When I tell anyone that will listen that my favourite animated television series of the 1980s was Ulysses 31, they usually stare at me in disbelief for a few moments and then walk off, muttering about Battle of the Planets or Macross. Of all the great tv anime that came out of the decade, why would I choose a curate’s egg like Ulysses 31? Bear with me, and I’ll try to explain…
First televised in 1981, Ulysses 31 was a French/Japanese co-production. The series cleverly took the Greek myth of Odysseus and set it in a space opera format, and borrows freely from such disparate SF sources as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Wars and even seventies anime Captain Harlock.
By killing a robot Cyclops, Ulysses, the commander of a huge ship called the Odyssey, unwittingly incurs the wrath of the gods and finds himself lost in an unknown galaxy. In order to get back to earth and revive his frozen companions, Ulysses (along with his son, Telemachus, a blue-skinned alien girl called Yumi and a robot called Nono), has to find the Kingdom of Hades. On his travels he meets a variety of characters from Greek legend, or at least, their 31st Century equivalent: Sisyphus, Chronos, Orpheus and Atlas are all in there, if a little different from their ancient counterparts.
Even to a fan like myself, Ulysses 31 has a few faults: the children are annoying; Nono the robot is an incongruous distraction and of little value to the plot, and even Ulysses himself is a less than three-dimensional character. The animation, also, could be politely described as variable – some scenes are poorly rendered and animated, while certain others can look excellent, at least for their time. I would suggest that the series’ better sequences were possibly overseen by Joint Animation Director Toyoo Ashida, who went on to direct the gory masterpieces Hokyuto no Ken (better known here as Fist of the Northstar) and Vampire Hunter D.
Where Ulysses 31 really shines though, is in its production design. In its better moments, the series has some quite stunning visuals: the surreal sight of the Odyssey floating slowly through colossal Greek ruins in space; the ghostly, stern faces of the gods; the scenes of eternal punishment, all depicted in an ethereal blue palette. As an eight-year old, I was mesmerized by the look of the series – I’d seen plenty of ‘lost in space’ type shows before (including, funnily enough, Lost in Space), but never had I seen anything that gave such a strong feeling of the desolate loneliness of space, of what it must feel like to be lost in an empty void.
The music – though again, somewhat dated – is brilliant, and tells the story far more eloquently than the dialogue; as soon as we hear the doom-laden march of the gods, we know that Ulysses is in big trouble.
Speaking of the gods: they’re easily the best characters in the show. The way they manipulate seemingly everyone in the galaxy to block Ulysses’ path home is brilliantly villainous, and it’s quite unsurprising that the producers felt they had to include the moments of humour that sometimes deflate the atmosphere – without them, the show could have been unremittingly bleak, and this was meant to be for kids, after all.
Even with the comic relief, Ulysses 31 was not a tremendous success; it ran for only 26 episodes – far shorter than initially planned. It is only in the years that followed that the show gained a cult following – it took until 2004 for the entire series to be released on DVD, after lengthy reruns on the Fox Kids channel.
Though many would say they preferred The Mysterious Cities of Gold (another Japanese/French co-production, televised a couple of years later with greater success), it was Ulysses 31 that awakened a fascination for Greek mythology, science fiction and anime that has never left me, and even as I watch it now, in those odd scenes where the program makers got the mood just right, Ulysses 31 still gives me that same cosmic chill.