Here’s a good example of why you need to take care in how you make snap judgments about things. Before sitting down to watch it for this review, I’d never seen Crusher Joe. Not only had I never seen it, it never even occurred to me that I might want to see it. I’d heard of it, seen it around, but I never bothered with it. And I handled it in this matter for one reason and one reason only: the title sounded kind of lame. I mean, Crusher Joe? Wasn’t he in Mike Tyson’s Punch Out? Wasn’t he one of the ham ‘n’ eggers the old WWF would trot out for their Saturday Night Main Event when they wanted someone for a superstar to beat? I think Crusher Joe used to tag team with Leapin’ Lanny Poffo.
It just wasn’t a title that caught my attention, and so I just let it fall through the cracks without so much as a second thought. Looking back, I can either lament that I possessed such a cavalier and uninformed attitude and thus missed Crusher Joe for so many years, or I can celebrate the fact that though I may have missed it back in the day, all that really means is I get to experience the thrill of discovery now. And it is a thrilling discovery, because despite the name deemed by me to be lackluster, if you want sprawling space action in the classic sci-fi anime mode and you’re not willing to happily subject yourself to Odin, Crusher Joe is probably what you are looking for, mainly because it is really good.
What’s emerged as sort of the over-arching theme as I continue to revisit anime from the 1980s seems to be the relationship between anime in the 1980s (and thus the manga which often served as the original source material) and the pulp and potboiler fiction of the United States. Odin reflects the ponderous and often nonsensical sci-fi pulp of A.E. van Vogt. Golgo 13 traces its roots to the post-Fleming, post-Bond deluge of espionage fiction that came out during the 60s and 70s. Wicked City grows like a slimy, toothy tentacle from the horror pulp of H.P. Lovecraft. So to stick with the theme, where does Crusher Joe fall into the grand scheme of things? Maybe it’s somewhere along the lines of Edgar Rice Burroughs science fiction pulp stories, in which a strapping Earthman would find himself on Mars, cold-cocking a lot of uppity Martian warlords and romancing sexy Martian princesses (man, have I been there a time or two). More obviously, though, Crusher Joe is the sort of sprawling space epic that would be right at home in the early days of the comics. There’s a gung-ho, anything goes bravado like you’d find in early Flash Gordon or Buck Rogers. Stripped of heavy speculation and halfwit philosophizing, Crusher Joe is science fiction that simply wants to be a good time, full of thrills and dazzle and wit. Luckily for us, it succeeds on all accounts.
Coming out in 1983, it is similar to Golgo 13 in that it exists with one foot in the style of the 70s and the other firmly planted in the glamor of the 80s. And like most features from the 80s, I find the artwork and animation absolutely beautiful. One frequently reads comments to the effect of, “Since it’s older, the artwork hasn’t held up well,” and I’ve never understood or agreed with that assessment. Yes, it lacks the exactness of modern animation, but it also lacks the sterility. You can actually see the artists at work, sense their presence in the rougher lines and shading, as opposed to the more polished but less affectionate artwork that comes with computer assistance. Maybe that’s just nostalgia talking, and I certainly don’t mean to disparage modern artists and animators, who still do a bang-up job. I just really like the look of old, hand-drawn cel animation, and I don’t get why people see its appearance as a short-coming rather than an asset.
I’m also constantly impressed by the sheer amount of action that gets drawn. Modern anime may have more expert, thinner lines and coloring, but it’s often complex art shot static and without motion. Crusher Joe, like most anime features from the era, positively bursts with action. There is always something moving, something going on. The static frames are few and far between, and that makes the fact that everything was accomplished without the aid of computers even more impressive. To be fair, of course, this is a feature film, not an OVA or TV series, so there was more money and presumably more time to devote to making the animation both fluid and complex. Still, feature film or whatever, it’s always fun to watch art that has this much happening in each scene.
The plot of Crusher Joe revolves around a team of Crushers led by a guy named Joe (Hiraku Takemura, who has this as his only listed credit despite being quite good). This may go some distance in explaining the title. The Crushers of this future (one in which, obviously, mankind has colonized distant planets and taken to spacefarin’) are jack-of-all-trade types, specializing in hauling cargo. Anyone who watched Firefly should recognize a little Crusher Joe in the show, though I’ve always thought of Firefly as being more inspired by Cowboy Bebop — though I’d also have to guess that Cowboy Bebop must draw at least some inspiration from Crusher Joe. Joe’s crew consists of the beautiful princess Alfin (Run Sasaki, who worked on Super Dimension Fortress Macross aka Robotech before and after this, as well as Violence Jack and City Hunter), the beefy cyborg Talos (Kiyoshi Kobayashi, easily the most experienced of the main cast, with credits including Lupin III, Science Ninja Team Gatchaman aka Battle of the Planets or G-Force, a bunch of Mazinger stuff, Space Adventure Cobra, Golgo 13, Violence Jack, Gundam, and plenty more — including some work on the live-action shows Zone Fighter and Spectreman, which happen to be two of my favorites), and weird kid Ricky (Noriko Ohara, who acted in Captain Harlock, Galaxy Express 999, Yamato, Macross, Urusei Yatsura, and some Doraemon stuff).
It’s fitting that Kiyoshi Kobayashi acted in Gatchaman, since the crew of that show sounds similar to the crew of Crusher Joe. The big difference is that the Crushers are a lot less serious and not really prone to lengthy bouts of melancholy introspection while staring at their hands (I seem to remember an entire episode of Battle of the Planets that was nothing but Jason staring at his hand while dramatic music played, but it was like thirty-five years ago, so I might be glossing over some details). Plus, the Crusher’s princess is more likely to get drunk and take her clothes off. It was the decadent eighties, after all.
