24 February 2018

Future War Stories from the East: Starship Troopers 1988 Anime OVA (Uchu no Senshi)

There are few military science fiction works that equal the impact and popularity of Robert Heinlein’s  1959 novel Starship Troopers. It is one of the founding works of the entire genre of military sci-fi, pioneer of armored power suits, and one of the works that spread the insect-type alien enemies. While the original book was adapted into a tabletop war game by Avalon Hill in 1976, it was the 1997 Paul Verhoeven film adaptation that propelled the world of SST into a whole new level of popularity and influence. In some ways, the entire genre of military science fiction is dominated by this single book…but it does not mean that every adaptation of SST has met with global acclaim and widespread influence. One of the relatively unknown works based on the 1959 novel is the Bandai Visual/Sunrise 1988 six-part OVA called: Uchu no Senshi (宇宙の戦士). In this latest installment of Future War Stories from the East, FWS will be FINALLY examining this mysterious SST work in all of its 1980s anime glory.

What is Uchu no Senshi?
In 1988, Sunrise and Bandai Visual would release Uchu no Senshi (or “Cosmic Warrior” in English) in a three part Laserdisc release-only format that was based on Starship Troopers the book more closely than other work to the then date. Two episodes of the OVA were released per disc and it was never made available in the West nor was aired on Japanese TV. Uchu no Senshi included some big names in 1980’s anime. The iconic power suit design was done by Kazutaka Miyatake while the OVA was directed by Tetsurō Amino with the iconic anime studio Sunrise behind the entire production that released the original Gundam! Added to this was Bandai Visual being the publisher of the SST anime. All of this adds up to Uchu no Senshi having some of the best in the mecha anime business…which makes the history of the 1988 SST anime even more bittersweet and odd.

The Plot and Setting of Uchu no Senshi
The overall plot of the six part OVA is a coming-of-age story centered on Johnny Rico and his quest for identity and destiny via service in the Mobile Infantry. It is during this two year time span of Johnny going from high school to an APS wearing MI trooper, the Earth Federation goes to war with an previously unknown alien species. Throughout his training and service, we meet a number of other characters that influence Johnny’s life and POV on his military service (his MI training eats up episodes 2-5).  It is the invasion of the aliens’ base-of-operation (or homeworld) on Klendathu that is the sum total of Rico’s experience and story. While the world of Starship Troopers is clearly spelled out in the 1959 novel and the 1997 film, there is little to go on here in the OVA, including the year and the extent of the Earth Federation’s reach or if “service guarantees citizenship”. Unlike the original novel or the 1997 film, the aliens of the OVA are not previously known and there is no history with the aliens prior to the events of the OVA. At the end of the OVA, we still do not know the fate of the aliens or if the war is continuing.

The Six Episodes of Uchu no Senshi

1."Johnnie" (released 10/25/1988)
The 1988 OVA opens with powered armor equipped soldiers assaulting across an alien high rocky desert terrain with a UGV mounted with a camera to record the battle between the MI and the aliens. Several MI die as the assault continues under heavy enemy fire as the MI answer with bullets and grenades. Then the battle ends and we are teleported to a high school football game where we meet Johnnie Rico. This episode provides the motivation and backstory for Rico signing up for Earth Federation military service. Much like the novel and film, Rico comes from money and he is being groomed to take over the family business, Rico Foods, in the same way his father was.
While this may be a sweet deal of having a good life and path already provided, Rico is walking through his own life and feels that he has no ownership over his own destiny. After the football game, Rico and his best friend Carl attend a party, where Rico is going to confess his feelings for cheerleader Carmencita. It is during a post-party nighttime trip to the beach that Johnny and Carmencita talk and he makes his mind up, he is enlisting in the military, just like his best friend Carl. As we already know, Carmencita is accepted to go into the elite naval academy, while Rico is selected for the glorious Mobile Infantry. This sends shockwaves through Johnnie’s family. His mother reacts strongly, crying and slapping Johnnie. After a moonlight drive with his father, Johnnie learns that Rico Foods has been shipping a great deal of long-life rations to the military that his father believes is a prelude to a war. By the time Johnnie leaves for basic training, he was still unable to patch things up with his mother.

2."Hendrick" (released 10/25/1988)
It is here that we see the basic training of Mobile Infantry recruits with all of the standard tropes of basic training: harsh marching, loose talk in the barracks, Drill Sergeants flexing their Kung-Fu skills against the new meat, force-on-force training, and learning to throw a knife…! Much like the film and the book, the OVA does include the infamous knife throwing training and Sgt. Zim taking on the new recruits in hand-to-hand combat. It is here that Johnnie meets fellow recruit Hendrick, who seems unhappy with the ways of basic. Towards the end of the episode, we see training with the powered armor and several of the recruits being tasked with combating a wildfire with fire suppression equipment.
It is here that Hendrick learns that he is not fit for combat and is drummed out of the MI. It is here also that Johnnie disobeys direct recall orders to rescue a firefighting trapped in a blazing building. While he did save a life, Sgt. Zim is displeased that he disobeyed a direct order. Back a base, Zim beats the shit out of Johnnie and then forces him to run. While Rico knew he made the right call, morally, he begins to understand the importance of following orders. While Rico is training, his mother is at the New Buenos Aires spaceport to meet her friend Maria as the luxury space cruiser, the Queen Alexandra, arrives. Once it lands, the terrible truth is revealed, the aliens have taken over the Queen Alexandra and the massive creature releases HE DE bolts and spores. Armored MI troopers show up and a major battle ensues, level ling portions of New Buenos Aires and killing Johnnie’s mother.

