In the first chapter of Buichi Terasawa’s manga, Cobra, there’s a thing known as Trip Movie. In it, a user gets a tailored dream-like fantasy that brings out their inner heart’s desire. Whether its money and fame, beautiful women, or a life of gun-slinging adventure, the Trip Movie will play it all out for your amusement. And honestly, I can’t help but describe the Cobra anime franchise as Terasawa’s own Trip Movie: Where all the women are scantily clad variations of Jane Fonda in Barbarella, he himself is a romantic wandering space samurai, and the galaxy is a wild sci-fi Spaghetti Western.
Running from 1979 to 1984, Cobra was a different kind of sci-fi action manga. The series begins with our hero awakening after a self-induced amnesiac exile. Together with Lady Amaroid, and his re-awakened “Psychogun” arm cannon, he recovers his old ship and picks up right where he left off. He winds up smack dab in the crosshairs of the treacherous Pirate Guild as he stumbles into a plot to capture one of the deadliest treasures in the universe, restores a kingdom of sentient swords, seduces triplets, and races to find The Ultimate Weapon. That’s just the first few volumes, by the way.
Popularity resulted in Cobra being adapted into a stand-alone feature film in 1982 entitled Space Adventure Cobra directed by the legendary Osamu Dezaki (Golgo 13: The Professional, Rose of Versailles). The first batch of major stories were adapted into the 1983 anime TV series Space Cobra, also directed by Dezaki. Both incarnations became classics for loyally bringing Terasawa’s strange final frontier to life while being visually stunning. Years after the manga’s conclusion, the anime received a continuation in Cobra The Animation. Spanning two OVA series, The Psychogun and Time Drive, and the TV series The Six Heroes, the anime covers the remaining unadapted manga stories.
But even with the new series’ digital animation upgrades, Cobra may look and seem very old fashioned to some. After all, for a future space setting, the aesthetic of it all is very much rooted in the early 1980s. But I’d argue that in a time when it feels like every other anime features magical sci-fi high school heroes, Cobra is a breath of fresh air. Even back when it first came out, there was nothing like Cobra, especially considering how you could never predict what would happen next…
One minute, Cobra is fighting a legendary giant in high space fantasy, the next he’s travelling back in time, and then suddenly he’s wandered into a shonen sports arc! His villains are even more creative, like his arch-rival, the gold-plated, nigh-indestructible cyborg Crystal Boy. But props have to go to the leader of the Pirate Guild, Lord Salamander … who just so happens to be the revived spirit of Adolf Hitler. The show breaks the dial so hard, it stops taking itself seriously and doesn’t give a damn about how ridiculous it gets.
The reason Cobra has endured so long is a testament to the caliber of character he is. He hails from a time when men were men, boys sometimes looked like manlier men, and the ideal woman was somewhere between the girl next door and the Dirty Pair. (Team Kei forever, BTW.) Cobra’s a charismatic swashbuckler who has James Bond levels of superhuman prowess in mostly anything. He’s never subjected to the Accidental Shower Walk-In Gag, isn’t out to be The King of the Space Pirates, he doesn’t have a tsundere partner, and laughs off the angst in his life with a cigar.
Never mind that he rarely shows his anger, but you know when he does, you’re basically a dead man walking. This doesn’t change in Cobra The Animation as he remains as much of a flirtatious scoundrel as ever. Seeing him constantly pitted against the odds, mocking and outwitting villains twice his size with a grin makes him all the more root-worthy. And you’d be surprised to see how much he’s resonated over the decades: Characters like Vash the Stampede from Trigun and even Dante from Devil May Cry are cut from the same cloth as a loving homage.
The world of Cobra is one I always find myself going back to, and it’s one that fans can’t seem to leave either. As of this writing, director Alexandre Aja (The Hills Have Eyes, High Tension) is currently gearing up to unleash a live-action film adaptation of the manga, and the Monaco-based Shibuya Productions is set to release a full-blown animated adaptation of the aforementioned sports arc with Cobra: The Return Of Joe Gillian. One would hope the adventure will never end for our dashing space pirate, but it’s one worth embarking on while you can.