Reviews of Fang of the Sun Dougram (1981) and related work

Fang of the Sun Dougram (1981Moving picture, 31 hours)

Takahashi Ryōsuke (director).

Seen in 2018.

A struggle for planet-level independence on Earth’s first major extrasolar colony, Deloyer, has a false start when shrewd politicians feign participation to channel the popular will into mere statehood in the Federation of Earth. A revolutionary war for true independence still takes form, but it too is subverted.

For a longer description of the plot, see the article Dougram in brief.

Mecha action. The production was obviously rushed by modern standards. Consider the use of newspapers to convey plot points, such as a reward program for turning in guerillas. Early in episode 7, a boy is seen handing out papers about that program: A hastily edited New York Post with the word “York” masked out and the headlines “Today you can win: $100,000 jackpot”, “Yankees down the A’s: Bring on the world!” and “Beast who raped nun”. This would be from October 15 1981, when the Yankees won the American League Championship Series. In episode 28, a transliteration of some Japanese lyrics stands in for a newspaper article, but in episode 53, the production uses another real paper “Dedicated to International Understanding”, changing only the pictures in an article titled “Arab League Raps US, Israel For Massacre”, apparently about the 1982 Lebanon War. By episode 60 the art department is getting better at this cheap game, adding character portraits and blurring the front page of another American paper to the point that only a headline is legible: “Israeli Energy Minister Quits...”. This would be Yitzhak Berman in September 1982. In the same episode, the paper “Dedicated to International Understanding” is reused, with the same Arab League headline, but the title is now neatly edited to read “Deloyer Daily News” and there’s a picture of Donan Cashim, the nominal subject. In episode 70, the production team does even better, editing the September 23 1982 cover of the Japan Times as the “Deloyer Times”, in such a way that a moving colour picture from a news conference fades to greyscale and becomes a picture on the front page. In further zoom out from the page, for the first time, the entire photocopy is replaced with a drawing of how the paper would look “in universe”, with all print illegible. It seems that nobody at the studio was comfortable with English.

There are only brief moments of enjoyable animation, unless you love middle-aged and elderly men with realistic faces and stiff bodies sitting down to negotiate. The action sequence in late episode 9 is a marked improvement over previous episodes, and perhaps the best on the show. It looks to have been designed with the scale models of the mecha that were being sold as toys. Episode 39 has a bad example of in-between animators making a striped rugby shirt flicker. Episode 45, and specifically Chico’s facial expressions in the battle toward the end of the episode, recall the looser cartoonish style of Heavy Metal (1981). Episode 52 contains a remarkably poor crowd scene, almost eight minutes in, where several characters’ mouths move in the establishing shot, which is otherwise a single cel; those flapping mouths must have been just a couple of millimetres wide on TV. After a closer shot, we return to the same establishing shot, the same single cel, dialogue still running.

The writing is more internally consistent than Gundam, but it isn’t necessarily better. As with the animation, there are good moments. Episode 39 centers as much on a random group of enemy pilots as on the heroes, without denigrating them. Their profound, extensively visualized shock at seeing their comrades killed so easily by protagonist Crin is handled more realistically than the original Gundam treated its mooks. One Federation baddie, Zaltsev, switches sides. A conspicuous amount of others choose death over dishonour and go out fighting, unlike Alexander Samsonov at Willenberg, who merely shot himself.

Trying for a nested narrative structure, the writers bite off more than they can chew. Let’s say that the opening scene takes place at time 0, as part of narrative sequence α, which shows Canary at the wreck of the Dougram. We flash back from there to an earlier time, -1, described in a sequence β, which dominates the episode. As dictated by cinematic convention, when β ends, we arrive back in α and see Canary at time 0. However, this final scene is static. In the next episode, we flash back still further to a time -2, described in a sequence γ. This third sequence turns out to be the main body of the narrative, with some tiny flashbacks to times < -2 embedded in it. In fact, β itself contains a flashback to a time between -2 and -1.

In episode 15, as part of γ, Lartav agrees to take Daisy to Bonar. In doing so he recalls their first meeting, shown in the first episode as part of β. This is the first direct evidence that γ has passed time -1. This cannot have happened earlier than Daisy’s arrival in episode 11, yet there is no place for it in between Rocky’s crew travelling with Destin’s company and then being chased by Garcia’s platoon. The two nicknames for Rocky’s crew from episode 1, the “Deloyer Seven” and the “Fang of the Sun”, have not been heard since the opening. The latter nickname first resurfaces in episode 21, then—in episode 22—is implied to have been invented by Lartav. β and γ are not obviously reconcilable.

