Fall 1988 Laserdisc Cartoons: Starship Troopers!

Here we go: an obscure, late-1980s direct-to-Laserdisc robot show produced by Sunrise (a.k.a the Gundam guys) based on a classic 1950s science fiction novel by American Robert A. Heinlein. Now that’s the kind of crap we like here at Colony Drop. It’s not the first adaptation of Heinlein’s book, nor is it the only animated one, but it’s definitely the most Japanese. In the interests of providing proper commentary, I took a trip to my local library to refresh my memory on the finer details. Let’s compare and contrast!

Starship Troopers, the novel, is an exciting story of one guy’s journey through the ranks of the Future Space Infantry. Along the way, he frequently enjoys lectures from his History and Moral Philosophy teachers about how society is much better off when suffrage is only provided to veterans who successfully completed a term of service and where corporal punishment is the rule. (And where high-school girls will cry out despairingly mid-lecture about the foolishness of not smacking the hell out of juvenile delinquents. Whether or not Heinlein has a point is irrelevant; his mouthpieces are inevitably unintentionally hilarious.) There’s some other fun elements, like how the civilian characters will either be subservient and eager to fit themselves into a niche to support the military and its fighting men and women, or they’ll be openly hostile to the military.

It’s an amusing read for these aspects, but the book’s usually remembered for the powered infantry suits that our hero Juan “Johnnie” Rico and his comrades wear when they go into battle. As commonly depicted in just about every sci-fi setting involving Space Marines ever since, enhanced exoskeletons let the Mobile Infantrymen run faster, jump higher, and hit things harder. They also feature integrated heads-up displays for radar, satellite imagery, hands-free multi-channel radio communication, night vision, etc. Odds are this is all sounding very familiar to you if you’ve got much of an interest in science-fiction tales or if you like to read about what the “future” of infantry warfare will be like. I don’t know if Starship Troopers did it first, but it definitely popularized the idea.

But we’re here to talk about the Japanese cartoon version of the story! Sunrise’s direct-to-Laserdisc adaption takes a number of liberties with the plot. In particular, there’s a much greater emphasis on Johnnie’s relationship with his high-school classmate, Carmencita, who enlists as a pilot around the same time as Johnnie. A lot of the details of military life are toned down or excised entirely if they don’t relate to the powered suits or combat directly – apparently what it’s like to be in the military isn’t really important in a story about a young man’s journey through the ranks. It’s also dramatically less political than Heinlein’s original book. To their credit, Sunrise’s writers didn’t pull the new material entirely out of their asses. Many of the situations in the show are influenced or inspired by parts from the book. In particular, the plots of the second and fourth episodes, where Johnnie and co. use their powered suits to combat a forest fire and a training exercise unexpectedly turns into live combat are inspired by brief mentions of similar incidents when Johnnie’s wrapping up the details of his time in boot camp. Even though the results are only so-so, it’s disappointingly rare to see an animated adaptation expand on the source material in a reasonable manner when simple filler is the rule.

The series is also only six half-hour episodes long, and the pacing is quite questionable for a series of that length – the show ends immediately after Johnnie’s first official combat mission with a touching embrace with Carmencita, putting it at about halfway through the book. The animation isn’t nearly as nice as one would expect from a direct-to-video project of the era. The fansubbers’ choice of video filters to try and clean up the source material doesn’t help matters. I have no way of proving this one way or the other, but the show feels to me as if it were intended to be several episodes longer – maybe a full TV season. That would also explain the curiously completely blood-free violence in later episodes. People get cut in half by the invading creatures and there’s not a spec of red to be seen. They don’t even make use of the time-honored spray-in-silhouette technique! All these questions of pacing and animation make more sense if this production was once planned for broadcast – perhaps Western broadcast, at that. On the off chance anyone knows more about how this production came about, let me know!

Starship Troopers isn’t a particularly good show, but it’s an amusing curiosity if you’re a fan of the book, or have a thing for foreign adaptations of old novels. There’s not much here for plain ol’ Japanese cartoon fans, unless you like clunky old robot shows. The powered suits are designed by Kazutaka Miyatake, who worked on a number of mecha series (including several Macross and Dirty Pair series), with Yutaka Izubuchi listed as “cooperating.” The powered suits are easily the best looking part of the show, but they don’t particularly stand out from the robot crowd. Director Tetsuro Amino is the only other name of any note in the crew, as he went on to direct and help write Iria: Zeriam the Animation (as seen on the Sci-Fi Channel in the mid 1990s) and Colony Drop’s favorite stupid indulgence, Macross 7.


  1. ” He mentions that Starship Troopers invented the Space Marines trope, but he doesn’t really talk about how the entire Real Robot genre might have had its genesis from the novel as well, which would be good to mention for Colony Drop :-(”

    “He also doesn’t really talk about the Hollywood versions at all, when watching the OVAs is pretty crazy, because the screwed up Japanese version is still more faithful to the book than the Hollywood adaptation.”


  2. Toll, why are you speaking entirely in quotes?

    I’ve never actually seen the Hollywood movie based on the book. I had a cruel childhood, I know. Also, while I could probably say something about it inspiring Real Robots, and I probably wouldn’t be totally off-base, there’s also the fact that a lot of the older Real Robot shows like the original Gundam were a reaction to the Super Robot shows that were much more popular in the era. I don’t want to do that without some token research, and by “research” I mean consulting Wikipedia and watching robot show openings on Youtube, so, I won’t!

  3. I believe he’s talking in quotes because they came from a conversation I had with him on AIM, after which I told him to post his points on here.

    Also I’m fairly certain Tomino has stated some of the inspiration for the Mobile Suits in Gundam came from Starship Troopers, but the books I have with the interviews in which he might have said that are thousands of miles away so I can’t double-check.

  4. Jeff, I’m glad you wrote about this OAV, since I remember reading about it years ago in the pages of the late, defunct mag ANIMAG.

    A couple of points:

    –The anime is dedicated to Robert A. Heinlein, who had died in 1988.

    –You had mentioned that this was not the first adaptation of the novel–are you sure about that? Or is it that ALIENS had some elements of ST present in it (but it’s also a kick-ass great film anyway!)

    I have only seen the first two eps of ST, but it did stick to the spirit of the book. The irony is that many famous American science fiction writers have been translated into Japanese (but not vice versa). STARSHIP TROOPERS isn’t 100% faithful to the book, but it has its pluses (hell, even Verhoven’s live-action take is a blast).

    To Sean: You are right–Tomino has listed STARSHIP TROOPERS as an influence on GUNDAM, but then again, the powered suits of ST might as well have been an influence on the Armored Troopers of VOTOMS, the Landmates of APPLESEED, the Slave Troopers of MADOX-01…

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