RED PHOTON ZILLION (1987)

Akai Koudan Zillion (Red Photon Zillion) often just referred to as Zillion was a TV anime that aired in Japan in 1987. A sci-fi action/adventure show that lasted for 31 episodes and spawned an unusual OVA (which we’ll get to later on).

Although sci-fi anime on TV was a pretty common thing in the 80’s Zillion stands out as a fascinating production for a myriad of reasons, among them its unusual genesis as a means of promoting Sega’s light phaser periperhal for the Mark 3 console (what we knew in the west as the Sega Master System). There were also two tie-in Zillion games released to accompany the anime as well as a cool laser tag toy that used exactly the same plastic shell as the console’s light phaser gun. The phaser was released one year prior to the anime and the games and tag toy were released in Japan the same year as the show. The design of the Zillion guns the heroes wield in the anime also share the same look.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that an anime that was intended as a promotional tool might be a bit rubbish but let me assure you it’s not. FAR from it in fact.

The second reason the show stands out is that it was animated by a particularly talented team at the legendary Tatsunoko studios (creator of some of my all time favourite anime such as Gatchaman and Casshern). This team became what we now know today as Production IG.

So with that little history lesson out of the way let’s talk more about the show itself.

The series takes place in the year 2387 when mankind has set up a colony on the planet Maris. Unfortunately after a few years of peace, a race of hostile aliens known as the Noza have arrived on Earth and began attacking humankind.

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The Noza.

In order to combat this threat the Maris government have set up a crack team of three talented warriors all selected from different backgrounds for their unique skills. The team is known as the “White nuts” (I wonder if they were going for “White Knights” but perhaps translated it incorrectly).

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Champ (Left), JJ (Centre) and Apple.

The heroes are known by codenames (Interestingly we never find out their real names in the series) the heroic but immature hot-head JJ,  the cool and collected ladies man (or so he says) Champ and the passionate, caring and smart Apple.

Backing them up is their engineer and inventor Dave, pilot of their aircraft the Big Porter and they’re supported by their commander Mr Gord and his secretary Amy as well as cute mascot robot Opa-Opa whom Sega fans will recognise as the playable character of arcade/master system game Fantasy Zone. The adorable little winged spaceship-like robot was a very popular Sega mascot in Japan at the time the anime was made which probably explains his appearance here. The little guy even gets his own episode and even gets a companion later in the series in the form of a similar robot named Upa-Upa.

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Champ and Opa-Opa
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Opa-Opa in “serious mode” (seconds after JJ has stuck some paper eyebrows on him for a laugh)

The voice over at the beginning of the early episodes informs us of the existence of “three mysterious guns that were granted to mankind” seemingly by the previous inhabitants of Maris. These guns are known as the Zillion weapons system (or just Zillion for short) three pistols that fire an extremely destructive burst of red energy that disintegrates the target. They are the weapons of the White Nuts and the main tool in their arsenal against the Noza. The intro makes it sound like the guns were discovered somewhere however reading between the lines of dialogue in the show it seems more likely that humans discovered the guns energy source Zillionium on Maris and figured out how it could be harnessed as a weapon.

 

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Anime version versus the Sega light Phaser.

Many of the early episodes plots function like a mini action movie told in twenty two minutes. The team often has to investigate some Nozan activity somewhere, find out what they’re up to and put a stop to it. They might be rescuing a bunch of scientists from a research facility that’s about to self destruct, investigating a new Nozan weapon or being sent to retrieve a spy who’s went AWOL while looking into an enemy base, whatever the trio are up to you can count on it being exciting, action packed and just plain fun.

Because the plots of these early episodes are fairly straightforward there’s plenty of room for focus on the characters.

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Amy and Mr Gord.

While all three of the White Nuts team members get a lot of screen time and each one has their own episodes that focus on them individually, JJ is really the central character. He’s not exactly your conventional hero that’s for sure. He’s shown to be impulsive, arrogant, a bit of a show off and immature to boot. On top of that he gets extremely distracted from the mission if a pretty girl even gives him a sideways glance. His flaws are played for laughs most of the time and he’s quite a goofy character. He has the right amount of humanity to be endearing but there are times when he can be a bit obnoxious. For example sometimes his behaviour with the opposite sex can be more than a bit questionable.

He’s obviously attracted to Apple (though he frequently complains about her not being very womanly) and he also makes more than one pass at Amy over the course of the series and tries it on with any girl in the near vicinity (including one who’s actually a female Nozan in disguise in one memorable episode).

However he’s incredibly heroic to the point where he will not hesitate to jump into the craziest and most dangerous situations to help his friends or save the lives of an innocent. The trio have kind of a touching relationship in that Apple and Champ are always complaining about his shennanigans but as soon as he’s in any real danger the strength of their bond with him is obvious.