We never return to α, the outermost layer of the narrative, again. Nor does γ reach time 0. There is no explanation for why Canary is alone in the desert at 0, clutching the basket of a homing pigeon that is never seen, and apparently mourning companions who are all alive at the end of γ. The production must not have gone as expected.

The show evidently takes place in a detached binary star system. The binary dawn and dusk is such a common motif that, in episode 50, a shot of a unary dawn establishes that the scene takes place on Earth. However, Deloyer has a P-type orbit and the binary pair is so close that the effect is purely cosmetic, as in Star Wars (1977). The economic design is also lazy by the standards of adult literary SF. For instance, Earth is starving with a population of 8 billion—a pre-Borlaug scenario reminiscent of Asimov’s The Caves of Steel (1954)—and therefore imports 40% of its food across space, through a periodically generated wormhole, while its own natural capital continues to degrade. That is a horrible economic situation that would naturally lead to high pressure to emigrate from Earth to the net producer, where there is plenty of space and work, but no such thing is happening. The total population of Deloyer seems to be less than 1 billion. Like the space colonies in Gundam, it’s all too placid. The ecological theme is mostly window dressing.

The political situation reminds me of The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress (1966), where an oppressed lunar society is exporting hydroponic wheat to Earth, but whereas both Heinlein and Tomino make the reasonable choice of space colonies threatening Earth with space-based weapons, no such thing ever happens in Dougram. There are no major space habitats and no weapons of mass destruction. Interstellar transportation in Dougram is a weak premise, not an area of inquiry.

For an emotional reference frame, compare the real-world Yemen Civil War. In June 2018, a Saudi-led military coalition threatened the port city of Hodeidah after fighting Houthi rebels since 2015. This made international news because 8 million of Yemen’s 28 million inhabitants were on the verge of starvation. 90% of Yemen’s foodstuffs were being imported. 80% of imports were moving through Hodeidah, also the biggest port for fishing. In its desperation, according to coalition spokesman Turki al-Malki (DN, 2018-06-06), the Houthis were using civilians, including children, as human shields to protect Hodeidah. The government of Earth in Dougram faces a similar situation with incongruous calm. Even when the sole spaceport on Deloyer is threatened by rebels toward the end of the series, there is no panic on Earth and no rush to a nuclear arsenal. There is very little effort to show the stakes of the conflict. Instead, the focus is on the futuristic gunplay and casual revolutionary romanticism.

In Rita’s memories, Destin behaves like a Maoist straight out of Chinese propaganda. There are strong allusions to Che Guevara, especially in Locke’s appearance and Nanashi’s reading in episode 23. One of the rebel groups is called the Red Star. Characters are named things like “Basque” (for Basque separatists?), “Neruoda” (communist Pablo Neruda?), “J. Locke” (John Locke who influenced the American Revolution?), “Fritz Manon” (Franz Fanon?), and by various Russian-sounding names (Zaltsev, Samarin) etc. However, there are no real details on ideology or culture. Everything is mukokuseki, including the seven states of the Federation on future Earth. These bear no relationship with historical nations.

As another example of the kind of plot hole I wanted to chart by writing summaries, between episodes 30 and 31, government forces let a cargo ship pass from one continent to another with the Dougram on board. The cargo is important enough to justify sinking the ship. Its crew is evidently colluding with the rebels. Despite this, for some unstated reason, commanding officer Gilson fails to send any kind of long-range air power or space-based weapons after the ship, and the port where it arrives is not patrolled because no message has been received. Recall this is a civilization that can communicate faster than light through space and transport the food of billions across space as a matter of course, so reliably that those billions do not migrate. The implausible development is simply dropped on the floor without so much as a hand-waving reference to the X Nebula, this show’s less elegant rip-off of Gundam’s Minovsky particles. The Gundam influence is otherwise strong, even in the name: Both shows are named with spondees plus the rare -amu, and they share a lot of letters. Crin initially fights screaming, like the early Amuro Ray. The music is even more repetitive, but at least there aren’t any lightsabers or psychic powers here.