3."Maria" (released 11/25/1988)
Mail has always been an important part of a soldier’s life and the MI is no different. There several mail calls in the OVA, and this causes Johnnie to finally compose a letter to his high school crush, Carmencita, while another letter arrives: news of his mother’s death in the spaceport attack that cost one million lives. It is during a briefing detailing the attack on Earth that the announcement is made that training will be accelerated in preparation for a massive strike back on the aliens. They are to report to the lunar Federation base for planetary assault training. It is around this time that Johnnie runs into Carmencita and during their difficult talk; one of Johnnie’s teammates asks if he got a nude picture of his crush. In response, Carmencita slaps Rico and the guys punish the teammate. While the training is intense, Rico is not himself and it costs the team during lunar force-on-force training with a building with automated defensive systems. As punishment, the unit is put on toilet duty and the Johnnie is beaten up.  The unit makes up via a loose bottle of booze.

4."Greg" (released 11/25/1988)
One of the final training simulations for the MI troopers is a massive force-on-force war game engagement on Mars against other MI troopers playing the OPFOR. Johnnie is promoted to squad leader and worries about his performance in the upcoming training. One of Rico’s squadmates, Greg, attempts to reassure Johnnie and vows to support him in the field. During this, alien spores attach themselves to a Martian sentry vehicle and attack the Martian Occupation base. At the same time that the base personnel are being slaughtered, the wargame unfolds with the armored troopers slinging paintballs at one another. When Johnnie’s squad hits to the Mars Occupation base to reload, they discover bodies everywhere and are ordered to investigate. Once it is confirmed that the aliens are here, they request for Sgt. Zim to send armored MI troopers to deal with the aliens. Before they can follow orders and pull out, the ETs jump Rico and Greg. Rico orders Greg to get out and obey the recall order. He disobeys and attempts to rescue his comrade, but is cut in half and Rico was next until armed MI suits show up and deal with the pink angry aliens with a hail of lead. After the rescue, Zim lectures the squad about following orders and that Greg will not be buried with military honors due to disobeying direct orders. He orders them to collect Greg’s gear and it is there that they learn that Greg had a girlfriend. 

5."Cherenkov" (released 12/17/1988)
It has been six months since the events on Mars and it is graduation day for the 20% of the class that made through it the training and Rico is finally a Mobile Infantry trooper with a blessing from Zim. With the unit getting a liberty before being assigned to their new unit, Rico and Smith go to meet Greg’s girlfriend and explain about what a hero Greg was. To their surprise, she is getting married and it leaves the two men depressed. They stop at a local bar after their car breaks to down some cans of Budweiser (yes, they are actually cans of Bud), then some extras from the first Mad Max 1979 film show up and there is a rumble. As the balloon is about to go up, the new members of Willey’s Wildcats are transferred to an orbital space station to meet their new squad and board their new vessels, the Roger Young. It is here that Carmencita and Johnnie reunion again, and she gives a letter and a swimsuit photo. While Johnnie read the note saying that she will be posted to the training vessel Saratoga, the rest of his squad engage in a station-side barroom brawl with naval personnel. It is also here on the space station that we meet Cherenkov, the machine gunner for their squad and big son of a bitch. However, he is sucker punched during the dust up with the naval guys. As the episode ends, Willey’s Wildcats are boarding the Roger Young as news comes down that the Saratoga was destroyed, Johnnie drops the photo of Carmencita.

6."Carmencita" (released 12/17/1988)
After an FTL jump, the Roger Young assumes launch position in the upper atmosphere of the ETs base-of-operations or their homeworld: Klendathu. The unit loads up into drop pods and hundreds of encased MI troopers stage a massive airborne assault on the jungle world of Klenathu. The enemy launches a thick blanket of AAA fire and MI troopers die in their coffins. Rico’s squad hits the dirt and launches an attack on any enemy units. All manner of ET forms attack from the ground, from the trees, and from the air; taking their toll on the MI troopers minds and will. Several soldiers break down and allow themselves to be killed or others wounded, including Rico. Lt. Dan, sorry, Sgt. Dan leads an assault on a massive alien bio-mass cluster that seems to be “a base” or “brain”, but Sgt. Dan becomes trapped. The rest of the squad pour on the fire and rescue Sgt. Dan and watch the alien bio-mass burn. In the last scene of the OVA, Rico is an lunar military hospital and he is summoned to an observation deck. It is there that Rico sees a wounded Carmencita and Rico is about to confess his love for her as the credits roll. Thus, ending the 1988 SST OVA and so is the mystery surrounding this SST adaptation.

The Powered Armor of Uchu no Senshi
One of the most familiar concepts of the 1959 novel is the use of three variants of combat rated CLASS-II powered armor by the Mobile Infantry allowing for a single trooper to have great power, mobility, and control over the battlespace. While this is a bedrock concept in the novel and spread throughout science fiction, it was sadly omitted from the 1997 film and was only included on the 3rd 2009 film and the following animated films. However, it was included in the 1976 Avalon Hill board game, the 1988 OVA, and the CGI TV series. The design of the powered armor in Uchu no Senshi was done by legendary mechanical designer Kazutaka Miyatake who worked on Macross, Space Cruiser Yamato, Gundam SEED, Gunbuster, and even Dirty Pair. Seriously, this man is a god of mechanical design! For many fans of SST, his design,  known as the “Studio Nue design powered armor” was to be considered the realization of Heinlein’s description and one of the best elements of Uchu no Senshi. This was not the first appearance of this powered armor in Japanese sci-fi culture. In the 8mm animated film opening to the Japanese Daicon III and IV 1981 science fiction conventions, we see the same powered armor design.
The likely first appearance of this ionic powered armor design is seen the 1977 or 1975 Hayakawa Publishing Japanese language edition cover art of the Starship Troopers novel by noted illustrator Naoyuki Kato. It should be said that while the two designs by Kato and Studio Nue are very similar, Kato’s armor design was not used for the 1988 OVA. In the OVA, there several variants of the powered suit (AKA enhanced combat suit) seen, including a yellow training version, and three combat models in various livery, but only two were seen in the anime (“soldier” and “commander”).
The most common in the MI of the OVA and seen on-screen was the “soldier” type that had the Y-rack, various hand mounted weapon systems including a KE carbine, flamethrower, MG42-like machine gun, and rocket launchers along with armor mounted heavier weapons like laser cannons, auto-cannons, heavier rockets. The “commander” powered suit was designed for field commanders to coordinate with their troopers with advanced communication and sensor equipment. There was to be originally the “area support suit” which was akin to the scout powered armor featured in the book, but this was cut prior to animation and only exists in concept art. Two interesting pieces of trivia about the Uchu no Senshi powered armor was that the production staff “borrowed” the sound effects of the armor opening and closing from the power loader exo-suit in ALIENS some other sound effects from Bubblegum Crisis, like the APS carbine rifle. One of the great things about the Japanese animation industry is that often release very detailed and cool model kits for their productions and the MI powered armor was no different. Over the years, nine official model kits in plastic and metal of the very iconic Studio Nue designed powered suit has been released since 1988 by several companies in several scales. Interestingly enough, not with any official connection to the Heinlein book or the OVA…is this due to copyright issues of the OVA not be official licensed? either way, the powered suit are an amazing design.

