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Saturday Theme Songs: Power Rangers

Granted, it’s Sunday, but the point is the same. This is the opening from the first season of the original Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, which ran from 1993-95. By buying tons of footage from Japanese tokusatsu shows, Saban Entertainment (which had a very bizarre logo) was able to brand a new product – one which was aimed directly at the American youth market of the mid-’90s. Embedded in the Power Rangers opening in a strange saga of cultural appropriation, national differences, and how to win over kids with awesomeness. It’s also a warning to those who would spell gerunds with no “g” and no apostrophe. But hell, it was still part of my early childhood.

Here’s a challenge: watch the Power Rangers opening side by side with the one for Kyōryū Sentai Zyuranger, the show from which it stole most of its fights and special effects. Now look at the significant changes in the Japan-to-America transition. Every weird Japanese touch has been left out, from the lifelike dinosaurs to any distinctly Japanese shooting locations to the traditional costumes and weapons of the original rangers. Saban strips away any non-American cultural specifics. Power Rangers begins with blunt exposition wherein comical hag/villain Rita Repulsa (formerly the Japanese “Bandora”) sets her sights on a really low-rent rendition of “earth,” and the wise face Zordon tells his robot buddy to “recruit a team of teenagers with attitude.” Ah, attitude, that ’90s zeitgeist.

One major difference between the Japanese and American iterations is the pace of the editing. Whereas the Japanese version, especially toward the end, has a relatively leisurely pace, Power Rangers takes its lightning bolt logo to heart. The characters are introduced in very brief snapshots, even using split-screen to get more information across faster. At times, shots go by so fast you can barely perceive them on anything but a subliminal level, as they cram in as many special effects as possible per second. Kenta Satō’s Japanese theme song is relaxed and triumphant; Ron Wasserman’s quasi-metal theme is far more repetitive and urgent. (Wasserman notably composed theme songs for other Saban series, like X-Men.) Lightning really is emblematic of what this opening is trying to do – it’s a sensory overload, striking kids with hyperactive music and flashing lights while emphasizing the Zords’ abilities to transform and unify.

So the transition from Japan to America is manifested not just in the language and the characters’ national identities, but also in the visual iconography and style. Zyuranger is another entry in a long-standing tradition of Japanese television; Power Rangers is the consummate American kids’ show, with attitude. As many have observed since the show began, Power Rangers‘ cast is a hilariously unsubtle attempt to recreate the American melting pot within a California suburb, including the likes of Trini Kwan, the generically Asian-American Yellow Ranger, to Kimberley Hart, the ultra-feminine Pink Ranger. It’s a curious collision between an America that’s supposedly beyond race and the need for extremely legible characters in such a fast-paced show. In the end, though, the individual Zords merge to form the Megazord. So maybe, in Saban’s America, an individual’s race is transcended by the awesomeness of the group.

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Saturday Theme Songs: Pokémon

Starting around 1997-98, American children could not turn their heads without seeing that fuzzy little yellow rat we called Pikachu. Once the anime and video game were released in the United States, we had Pokémon fever, and the ensuing blitz of merchandise and advertising didn’t hurt one bit. For those few years in my life, Pokémon was as much “a part of my childhood” as walls or running water; such was the power of Pokémania. And the anime, which was probably the most mainstreamed anime ever to be broadcast in this country, was a huge part of that. (Though that’s not to say I didn’t also enjoy the video game, card game, action figures, board games, magazines, books, stickers, conventions, and much, much more.)

Rewatching the anime’s opening sequence again after all these years reminds me why I loved it so much in the first place. Not because it was good, per se – I suspect that if I watched it now, it would feel childish and formulaic. But that’s just why I loved it: if you’re in that 7-12 demographic, Pokémon contains so much of what you want out of life. It’s a chance to be a cool kid, and to have power over your surroundings, just by virtue of some high-tech Poké Balls. It’s a chance for low-risk adventure with your friends (and lots of preadolescent romantic tension!) without worrying about parents or responsibilities. And look at how many varieties of terrain and Pokémon we’re exposed to in one minute! (I count about 30 different species.) The opening promises the viewer that they’ll be “travel[ing] across the land, searching far and wide.” For a kid with a big imagination and a yen for faraway lands, this is a godsend.

