Thursday, June 20, 2024

Ulysses 31 – Greek Myths Go Cosmic

“It is the 31st Century. Ulysses killed the giant Cyclops when he rescued the children and his son Telemachus. But the ancient gods of Olympus are angry and threaten a terrible revenge…”

Japanese pop culture had been seeping into European minds with increasing stealth in the late 70s and early 80s. Feigning to be children’s programmes, these animated affairs were given something of a scrub down by European studios but their oddness and a certain bleakness were impossible to extract from their marrow. ‘Science Ninja Team Gatchaman’ (科学忍者隊ガッチャマン, 1972 – later to become ‘Battle of the Planets‘ 1978) and the marionette saga ‘X Bomber’ (Xボンバー, 1980 – later ‘Star Fleet‘ 1982) gave both Spanish and French producers the confidence to not rework Japanese creations for their home audiences but instead work in tandem. 

Examples included the Japanese/Spanish shows ‘Dogtanian and the Three Muskahounds‘ (ワンワン三銃士 and ‘Around the World with Willy Fog‘ (1984, 26 episodes), while in France, producer Jean Chalopin was beginning to build a whole empire, which would eventually include the likes of  ‘Inspector Gadget’ (1982), ‘Pole Position’ (1984), ‘M.A.S.K.’ (1985) and ‘The Real Ghostbusters’ (1986). Chalopin’s incredibly prolific output started with two shows – ‘The Mysterious Cities of Gold‘ (太陽の子エステバン, 1982 which ran for 39 episodes (felt like 239) and Ulysses 31, a 1981 series which launched in October 1981.

‘Ulysses 31’ (Japanese: 宇宙伝説ユリシーズ31サーティーワン literally, “Space Legend Ulysses 31”, or, in French, ‘Ulysse 31′ was a co-production by the esteemed animation studio TMS in Japan and French (later American) company DiC Audiovisuel that originally aired for 26 episodes in 1981. An English dub was produced of the series in Canada in 1982, which found its way to ABC in Australia in 1983, with the UK dragging its heels, only airing on the BBC in 1985. The lead animators on the show were Katsushi Murakami and an early gig for Shôji Kawamori, later to design ‘Ghost in the Shell’ (1995) and co-write ‘Cowboy Bebop’ (1998). Perhaps most impressively, he designed many of the Transformers, including Optimus Prime.

Stealing unapologetically from Greek myth, most obviously Homer’s ‘Odyssey’, ‘Ulysses 31’ is also somewhat beholden to 1977’s ‘Star Wars‘ and any number of space-based serials and films where the heroes are looking to return home (‘Lost in Space‘ for one). All of which is fine, as ‘Ulysses 31’ is absolutely its own beast, from the character design to catchphrases, impressive scope and a pounding soundtrack.

The story itself remained consistent across the geographical releases, as you might suspect, with only some reworking right at the beginning to make the characters have a more Western look. ‘A Western look’ in this case meant that Ulysses himself had something of a resemblance to Alan Parsons and Barry Gibb, offering opportunities that I can’t help but feel have been lost forever.

Fortunately, the title sequence of each episode reminds us of the plot – the series follows the struggles of Ulysses and his crew aboard the giant spaceship, Odyssey, returning from the planet Troy where they have peacefully resolved a conflict. On the return journey to Earth, he destroys a giant robot called Cyclops, which is controlling a hoard of one-eyed goons, to free some enslaved children (including his own son, Telemachus), angering Poseidon (Cyclops’ owner), Zeus and the ancient Gods of Olympus. Zeus punishes Ulysses by freezing his crew in suspended animation and wiping his ship’s computer of the route home, commanding him to travel the universe until he finds the Kingdom of Hades, at which point his crew will be revived and he will be able to return to Earth.

You can easily watch the episodes out of order – one challenge doesn’t lead to another and the only recurring characters are the crew. Thankfully, there is a resolution to the quest, something which other TV shows, animated or otherwise have fallen foul of, running out of time, budget or audience interest.

The cast is pretty contained due to the fact that the majority of Ulysses’ crew is frozen. Ulysses himself is central to each episode, wearing a skin-tight bodysuit and a cape, as one would in space, armed with a pistol which doubles as what is basically a lightsaber, a shield and a jetpack. Though the plots largely pick on events in Homer’s epic, the language is free from A-level notation, but this doesn’t stop him from breaking out into simpering soliloquies when the going gets tough, nor regularly shaking his fist at the Gods and blurting out tremendous nonsense like, “By the great galaxy!”.

Second in command is his young son, Telemachus, whom it’s difficult to warm to, flitting as he does from idiot to know-it-all, regularly ignoring his dad’s sage advice yet still saving the day. Sporting a space-age laurel, he wields a laser sling-shot, and a space helmet resembling a big cat’s head, which I assume he got for Christmas.

