Through Older Lenses: Toward The Terra

In a far-flung future, Earth has become a scorched, near uninhabitable body in space due to mankind’s innate tendency toward violence. And from the ashes of this apocalyptic scenario, those remaining develop and implement the SD protocol (Superior Dominance), which is a system that requires humanity to expand out into the farthest reaches of space, and with its invitro-borne young to be emotionally, mentally maintained via an all-omnipotent computer designed to weed out any notions it deems undesirable towards an improved, utopian future. And yet amidst this clinically monitored civilization, a race of humanoid psyonics has arisen, known as the Mu. Instantly deemed a danger to the system, the powerful, and yet physically fragile Mu have long been attempting to return home to the world they call Terra.

Led by the ailing, yet potent psychic, Soldier Blue, the Mu have at long last found the individual whom they could pit their greatest hopes on. A seemingly average boy named Jomy Marcus Shin, who’s required education is near an end. On the day he is set to be graduated to adulthood, and separated by his appointed mother and father, he is soon questioned for discussing a series of bizarre dreams. Declared a latent enemy of society, he is soon rescued and taken in by the Mu who claim him to be a most powerful member of their kind. In denial of this revelation, it isn’t long before Jomy is plunged deep into the conflict, as the future of Earth’s inheritance hangs in the balance.

After the previous natsukashii gush-fests I’ve been occasionally littering upon these pages, it felt justifiable to dip back into the time well to perhaps dig up some views on another noted title from days long past. And perhaps it is best to be up front by stating that even after years of having this film in my collection since the VHS era, the 1980 adaptation of Keiko Takemiya‘s science fantasy epic is much less a successful adaptation, and more a Cliff’s Notes trip caught in afternoon gridlock. A project headed by live action television veteran, Hideo Onchi, the film ultimately succumbs to the classic problem of continuously biting off more than it can possibly chew, leaving viewers in a space better reserved for clips shows -which is only made worse by inconsistent pacing, and clearly on-the-fly, wooden scripting.

The first of the film’s many problems comes right at the offset, when it attempts to compress what is clearly a huge character arc within the opening thirty minutes. By the manner in which the story unfolds, the movie seems to believe that Jomy’s life must be narrated to us rather backhandedly than told in any comprehesibly visual manner.

To illustrate: The story opens with Jomy Marcus Shin as something of a coddled member of what is SD’s ideal society, a system that has worked so well up until the moment we join in. And he is portrayed as something of a flighty, insensitive brat who not only openly shares about a series of strange dreams, only to be deemed a subversive by the planet’s main computer, and trailed by an army of Esper Interrogators(agents tasked with the specific duty of sniffing out and terminating Mu upon detection.), but often pushes people around willy-nilly, and starts fistfights with friends over virtually nothing. In half the time it took me to type this, we are told that this is the case rather than treated as witness to it. The revelation that Jomy is experiencing an awakening of latent Mu genes is virtually glossed over in the most rushed fashion imaginable, and therefore offers little in the way of drama, let alone economical storytelling.

Peculiar since animation is specifically geared toward illustrating action, and granting the viewer a means to explore worlds our characters reside in. And given the very idea of attempting to create a film version of such a rich, layered world featuring several generations of characters, the very idea that we are to accept the Jomy character’s journey from spoiled child of controlled world, Ataraxia to the Mu’s heir to leadership. There’s simply no means for us to even clock the story’s central character, and this is a trend that continues throughout the film, going from introducing a story beat, only to conclude it within five minutes of establishing it. Sometimes, even a few seconds. Upon the moment Jomy decides to shoulder the mantle of Soldier Blue, as he attempts to lead the Mu toward the home planet they had long been exiled from, nothing is earned, and everything feels perfunctory. For this main character to go from jerky ne’er do well to destined savior within merely thirty minutes is not only slapdash, but jarring.

And this continues for the remainder of the running time as we are introduced to a bevy of characters meant to create a tapestry exposing how complex Terra e’s central conflict is. From Jomy’s introduction, to near non-existent courtship with the powerful empath, Carina, to the story’s counter lead in test-tube humanoid, Keith Anyan’s quest to understand the system’s inability to weed out the Mu gene at the source comes at far too rapid-fire a pace for anything to have any significant impact. It’s the movie equivalent of an outline for making a movie.