Just look at how this sequence progresses. We start out with the two most mysterious and powerful Pokémon of all, Mewtwo and Mew, flying through some bizarre outer space setting. So right away, we’re given intimations of something big and awesome: the three first seconds are nothing but money shot. Then we move to Ash pledging himself to a vague dream of being “the very best,” which would later be called being a “Pokémon Master,” followed by a rapid-fire series of Pokémon. It’s a marvelously edited opening, relying on fast cuts that keep time with the music, as well as constant movement in different directions across the screen. Squirtle goes right, Cubone goes left, Pidgeotto goes right, then Rapidash goes left, Zapdos goes right, Articuno goes left, and so on. It’s extremely dynamic, throwing off and then reestablishing the composition’s balance, and it suggests that the show’s all about nonstop motion, or even nonstop conflict. It’s an appealing idea for a high-energy 9-year-old whose mind can’t sit still.

Then, as we enter the chorus, we get a sense of the plot. “You’re my best friend, in a world we must defend,” is sung over images of Ash between Brock and Misty, then Team Rocket, then Ash’s rival Gary. (Because of animation’s unique abilities, this happens without any visible cuts; each set of characters just rise up and block out the previous one. It’s a very fluid procession.) Several successive images convey progress (Pikachu leaps into the air), community (the nodding elders), danger (Charizard breathing fire), and friendship. We end on Ash, alone, hurling a Poké Ball into the title. It’s a coming-of-age show: finding a compromise between our aggressive individualism and the need to locate ourselves in the wider world. Ash (and us as preteen viewers) want to be “like no one ever was,” but it can’t be at the cost of our friends, both human and Pokémon. It’s a sappy moral, and sappy morals are what the show traded in, but it speaks to greater problems that kids deal with. Pokémon solved those problems through friendship and a little dose of total fantasy.

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Saturday Theme Songs: Animaniacs

Continuing my new series on theme songs from ’90s cartoons, I come to a hilariously anarchic, idiosyncratic show: Animaniacs. Produced by Steven Spielberg in coordination with a wide variety of writing and voice talent, it lacked the coherent narratives and respectability of its less manic peers. You could call it a sort of Monty Python, Jr. – just as the Flying Circus riffed on everything that 1960s British TV had to offer, Animaniacs took on every assumption children had about what cartoons were “supposed” to be. It followed in the hallowed footsteps of Chuck Jones and Friz Freleng, using borderline-sociopathic characters to assault and delight the viewer. All of these qualities are at work in this opening.

One important aspect of Animaniacs that the opening gets across is how scattershot and fractured it was. It resembled a string of vaudeville routines more than a conventionally plotted children’s show. Granted, it had main characters – “the Warner Brothers, and the Warner sister, Dot” – but they were more like self-aware hosts, delivering fourth-wall-breaking jokes in a detached, Groucho-like tone. The meat of the show was in the numerous recurring segments, like “The Goodfeathers,” “Slappy Squirrel,” and of course the beloved “Pinky and the Brain.” However, there weren’t solid borders between segments either, as the stories would occasionally slide together. It was a cartoon free-for-all, where all logical concerns were subordinated to the characters and jokes.

Alongside this intentional lack of structure came Animaniacs‘ love of self-reference. Starting from the title, it was a cartoon about cartoons, and the opening demonstrates this repeatedly, telling the audience that “now you know the plot,” and later exclaiming, “the writers flipped, why bother to rehearse?” Even the characters’ identities (the Warner Bros.) are rooted in the series’ real-life origins, as well as the history of animation itself. This is a show where characters drew attention to jokes as they were making them. They also regularly mocked other shows’ “morals of the week” with their “Wheel of Morality,” which would churn out an arbitrary (and absurd) lesson. Yakko, Wakko, and Dot seemed to take great pleasure in tearing down any pretense of straightforward fictional storytelling, just as they did with the niceties of TV programming. If not ideologically, it was at least a very formally subversive series.