The Enemy of Uchu no Senshi
In the 1959 novel, the primary enemy was the Pseudo-Arachnids, the intelligent spider-like species that used weapons and starships against the Terrans. While the design of the Arachnids fitting Heinlein’s vision was included in the 1976 Avalon Hill combat board game and some of the cover art, it was dumbed down severely for the 1997 SST film and that new design of the Arachnids would dominate SST. Those bugs would be seen in all three live-action films, the CGI TV series, the Mongoose wargame system, the computer game, and the recent animated films along with the 1997 toyline. While many fans have want to see and experience the ET smart Spiders of the novel, they did not get it in the 1988 OVA either.
The organic, nearly aquatic/ jellyfish design of the pink-red-purple hued alien enemy in Uchu no Senshi was unlike anything we’ve seen in any other SST work. I cannot locate any information on why director Tetsurō Amino chose to go with such a radical departure from the insect aliens of the novel. This more aggressive jellyfish design altered the relationship between Terrans and the bugs as explained in the book. In the OVA, the Earth Federation was unaware of the aliens until they attacked the outer worlds of the Federation, causing frontline MI units to engage them in combat. These attacks were not released to the public until the assault on the city of New Buenos Aires killed one million military and civilians.
When we examine this spacefaring hive-mind species, we see that take various forms, including airborne, and are able to be spread via spore from a central biomass that allows the colonizing of hostile worlds quickly. While their outer layer is able to resist bullets, they are still able to be killed via conventional weapons. What makes these aggressive ETs so dangerous is their ability to spawn huge numbers of combat forms that are fearless in the face of armored Terrans and their high explosive, high-velocity globules. This is their most common type of weapon used by the ETs and it appears to be a form of possible organic directed-energy bolts that formed sticky explosive globules. However, according to the “Starship Troopers Memorial Book” published in Japan, the Directed Energy bolts were formed out of a liquefied metal that was allowed for the sticky properties seen in the combat footage. There is no word on how the ETs were able to generate these high-velocity globules that seemed to be biological weapon system. I personally believe that the overall design and presentation of the enemy aliens in Uchu no Senshi is one the weakest design and story elements in the OVA and it does not live up the enemy presented in neither the book nor the films.

The Historical Context of Uchu no Senshi
Given that FWS has discussed the 1980s the western market for anime and manga several times, along with the Giant Robot Crazy, I think we should examine the Japanese anime market back in the 1980s, especially since Uchu no Senshi never officially left Japan. Several events collimated in the shaping of the 1980s Japanese animation industry: the advent of LaserDiscs, new major animation studios were founded, and the establishment of the home video market. While the 1970s belonged to anime on TV, the 1980s belonged to the OVA on LaserDiscs in Japan. With the influx of the popularity of science fiction and these new studios coupled with the OVA format, experimentation was the order of the day as we saw in Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. It was this time period that Uchu no Senshi was born into: as an OVA LaserDisc and somewhat experimental in its subject matter.

Why was Uchu no Senshi Never Imported to the West?
There is no clear reason why Sunrise/Bandai Visual never released Uchu no Senshi OVA in the western markets that even extends to this very day...but I’ve developed a few theories over the years since I first learned about this Military SF oddity. First is that Uchu no Senshi was only released on Laserdisc in Japan, which is not a format that was ever gained much popularity in the United States and as far as I know that is the only format it was ever released on. Then there is the matter of Uchu no Senshi was rumored not to be an unauthorized adaptation of the iconic work and the OVA was not approved by either the American publisher of SST nor Heinlein (who died in 1988) that owned the rights to SST.
Lastly, is the timing of Uchu no Senshi. The western anime/manga market was growing in the late-1980s, but it is nothing like we have today where you watch anime on any device or go any major retailer and buy anime or manga. While at the time of Uchu no Senshi, there was some OVAs imported to the west, some anime TV shows dubbed and then aired on American TV like Battle of the Planets, and there were American companies’ published Japanese comics, like First Comics releasing Lone Wolf and Cub. However, I don’t believe that Uchu no Senshi would have been successful. One of the factors holding a title like this one back from the American market was the format of the time: VHS. DVDs lessened the cost of buying entire anime series by more than half and this opened up more of the US market for anime. I can still remember wanting to buy all of ROBOTECH or Starblazers at the time they were released on VHS and it was hundreds of dollars. Not so on DVD, allowing us to finally have complete collections without selling vital organs. As I said above, Laserdisc never caught on in the States and I guess VHS release of Uchu no Senshi was not in the cards. If it had been released on VHS in the States, it could have been similar to the release of Bubble Gum Crisis, being spread over several VHS volumes.
For a current release on disc to happened, the legal issues would need to be sorted out and that is not the only roadblock if it was to be a US release of the old SST anime: the modern SST animated films. Not only is there a CGI animated TV series, but there is the Japanese-American 2012 film Invasion and the 2017 Traitor of Mars that have muddied up the waters for the intended audience. The 1988 Japanese OVA has no relation to the 1997 American film that spawned an alternate vision and universe of the 1959 book and monopolized the very name in the minds of most western audiences. I can just see buyers complaining in the Amazon.com review section over buying the 1988 OVA when they really wanted the TV series or the modern animated SST movies. The window may have passed for Uchu no Senshi to be released in the west.

