Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Jul 4th 2014
Sub.DVD - TV Series Vol. 1
Dr. Kabuto is the renowned scientist behind such technological advancements as Photon Energy and Super Alloy Z, and is the founder of the Photon Light Institute, a scientific institute devoted to the peaceful advancement of knowledge for all mankind. One day he disappears and leaves the Institute in the capable hands of his assistant Dr. Yumi. Only one man knows why Kabuto disappeared: megalomaniacal mad scientist Dr. Hell. Dr. Hell is planning to use his army of city-mashing Mechanical Beasts to enslave humanity, and Kabuto knows it. And Dr. Hell knows that Kabuto knows. He sends his nefarious subordinate, the two-faced Baron Ashura, to kill Kabuto before he can devise a countermeasure. Ashura kills Kabuto, but too late. Kabuto has already completed his greatest invention, combining both Photon Energy and Super Alloy Z: the indestructible metal giant, Mazinger Z. Now it's up to his hot-headed grandson Koji to pilot the behemoth and foil Dr. Hell and his minions. With a little help from his friends, of course.
Give Mazinger Z its due. It's an epochal work, one of the defining series of anime's Super Robot era. If you want to understand the evolution of giant robots in the anime medium, then you must understand Mazinger. If you want to enjoy giant robots in the anime medium... well, that's what Mazinger's descendants are for.
Mazinger is the kind of show that has made the word episodic an insult. It's essentially one long, cheap run of the same bad story, repeated ad nauseum. Every episode begins with Dr. Hell demonstrating the awesome powers of a new mechanical beast, or with helpless civilians discovering them for themselves, and every episode ends with evil thwarted and the good guys, hands on hips, throwing back their heads and laughing heartily at something that isn't really funny. (In one episode, they're laughing at the fact that everyone has spent the night in a radioactive beast's belly and must be quarantined and detoxed. Hilarious!) In between the show follows the pro-wrestling format: good guy faces bad guy, bad guy cheats, good guy loses and loses until the stakes are at their peak, and then pulls off a miraculous comeback and spanks bad guy. In the meantime Koji's little brother Shiro and his sort-of friends—three motorbike dips—provide Stoogey comic relief (minus the Stooges' knack for comic invention) while Koji treats his comely partner Sayaka like dirt, Sayaka nags back, and various guest stars arrive to provide predictable color.
It's true that all of this is silly—especially the goony mechanical beasts and Baron Ashura's dunderheaded plans. And it's true that it's all pretty dumb, each episode working only because Koji is a righteous idiot who charges head-first into whatever stupid trap Ashura has laid. But worse than that, it's boring. Freeway-driving boring. Hanna-Barbera boring. Lawrence Welk boring. It's the same thing, over and over and over, with minimal variance and no effort given to engage the intellect, stimulate the emotions, deliver a good laugh, or do anything else that might alleviate the crushing sameness of it all.
Repetition and sameness are stamped into the show's very bones, into its visual DNA. The series was animated such that as much of it as possible could be reused. The same shot of Mazinger's stomping feet; the same bit with Baron Ashura pivoting his face from female half to male half; a fight in which Mazinger and/or Aphrodite A (Sayaka's robot) dodge the exact same handful of attacks with the exact same handful of motions; mechanical beasts crushing the same four buildings over and over again; the docking sequence repeated every episode; streams of attacking minions who are clearly the same one-second stream, looped to become five seconds long... At a rough estimate, about a third of each episode is comprised of visuals we've seen before. And it's all made worse by an essential lack of mobility: faces whose mouths move robotically while eyes and jaws remain mannequin-still; interiors used like static stage sets; racing motorcycles where all that actually moves is the scenery, scrolling past in the background.