Champ is a curious character. He’s usually shown to be cool, calm and confident but interestingly sometimes his mask slips and we see he’s a bit more vulnerable than he lets on. For instance he really cares about his “cool” image and there’s quite a funny subplot in one episode about him being caught doing some knitting by Opa-Opa and his attempts to keep it secret from the others. He always boasts of his success with women to JJ but there’s very little in the series that actually supports his claims. One episode says he gets fan mail from female admirers but is there any evidence to suggest its genuine? Where JJ can be a bit sleazy with the ladies Champ is at least a gentleman in that regard. Sometimes he can come off as a bit high and mighty and a bit of a “Mr perfect” though.

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Last but by no means least we have Apple. She’s a fantastic character and the only female member of the core trio. There’s a lot to love about her. She’s smart, tough in terms of her resilience but also extremely sensitive and genuinely caring about other people. She’s often infuriated by JJ’s childish antics but even in the scenes where she’s giving him a hard time there’s a kindness and affection for him that shines through to the audience. She has some great standout episodes too including one where she unwittingly ends up looking after the young son of a murdered friend and colleague who is being hunted by the Nozans.

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The Zillion guns themselves are an interesting plot device due to their unique nature and their limitations when it comes to ammo. Some of the stories are made more dramatic by the fact that the characters only have so many energy packs out in the field and sometimes they need to make a shot count or come up with creative ways of defeating Nozans without expending too much Zillonium. The marksmanship of the characters is an oft-used plot device too. All three of them are skilled with firearms to an insane degree. They all start out with the same Zillion pistol but a mid-series upgrade sees them gain personalised Zillion guns based on their preferences. An upgraded pistol for JJ, a modified sniper rifle for Champ and a full auto machine gun-like weapon for Apple. These character specific weapons lead to some interesting moments and even entire plots including one memorable episode where Champ battles against a Nozan sniper whom it seems his skills are perfectly matched with.

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Champ’s rival goes in for the kill.

Although there’s a lot of good looking TV anime from the latter half of the 80’s it can’t be stated enough that Zillion looks absolutely stunning considering it’s thirty two years old at time of writing.  The animation is of a consistently high quality throughout the show and shows a great level of technical detail. Though stock footage is used in almost every episode of the White Nuts craft the big porter taking off this sequence is so gloriously done that it’s not a big deal. The same goes for a dynamic transformation sequence in which the futuristic “Tri-Charger” motorcycles transform from their ordinary bike mode into an armoured suit. The Tri-Charger’s designs are excellent (as are all of the mechanical designs in this show). Despite knowing quite a bit about Zillion’s background and history before I actually watched it what I didn’t know until quite recently was that it features mechanical design from studio Ammonite who worked on Taito’s cult shooter series Darius, another interesting link to the world of videogames.

The action is always exciting and the series makes use of a wide range of different locales and enviroments that are suitable for its action setpieces, a lot of thought has went into this stuff. The characters always look great too. Their facial expressions are constantly changing in a very natural manner that gives a lot of personality to each one and things like hair and clothes are often animated with a lot of love and care.

The sound design is also top-notch. The Zillions and Tri-Chargers have some very distinctive and cool sound effects and sound in general is used to great effect in the show.

Although I like the soundtrack I couldn’t really say it’s one of my favourites of the era. There are a few decent tracks but overall I wouldn’t call it massively memorable.

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Dave hard at work on repairing the Tri-Charger.
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JJ is introduced to the Tri-Charger motorcycle.

While Zillion’s story is initially kind of simple it evolves considerably in the later episodes and we get a lot of insight into the Nozans plans and a subplot begins to emerge about how the Zillion weapons themselves have an extremely mysterious (possibly mystical) power. Also there’s a plot arc towards the end involving the Nozan queen Admiss deploying three of her “elite” warriors to destroy the White Nuts.  They’re known as Gerdock, Soleir and Nabaro and while a lot of unique skilled nozans show up to fight our heroes during the course of the show most of them are vapourised by the episode’s end. Not these guys though, as Cyborgs they can have parts of their bodies destroyed and still function and so they regularly escape death and come back later to haunt our heroes all over again.

My absolute favourite thing about the series though is the character of Baron Ricks. A Nozan commander who is extremely important to the story perhaps even more so than  Admiss. Ricks is easily one of the most badass villains in anime history for my money and certainly one of the most memorable ones of the 80’s. He has so much personality (largely in part to his fantastic voice actor Sho Hayami) and a beautifully understated yet still menacing design.

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Ladies and gentlemen…..the one and only Baron Ricks.