Joe’s crew is employed to haul a young woman in suspended animation to a planet where doctors can bring her out of her coma and fix what ails her. Complicating the matter — for what would such matters be without complications — is the fact that she is the heiress of one of the most powerful interstellar industrialist families. They don’t want news of her illness leaked to the public, and their opponents would be keen on getting their hands on her, by any means necessary. Things immediately go to hell when their ship runs into a warp anomaly that facilitates someone stealing the cargo, as well as the corporate stooges who were guarding it. What’s more, after showing up way off course with no cargo to speak of and no record of the job, the Crushers are apprehended by an overzealous naval captain convinced they are pirates. The charges are eventually dropped thanks to the intervention of a member of military intelligence, but not before the head of the Crushers Union — who also happens to be Joe’s father — suspends their license to operate. This culminates in Joe and Alfin getting drunk and horny, then drunk and violent at a local disco, eventually literally bringing the whole place down.
The agent from military intelligence seems to have his own nefarious schemes for which he wants to employ Joe and the crew, despite the fact that they’re suspended. The mission will not only help them clear their names and recover the missing girl; it will also involve them directly in combating an out-of-control den of pirates that have taken refuge on a newly terraformed and still unstable planet. Even with this plot revealed, the true nature of what the Crushers are up against isn’t revealed until the final third of the film.
Crusher Joe is packed with great action and snappy writing. Not quite Lupin witty, but close. There are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments sprinkled throughout the fist fights and laser battles, creating an atmosphere not unlike some of the sillier episodes of Cowboy Bebop or Patlabor. Everything is a two-fisted good time. Joe is dashing and tough. His crew is loyal. They tackle one dangerous situation after another. Like most pulp — in this case, sci-fi comic books — Crusher Joe relies on stock character types that viewers will immediately understand without much back story or development. Once again, the movie is based on previously existing material, but if like me you’ve never read a single word of the Crusher Joe novels, you’ll still be able to understand everything about the characters, because they are the stock players in any good science fiction story. But you still get emotionally engaged by them, because what the movie does with stock characters and recognizable situations is excellent. There are no new stories, after all. The trick is in the execution, and Crusher Joe is razor-sharp and well-honed in its handing of sci-fi pulp chestnuts.
And speaking of stories — it’s worth mentioning that Crusher Joe has one of the most comprehensible, straight-forward, and non-convoluted plots I’ve seen from any anime feature. There are twists and turns indeed, and the writing is never dumb, but it is easy to follow and crisply paced. It strikes a perfect balance between action and comedy, with a tiny dose of pathos thrown in here and there to give the film added depth. Crusher Joe has been lumped into the “space opera” subgenre, a categorization I don’t particularly agree with, mainly because to me, space opera has to deal pretty heavy-handedly with melodrama. There’s lots of haunted pasts and soul searching and tragedy. Yamato or Harlock, or Gundam — now those are space operas; romances played out across a sweeping epic spacescape. Well, Harlock and Yamato have haunting tragedy and soul searching. Gundam seems to be less soul searching, more whining from the characters. Crusher Joe is less operatic and more Saturday matinee serial. It figures, why stare at your hand and read poetry to the cosmos when you get drunk and punch someone in the face? I have great affection for both types of storytelling, and just because a movie doesn’t indulge in half-baked soul searching and waxing of poetics doesn’t mean it’s shallow or ill-conceived. Crusher Joe manages to pull off the stunt of being complex rather than convoluted. It’s a different type of film from more morose and gloomy space opera, albeit one that is played out against a similarly epic background.
The script for the movie was written by director Yoshikazu Yasuhiko, but he was working from original source material by Haruka Takachiho, most famous for creating the original Dirty Pair (Kei and Yuri — who also make a cameo appearance in Crusher Joe when Joe goes to meet the president of a planet at a drive-in movie theater that happens to be showing a movie starring characters who look remarkably similar to the Dirty Pair). He would later go on to found Studio Nue, the creators of the long-running Macross series.
I’ve said that Crusher Joe feels like an old 1940s sci-fi comic book, or maybe a Flash Gordon serial, and that’s true, but if you really want to peg down the likeliest source of influence, you need look no further than the publication date of Yoshikazu’s first Crusher Joe novel, Crisis on the Planet Pizan. It came out in 1977, hot on the heels of a movie that defined “space opera” for a generation or two — Star Wars. I’m loathe to say anything was inspired by Star Wars, not so much because I hate Star Wars (I quite like the first two movies, and by first two, I mean the actual first two, not the ones George Lucas made a couple years ago then called the first ones) as because that makes people instantly assume that it’s just like Star Wars, or that Star Wars itself wasn’t anything but a solid example of classic pulp sci-fi storytelling. Obviously, the dates mean that Star Wars was an influence on Crusher Joe, but equally obvious should be the fact that Star Wars wasn’t so much an original work as it was a reminder of past pulp glories.
So yeah, shame on me for skipping Crusher Joe for all those years simply because I thought the title sounded lame. Well, I’m here now to sing its glorious up unto the angels in heaven. The current boom in anime popularity — this being the boom that has really pushed it from the ranks of a small, dedicated fandom and into the mainstream of American culture like never before — has concentrated heavily on new material. It’s not surprising, since we’ve already covered the average anime fan’s disdain for anything more than a few years old, though it also has something to do with the fact that, although there are plenty of bad, popular anime titles, there are also a ton of really good shows and feature films coming out. However, some companies are starting to balance the cost of licensing new anime with the benefits of dumping their back catalog of properties onto DVD.