When you think mech anime there are specific studios that fans will think of: Sunrise, Gonzo, Toei (though they don't do mecha much anymore), & Ashi Pro, for example (though Ashi is now known as Production REED and hasn't made anything since 2007's Dancougar Nova, relying solely on licensing presently). Back in the 80s mech anime was a gigantically big genre of anime, with all sorts of properties being made during that era and, coincidentally, being a big part of the Super Robot Wars series' history of using actual mech anime. Anyway, a lot of these mech series followed a similar idea behind them: There was a war going on between humans and aliens/other humans/evil organisations, and space was a battlefield. But there was one studio that boldly decided to buck some of those trends & try different ideas. Granted, some of these productions still followed some elements of the usual 80s mech anime, but in general they all had at least one thing that made them identifiable & original... And that might possibly be part of the reason why Kokusai Eigasha, also known as Movie International Co. Ltd., died out in six years.
Now I know that most of you are probably wondering "Who the hell was Kokusai Eigasha?", so I'll give a little backstory about the company, which I'll be calling Kokusai for short, first. According to Wikipedia Japan, Kokusai technically started up in 1974, but didn't enter the anime business until 1979, with their debut title being Mechakko Dotakon, a children's title about a robot boy who wants to become a real boy. After that Kokusai found some success with two titles aimed at girls, Wakakusa no Yon Shimai (which was based on Louisa May Alcott's Little Women) & Honey Honey (which was based on the shojo manga Honey Honey no Suteki na Bouken), both of which found TV airtime around the world, including the USA. During this time, though, Kokusai did get involved in mech anime by helping Ashi Pro out with what is now a somewhat infamous mech anime: 1980-1981's Space Warrior Baldios.
Baldios was the story of Marin Reigan, the main pilot of the giant robot Baldios, & his battle against a race of aliens who destroyed their own world through pollution & were looking into doing the same to Earth. Yeah, it seems that the show was kind of a "Save the Environment!" message wrapped up inside of a mech anime, and though it was planned to be 39 episodes, the show wound up getting canceled after 31, & the last shot of the TV series would become one of the most infamous "bad endings" in anime history. The TV series ended in early 1981, & at the end of the year Toei (yeah, not Ashi... Weird, huh?) made a movie adaptation that acted both as a compilation movie but also as a proper ending to the original story, telling what happened after the "bad end" of the TV series. It was this movie that was released here in North America by Celebrity Home Entertainment under the name "Space Warriors", and I included the movie in my most recent license rescue list, adding that what we got was a 99-minute cut, while a 117-minute cut exists in Japan. Technically, Baldios isn't a Kokusai anime since Ashi was the main studio behind it and still holds the rights to it, but it's still worth bringing up. Kokusai teamed up with Ashi Pro four times total, with this bring the third team-up, and Baldios is likely the most interesting of the four, though Zukokke Knight - Don De La Mancha, an anime adaptation of Don Quixote where De La Mancha himself is a dog-man, comes in at a close second through the sheer odd factor.
In 1982 the company decided to try their own hand at mech anime, & their first attempt is still probably the only one of its kind: Makyou Densetsu Acrobunch. Inspired by the adventure movie craze Hollywood had in the 80s after the success of the Indiana Jones movies, Kokusai Eigasha thought that mixing that concept with mech anime would bring about a winning combination. The story focused on the Randou Family, who go on a world-spanning hunt for the lost treasure of Quaschika, while the underground Goblin Clan is doing the same thing, resulting in many battles between the two groups. The series lasted for 24 episodes & then received a DVD release back in 2001 in Japan, but outside of the occasional figure and/or model kit every couple of years the series seems to have become a more obscure title in its homeland, all the more proven by its sole inclusion in Super Robot Wars: SRW Compact 3, which is mostly known for its oddball line-up of obscure mecha. Still, there likely isn't anything like Acrobunch today, at least in concept, & there probably won't be anything like it in the future. And, hell, this title featured the debut of seiyuu Shigeru Nakahara, who would later voice Masato in Dancougar & Trowa in Gundam Wing, as main character Jun Randou & character designer Mutsumi Inomata, who would later do character designs for Brain Powered & roughly two-thirds of the games in the Tales Series of RPGs. Then there's also the fact that it was the first time where Norio Wakamoto voiced a main character in Hiro Randou. I have raws of this show and I've really been meaning to check it out sooner rather than later, so hopefully it isn't obscure due to lack of quality.
Kokusai would do some other non-mech anime before debuting their second mecha, and this one actually came over to North America in some form. 1983-1984's Aku Daisakusen Srungle was about Captain Jance and his SWAT-esque team called Gorilla taking on the evil organization Crime & its leader, Fork Lazer... Wow, just wow at the name of the enemy group & its leader. Anyway, Srungle lasted for 52 episodes and was brought over to North America in a very Voltron-esque fashion. Saban licensed Ashi Pro's Sengoku Majin GoShogun, which was a parody of mech anime at the time, and adapted it & Srungle into a show called Macron-1. Essentially, Macron-1 was an altered version of GoShogun's story, with Srungle footage making occasional appearance as an alternate dimension war against the same enemy as that of the GoShogun enemies. Yeah, it probably was as confusing and bad as it sounds, though Crime & Fork Lazer were changed into GRIP & Dark Star (whether that's an improvement is up to opinion). Anyway, don't go expecting to ever see Macron-1 get a DVD release, as the show used many covers of popular music at the time, such as Michael Jackson's "Beat It". I wish I was making that up, but I've linked the video. In Japan GoShogun is considered a classic, with a number of novel side stories & sequels being made, one of which was made into the GoShogun: Time Stranger movie we actually got over here uncut, and numerous inclusions in SRW games. Srungle, on the other hand, got a DVD release in 2004 and was promptly forgotten, with likely it's most well-known "feature" being the fact that the legendary Yoshitaka Amano did the character designs.