Uchu no Senshi in the West
Unlike other entry in the Future War Stories from the East Fang of the Sun Dougram, there is little-to-nothing of the 1988 SST OVA in the west…which is odd to give the subject matter and time period. At the time that Uchu no Senshi was released, western companies were releasing anime on the airwaves and on VHS tape, but this one escaped the 90’s rash of imported dub titles by all manner of western anime companies like US Manga Corps (Central Park Media), AnimEigo, and Viz Media. Knowledge of Uchu no Senshi was extremely limited in the west due to it never being formally dubbed, released only on LaserDisc, and unauthorized existence. Hell, even the model kits of the Mobile Infantry powered armor suits designed Kazutaka Miyatake that were released from-time-to-time in Japan were never released in the west. Everything of Uchu no Senshi in the west has been imported from various websites or bootlegged. Some enterprising souls have dubbed the LaserDisc and transferred it onto DVD or uploaded to various video sharing sites. I first learned about Uchu no Senshi via a brief mention in the old Animerica, and it was only around the time I founded FWS that I researched the obscure 1988 OVA. It was through the TrooperPX.com website that began my journey towards discovery. As well as being the design for the OVA, it was also used on one of the Japanese language edition Starship Troopers novel’s cover art. This sort of “canonized” and connected Kazutaka Miyatake’s powered suit to Heinlein’s powered armor in the minds of some.   

How Close is Uchu no Senshi to the 1959 Book and the 1997 Movie?
It is reported over and over again that this 1988 anime OVA that bears the title of "Starship Troopers", is the closest visual adaptation to the iconic 1959 novel. Those that make this claim are both dead wrong and sort of correct. For the record and as far as I know, there is no direct visual adaptation of Heinlein's 1959 book and out of a contest between the 1988 OVA and the 1997 film, the 1997 film is closer I think in spirit and message. While it is true that the pacing of Uchu no Senshi is closer to the 1959 novel, due to the majority of the six episodes is devoted to Rico's training and only the last episode being concerned with the war against the aliens; there are vast differences.
The overall setting of Heinlein's SST is completely missing. There is no "service guarantees citizenship" aspect of the future Terran society, none of the harsh corporal punishment, the aliens of Uchu no Senshi are more organic than insectoids along with the lack of the previous history between the Federation and the Arachnids. All of those elements are incorporated in the 1997 film along with the overall tone that more closely mirrors the society of Heinlein's political views. For the most part, unless the English subtitles are completely wrong, there is no of this in the OVA. While it is true that the Mobile Infantry powered armor is there in all of its 1980s anime mecha glory, I was rather surprised how little the 1988 OVA is connected to the 1959 book. However, it seems to me that there are some similarities between the OVA and the Verhoeven film that led me to believe that the 1997 production was aware of the 1988 OVA or had actually seen it. For example, Johnny Rico plays a football-like game in high school, Carmen is his love interest, a fight between Fleet and MI Troopers, the Federation lunar bases, and Rico being wounded and Carmen somehow involved. 

Why is Uchu no Senshi Considered Military SF?
While it is true that this 1988 OVA by Bandai Visual is directly based on or around one of the most important military science fiction works of all time that continues to have an influence on the genre as a whole, the anime also is military sci-fi on its own. Unlike many other Military SF animes we will be discussing over the life of the Future War Stories of the East serial, Uchu no Senshi involves the basic training of the main characters in much more detail than many other military science fiction animes than just showing the combat aspect of war or the human cost of war. Much like the Gundam: 0080 War in the Pocket, the cost of war is heavily explored and the toll it takes on those that survive is seen in the SST OVA. We families ripped apart, soldiers mental shocked by the death and destruction of the war with the aliens, and the rigor of military life and following orders that go against basic human instinct. For many that come at any other SST work from the perspective of the 1997 nearly-pornographic future war film, the pace, and scope of the 1988 OVA is rather shocking, slow, and lacking in unisex shower scenes, but Uchu no Senshi is military science fiction.

The Impact and Legacy of Uchu no Senshi
Information on the OVA has been difficult to track down overall, especially when it concerns the impact on the Japanese anime market in 1988. There simply are no figures for sales or how popular it was, or even reviews at the time. I am going to make a great leap here, but I personally believe that Uchu no Senshi did not reach the heights of other anime OVAs at the time and it was lost, for the most part, in the flood of anime titles coming out. There is one element of Uchu no Senshi that did impact the anime market and does have an important legacy is the Studio Nue powered armor suit.
While many of us in the west never knew about a 1980s Starship Troopers anime, some of us have seen the powered armor in art or as an imported model kit. It is the power of that design by Kazutaka Miyatake that propelled the combat powered suit to be the true ambassador for the hidden Uchu no Senshi, compelling some of us that wanted to know more to scour the internet for clues of this mythical powered armor and the SST OVA of 1988. It even compelled Japanese artist Naoyuki Katoh to create a 1:1 copy of the powered armor for a special exhibition in 2010. That is the true legacy of this oddball, unauthorized, LaserDisc OVA from Bandai: the mystery of it all. When you first learn that there was an anime made of Starship Troopers with actual powered armor of the Mobile Infantry made in the golden 80s, it is difficult to understand why it was never imported or why it is not more popular on the internet…after all, SST is one of the most enduring and discussed titles in all of sci-fi literature. However, sometimes the mystery is better than the truth and you learn that clearly once you watch the OVA for yourself.

Is it Worth Watching Today and Is It Any Good?

