American market with low-quality Anime throughout the first half of the ‘90s.

That proud position of “bottom of the barrel, taking the cheapest way forward” is where Saban was located at the beginning of the decade.  Given the ties to Japan I’ve already mentioned, Saban was right on the ground floor of the early anime imports, a business they indulged in throughout the rest of the decade and into the 2000s.  Most of their properties were swallowed up into the obscurity of the era though they were involved importing Dragon Warrior, the first 2 seasons of Dragon Ball Z, the 2001 Transformers: Robots in Disguise series, and a slew of Digimon series.  But, back 1991, when they were still cranking out cheap and dirty cash-ins, they scooped up an obscure Tatsunoko anime called Cat Ninja Legend Teyandee, which is where our story begins. 

The details tend to vary, but by in large the story of Samurai Pizza Cats genesis is that the original anime was not a success.  It did alright but was mostly considered a mediocrity and disposable and, as a result, a lot of the production materials involved in making it were disposed of.  That was stuff like scripts, recordings, story outlines, and basically everything that the American translation team would need to actually understand the show.  

By all accounts, everything the dub team had been counting on to make sense of the original anime was either incomplete, poorly translated, not translated at all, or missing.  This being the dark ages before the Internet and the dub team working in a different country from the show’s origin, they weren’t left with a lot of options. 

So, they decided to watch the un-translated original anime and just try to make up a plot to fit whatever was on the screen.  Unfortunately for the dub team but fortunately for us, the original anime was incredibly Japanese and founded on a bed of ideas and tropes and visuals that just couldn’t translate.  Stuff like talking cats in samurai armor in a city of anthropomorphic animals might be clear as day if you’ve been raised in the tradition of Japanese storytelling, anime, and manga but to the dub team, it looked like a barrage of random crazy nonsense.  

In the end, the team decided the best way to adapt the original anime, which was a serious fantasy show with occasional slapstick, was to make it a whacky comedy ala SpongeBob or Animaniacs.  Basically, the show became its own version of the ‘Bridged Series concept of overdubbing anime for laughs that became very popular on Youtube for a time. 

As for the Samurai Pizza Cats show itself, it’s a fun little curiosity if you’re willing to roll with its brand of humor.  The set-up plays a lot like most ‘80s comedy-action cartoons, which makes sense given the tropes of the ‘90s weren’t really established yet when the show was being developed.  

The Pizza Cats are a trio of armored superhero cats working secretly out of a pizzeria and leaping into action whenever they’re called upon by Big Al Dente to defend their retro-future city of talking robot animals- Little Tokyo.    The cats themselves are Speedy Cerviche, the leader, Polly Esther, the girl, and Guido Anchovy, the third one, and together they defend the city from the villainous Big Cheese, and his army of ninja crows led by Bad Bird and Jerry Atric. 

If you’re noticing a theme in the names then you’re picking up on the kind of humor the show was pitching.  It’s all kind of hammy and old school, dopey jokes told with a wink and smile that revels in its own self-awareness and unabashed corniness.  These kinds of groan-inducing puns and jokey word gags work best when it's rapidly fired out at the audience, which fits the frenetic editing of the original series just fine.  

There’s also no small degree of self-mockery with plenty of fun being had by breaking the fourth wall to point out the ridiculousness of the entire production.  Basically, if you’ve seen an episode of Yu-Gi-Oh Abridged or Pokemon ‘Bridged you’ve got a decent idea of what you’re getting into. 

Samurai Pizza Cats didn’t actually see a release in America till 1996, 5 years after Cat Ninja Legend Teyandee had gone off the air in Japan and 3 years after Power Rangers had made Saban unstoppable.  The show actually ended up a minor hit, connecting with audiences in numerous territories and becoming something of a cult sensation, especially among anime fans.  It’s even been said that the creators of the original anime have conceded that the show was better as a spoof, though I can’t find any primary sources confirming that. 

Today, it mainly lingers in the margins of pop culture memory, a bizarre animation oddity that I think a lot of people suspect they imagined like Cowboys of Moo-Messah.  Partly that’s owed to the fact this series was kind of lost for awhile during the DVD era after Saban sold the rights to it and a bunch of their kids’ shows to Disney.  However, after repurchasing said rights in 2010 a DVD set for Samurai Pizza Cats did hit US markets.  So, if you’re curious about this bizarre testament to human ingenuity in the face of a cheap situation just know that it’s out there. 

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