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  Starbirds It's Romeo and Juliet with giant robots
Year: 1978
Director: Tadao Nagahama
Stars: Akira Kamiya, Miyuki Ueda, Hisashi Katsuta, Kazuyuki Sogabe, Osamu Ichikawa, Yoko Kuri, Hiroya Ishimaru, Kazuko Yanaga, Kazuya Tatekabe, Kenji Utsumi, Makio Inoue, Mari Okamoto
Genre: Animated, Science Fiction, Romance, AdventureBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 1 vote)
Review: Winged aliens from the dying planet Baam decide to conquer planet Earth and make it their new home. They attack just as dashing young space pilot Kazuya Ryuzaki (voiced by Akira Kamiya) and super-cool sidekick Duncan (who cuts quite a figure with his towering afro, tanned shades and disco jumpsuit with a strap-on samurai sword!) fly back from a failed diplomatic mission. As conflicted invasion commander Richter (Osamu Ichikawa) bombards the planet with giant mecha monsters the Earth Defence Force put Kazuya in control of humanity's last hope: a giant super-robot called Daimos. In the midst of battle, Kazuya saves a mysterious girl named Erika (Miyuki Ueda). She has no memory, so neither are aware that she is not only the princess of the alien invaders but Richter's sister to boot. As Kazuya and Erika fall in love they discover there are good people on both sides.

A feature length compilation movie of the forty-four part anime Toshio Daimos, this impassioned super-robot saga was re-titled Starbirds for its American video release and cable TV broadcast as a cash-in on (what else?) Star Wars. A similar fate befell Go Nagai's similarly robot-themed puppet show X-Bomber (1980) which reached British television under the alternate title of Star Fleet and was also re-edited into a feature film on video. Much like X Bomber, Starbirds managed to make a vivid impression on a handful of science fiction fans that caught it at a young age. In part due to the fact that despite a deceptively kitsch, colourful comic book surface, the story touches on morally complex themes.

Often likened by fans to Romeo and Juliet with giant robots, Toshio Daimos was the third in director Tadao Nagahama's conceptual trilogy of 'romantic super-robot' stories. It arrived in the wake of Combattler V (1976) and Voltus (1977), the latter of which was also released in America by the same company behind Starbirds: New Hope Productions (see what they did there?). In place of a simplistic space opera where noble heroes oppose dastardly villains, Nagahama crafts a scenario where both sides exhibit positive and negative qualities and conflict springs from misunderstanding, prejudice and political manipulation. Admittedly not all of the thematic nuances remain intact in the hasty English dubbed version. Yet wisely key antagonist Richter (or Roderick as re-christened in the dub) emerges a truly faceted character. No one-dimensional villain but a deeply conflicted soul with his own code of honour. A driven warrior Richter fights for the survival of his race but comes to genuinely admire humanity's bravery or determination. Rightly or wrongly these were qualities Japanese viewers recognized in their own experience of war. As a result super-robot anime like Toshio Daimos had an emotional resonance for their audience unlike any western cartoons. They paved the way for even more ambitious works like Yoshiyuki Tomino's groundbreaking mecha saga Mobile Suit Gundam (1979).

The feature length version packs in enough space dogfights, karate robot battles and grand scale mayhem rendered in lavish detail to satisfy an action-craving cartoon fan. Many of the surreal monstrosities Katsuya battles evoke classic Toho monster movies that were otherwise too costly to make in the Seventies. While the breakneck pace slightly curtails the love story it remains affecting thanks to Nagahama's artful cinematic techniques and some disarmingly impassioned drama. The already heightened melodrama is amped-up even further by a hysterically camp English dub that over-emphasizes each plot point. Even so Starbirds entertains, fusing together everything Japanese kids found cool in the late Seventies (including the most absurdly over-elaborate hero-jumps-into-a-giant-robot sequence) along with a heartfelt plea for interracial tolerance. Like Shakespeare the plot piles on the tragedy and angst although the third act climax is strangely similar to Flash Gordon (1980). Right down to that weird electronic wedding march.

Reviewer: Andrew Pragasam


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