As I stated above, the mystery of this 1980s Japanese anime interpretation of the iconic 1959 novel is better than the actual reality of Uchu no Senshi. The mere existence of a 1980s Starship Troopers anime that was never imported to the west is a compelling reason to invest the time to watching (and reading) all six episodes. If you are a fan of 1980s anime films or SST than I can suggest to you to locate the OVA on YouTube and satisfy your curiosity. But, that's all it should be. Do not invest the money in buying a bootleg DVD for western players nor buying the Japanese LaserDiscs until you’ve seen it first. For me, it is not worth owning because it is just not that good. The most impressive elements of Uchu no Senshi is the CLASS-II powered armor Studio Nue design, the awesome art associated with the OVA, and just how bad the music is. Seriously, you could use it for an interrogation technique that would yield results without laying a hand on them. Despite the overall talent involved in the production and its design. While there good pieces here and there, like the powered armor design and seeing some of the characters from the book, it very uneven and there is no real payoff at the conclusion. Plus, it just does not seem like genuine SST.
While the book and film spend a great of time establishing the society and situation that Rico lives in, there is none of that is here, and it makes the OVA too free floating and without a foundation to root the events on-screen. While some complain about the lack of action, which the anime most devoted to training of the MI, the assumed conclusion with the invasion of the alien planet is very much lacking in grandeur and suffers from showing two soldiers completely cracking under pressure that is handled poorly and at the cost of mechs-vs.-aliens action that we all came to see. Then that brings up another unsuccessful element of the OVA: the aliens.
There was no good reason to alter the intelligence spiders of the book to the organic monsters of the OVA and this seriously handicaps the OVA in setting and storytelling. The bugs of the book and 1997 movie provided more sense of dread and terror than the pink jellyfish monsters of Uchu no Senshi. While the end is stereotypical of other war epics, the lack of the previous relationship between Rico and Carmencita makes the almost confession of love by Johnnie seems too much despite the horrors of war they both experience. While this could have been handled better, as it was in the 1997 film, the writing is just not there to support the visuals either.
While some may credit the lack of formal dub into English as one source of the unevenness of Uchu no Senshi, and it is a valid complaint, it is just badly scripted and planned with critical story element missing, draining the emotion and dramatic energy from the film. Some of this may have been able to be cleared up with a proper English dub that rounded out some of the roughness, there is the reality that the OVA was intended for a Japanese audience. Today’s anime is more geared to an international audience more so than anime of the 1970s and 1980s, and Uchu no Senshi Japanese roots really show through and can make the OVA seem odder to a western audience, even those that have watched other subbed titled animes and this really shows with the relationship between characters. Another more well-known 1980s OVA that is similar to the mishandling of the original source material and leaves the audience in blueballs over the lack of payoff is the 1988 Appleseed OVA also by Bandai Visual. In the final vote, watch it on YouTube, buy a model of the Studio Nue designed APS, and then read the book or watch the 1997 film.

Will There Ever Be a Faithful Adaptation of Heinlein’s Book?
While the internet may proclaim that Uchu no Senshi is the most faithful visual adaptation of the 1959 book, it is simply not true and nor it is true of any other SST adaptation…ever. While many plot, dialog, characters, and setting elements have been lifted for the several major works based on the SST novel, there has been no direct adaptation in video game form, graphic novel, manga, anime, TV series, play, or major motion picture. So that begs the question…will there ever be one? While FWS has discussed SST over and over again, and I regard it has one of the most important works of MSF ever, I am not a huge fan of the book or the world Heinlein created. After all, FWS awarded The Forever War the best MSF book ever over SST and tells you a great deal about bring a faithful adaptation of the 1959 book to a visual format. If the 1988 OVA is any indication or hint of what the book would look brought into the visual medium, we can see issues. The SST novel is flawed as a book due to Heinlein using the setting as a vehicle for his own political and social ideas at the cost of book’s flow. The 1997 film was able to make some of the ideas of Heinlein more entertaining and digestible and it my belief that any more faithful adaptation would require the same treatment. There would need to be more layers applied to the original text to sell it as visual entertainment. However, it should be noted that the bones are there in the original 1959 novel for there to be a great limited TV series based on the original book and setting and not one that nearly mocks the original novel’s world and message as the 1997 film did. There have been and continue to be attempts at presenting the original SST novel in a live-action format, but maybe the anime format could be used again? Only time will tell.

Next Time on FWS...

One of the most frequent topics asked online about the genre of military science fiction is "what is the best...?" Due to this, FWS has established The Masterworks: the Best of Military SF serial. We've covered the best MSF movie and the best MSF novel, but it is time to select the best live-action military sci-fi television series. Join us next time as FWS picks the Best Military Science Fiction Live-Action TV Series. Who will it be? By the way, this one was not easy to select.

11 February 2018

FWS: Military Sci-Fi Toys: Britains SPACE Toys (1981-1987)

There are some toys that are mysterious even if you owned them. In this installment of Military Sci-Fi Toys, we will looking at a mysterious military science fiction toy that I had back in the 1980s after a trip to my grandparents. My family is from Albuquerque, New Mexico, and I spent a great deal of time there as a kid. Back in the 1980s, there in Winrock Mall (which is now gone), there was very cool toy store called “Toys By Roy”. This was the first place I saw STARCOM: the US Space Force, the Matchbox ROBOTECH toyline and some other exciting toys from Europe. One of them was this collection of small (1/32) astronauts-soldiers battling all manner of evil red helmeted aliens. There were entire armies of these space soldiers and their foes, it seemed to cover a good portion of the store, and my grandmother (the best in the world) bought me several packages of toy space soldiers. I still have them to this day. Recently, my daughter dug them out of a box of old toys at my Mom's' house in Houston, and memories came flooding back. After an hour of searching online, I came across the proper name of my long-lost military sci-fi toy soldiers: Britains SPACE, and the genesis of this blogpost.

