Lost Anime: Route 20

A wise observer once described Gainax as two diametrically opposed anime studios in one. Good Gainax takes chances and creates interesting stuff. Evil Gainax does its best to ruin everything. Good Gainax made FLCL and those cool Daicon shorts, but Evil Gainax made Mahoromatic and He is My Master. Good Gainax made most of Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honneamise, but Evil Gainax made that scene. Good Gainax upended the anime industry with Evangelion, and then Evil Gainax exploited it with remakes and uncomfortable merchandise.
Where does the never-made Route 20: Galactic Airport fit into this tangle of heroism and villainy? We’ll never have a complete answer, since Gainax canceled the project over twenty years ago and hasn’t mentioned it since. Yet all available evidence points toward Good Gainax.

Route 20 apparently began life shortly after The Wings of Honneamise hit theaters. It was the 1980s, Japan’s bubble economy was surging to the skies, and Gainax had scored an unprecedentedly huge budget for Honneamise. A second ambitious film seemed natural, and early magazine previews suggested that Yoshiyuki Sadamoto and Mahiro Maeda’s Route 20 would be that film.

A fusion of ‘80s punk culture and dystopian science fiction, Route 20’s title spaceport is a city walled off from a harsh, environmentally ruined outside world. In this place of both high-tech opulence and gloomy squalor, the film follows two dissatisfied bikers: a despairing young woman and a mohawked, slightly less despairing thug. The pair contends with rival gangs, a robotic police enforcer, and the overwhelming ennui that emerges when you’re at the lowest rungs of a strict and stifling future. It’s a grimy counterpart to Gainax’s first movie. Honneamise showed a civilization’s bold initial steps into space, but Route 20 seems the harsh result of that, a portrait of the nihilistic and cloistered underclass left to rot while others travel the stars.

As Gainax had done with Honneamise, Sadamoto and Maeda assembled a short pilot film. Rife with bleak imagery, Route 20 presents a city where even glimpses of the upper class are pale and downcast. The two main characters are shown anguishing, brawling, speeding around in their detailed motorbikes, and yearning skyward at worlds they’re probably never see. It’s a concoction of 1980s anime angst, and it’s matched to the strains of The Doors’ “The Crystal Ship,” which Gainax probably didn’t have the rights to use.
Route 20 looked to be a depressing movie, and it met a depressing end. Honneamise was so expensive that it struggled to make back its costs, and Gainax put their more elaborate plans on hold. Route 20 disappeared while the studio worked on Gunbuster, Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water, and a string of OVAs that Gainax themselves doesn’t care to remember today. Though successful enough to keep Gainax going, these projects couldn’t support Route 20, and the film was never made.
It’s hard to pin down the reasons for Route 20’s cancellation; I couldn’t even find a mention of the film in Yasuhiro Takeda’s The Notenki Memoirs. Finances appear to be the culprit, though. Gainax has never been good with money, and Route 20 was too far from a mass-appeal anime series, particularly after Japan’s money bubble vanished in the early 1990s. There’s also a rumor that Gainax thought Route 20 too similar to Katsuhiro Otomo’s landmark 1988 film Akira, since they’re both heavy on futuristic bike punks. The Route 20 trailer even has a few ochre highway shots that could’ve come straight from Akira.
Life went on for Gainax. The studio stumbled through several other canceled projects in the early 1990s: Blue Uru would’ve been a Honneamise sequel, and Olympia was to depict a far-future heroine hopping planets in search of ancient weapons and intergalactic revenge. After these missteps, Gainax found its biggest hit ever with Neon Genesis Evangelion, and there wasn’t much time for looking back. Sadamoto kept on with Gainax, contributing character art and crafting the Evangelion manga. Meanwhile, Maeda left the studio for a startup called Gonzo. There he directed Gankutsuou, Blue Sub No. 6, and the Second Renaissance shorts in The Animatrix, providing the rare worthwhile points in Gonzo’s catalog of disappointment.

Sadamoto wasn’t finished with a certain canceled film, though. In 1993 he put together a short manga called Route 20: The Town With Gears. The tale finds a similar city barricaded from a polluted world, with a similar angry punk making a bid for freedom. The comic puts names to the faces in the pilot reel, though they’re not necessarily the same people. Our hero is Utsuo Akagi, though he doesn’t sport the mohawk or the same stoic expressions. The woman is Erika, who’s a lot more upbeat and flirtatious than the heroine seen in the trailer. Domenico, the dome-headed Energy Police Officer seen in the trailer, changes the least.
Sadamoto’s Route 20 comic tells of familiar rebellion. Utsuo’s a teenage screwup who ignores his successful siblings, his distant parents, and his chances of rising in society. Upon joining a high-school street gang called the Scooters, he hits it off with fellow member Erika, and the two of them peer beyond the city’s carefully protected realm. Things rapidly so sour, of course. Erika toys with his affections, and Domenico smacks him around. Yet Utsuo, inspired by memories of his grandfather, has his sights on the outside world. His escape also lets Sadamoto draw as many motorcycles as he wants.

It suggests a promising idea for a full-length movie, even if the comic strips the whole thing down to brief teenage-boy glories: authority figures are fascists, girls are flighty and callous, and parents just don’t understand. By comparison, the film’s pilot reel suggests slightly older characters, more depth for Erika, and a closer look at just how the spaceport affects things. The manga’s nonetheless a fine example of Sadamoto’s art, and it’s comforting that at least some piece of Route 20 made it to the marketplace.

In fact, Sadamoto’s manga wasn’t the only resurgence of Route 20. Look closely at the trailer, and you’ll see a TV-headed butler robot. Perhaps it’s a distant ancestor of Kanti, the monitor-faced mecha that Sadamoto designed for FLCL.
Route 20: Galactic Airport’s pilot film survives in fuzzily preserved form, and the manga was translated by fans (Evamonkey has both available). There’s just enough to lament the project’s fate. Like its marginalized protagonists, it was abandoned in the studio’s search for brighter, more profitable horizons. Had Gainax stuck with it, Route 20 could've easily landed on their good side.

1 comment:

  1. Well, this was an interesting read.
    I've always liked that top image with those two on the scooter, not knowing if it actually was from a real work or just the result of an idea Sadamoto felt like transferring to paper.

    I heard about Route 20: Galactic Airport not very long ago but thanks to it's different stylings I didn't catch the connection with this illustration and that short animated pilot.

    I feel more educated now and that's awesome.