The plotline of hit 1970s Japanese animation series Grendizer centred around the humanoid Daisuke escaping his destroyed planet to seek shelter on Earth.
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And the circumstances around recording the dubbed Arabic version, produced a few months after the original was released, were not far off – voice actors had to make their way to the relatively safe confines of a studio among the wreckage and dangers of Lebanon's Civil War. "It was a very different time," recalls Jihad Al Atrash, the man who voiced Daisuke. "We would run into the studio with bombs and damage all around us. Then once I was in there, I would have to prepare myself and become this character from a Japanese show."
Just as it did for Lebanese children and those from the wider Arab world, Al Atrash, now 75, says the show provided him with a pleasant sense of escapism. "Every day I was in another world. I would stand in front of the microphone, watching the original version on the screen and say the Arabic dialogue in the same speed as the Japanese character," he recalls.
"It was a lot of fun and, in a way, I feel that I have brought a lot of my own experiences in there. The Civil War made us feel determined and gave us courage, qualities that my character Daisuke has, so I was able to bring that emotion to my performances."
This is one of the many fascinating anecdotes Al Atrash will expand on when he appears in Abu Dhabi on Wednesday for a talk on Grendizer. The event is part of the three-day animation convention Mas Mash, which starts today, and runs until Friday. It will be an exciting session for many, because unless television was banned at home, virtually anyone growing up in the Middle East in the 1980s would remember the show.
Watching the children's animated series after school became a mandatory activity for UAE students. While parents slipped into the daily post-work siesta at around 4pm, little ones would be glued to the small screen as they followed the adventures of Daisuke as he defended Earth from attacks by intergalactic invaders, with the help of the giant robot Grendizer.
Produced and first aired in Japan under the name UFO Robot Grendizer in 1975, the series was made up of 74 weekly episodes which aired over 18 months. While the show was a relative hit in Japan, it became an international sensation with versions dubbed in English (Force Five: Grendizer), Italian (Goldrake) and French (Goldorak), all screening in their respective territories from 1978. The Arab world joined the party a year later after famous Beirut production house, Studio Al Ittihad Al Fani – renowned for dubbing foreign films and documentaries, as well as producing local radio programmes for the Lebanese market – signed on to produce the Arabic version.
To say the finished regional product – dubbed in the formal Arabic dialect of fusha – was a hit, is an understatement. Since the last episode aired in 1981, various Middle Eastern television stations – Abu Dhabi TV and Sharjah TV included – played reruns for more than a decade, thus granting the show two generations of fans.
Grendizer was complex
To celebrate 40 years since Grendizer aired in the region, Al Atrash will be joined by the voice behind the grandiose theme song, renowned Lebanese singer Sammy Clark.
While the two have taken part in various conventions around the region over the years, Mas Mash will be the first time Al Atrash and Clark meet their UAE fans. "I never get tired of it all," says Al Atrash. "I have done a lot of these events and visited countries like Saudi Arabia and Jordan to talk, and to meet fans, and it has always been a touching experience. They would tell us how the show reminded them of their younger days and simpler times."
But it was the complexity and depth of Grendizer that was largely responsible for its success. On the surface, the plot resembles a standard intergalactic good-versus-evil saga, but dig deeper, and themes of environmental sustainability and tolerance emerge. Daisuke is not your conventional alpha male hero, either. He worries about keeping his alien background a secret from humans, and deals with the sadness of being an orphan. This was all great material that Al Atrash was happy to sink his teeth into in the studio. "Indeed, there were a lot of elements to the character I had to show," he says. "It wasn't a case of me showing up to the studio and just saying the lines. I had to read the script carefully and make sure I got my tone right in certain series. It wasn't like other programmes where you just want to make a sound to entertain children."
The man behind the theme song
That same challenge also applied to Clark. An acclaimed vocalist, he was, at the time, recording children's songs in addition to appearing as a tenor in operatic productions by famed Lebanese composers, The Rahbani Brothers – Assi and Mansour.
Clark admits he wasn’t the first choice for the TV gig. “I was actually the fourth and last,” he reveals, with a laugh. “Basically, I was singing the same Japanese composition but with Arabic lyrics.”
And it wasn't easy. Japanese composer Shunsuke Kikuchi gave the song plenty of drama with its urgent strings, a blazing horn section and military percussion. "I approached it carefully because what was needed was just not an Arabic version of the Japanese song, but to use my voice to give the song an eastern flavour," he says. "So I basically watched a few episodes of the show in Arabic to see what kind of style [was required] for the song. Judging by that and the adventure of the show, I thought it was best to sing it in an operatic way."
UAE fans will hear it first-hand – Clark confirms he will sing the song in Abu Dhabi with a band. “The question is, how many times I will,” he says. “Normally people want me to sing it two or three times. It wouldn’t be right if I do it only once.”
Mas Mash runs from February 6 to 8 at Manarat Al Saadiyat, Abu Dhabi. Tickets are Dh50 for single-day admission and Dh120 for all three days. Entry is free for university students.