1984 was the last full year Kokusai ever had, and their last mech anime ever is also one of the most infamously unavailable titles ever: Chou Kosoku Galvion. Galvion revolved around the group CIRCUS, created & lead by the billionaire Rei Midoriyama, which takes on all sorts of jobs and gets involved in the shady dealings of an evil organisation called Shadow. Galvion honestly had some really nice ideas behind it, with an apparent focus on driving sequences (the mechs transformed from cars), a neat concept in that the two main characters, Mu & Maya, are actually convicts who are working for CIRCUS so that they can get their sentences reduced, & even mech designs by Koichi Ohata. Unfortunately, the ratings must have bombed hard, as the show only got 22 episodes in before cancellation, with a 23rd episode only being partially completed, and the "last" episode featured a short epilogue at the end where a narrator simply explained to the audience what happened to everyone. The show never received a VHS, LD, or DVD released since it's original TV airing, and the OST didn't get an actual release until 2009... And it apparently was a horrible release, with the audio sounding like someone simply recorded a vinyl record to a CD and called it a day. But even without an official home video release, there are some raws floating around, and the first episode did get fansubbed as a one-shot release. I've watched that episode and I really did like what I saw, so it's pretty disappointing that this title never got any sort of video release. But, let's be honest, going out of business can do that to a show.
[6/2013 UPDATE: Galvion is finally getting its first-ever home video release this July, featuring an artbox with artwork done by Koichi Ohata!]
Kokusai wouldn't make it much further after 1984, and by the end of 1985 the company was gone, with their last title being Futari Daka, based on the motorcycle manga of the same name by Area 88's Kaoru Shintani. But Kokusai Eigasha does have one main legacy behind it... One series that became a hit in Japan & eventually became known to fans of mech anime around the world. I'm talking about the J9 Series.
I've talked about the J9 Series before, so I won't go into detail, but if there is anything that Kokusai Eigasha created that has survived & become legends in their own it's the J9 Series. Running from 1981 to 1984 the J9 Series was comprised of three titles, Ginga Senpuu Braiger, Ginga Reppuu Baxinger, & Ginga Shippu Sasuraiger, and all three are pretty original titles among mech anime. Braiger's team of merciless-yet-entertaining people-for-hire, J9, is very similar to the later GoShogun in that the show is essentially carried by the banter & general personalities that the main characters have. In an almost rule-breaking style at the time Braiger doesn't actually have a central plot behind it throughout most of its run, putting all the more focus on the leads & their actions; combine that with some awesome music and it's almost a prototype of Cowboy Bebop mixed with a giant robot! Baxinger was based on the legend of the 47 ronin, a late-Shinsengumi tale of a gang of ronin who went against the government; Baxinger essentially takes this story, puts it in space, and gives the main characters giant motorcycles that combine into the titular robot. Sasuraiger takes its inspiration from Jules Verne's Around the World in 80 Days and puts it into space while giving its main characters a giant space train that can transform into a giant robot... It almost makes the legendary Galaxy Express 999 look really bland. Of the three series Braiger definitiely is the most well-remembered, with multiple SRW appearances compared to the other two's single appearance (GC/XO, which has the three J9 teams meet up for the first time), but all three just ooze style & memorability just from their opening sequences. Even though the company is gone, Kokusai's legacy is, without a doubt, cemented solely through the J9 Series.
Nowadays, it's kind of hard to tell who exactly owns the rights to Kokusai Eigasha's titles. Supposedly the company still exists to this day through Shigeo Tsubota, who was the producer of the company's titles, though it might be simply as a copyright management company. As for licensing, I mentioned Acrobunch & the J9 Series back when I looked at Enoki Films USA's catalog of titles, and even though Enoki's site isn't around anymore I was able to look at it via the Internet Wayback Machine's archive and I saw that Enoki essentially got Kokusai's entire catalog, as they also had Honey Honey & Little Women, though there was a title or two missing (like Galvion). Unfortunately, the phone number on that old site isn't in service anymore, much like when I tried Illumitoon's number that one time, so who knows what's going on with Enoki Films. I've been told that, even though the site is gone, Mr. Yoshi Enoki himself still is in the business and ready to work with others so hopefully that's still the case, because if Enoki is out of the picture there's a good chance that Kokusai's entire catalog has become lost now.
Even if some of their mech titles didn't become big hits they all had something different to offer from the usual mech anime of the time and even today some of them are still originals in a genre that, unfortunately, just isn't getting as much focus as it once did. They may be oddities, but they were also innovative in that they showed that mech anime didn't just have to just be about war, space travel, or even dead-serious. Hopefully that streaming/crowdfunding site that professional translator Sam Pinansky revealed was in the works almost half a year ago will debut soon, because if there's someplace that Mr. Enoki can finally get his catalog of titles attached to, it's this site. It would also allow Kokusai Eigasha's mech animes to finally reach an audience that all but one wasn't able to reach in the past: A North American audience.