 

We are merely told what is happening, rather than experience it. And this methodology only serves to undercut the original manga’s star-spanning, epic quality, making it something of a failed blueprint of a better film. Even as it attempts to fill in the gaps by making it clear how not black and white the conflict truly is, the pacing is often all over the map. And for a story that is on the scale level of Frank Herbert’s Dune, or even The Lord Of The Rings, there is never a single audience identification figure to be had to help the viewer ground themselves. While not all films should rely on this narrative crutch (even I agree it can be one), this is one story that could truly use one. Even as Jomy’s role takes on more mythic levels with the birth and subsequent rise of his aggressively charged son, Tony, things never really engage on any kind of emotional level. Stuff just happens, and that’s a serious problem.

Toward The Terra’s reputation amongst the world manga & anime has remained something of a timeless favorite by many, and even this film has been regarded by many to be something of an understated classic. However, this film can only truly be seen as something of a curio piece of a most interesting period in theatrical anime productions. Being that this was initially released in 1980, this is dead center of a most transitional time in the medium, as Tomino’s Gundam had helped rewrite the books in regards to animated science fiction storytelling, and yet was still a few years from a burgeoning era of anime children-turned-creators. Released amidst the real heyday of feature films based on the works of Leiji Matsumoto, Terra e had all the potential to at the very least compose a dreamlike encapsulation of the Japanese equivalent of SLAN, with an ambitious production backing it. But alas, the film seems to be a victim of incessant corner-cutting, and can only serve as another reminder of the once ambitious scope of a medium, often obsessed with reaching far beyond the confines of the familiar, with a sensitivity toward the simple and relatable. Conversely, a TV update of the series aired in 2007. And while I’ll admit to not having seen it, I still believe there’s a means to someday tell this tale with the breadth, and sensitivity it deserves. And for now, Vertical has released the original 3 volume manga for those looking to rediscover this tale that could very well give X-Men a run for its money. There is a wealth of relevance and emotion within these pages, something the film rarely has the momentum to generate.

 

Long and short, with Takemiya’s reputation as being perhaps the most instrumental name in the evolution of manga into worlds of shoujo, and BL, her work deserves a much grander stage.

(Oh. And is it just me? Or does the SD insignia make a dead ringer for Scooby-Doo’s collar tag?)

9 thoughts on “Through Older Lenses: Toward The Terra”

  1. I think you’re missing something very important here: By the standards of 1980 anime that was a very high budget well produced film. In terms of it’s place in history that film came out two years before the Macross TV series and three years before films like Crusher Joe, Genma Taisen and Final Yamato. The Japanese at that point were just getting the hang of doing feature films, so you have to put Toward the Terra next to a film like Arrivederci Yamato.

    I’ll grant you that the pace of the film was slow — but again that film was done before the fast editing MTV techniques which didn’t happen till later in the 80s. So there was really no way for the director to cram all of the manga into a single film, also if the director did it as more of a shojo title the film would never have been made because of the money involved.

    Yet if you look past all of that it’s an amazing film: Firstly it’s one of the first several full length science fiction animated films that were ever made. Given the cramming of the story and the pace of that era they did a good job, Also the character design and the mecha design may look dated today, but it was state of the art in that era and deserves some credit especially if you keep in mind that only a dozen years earlier the Japanese were mostly making black and white TV shows on super low budgets. I’d also add that the color design and the lighting still holds up today.

    I think once you think of the manga as a starting point for the film rather than being the script of the film you can really appreciate it. To me that film is an example of the anime industry in Japan pushing the limits — without that film so much of the innovation that happened in the 80s might not have taken place. Also as science fiction film from that era it avoids the trap of just being about spaceships shooting each other in a Star Wars manner.

    A last thing to admire about that film was that Toei was really taking a chance in a big budget way by making a film that wasn’t designed to sell toys: That was an amazing act of bravery, If you look at the anime industry today do you see anybody really taking that kind of bold chance in terms of content? I can think of a few small examples — but nothing on that scale in terms of budget.

  2. Added Note: If you really want to put Toward the Terra next to a true peer take a look at the film Phoenix 2772 which was also done in 1980 by Toho. Despite the fact that Tezuka worked on the script it’s not half as interesting as Toward the Terra. I’ll grant that there are a few scenes that have some great animation, but Toward the Terra is the better film in terms of story, character design, animation and sound design. The character designs on Phoenix 2772 look like they’re stuck in the 60s while Toward the Terra feels like an 80s film (and isn’t stuck in the 70s).