What is "Britains"?
Beginning in 1893 and founded by an brass clockmarker by the name of William Britains, this toy company is one of the world’s oldest that has been a favorite of generations of children and collectors. What set the W. Britains Company apart in 1893 was the hollowcast of toy soldiers that lower the price and increased the production that could finally unseat the German companies’ domination, especially Heinrich, of the toy soldier market in the 19th century.
However, W. Britains Senior could not enjoy the success of his company for long, he would die in August of 1907, but the company remained a family business until around 1983/1984. The first major challenge for the company came after the bloody First World War, in which millions were dead, Europe in ruins, and millions more traumatized by the spectra of modern warfare…not a great time to be in the toy soldier business. To prevent bankruptcy, Britains diversified into their “Farm” and “Zoo” toylines in the 1920’s. During the 2nd World War, they ended toy manufacturing for wartime production. Once the war was over and metal again could be used for toys instead of bullets, Britains returned to the toy business, but the era of metal toys was ending and plastic was on the rise. 
In 1966 or 1967, Britains ended mainstream production of their metal hollowcast figures in favor of more plastics, but contained diecast vehicles. Their core business of toy soldiers began shifting due to the influx of cheap plastic army men, and the more expensive painted Britains soldiers were losing. At this time, the company was living on their Farm line. The Britains that I knew came about when a limited collectible diecast toy soldier line had done well in the collector/souvenir market.
This caused the company to market collector sets of famous units, such as the Coldstream Guard, more heavily in the 1980’s. Around this time, Britains would develop their “Super Deetail” 54mm line that featured Zamak bases for the painted plastic features to be fitted into, making them secure. This Super Deetail umbra line was developed to soldiers of all time periods along with the infamous Space series. The 1980’s would be time of expansion for Britains, but several of its new toylines, like Space and Hospital, would fail spectacularly, causing the company to be sold to Dobson Park Group around 1983/1984. They would hold on to the company until the American model maker, ERTL, would buy Dobson Park Group in 1997. Then ERTL was swallowed by the larger American company of Racing Champions. In 2005, a smaller company by the name of First Gear was able to buy the Britains name and toy soldier lines from Racing Champions. They would control Britains until 2016, when the company, was again sold, to the Ohio-based company of The Good Soldier LLC. We shall see if this where the hollowed Britains name will rest.

Overview of Britains Space Line
Seeing the hot trend of science fiction toys, the historic toy soldier company of W. Britains decided to jump in with both feet into this new frontier. From 1981 through the cancellation around 1987, Britains would re-develop the overall Space toyline twice in a vain attempt to gain traction in the toy market, but it was to no avail. At the heart of the Space toyline was 54mm static toy soldier-like humans, cyborgs, mutants, and aliens. Some of the 1/32 figures were designed to pilot various vehicles and spacecraft, while others were similar to standard Britains toy soldiers in a Zamak metal base with all manner of Space Age weaponry that resumed the classic ray guns of science fiction. One of the key selling points was the modularity that came from the interchangeable vehicles that could be interconnected across the entire line, allowing for some creativity, but not the level of Legos. The vehicles were all manner of space-based and ground-based futuristic vehicles with some monsters thrown in towards the end of the lifespan of the toyline for the mutant and cryborg characters. Besides the toys themselves and the Britians toy catalogs, there is no related tie-in products. 

The Historical Context of Britains SPACE Toyline
The late 1970s and early 1980s were a time of great change in the United Kingdom with a troubled stormy economic, rollercoaster politics under the leadership of hawkish Thatcher, trouble Northern Ireland, and international turmoil that was topped off by the 1982 Falklands War. Adding to the time period was the rise in popularity of science fiction spurred on by Star Wars, which had a great deal of the UK in its DNA. Great Britain was rich soil for science fiction given it was the home of Dr. Who, Thunderbirds, UFO, and Blake's 7. In addition, the United Kingdom music scene was exploding with post-punk, New Wave, and world music. During this time of change, there was an influx of American toys into the British toy market causing the native toy markers to response, as Britains did with their Space line.  

The History of Britains Space toyline
We are going to start at a familiar place with the origin story of so many science fiction toys of my childhood: 1977's Star Wars. Due to the success of science fiction toylines in the late 1970s, Britains decided to invest heavily into a sci-fi space soldier toyline complete with modular vehicles that were up to the same quality as their other lines. The launch of Britains SPACE 1/35 (54mm) toyline in 1981 was virgin territory for the historic toy company and there was great risk at this time in the toy stores due to the sharp competition. From 1981-1982, there was just two lines release: the human Stargards and the Space Aliens, and while the human forces got a limited number of vehicles, the Aliens were only infantry until 1982. In 1982 and continuing into 1983, you could buy a massive boxset of the Stargard and Space Alien soldiers and vehicles that could be altered. These were sold separately, of course, with army-building figure packs. In 1983, the toyline was diversified with the new Cyborgs and the Mutants. Both were introduced with figures only and it wasn't until the "Star System" rebranding in 1985 that the Cyborgs and Mutants lines got a "vehicle" of their very own. From 1983-1984, only a new vehicle was added and it was during this time that the struggling family-owned company was sold to new owners: Dodson Park Group.
While never confirmed, there is strong evidence to suggest that the new owners saw the bleeding of the Space toyline and decided to give it one last major change with the 1985 redevelopment of Britains Space to Britains Star System. While there were major changes to livery, names, and even new vehicles and figures, it was the same story. Sadly, this were the information trail grows cold and the last two years of Britains Star System existence, 1986-1987, are relatively unknown. At some point in 1987, Britains cut their losses and cancelled their sci-fi toyline. Despite several sales of the company, none of the new owners have ever moved to reissue the 1980s Space or Star System line.