Numinor serves largely only as ship decoration, turned to stone as one of the rescued children. A blue-skinned alien, he has more of a traditional cat-like anime look than Ulysses or Telemachus, as does his sister, Yumi, who, unfortunately for us, features quite prominently. Possessing telekinesis (one of pop culture’s most annoying cheat cards) and immune to fire, she hangs around Telemachus and espouses great wisdom, as if Ulysses isn’t throwing out word bombs enough for everyone.

Historically, Numinor is nearest in comparison to the God-fearing Eumaeus, the God-fearing pig farmer who greets Ulysses on his return from Troy, with Yumi being Themis, daughter of Uranus and Gaia. It’s as well we’re not expected to make these links in the programme, it’d descend into Open University very quickly. It’s as well that too much attention isn’t given to picking holes in the original Greek myths – in order to keep up the momentum across what is by any standards, a long-running show (though not as long as the intended 52 episodes), non-Odyssey characters such as the Minotaur appear as traps sent by the Gods to thwart Ulysses on his quest. Intentional or not, there’s even a nod to 1932’s ‘The Greatest Game’ in one episode, ‘The Magician in Black’.

Shirka, the impressive ship computer with the dulcet (or maybe morose), slightly alluring female tones is the  spirit level to explain the plot if it all starts getting a bit too detached from the overall plot. Alas, we are given the comedic element of a dumb sidekick – think Scrappy Doo or Godzooky. Nono, a diminutive robot toy of Telemachus is a wise-cracking foil to lighten up proceedings, though of course, actually does nothing of the sort. Somehow animated much more poorly than any of the other characters, He is grating in every possible way. No children want to see characters like this – surely the most repeated mistake in all animated shows.

The voice actors have found themselves well-employed over the years. In Japan, Shôji Kawamori (Ulysses) has appeared in countless Japanese animated series, as well as video games like ‘Cyberpunk 2077‘; in France, the role was taken by one of the go-to dubbers for foreign language parts, Claude Giraud (also the voice of Harrison Ford in ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ (1981) and – now here’s range for you – Arnold Schwarzenegger in ‘Pumping Iron’ (1977) and Sean Connery in ‘The Name of the Rose’ (1986). Bravo, sir! For English-speaking audiences, Matt Birman took over duties – his acting career has focused on tough-nut security guards and thugs (titles of note include ‘Land of the Dead’; ‘Diary of the Dead’ and ‘Survival of the Dead’, though is equally, if not more valued for his stunt work in those and countless other films (not lease the 2004 remake of ‘Dawn of the Dead’.

If nothing else, the show will be remembered fondly for its theme tune, one of many at the time which went above and beyond what was required (or at least expected). Of course, there are necessarily three soundtracks – Japanese, French and English, the least of which, because we have to give prizes for these things, is the original. Composed by Wakakusa Kei and sung by Tomoaki Taka of the band Neverland, the main theme somehow manages to plod along, despite some streaming electric guitar towards the end. Almost throttled by hyperactive drum machines, the instrumental music used is more impressive, with synth strings and even some slap bass making an appearance. As a curio, it’s well worth tracking down, as are not one but two 7″ singles, though it’s not a patch on…

…the God-level French soundtrack. Though Haim Saban and Shuki Levy often waltz away with the credit, their work only spanned six tracks with the heavy lifting done by Denny Crockett and Ike Egan. Crockett, had served as musical director for The Osmonds with Egan as his regular collaborator. To cement his position as ‘odd choice’, Crockett is also a Mormon bishop. The theme tune is musically the same in English and French with only the singers differing. In France, Lionel Leroy performed magnificently, an old hand at translating English theme tunes into French – check out his versions of ‘Hart to Hart’, ‘Starsky and Hutch’ and ‘Wonder Woman’ – amazing!

For the English market, Crockett took the lead vocals, though there is also credit to the Israeli singer Noam Kaniel. A multi-million selling artist in his home country, he was another artist who was more than happy to pay troublesome gas bills by moonlighting on TV shows and films, singing often uncredited. As Saban and Levy’s chanteur of choice, his vocals can be heard on a multitude of shows in French and English, from ‘Mysterious Cities of Gold’ which also saw him as composer) to the animated ‘Incredible Hulk’ Series.  Despite several issues on vinyl and CD, the prices remain eye-watering, alas. Track down the French double CD version released for its 35th anniversary – 119 tracks ahoy!

A Blu-ray release remains elusive, though episodes have been released on both VHS and DVD, with merchandise appearing in many forms to capitalise on one of the most psychedelic of all cartoon shows.

Daz Lawrence

Buy Ulysses 31 on DVD here

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