It’s also a great text to examine when trying to determine the zeitgeists that drove ’90s cartoons. Animaniacs was a stand-out, but it was by no means alone in its innovations, and this might hint at a strange cultural moment when adult animation was just entering the mainstream (see: Beavis and Butthead, Ren and Stimpy, or of course The Simpsons). Perhaps “children’s” cartoons were able to piggyback on their newly acceptable levels of topical sophistication, a stark contrast to the many ultra-toyetic ’80s cartoons with little to offer the adult viewer. Whatever the case, Animaniacs was decidedly a product of its time, with an original run (1993-98) tucked neatly within the Clinton years (and, indeed, Clinton himself is featured in the opening). This may have been the only time in history when cartoon theme songs have used the phrase “pay-or-play contracts.” Those are the facts.

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Saturday Theme Songs: X-Men TAS

I love many things. Among them: ’90s cartoons both good and bad, and themed series of blog posts. So I figured, why not combine those loves, and write a themed series of blog posts about cartoons from the 1990s? Better yet, why not designate a day for these posts, forcing me into blogging consistency? (This idea was shamelessly stolen, as usual, from the blogging habits of Final Girl’s Stacie Ponder.) And since, in my childhood, the day on which I mostly commonly watched said cartoons was Saturday, I figured this would really tie the theme together. Ergo: Saturday Theme Songs. Ideally, I’ll post a video (see above), then a paragraph or two of explanation, and everyone’s all the more nostalgically happy. (If you weren’t a child in the ’90s, I’m sorry, but I may try to diversify chronologically.)

So, we have X-Men: The Animated Series, one of my favorite cartoons from elementary school, and one which I stand by. The reasons why are all there in the opening sequence. It fully realized the diverse ensemble from the comic books; it had kick-ass, if occasionally ridiculous, animation (e.g, LASERS everywhere!); and of course there’s that wordless, effective, and unforgettable theme song – interspersed with the sounds of Wolverine’s claws and more LASERS. This sequence does as well as any Wikipedia article in introducing new viewers to the show, and even conveys a sense of its wide-ranging (if also a little ridiculous) emotional pallette and epic conflict.

Rewatching this opening just makes me fall in love with X-Men all over again. Yes, it’s ridiculous, but that’s part of the point, as it is with much superhero media; it wouldn’t be the same without mutants fighting killer robots amidst lots of LASERS. There’s a reason we call it “cartoonish.” But it’s more than just the ridiculous, flashy, excessive awesomeness. This show has everything that a 7-year-old with artistic designs could want. It’s got all types of characters imbued with fantastic powers, giving plenty of opportunities for audience identification and onscreen drama. (I can still recite some of the complex relationships that formed within the X-Men.) And it’s wildly imaginative, with a number of well-developed story arcs delving into time travel, space pirates, alternate dimensions, dysfunctional (mutant) families – i.e., everything I was interested in as a child. (Fuck yes, alternate dimensions.)

And, believe it or not, the show even had moments of great writing and intense poignance. It may look like the same old superhero nonsense, and to some extent it carries over many of the nonsensical superhero traditions, but I’ll continue to defend the pathos and grandeur of the sprawing X-Men mythos. And, in my opinion, the animated series was one of the best-ever translations from a comic book title to TV. This was a kid’s show, broadcast in the mid-afternoon, that addressed institutionalized oppression, bigotry, and harrassment in most of its episodes. It talked about self-loathing, police states, and political assassinations. It presented a black woman and a disabled man as dependably wise and badass authority figures. And it taught a generation of children how to react when you learn your father is a space pirate. X-Men: The Animated Series, like its theme song, was clearly awesome.

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