The score also has a thing for repetition and reuse, but in its case it's not such a soul-abrading force. True, the instrumentals are loud and sometimes obnoxious, and the best parts bear a suspicious resemblance to Akira Ifukube's Godzilla soundtrack (apparently some of his work was used as stock music in the show), but the insert songs... the insert songs are wonderful—spearheaded by the bold, heroic vocals of Ichiro Mizuki and edged with rousing choral highlights; written with brilliant, blunt-force simplicity and full of naive faith in the strength and goodness of robotic superheroes. There's even a theme for Mazinger's detachable jetpack. Awesome.
Which brings up an important point. Sameness isn't inherently evil. It's the combination of sameness and badness that makes for a truly evil time. And badness... badness is Mazinger's resting state. Take Koji. Koji is a dick. He's reckless, insensitive, and sometimes startlingly mean-spirited. He's also an unrepentant sexist. He's constantly putting Sayaka down, dismissing her contributions and pushing her aside because "fighting is a man's job." In one episode he goes Jimmy Cagney on her, shoving a plate of food in her face and dumping soup down her blouse (food and soup that she fixed for him, no less). And since the writers never upbraid him for any of this, it's fair to call the show itself sexist.
As for other flavors of badness, all dialogue is clunky and declamatory, and even the episodes that break the mold are strange and poorly written (the episode where Mazinger finds a giant robot mate is particularly odd). Also, everyone in the show is a total moron. Ashura retreats when he has a chance to destroy Koji. Koji laughs off stories about monsters despite the fact that his archenemy manufactures monsters. Several times Mazinger is almost defeated because Koji's windshield gets mucked up and he has no windshield wipers. Honest to god. Dr. Kabuto is a technological genius and he forgot windshield wipers. Dr. Yumi is a brilliant mechanic and yet he doesn't think of adding windshield wipers. The entire Institute can spend god knows how many yen and god knows how many man-hours building a flying apparatus for Mazinger and yet no one bolts on a pair of mother****ing windshield wipers.
Other than its massive size—46 episodes spread out over six discs—this is a standard Eastern Star release. That means no dub, zilcho for extras, heavy episode-per-disc counts, and a few more subtitle typos than is strictly professional. On the plus side, the limited nature of the animation means that Eastern Star can shove eight episodes on a disc without sacrificing video quality.
At this point in the review, you're going to look at the grades below and wonder why the show didn't get a straight-up F. The short answer? It doesn't deserve it. As ill-made, ill-written, and plain old dull as it is, the show has its admirable qualities. It occasionally belies its sexism by showing how Sayaka's support keeps short-fused Koji alive. Its direction improves incrementally with time, dabbling in adventurous cross-cutting and hallucinogenic nightmares (watching the show is a bit like watching the evolution of early silent cinema: a total lack of art slowly yielding to stylistic invention and elaboration). It always has at least one running concern underwriting its standalone tales. Early on it's Koji's robo-learning curve (his bumbling also supplies the show with rare laughs). Later it's Mazinger's increasingly pressing need for flight capability. Towards the end it's the rivalry between Baron Ashura and his would-be replacement Count Brocken. And throughout there are episodes detailing Koji and Sayaka's evolving relationship (though not too many, and not with too much evolution; it isn't until episode 45 that Koji accepts her as an equal partner).
The show improves enough that by the end you may catch yourself enjoying it. Do not be fooled by this. This is the entertainment equivalent of the Stockholm Syndrome. This set is so long, has kept us its whimpering mind-dead prisoners for such a chunk of our lives, that we are pathetically thankful for every decaying morsel of substance it throws our way. So thankful that eventually we start thinking it's not such a bad show. But it is. It is an awful show. I could type until my fingers got gangrene and still not be done enumerating its abuses. Watch it if you want to know what Yoshiyuki Tomino was reacting against when he made Mobile Suit Gundam. Watch it if you want to see the mecha traditions that Hideaki Anno drew on for Neon Genesis Evangelion. Do not watch it if you want to be entertained.
Overall (sub) : C-
Story : C-
Animation : D-
Art : C-
Music : B-
+ One of the great classics of anime's Super Robot era.
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