Recently, I have been assisting my folks with a move from the old family home. The biggest challenge, believe it or not, has been cleaning out our basement. If it is any indicator, nearly everything I’ve had since infancy has been saved and boxed up. After getting covered in dust and donating several truckloads of memories, I was ready to take a break and reap the spoils of cleaning out over fifty boxes. Digging through old toys and games, one of the more fascinating things I discovered was my old collection of VHS tapes with recordings of old Saturday morning/evening cartoons. Cartoons might not be the right word to describe them, however, as they were undoubtedly anime. While some were more underwhelming (those single season dubs or ones that don’t even bother airing additional seasons due to poor ratings), there were plenty of gems chronicled beautifully. Sure, there were the obvious ones there for a young boy- Yugioh!, Dragon Ball Z (and GT lol), Cardcaptor Sakura- however there were some titles I had all but forgotten about as well. Names like Zatch Bell!, MegaMan NT Warrior, and Ultimate Muscle all presented themselves in proper episode order and marked in awful handwriting with a Sharpie marker (okay, so my handwriting hasn’t improved since then).
While I’d like to cover as many of them as I can in the future, I really wanted to start off looking back on the pet favorite of mine, Ultimate Muscle. The anime was featured on Fox Broadcasting Network’s venture into beefing up their weekend animated television, Fox Box (later known as 4Kids TV). This wasn’t Fox’s work alone, however, as the licensing company 4Kids Entertainment pushed their licensed series out for the necessary time slots. For many fans (particularly males), this was the first exposure to the world of anime. There was a good 75% of the shows featured originating from American studios (thus being cartoons, but that is a can of worms for another day), but the real success Fox had on the network slot was from the featured anime series. Shows like MegaMan NT Warrior, Yugioh!, and Ultimate Muscle in no particular order would absorb the last hours to keep young viewers tuned in (off of memory alone, MegaMan would air from around 1000-1030 depending on if there was a double episode feature or if a series had recently finished an arc, followed by Yugioh! almost religiously at the 1100 block and then something like Ultimate Muscle as the chaser into the end time of 1200).
Ultimate Muscle always stood out to me because it featured side splitting potty humour and outlandish character designs that somehow knit themselves neatly into a surprisingly enjoyable ride. At first, this really is difficult to see as the first few arcs of the series are just so ridiculous that they are difficult to view as anything short of comedic. A gigantic stone fist attacks the Earth and what can be best described as the equivalent to one of the WWE’s “bad guy” wrestling teams threaten humanity (how they do that exactly is unclear, but hey...). The main character, known in dubbed version as Kid Muscle, accidently rockets himself to Earth after being the macho version of Billy Madison and spoiling himself rotten his whole life. With the looming threat of the bad guys (one of which is a shoe and another is a collection of street signs...yeah I know, bare with me here) threatening Earth, Kid Muscle agrees to train to become a superhero wrestler for the sole purpose of making what I can only describe as the most vanilla anime girl ever fall for him. Why does he need to become a superhero wrestler to impress this woman when he already is exploding out of his clothes with muscle? Why is he still wearing his family mask if he doesn’t want her to think he is as hideous as their mask design makes them look? Who cares. It’s joke.
Once the ball gets rolling and the many characters get introduced, an appeal to the cast starts to hit the viewer akin to how much success the diverse cast of My Hero Academia has had recently. Obviously the characters are nowhere near as endearing as them, but the comparison is certainly there. The plot eventually moves on to new villains and tournaments for wrestling and the series falls into a rhythm of having standard henchmen fight the respective “good guy” wrestlers for two episodes (or three if the fight gets started at the end of a previous episode) and the bigger matchups (typically Kid Muscle’s fights with leaders and super evil bad guys) spanning between four and five episodes. The pacing works better than a lot of sports shows at the time, and once you cut out commercials (like I did in my VHS recordings), the whole thing is rather smooth. As the last few arcs approach, things really hit their peak when comedy is almost nonexistent and there is juicy drama between the wrestlers. People on the ropes will have super dark backstories and draw up inspiration to push a little bit further and it always left me cheering as a kid. Sure, as an adult these were nowhere near as effective, but when you consider the target audience, this was fantastic.
Compared to other series on the slots, anime had a lot going for it with marketability out West- Japan had already made designs for toys, various card games, video games, and other gimmicks. 4Kids Entertainment was on fire in the early 2o00's, pushing out Nintendo Gamecube and Playstation 2 games for any and all series that managed to have a pulse in ratings and already had merchandise available from Japan. Most of these games were awful, but I recall three Ultimate Muscle games really standing out. First was the Gameboy Advance tie in game that gave a nice small dosage of wrestling fun, featuring the characters in the first arc of the series and all of their quirky special moves. Right about the same time, another title for the Gamecube was released, ripe with more characters and even an ability to create your own superhero wrestler (I made a dog person and named him Barney based off of my first dog). The mother of all anime games in my household, however, was Galactic Wrestling: Featuring Ultimate Muscle for the PS2. This game had a massive 48 character roster and out of these, only around six or so were reskins. The graphics haven’t aged the best, but that is to be expected from the time. I recall arguing with my cousin over which character would win in a fight and deciding it over a round or two of this game. Sometimes I miss rosters that have tons of fighters instead of twelve or so extremely technical fighters in games (I get why it is done that way, so I won’t compare the two much more than that).
While a lot of 4Kids Entertainment dubs were horrendous, this one actually benefited by the sloppy dubbing and localization. While the serious bits really take a hit by the dubbing, the comedic ones are laughably bad. The jokes get pushed out so poorly that the delivery alone becomes the punchline usually. There are a lot of little changes, such as the bad guys being changed from Demon Manufacturing Plant to Destruction, Mayhem and Pain. The characters are dubbed based off of their respective nationalities and have the worst stereotypical accents. It is one of those things that when you’re eight you don’t really notice, but it is such a glaring issue once you know how a good dub should sound.
Finally, the biggest surprise I had after watching a tape or two of this series was actually what I discovered online whilst researching it. It turns out that this series is actually a sequel to another anime, Kinnikuman (translates literally into Muscle Man) that was focused around Kid Muscle’s father and the various characters who train the wannabe wrestlers in Ultimate Muscle. While it is already shocking enough that the series originated in the early 80s, seeing the track record of the source material in the manga was even more stunning. The original run of the manga dates back to early 1979. That’s right- the late seventies. As if that wasn’t enough, the continued run for the manga began in 2011 and has had a volume released in Japan as recent as September 2017. Pretty crazy to think the material has been going strong barring a hiatus for as long as it has been.
I wouldn’t call Ultimate Muscle a really good anime- it has glaring flaws and one of the worst dubs I’ve ever heard. I’ll be the first to admit most of the appeal of the series is nostalgia (as my VHS tapes and video games prove), however there certainly are quirks that make the experience endearing. If wrestling ever wet your whistle, it makes sense that this would be appealing at a younger age. Anime critics love to slam series for their lack of depth or technical issues, but there needs to be an understanding for who series are steered for to a certain extent. It doesn’t make everything completely excusable (those accents, yikes) but it puts everything into a new light. Maybe it was just all of the dust from the basement slowly choking me to death, but there were still a few chuckles watching a few tapes.
What were some series you grew up on that you had VHS tapes/early DVDs for? Would you be interested in hearing about more of the early 2000s series I have on tape? Let me know!