Minor Spoilers: In the show’s later episodes Ricks becomes somewhat of a ronin-like figure who casts his sense of honour and pride as a warrior aside in order to seek vengeance against JJ. Nozan or human no longer matters to him, he’ll defeat or kill anyone in his path to achieve his revenge even if it costs him his life. Because I love my samurai movies and storylines that touch on the samurai’s code of Bushido and what it means to abandon that code I absolutely adore the character of Ricks. He has such an interesting character arc and his final appearance in the show is strangely poignant and bittersweet. It’s interesting that none of the heroes really have much of a character arc whereas the villain’s journey in this show is really quite remarkable.

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There are some cool parodies in Zillion too, among them an episode with quite a few nods to Super Dimensional Fortress Macross (one of my all time favourites) as well as a great one off gag that references the underrated Shojo manga Sukeban Deka (Delinquent Girl Detective). Though a lot of humour comes from the character interactions and JJ’s goofball antics the show can have quite a subversive sense of humour at times. In one episode we see a slender feminine sillouhetted figure in the shower washing their hair, presented in titilating fashion. Then a shot of the character’s bum, the leerier of the audience by this point are probably already grinning like an idiot…..then as we see the figure in full frame we realise it’s Champ! I bet that one caught some of the male audience off guard!

Without giving too much away the final episode delves into some unexpected territory for a show like this and leaves the audience with a bit to think about after the credits roll….which is no bad thing.

I really enjoyed the ending and though there are a few things left unexplored,  by the time the show’s ended you feel as if you’ve been on quite a journey along with our heroes.

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There was also an extremely unusual OVA made based on the series called Zillion: Burning Night. it makes me think of Marvel comics “What If?” series and DC’s “Elseworlds” books in that it transports the Zillion universe to a totally different setting with a reimagined version of the show. It’s somewhere between a post apocalyptic steampunk world and an anachronistic mix of the 50’s and the 80’s similar to the cult American movie Streets of Fire (which apparently a lot of anime creators enjoyed as much as I did judging by its influence on 80’s anime).

In this version the Nozan queen Admiss is a middle aged human woman and a crime boss with a stranglehold on the local populace and the three characters that were previously her cyborg elite warriors are now her sons, Baron Ricks is also human and acts as her hired enforcer. The White Nuts instead of being a Maris Defence Force team are now a tough streetwise bar-room brawling rock n’ roll band!

I’ll cover Burning Night in a bit more depth in another article regarding anime influenced by the movie Streets of Fire. I may also review Burning Night on its own as its a fascinating OVA in its own right and pretty damn good too in this reviewer’s humble opinion. Critically it’s gotten a bit of a kicking by some viewers for being a bit too different to the show it followed but to me that’s what makes it a lot of fun!

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Magazine scan showing White Nuts: the band (Zillion: Burning Night) Amy is not included in this image but she is in the band, she plays Keytar!

The series may not neccessarily be for everyone. It certainly doesn’t have a massively complex story or have the kind of weighty themes that academics will write about for years to come but you know what? sometimes you just need a series to be entertaining and fun and Zillion goes above and beyond on that front.

If you enjoy series that have great characterisation and you like nicely coreographed action and beautiful animation, not to mention cool bad guys that kind of steal the show then Red Photon Zillion might be your cup of tea.

Availability: Zillion was released in the US last year with English subtitles by Funimation in a Blu Ray/DVD combo pack. The boxset contains both the TV series and the OVA “Burning Night” This set was the basis of my review. If you’re in the US I believe it is streaming on Funimation Now’s online service however you can’t watch it if you’re outside the states.  Being in the UK I had to import the Blu Ray set because like about 90% of old school anime it’s not available here. If you’re just getting into older anime and like physical media I can’t stress this enough: get yourself a multi-region Blu Ray & DVD player.

 

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Funimation’s US Blu Ray release. The worn VHS style packaging was a nice touch. They don’t exactly have a great track record when it comes to presentation. The menus are pretty cool too with a videogame scanline look to them.

 

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Japanese BD/DVD Box cover art with all three of the core White Nuts team and their mid series upgraded Zillions, Love the pose of Baron Ricks looking skyward looming ominously behind our heroes.

TRIVIA:  Streamline pictures who had a decent level of success releasing anime to the west in the 80’s and 90’s in America released five tapes of episodes of Zillion and the OVA in the US on VHS. I’m guessing it wasn’t too much of a hit since they didn’t release the whole show. Also there was a short lived US comic based on the anime from Eternity comics.

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The body proportions on the comic version of Baron Ricks trouble me greatly. Also: could they have drawn his face any less imposing?

Because I can’t let that eye-searing image be the last thing you see upon closing the page here’s the art of one of the master system games (original Japanese Mark 3 version) if you want a laugh look up how bad the European and US artwork is!

Also: some of the different models of laser tag toys. The original version carried by all White Nuts members at the beginning of the show and the one based on JJ’s personal modified pistol.

If you enjoyed this article please leave a comment! I love hearing from people and discussing old school anime, manga and Japanese culture in general.

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