For my first review, I thought I'd go back to where it all began, and to the first Anime I had ever seen.
Well…I say Anime, but what I really mean to say is 'French Anime'.
The purists amongst us will point out that an animated show doesn't really count as 'Anime' unless it has been produced in Japan, regardless of how 'Anime-like' it may be. I often disagree with this position, but rather than go into a debate about this (we can save that for another time J) I would like to discuss the wonderful contradiction to Anime's strict definition, that is 'French Anime'.
During the late 70s and the 80s, a couple of animated shows appeared that were the result of international co-operation. One such show was a co-production between French and Japanese studios. This show had a profound impact on my childhood entertainment and to this day is among my all-time favorites.
This show was Ulysses 31.
The idea behind Ulysses 31 was simple yet brilliant. Take the ancient Greek epic Homer's Odyssey, and transplant it into the deep space of the 31st Century. The story itself was an extremely inventive copy and paste of the Greek legends to fit in with alien worlds, star-ships and futuristic technology.
Much like in Homer's tale, Ulysses is the captain of The Odyssey (which in this show was a hulking and impressively drawn starship), who spends his time travelling the stars with his 'companions' (aka the crew he orders about) and his son Telemachus.
One day while on route home to Earth, Ulysses rescues some children from being sacrificed to a Cyclops monster, and ends up killing the beast in the process. This angers the Gods of Olympus who resolve to punish Ulysses and his crew by using their powers to strand them in the unending Universe of Olympus. Also, just to be extra evil, the Gods petrify most of the Odyssey's crew leaving just Ulysses, Telemachus, and an alien girl named Yumi to run the ship on their own. Lost and alone, they must fight for their survival in the brutal space of Olympus, and find their way home.
Most of Ulysses 31 followed this rag-tag mini-crew's attempt to get home, with most of their individual adventures each being adapted from Greek legends. I'm not going to go into too much details about the stories themselves, as I believe that this show really should not be spoiled what so ever. It's that good. If you have seen Ulysses 31, you likely already have favorite episodes that you are thinking of right now. If you have not, then you will really need to seek this show out after reading this review.
Plot aside; this show was the very best example of children's entertainment I have ever seen. There are many reasons for this I feel.
First off the characters themselves, although not very fleshed out, are well depicted and easy to root for. Ulysses fits the role of a swash-buckling hero / single parent very well, all the while showing a figure who underneath it all is just holding on for the sake of the kids and his petrified crew. The kids themselves are surprisingly well done, with both Telemachus and Yumi showing a good deal of responsibility and maturity while still holding onto some childish traits. This is kind of odd in an 80s SciFi show, where the token kid character is usually the most annoying. (The Next Generation's Wesley Crusher comes to mind, or Battlestar Galactica's Boxey…don't even get me started on 'V's Star-Child!)
The only somewhat annoying character of the show was Telemachus' sidekick and personal robot 'Nono'. But that said, he was never that bad and did have some brilliant moments in the show.
On the other side of the story, we have the villains of the show, The Gods of Olympus. These are by far my favorite villains in all of fiction. Forget the Daleks, forget Vader or the Emperor, and throw Voldemort to one side; the Gods beat all of them hands down. They were devious, they were vindictive and they were incredibly cruel. Beyond ruling over Olympus with an iron fist, they found inventive ways of finding punishments worse than death for those who crossed them. Also, at the end of the day, even when Ulysses foiled their plans they were never really beaten. It was their Universe after all…and they would always be back. They were truly an inspiration of how to write an effective villain.
As you'll probably guess by now, the writing for Ulysses 31 was very dark. Even though this was a kid's show, it wasn't all that afraid to deal with chilling subjects. Death for example, was a constant threat in the show which several characters actually dying, up to an including the main cast in one case when the Odyssey was attacked and destroyed (time-travel was the only reason they survived that one). In this day and age, you almost never see this in children's animation. References of death are often removed or even replaced with silly trips to 'The Shadow Realm'. No such nonsense happened back in the 80s. Death was handled as what it was, and I have always felt that children need to be given a little more credit when it comes to handling big issues in the shows they watch. I think this may have been key to why the show was to such a powerful example of children's entertainment. Its audience was treated with respect, and without wasting it's time tippy-toeing around sensitive issues, it plowed right through them to deliver and epic adventure for all to enjoy.
It left an impact with me. It wasn't until years later, when I started to encounter 'pure' Anime from Japan that I had realized that I had watched and loved an Anime way back when I was younger.
I suppose Ulysses 31 is why I am opposed to the idea that 'Anime' is a name that can only belong to shows purely produced in Japan. Although it was mainly animated in Japan proper, much of the production was also French, creating a style that could only be a fusion of the best of both.
For me Ulysses 31 is pretty much the best of everything, and if you have not seen it yet, by all means do so now. You will not regret it!