Teenager Joe (voiced by Hiroshi Takemura) leads a team of intergalactic troubleshooters known as Crushers. If you've got a problem, they're happy to help out. Which is how the crew of spaceship Minerva: beautiful tomboy space princess Alfin (Run Sasaki), muscle guy Talos (Kiyoshi Kobayashi), smart-alec kid Ricky (Noriko Ohara) and Dongo the comical robot (Issei Tutamata) end up transporting a cryogenically-frozen heiress to a medical facility on a distant planet. They have just thirty hours to get her there before time runs out. Travelling through hyperspace the Crusher team are attacked suddenly with a mysterious weapon. When they wake up, both the heiress and her two minders are gone. Even worse, the team are then arrested on suspicion of space piracy by incompetent space federation Captain Kowalski (Goro Naya). Disgraced and suspended from the Crusher organization Joe sets out to uncover the truth. He and his friends end up unearthing an intergalactic conspiracy and a threat to the universe in the form of crazed pirate king Big Murphy (Chikao Otsuka) and his terrifying transdimensional weapon.
The Crusher team first appeared in print with the 1977 novel 'Crisis on Planet Pizan' written by one Japan's foremost science fiction authors, Haruka Takachiho. Brought to the screen by lauded manga artist, chara designer and animator Yoshikazu Yasuhiko the feature film adaptation is simply one of the all-time great anime space operas, a breakneck sci-fi actioner laden with cool concepts, compelling characters and, best of all, an outstanding script. Written by Takachiho himself the twist laden plot keeps the viewer continually on the edge of their seat and is as intricate and well thought out as the spectacular hand-drawn visuals. It is a product of a golden age in anime. The film is also an early example of a 'meta' anime, being riddled with characters lifted from a wholly different source: the manga 'Go For It, Alfin-Chan!' by animator Gen Sato. Crusher Joe is also notable for launching another seminal anime franchise, Dirty Pair (1985). Space bikini-clad heroines Kei and Yuri appear in a movie-within-the movie playing at a cinema distracting Joe and Alfin in one scene. It is worth pointing out both Crusher Joe and the Dirty Pair drew their names from teams of female wrestlers of which Takachiho was a fan.
Interestingly, Crusher Joe ranks among a handful science fiction films released around the same time wherein a cryogenically frozen woman serves as a plot McGuffin, e.g. the Italian made 2019: After the Fall of New York (1984), but diverges from this initial thread down a completely different direction. Obviously the film lifts a lot from Star Wars (1977) with space dogfights, laser battles and a moment when Talos tells Ricky "Don't get cocky, kid" though not in the lazy, obvious manner of The War in Space (1977) or Message from Space (1978). It has its own distinctive identity. Chiefly a plot far more complex and politically charged than one would expect from George Lucas. In the midst of all so much jaunty, space-faring fun the film satirizes petty bureaucracy and political corruption with a disarming level of passion. Joe and his team are unwittingly manipulated by an alliance of big business, organized crime and shady self-serving politicians posing as allies. Tensions between the idealistic Joe and his seemingly calculating and cold-hearted father dredge up the Oedipal issues that have long been part of anime from Gatchaman (1972) to Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995).
Yoshikazu Yasuhiko handles weighty themes with a dexterous light touch, pausing between battles with wacky mecha or hairy scary monsters to soak in the breathtaking beauty of the hand-painted space vistas (this must have looked amazing on a big cinema screen) or savour jokes as silly as the interstellar disco dance sequence that escalates into an epic punch-up or the moment Dongo gets caught with a porno mag. At over two hours in length Crusher Joe is one of the longest anime features but so fast paced and crammed with incident it speeds by like a primary coloured blur. Yasuhiko's character designs are delightfully nuanced and expressive, full of personality. Joe and his friends are among the most engaging characters in Japanese science fiction, gutsy, big hearted and always ready with a quip. Crucially they are not superhuman. Their hair-raising escapes are always by the skin of their teeth which makes things all the more exciting. Joe's gang returned six years later in Crusher Joe: The Ice Prison (1989).