The Toyline:

The Stargards (1981-1984)
These are the original human figures/faction for the line and were the only ones to get vehicles upon the initial 1981 release.  Dressed in yellow accented with red reinforced combat spacesuits with “fishbowl” type clear space helmets and armed with laser pistols and rifles and had a red/silver sticker on the chest. Male and female Stargard members were released with various hair colors, with some being custom designed to pilot the various vehicles of the line. When it came to the vehicles of the Stargard forces, all of them were in yellow/red livery, all were modular and it seems like only a few were released:  small bubble cockpit spaceship (9110), an landing pad (9116), a portable space DE cannon (9115), and a futuristic space car (9114).
These vehicles were either sold separately or in various massive boxsets. One released around 1982-1983 was packed with the Alien vehicles, these represented the bulk of the vehicles in the original line (set number 9146). Due to the limitations of the information available online, I believe that only two more vehicles was added, a heavy laser cannon hauling vehicle with two figures for both factions. 

The Forcegards (1985-1987)
With the new owners of Britains and an attempt to save the expensive Space toyline, there was renovation and relaunch, christened “the Britains Star System” with the Stargard being replaced by the Forcegard in 1985. Instead of the yellow and red paint job, the Forcegard were white and red with the same laser DE weapons as before. With this new rebranding in 1985, came an expansion of the vehicles, also recolored in red/white livery.  A total of six modular vehicles were released under the new “Star Force” human faction line with the “Force Station (9241)” being the largest, and others being reprinted re-releases of Space line vehicles. There was a boxset released of the vehicles and loose Forcegard soldiers (9240) released in 1985.

The Space Aliens (1981-1984)
The main foe of the Britains Space toyline was the “aliens”…seriously, that was their name. These red-helmeted humanoid aliens wore black armored spacesuits and used the same laser weaponry as the Stargard. When the Space line premiered in 1981, the Stargard were released with figures and vehicles, but the aliens were only infantry, no vehicles. That changed in 1982 with the release of three green painted vehicles: the saucer-shaped spacecraft (9120), the odd “space grab” that were robotic arms (9127), and the space cannon (9125). These modular vehicles were packaged in several box sets, or sold separately. In 1982-1983, there was massive boxset of both of Stargard and Alien figures and vehicles (9146). In 1984, the Space Aliens line got a wheeled vehicle that hauled a large space laser cannon artillery piece that featured two specially designed alien vehicle crew members (9128). The original red-helmeted Aliens line would hang around until the relaunch in 1985. 

The Star Raiders (1985-1987)
By 1985, it was clear that the Space toyline needed a new infusion to increase sales, and that came with the Britains Star System toyline. As with the new Forcegard, the old Aliens were renamed the “Star Raiders” with a new orange/blue livery and several new vehicles to match the Star Force humans. The Star Raiders had with only repainted vehicle from the original line and one reworked along with four new vehicles, including the massive “Raider Station (9291)”. There was a “Planet Raiders” boxset (9290) that combined the basic vehicles and some loose Raider soldiers released in 1985. 

The Stargard Cyborgs (1983-1984)
By 1983, it was clear that the new science fiction line of Britains was in trouble and two new figure lines were added to spice up the line. For the human faction, the Stargard, were given a cybernetic ally, the “Stargard Cyborgs”. These were figures that looked more at home in a classic Dr. Who episode than a military science fiction toyline. They look like some thing the Cybermen experimented on and then rejected. These oddly shaped silver-colored figures were laser-armed Stargard figures retrofitted with rubberized heads and body parts that have not held up over the time due to melting issues.     

The Forcecyborgs (1985-1987?)
With the major 1985 reboot of the Britains Space line into the Star System, the Cyborgs were altered in interesting ways. The original 1983-1984 cyborgs were silver in color and armed, the new Forcecyborgs were now purely defensive as mentioned in the 1985 catalog. In the few images I found, the new white and red livery Forcecyborgs are not armed, but some seem to be fitted with ping-pong paddles? These misfits were gifted with an oddball cybernetic dragon-like creator, called “the cybertron”. 

The Alien Mutants (1983-1984)
When new figure lines were added in 1983 to boost low sales figures, the Space Aliens line was gifted with an new monstrous ally: the mutants. These rubberized twisted green-and-red humanoid forms were a very 1950’s B-Sci-fi movie enemy topped off by red laser ray-gun blasters. The original look of the Alien Mutants was altered after only one year during the 1985 rebranding and relaunch of the entire Space line after the new owners took over.

The Mutant Raiders (1985-1986)
Much as was done with the other Britains Space line when switching over to the 1985 Star System rebranding, the Mutant line was repainted and renamed to the “Mutant Raiders” to fit under the new Star Raiders faction via the blue/orange livery. They were also given a “vehicle” in the form of a green dragon-monster called “mutantron”. It is believed that this line was cancelled in 1986.

Britains Space vs. Britains Star System
There is one piece of commonly held knowledge about Britains venture into science fiction toys it is that it failed…but Britains didn’t let it go down easily. From all accounts, the Space line was in trouble within the first years and attempts were made to remedy the situation by the company. In 1983, the Stargards and Space Aliens were both given new (ugly) allies: the Stargard Cyborgs and the Alien Mutants. When this soft interdiction did not work to improve sales, the new owners of Britains, Dodson Park Industries, took improves steps to either bring the line to profitability or cancel it. That renovation gave us new vehicles, new colors, and a new name: “Star System”. Under the new banner of Britains Star System, the human faction was renamed “the Star Force” and their astronaut foot soldiers were “the Forcegards” with a new white and red livery. This renovation was extended to the line of new modularity space vehicles as well with similar coloring. The cybernetic allies of the Star Force were also renamed to the Forcecyborgs and so given the same white/red treatment and their laser weapons were taken away. The red helmeted aliens were altered to “the Star Raiders” with new orange and blue livery and the same was applied to their mutant allies.  Added to the evil allies of the Star Raiders, we got the Terror Raiders that were monster-like aliens that remains me of GI Joes’ Star Brigade. It was here, under the new banner of Britains Star System, the line made its last stand from 1985-1987.