The heroes have distinctive outfits and wear them through most of the series, like superheroes in a children’s show. It’s style over credibility. As in Gundam, actual camouflage is not really used. The design of the Dougram was pirated by FASA for early Battletech, as the “Shadow Hawk”. It isn’t great, the main advancement here being the vehicle’s lack of a face. Though he was already a seasoned veteran, this is apparently too early for Takahashi to really concern himself with the general plausibility of mecha. A lot of the technology—even bunk beds on a starship in episode 3—is just a few simple lines and heavy greebling. Speaking of technology, raiding a Federation base for fuel in episode 22, Chico ambiguously refers to Huckle as “otaku” (meaning “you” or “geek”) because Huckle is too picky about which truck to steal. This must have seemed like a good in joke in the era of Blue Blazes (2014). Not surprisingly, as of 2018-06, the longest section of the main Japanese Wikipedia article on the show is about the machines in it.

Geeky, masculine concerns predominate. The romance between Daisy and Crin is so static and unemotional that I have to assume the writers did not care about the nominal female lead. Most likely, some producer said “Put a girl in there so the girls’ll watch it.” Daisy, whose cheekbones are so pronounced that she looks anorexic, does virtually nothing except traditionally feminine chores looking after the injured and orphaned off screen. Even at the very end, when peace finally arrives, Crin barely spares a thought for her. Instead, he goes home to fall in his mother’s arms!

It takes until episode 35, halfway through the series, for a Bechdel test to pass, but there is a near pass in episode 27 when Daisy reads a letter from her mother. Canary is more interesting than Daisy: Not a battle-babe stereotype, but not a strong character either, just “the girl” of the team. Episode 1 makes her out to be a “final girl”, but this is undermined by the failure to revisit that timeline.

The more central tension between the constant violence and the anti-war sentiment is never resolved. This tension is already apparent in the original opening credits sequence. Like The Odyssey (ca. 700 BCE), the sequence looks martial yet lacks an enemy and shows ambivalence about war. The accompanying lyrics refer not to triumph but to fear, to darkness “binding” the heart, even to tears, though none are shown. The refrain begins “Farewell ye gentle days; no return [for us], no coming home”, which is the dread of Homer’s Ithacans, as unfounded for them as for the Fang. On the opposite side of the emotional spectrum, the lyrics refer to spreading your wings, severing chains and taking aim at the distant horizon, all readable as references to camaraderie and adventure with a shared and lofty goal. The joy of Crin’s companions under open skies is implied to be the joy of this adventure. Like the Ithacans, they have each other and the thrill of violence.

Ultimately, Dougram itself is a failure. It doesn’t deliver satisfactorily on any of its implicit promises: Not the narrative as such, not the extrapolation, not the ecological drivers, not the politics—the death of Von Stein being particularly dumb—and not the anti-war message. Even as a stepping stone toward greater things in the history of SF and Japanese animation, you can skip it.

References here: Dougram in brief, Dougram nomenclature, 2023-07-05/06, Armored Trooper Votoms (1983), GoShogun: The Time Étranger (1985), Armor Hunter Mellowlink (1988), Twin Peaks (1990), Gasaraki (1998).

moving picture animation Japanese production mecha fiction series

“Choro Q Dougram” (1983Moving picture, 9 minutes)

Seen in 2018.

Characters from the TV series have a race instead of a war to settle the question of independence.

SD comedy. Surprisingly comprehensive.

References here: Document: Fang of the Sun Dougram (1983).

moving picture spin-off animation Japanese production mecha fiction

Document: Fang of the Sun Dougram (1983Moving picture, 80 minutes)

Takahashi Ryōsuke (director).

Seen in 2018.

Compression of the TV series into a feature-length film. No new material, just some filtering to make the first few shots of each chapter look like a newsreel. Apparently, “Choro Q Dougram” (1983) was included to sweeten the deal at the box office.

moving picture compilation animation Japanese production mecha fiction

“Dougram VS Round-Facer” (1987Moving picture, 3 minutes)

Seen in 2018.

According to Japanese Wikipedia, a short distributed with Anime Vision magazine. Drawn in a style quite different from the show. Deloyer looks a lot more evocative, but for some reason, the “combat armour” flies under its own power like Gundam’s mobile suits and the animation is unimpressive.

moving picture spin-off animation Japanese production mecha fiction