    And one last thing: For its time the mecha animation itself in Toward the Terra is brilliant. The organic designs of the spaceships used by the Espers are genius — and there’s nothing else in anime that quite looks like them. And they did a great job of showing the different technologies of two societies. And all of this was done without the benefit of computers, and the only thing that might have come close were the Yamato films. And even then keep in mind that Be Forever Yamato came out after Toward the Terra and since it was done by Toei no doubt that that they learned some lessons.

  3. Oh, wow. Thanks Michael!

    Well, as mentioned in the post, the film feels like a bridge of sorts for the way certain productions were going to function from this era on. And considering the fact that the Matsumoto train was on the slowdown, this film was something of a bold precedent. But the problems that plague this film, or rather items that don’t function as well lie in the story department, which is where I place the most emphasis.

    Another prime example is Keith Anyan’s role, which is central to the entire film. To reiterate his complication at ten minute intervals, with very little variation comes off to me as rushed, and lacking any room for the audience to breathe. It’s simply too mechanical. Not to mention being unable to animate/ visualize how good a pilot he actually is. That particular cut is jarring, and likely a budgetary issue. So many of these crop us throughout the film, making it all feel quite incomplete. And it isn’t that the film is slow, in fact for me the case is the opposite. I never feel the necessary relaxed vibe an epic like this demands- especially from a film made in such an era. As I mentioned to you before, sometimes I enjoy just absorbing the world.

    So even if the film’s production has a certain amount of importance(the Esper ships ARE brilliant, I must admit) , there are still nagging issues that render me unable to jibe with it. The more and more 70s-80s stuff I rewatch, the more limitations I see. And even when I love such resourcefulness, it is pretty hard to overlook when story takes center point. This feels like a grand blueprint for a much better film. Or maybe that’s just my film school brain talking…

  4. I saw the film, and I think despite the story is epic, the execution is weak. I think the first original Gundam was like that too. The concept is great, but the execution was terrible. I couldn’t keep watching it, sakuga were horrible. From Zeta Gundam, it starts looking more organized and sakuga was more refined. Or maybe, for Terra, it’s like putting Iliad into a 2 hour feature film. So, it was just impossible to depict grand epic in a film.

    What do you think of the recent TV anime version of Terra?

  5. @LaMoe – Apart of me still wishes to see this new version, but there’s definitely something in the presentation that doesn’t work. And a part of me feels like perhaps conceptually, it’s a tale that demands a much more pre-digital presentation. It looks far too clean for the story and characters it’s representing, and while that’s more a personal qualm than anything, it’s possible that I might actually like it.

    And again, in retrospect, I originally purchased the film in the mid-90s, and admired it for many of the things that Michael mentioned. And a part of me still very much sees things in it to be admired. But like you, I feel that a story of this size needs more than an aesthetically unique production to drive it all home. It also kind of reminds me of how Hollywood once treated comic book superheroes- by just using the name and concepts alone, the filmmakers figured that would be enough to reap profits. In the decades since, we have seen that in the end, it’s more about how the characters are utilized, and the story told. So, it’s also about expectation – Back then, the idea of the characters coming to the big screen alone was a pretty impressive thing. But since then, we have come to realize that it takes much more than this to make a deeper impression.

    And since I truly do enjoy Takemiya’s work, I’d just love to see a classy, more sweeping take on the story than the cool dry run the public received. But since the source material has such an unusual amount of depth, perhaps it was expecting too much back in 1980. Baby steps.

  6. The 2007 series is amazing. I haven’t read the manga so I can’t compare, but the characters were developed well and the show was emotionally resonant. It was well-paced, too, I think. You won’t be disappointed by it.

  7. Joe- Nice! I’m looking forward to it.

    In retrospect, perhaps the one thing I need to place high emphasis on is along the lines of what Michael said. In many ways, there simply was no precedent for science fiction of this scope at that particular time, and that the film should at least be commended for helping get the ball rolling. But like other visually daring works, it’s all part of the conversational art that happens between storytellers, and the trends that bind them. Maybe the film needed to happen for more ambitious stories to be told. I can still respect that.

  8. I have never seen the anime for this series, but have read the manga, and it was a pioneer of its time. I definitely would say that it would be great if anyone reading this entry or have seen the anime, should check out the manga, since it is readily accessible and published by Vertical. This is a link to an MMF that was devoted to To Terra, the manga. http://mangacritic.com/mmf-archive/mmf-to-terra/

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