Why Did the SPACE Toyline Fail?
The brilliant element often missed by those discussing the power of the Star Wars toyline in the 1970's is that it gives a context to the toys and shared experience via this context. Tie-in toys were nothing new even in science fiction circles, with Buck Rogers beating Lucas and Kenner to the market by four decades. What Star Wars masterfully did, along with Kenner, is that toys lived in a well-known and defined world. This world was created by one of most popular movies of all time. This made playtime easier especially between mates. With this popularity of the films, came the widespread popularity of the toys.
You go over to a friend's house and they would have Star Wars toys allowing for shared play in a fixed universe that everyone understood. Britains SPACE toys did not have this. Not even close. To some limited degree, their toy soldiers did. Every kid knows the purpose behind war toys and engaging in mocking battles with toy soldiers. Once again, Britains SPACE toyline did not have that either, especially in 1981 with no enemy force vehicles to engage the Stargard against or form interesting toy storylines...alien foot soldiers. Lambs for the slaughter, especially when compared to the Kenner SW toylines.
By 1987, Britains abandoned its baldy failing outer space toyline, a rare failure for the company...so why did this toyline fail given the popularity of science fiction toys and the company itself?  Part of lays in the fact that Britains SPACE line did not have any tie-in product to sell the concept further nor add any more advertisement exposure to the market…but that doesn’t always help as we saw with the similar STARCOM toyline in 1987. Not helping the case of these space toys was that while Britains did have a recognizable name in the UK as well as aboard, these space toys were outside their core business model and this caused the company to invest heavily into their Space line. That decision would lead to the end of the company as we knew it.
However, as someone who had some of these toys back in the early 1980's, I can see why this imported (and expensive) toyline failed due one important factor. That one important, but elusive, factor of any toyline is playability. This factor can greatly depend on the child themselves, how much of the toyline they can afford, availability of the toyline in their location, and the child's social nature, along with the intractability of the toys in the line.  All that being said, I think one area that the Britain's SPACE toyline failed is in its playability due to the small, unposable nature of the figures themselves.
Toy soldiers are a staple of toys-aimed-at-boys since ancient times and Britain's was a historic manufacture of toy soldiers. My brother and I both had Britain's toy soldiers and when I spied these space soldiers, I bought them due to the name. While I enjoyed the regular toy soldiers from Britain's in a limited fashion, I was mystified what to do with these fishbowl space helmet wearing space soldiers. I cannot remember playing with them in any way and they rested at the bottom of an action figure plastic bin for over two decade. As with the Hasbro’s Air Raiders and Coleco’s STARCOM toylines, the figures of the Space line were about the size of a AA battery and they could not be used with your other 3 ¾ figure lines, and this limited play and interest.

The Legacy and Impact of the SPACE Toyline
I've said it before that the internet is a good measure on how a toyline is thought of today and its lasting impact from its original release date. During the research phase for this article, I reached out to a United Kingdom website devoted to all things Britian's and Ian was good to response and his answers informed on both of these elements. The current legacy of the Space line was fairly limited and even boxed figure sets and vehicles go for far less than other Britain's toylines. Ian told me that the majority of Britain's WWII toys sells for £50-£100 while the SPACE toys barely get a fiver on bid sites! A majority of the boxed items for Britain's Space line are decorated with all manner of reduced price stickers. Not a good sign.
This informs us of the part of the impact at the time of release. Ian also told me that most of his mates were discussing Star Wars toys at school and not Britain's Space toys, which is the demographic Britain's was seeking. Once again, not a good sign for the sales department. According to ever source I can find all conclude that the impact of the toyline was far less than hoped and it was a failure in the UK and overseas. This was a hard blow for the historic British toy company due to the time, effort, energy, and money that had been invested into this new venture. Some sites cite the failure of the Space toyline as a major result for Britains being in financial difficult in the 1980's. The fact was that by 1984 the company being sold to Dobson Park Industries Ltd when no one in the family wanted to take over the toy company...was that due to the failure of the Space toyline? Despite being debated, some have accepted that the Space line helped end the original company and this become part of the story of the Space line to this very day. Currently, Britains still existed and is back to its core business under a small Ohio-based toy soldier company called The Good Soldier LLC.

Could Britains Space Toys Been a Success?
Maybe. That’s a big maybe. There is no way that Britains could have or would have invested into developing a 3 ¾ action toyline similar to dominate lines of G.I. Joe or Star Wars. Britains could only developed the toyline in a similar nature to the rest of their ranges. That being said, Britains should have placed more attention to developing the space combat angle of the line and created some more akin to a giant army in space than the astronauts-with-rayguns. In addition, Britains should have created more military-type space vehicles that appeared to be proper warships and futuristic armed ground vehicles. Some of these suggestions were undertaken for the 1985 “Star Systems” mid-run revamp with more modular vehicles, new figure lines, and recolors of the older figures.
But, the die was cast. I think the biggest element that could helped the toyline be more of a success would have a tie-in product to soft sell the fictional universe. This did not have to be a cartoon series, but it could have a boxed wargame that could have used the figures and vehicles as the pieces in a tabletop future war simulation system. While I was thinking about how Britains could have saved their Space line from the bargain bin, I realized that Coleco’s STARCOM: The US Space Force attempted to undertake a more unified marketed MSF toyline complete with cartoon and it didn’t help either and Britains could have done what they never had done before, a massive marketing campaign, and it is likely that the toyline would have failed anyways.

Next Time on FWS...
There is once in a blue moon that FWS goes a single blogpost without mentioning Starship Troopers in some form or another. The 1959 novel continues to be a major influence on military science fiction both in the west as well as the east even to this day. While FWS has discussed the various adaptations of SST throughout the years, especially in the west, we've barely discussed one made in 1988 in Japan: Uchu no Senshi. This Bandai Visual/Sunrise OVA production was released in 1988 on several LaserDiscs, but was never released in the west. In the next installment of the new Future Wars Stories of the East: FWS will be FINALLY devoting a whole blog article on the 1988 Starship Troopers OVA after many comments and emails.