Fred Ladd: From Astro Boy to a Sailor Moon

Forty Years Ago Today
November 10, 1965; it is almost exactly forty years since the pilot to the first colour anime, Kimba the White Lion, was completed. To celebrate his anniversary, Madman has released a deluxe box set featuring fully restored versions of the first fifty-two episodes. The journey of this white lion cub to the West is a intriguing one. At ground zero was Fred Ladd who was the US producer on Kimba as well as his boy robot predecessor, Astro Boy. It’s not too often that you get to meet a person who was there when history was made. A charming and insightful storyteller, Fred Ladd has overseen the arrival of a number of hugely influential anime series in the West. In fact, one can trace a path from the doors opened by Fred to the popular appeal of anime today.

Get Them Young
So, indirectly, Fred had a huge impact on me. As a child, I was not allowed to watch much tv. However in the afternoon, my mum thought I was pretty safe in the company of a lion cub and a boy with a dual-pronged haircut. What she didn’t realise was that behind those big eyes and sweet countenances hid themes much deeper than simply children’s entertainment. I was being exposed to a flying robot boy who could seriously hand you your ass on a plate but who really just wanted to fit in, and an orphan lion who sought to rise above his tragedy and create a world where all animals could get along – and woe betide a bunch of hyenas who got uppity about their place in the natural order.

Being all of six or seven, I was unaware that these two series originated from Japan and from the imagination of the godfather of manga, Osama Tezuka. Fred Ladd was pretty much in the same situation. He recalls a Japanese agent turning up unannounced at NBC Enterprises in New York with 16mm prints under his arm. “He practically conned his way in” says Fred. In the cans were ‘Tetsuon Atom’, always translated to Fred as ‘Iron-fisted Atom Boy’. “We were taken completely by surprise! We were unaware that animation was being produced in Japan.” Not being translated, Fred and NBC had to piece together what they saw. NBC saw some similarities with Pinocchio but the more Fred saw of the show, the more he saw far more differences than similarities. Fred worked on putting together a pilot for NBC.

Big in the US and Japan
“The ratings for Astro Boy went through the roof in the US – and that was from day one!” says Fred. But just as fascinating were the reverberations in Japan. Fred recalls a hastily convened press conference with Tezuka in Japan. The intense level of questioning from reporters made Fred realise that a series sold to the West was revolutionary in Japan. “New animation studios sprang up overnight,” explains Fred. The success of Tezuka’s Mushi studio created a whole new industry in Japan. Following Astro Boy (1963), a flood of new animated series from Japan hit Western shores. Fred worked on the pilot for less successful 8th Man from Mushi’s competitor, TCJ. (“It was a good show but ABC wanted to do it on the cheap.”) Fred also worked on the hugely popular, Gigantor (Ironman #28) also from TCJ in 1964.

Cultural Differences
Fred identifies a number of unique differences in terms of both structure and content between anime and animation coming out of the States at the time. “Until the arrival of anime, Western animation was either short six minute vignettes, like Porky Pig or focussed on telling contained, episodic stories.” Anime was unique in that it sought to tell a story with a beginning, middle and end over the course of the series. “This was revolutionary and a joy to work on.” Stations loved it as the episodes fitted perfectly into the half hour blocks of station time.

One difference would prove to be an ongoing headache for Fred: the amount of violence. “Subject matter such as vivisection was taboo in the West. Mad scientists were not even allowed to construct a half-giraffe half-anteater! It was a huge problem. NBC rejected half of the first batch of six episodes.” When he spoke to the young writers of Astro Boy about the violence they simply didn’t understand. “They saw that someone killing in order to protect their master was honourable and part of the samurai tradition.” The Japanese writers, in turn, pointed to westerns, where cowboys would gun each other down if they didn’t like the way they combed their hair: This is cold-blooded; we don’t understand. These ‘cultural differences’ were an ongoing issue. Fred says that he was constantly explaining that there was only so much ‘editing around’ that could be done before the episodes became unwatchable.

The Law of the Jungle
With the success of Astro Boy, NBC went to Tezuka wanting a new series, but this time in colour. Mushi offered them the story of an orphan lion cub from the 1950 manga by Tezuka, ‘Jungle Emperor Leo’. Unfortunately MGM’s lion was also named Leo, and having a substantial legal department to back him up, the Jungle Emperor became Simba (Swahili for lion). Simba didn’t fare much better. The existence of a number of US patents transformed our hero finally to Kimba the White Lion. Fred Ladd says that when Kimba came along, NBC were uptight that Kimba’s primary theme was the law of the jungle – “Bingo! Kill or be killed!” However, Ladd sees that part of Tezukas’s smarts was to have Kimba as a little reformer: Let’s form a council. We need to get along and talk things out. NBC was over the moon at this concept and the violence could be kept off screen. Partially funded by NBC, the television series featured a Kimba that would remain perpetually a cub and not grow up and have his own offspring like his manga counterpart.

Under a Sailor Moon
If that was not enough, Fred was also involved in one of the biggest anime of nineties. People forget, but before Neon Genesis Evangelion brought the decade to a close with angst of apocalyptic proportions, the other big import was Sailor Moon. Fred Ladd worked as a consultant on this series. Sailor Moon seemed something of an anomaly for anime translated for audiences in the West in that it was aimed at girls. “Aimed at girls but warriors,” says Fed. “These girls could take most of the boys you know!” “The appeal of Sailor Moon,” Fred thinks, “was the girls were adorable, and their problems with boys and dating, charming. But when the enemy came, they embraced the samurai tradition and got tough.” Fred acknowledges the incredible appeal of Sailor Moon to boys, girls – and just about everybody. “There is no other series I know of where mothers were sitting with their kids watching the show together. It was remarkable in that aspect.”

Back to Life

Fred Ladd is in awe at Madman’s release of the Kimba Boxed Set and the Astro Boy Deluxe DVD Collection of the original 1963 black & white television series. “I know the work that goes into these things, and what these guys have done to locate and restore the episodes is incredible,” says Fred.

With these collections, Madman offers a piece of anime history. The lovingly restored prints of Astro Boy and Kimba allow you to relive that sense of childlike wonder that comes from experiencing something breathtakingly original with a depth of humanity that cannot easily be explained. And that thematic legacy, begun with Tezuka, an industrious agent and Fred Ladd, can be seen carried on in Miyazaki’s Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle, today.

Fred & Astro photo courtesy of Madman Entertainment © 2005 Sarah Parr photographer

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