The Cartoon That Popularized Anime in the U.S. Is Back

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
Nov. 29 2011 1:14 PM

The Coming Voltron Renaissance

voltron
A still from the 1980s cartoon series 'Voltron'.

Tomorrow, a new Voltron video game will be released. Somehow this is only the second video game based on the cartoon that for two years in the mid-1980s was the most popular syndicated children’s show in the country. (The first came out two years ago, and was exclusively for  mobile phones.) The trailer for the game ends with the rather grandiose tag line, “A legend is reborn.”

David Haglund David Haglund

David Haglund is a senior editor at Slate. He runs Brow Beat, Slate's culture blog.

Not that I dispute the “legend” label: I was six years old when the cartoon came to the U.S., and the ongoing saga of five pilots who command lion-shaped spaceships that come together to form a giant man-shaped super spaceship in order to protect the planet Arus and its beautiful Princess Allura from the evil king Zarkon seems legendary to me, at least. (Here’s a handy summary for the unfamiliar.) And reading up on the backstory of the show does little to dispel this majestic impression.

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The late (and wonderfully mustachioed) Peter Keefe created the show after discovering two Japanese cartoons, Beast King Go-Lion and Armored Fleet Dairugger XV, “at a merchandise licensing convention in Japan,” according to the obituary of Keefe that ran in The New York Times last year. He combined the two shows into one, liberally re-editing the animated footage to provide some degree of narrative coherence.

Keefe also re-arranged (and simply removed) footage in order to soften the violence of the Japanese originals—which, for instance, included a contest in which alien soldiers are rewarded based on how many prisoners they can decapitate, according to the show’s wonderfully detailed Wikipedia page. (Happily, one YouTube user has done extensive comparisons of Voltron and Go-Lion.) In the original, Princess Allura’s caregiver is killed; Keefe eliminated that scene and used footage from earlier in the series to place the caregiver in later episodes.

Perhaps it’s unsurprising that this Frankencartoon has not had the afterlife of contemporary series like G.I. Joe and Transformers. On the other hand, the show was not only popular, but influential: As that Times obituary points out, it provided most Americans with their first exposure to anime, and it paved the way for future kids’ shows like Mighty Morphin Power Rangers and Pokémon.

And even if the new video game (not to mention the Nicktoons series that began in June and the comic book that will be launched in December) does not singlehandedly bring about a Voltron renaissance, one may be on the way regardless: A big-budget film adaptation, long delayed by rights disputes, is finally in the works. The creators hope to have the movie in theaters by 2014.

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