The Mike Toole Show The Island of Super Misfit Robots
by Michael Toole, Aug 1st 2010
What robots did you have when you were a little kid? Don't lie to me, you had 'em. Transformers definitely count. So do the Megazords from Power Rangers. So does Robotech, and Exo-Squad, and especially Gundam and Voltron and Shogun Warriors, that remarkable late-70s amalgam of several beloved favorites. Okay, maybe some of you didn't have robots, because you had horrible parents who insisted on listening to your verbal demands for GI Joe or Barbie or My Little Pony or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or Pokémon instead of the subconscious desire for awesome toy robots that exists in every single man, woman, and child on the planet. Who do you think is buying those expensive Soul of Chogokin toys? Collectors in their 40s and 50s, that's who!
Here's the thing: not all awesome anime robots are created equal. Right now, you can go to the store and get DVDs of Voltron, Gaogaigar, MazinKaiser, and scores of others. You can go to the toy store (okay, you can go to Wal Mart, because the toy stores are all going out of business...) and get your Transformers and your Power Rangers Megazords. But a whole bunch of 'em never really reached beyond the shores of Japan-- or if they did, it was in some weird, altered form. When I was a boy, I had Voltron under the Christmas tree, but there was an entire galaxy of awesome robots that I never even knew existed. That's what this column is about.
Actually, the easiest thing would probably be to start the proceedings off with Voltron, because everybody remembers Voltron. Thanks to the resurgence of the series on home video, even people too young to remember Voltron still remember Voltron. Most of us nerds also know that Voltron is made up of two shows: the vehiculactular Dairugger XV and the Lion-tastic GoLion. A somewhat smaller number will remember seeing toys and information about a third Voltron. The one that got made into toys by Matchbox is this guy:
He's called Albegas, and comes from a 1983 TV series of the same name. The show is about a trio of cool kids who create awesome robots as a science project, but when the bad guys attack, the robots are rebuilt using super science into the mighty Albegas, a robot formed from various combinations of the smaller Alpha, Beta, and Gamma bots; AL-BE-GA-s, get it? Yep, it's pretty corny. Anyway the cartoon never made it to North America, but the toys actually did. This bizarre "Gladiator Voltron" would mystify children for years, until his true identity was finally discovered and disseminated by the much better-connected anime nerds of the 90s. The Albegas cartoon did make it over as one of those crazy laserdisc arcade games, too. I've seen pictures, but never encountered the game in any arcade.
So, there you go. Albegas is the mysterious "third Voltron." But wait, there's more! There's a second third Voltron! In fact, this Voltron actually had a lion motif, kinda like the super-popular GoLion. Here he is, in rockin' toy form.
The text on the box is right, guys-- it's Daltanius! Daltanius dates back to 1979, which actually makes it older than any other component of Voltron. It's notable for being both the first combining super robot to feature an animal-shaped mecha (GoLion and later Dancougar and would make lots of hay with this concept!) and the first super robot cartoon to feature a giant goddamn lion head as a prominent motif, which we know so well from Gaogaigar. Daltanius's wacky mascot animal is a pig, which I find pretty interesting. Anyway, I like this robot's face-- it has these giant black rings around its eyes, but if you squint it looks like Daltanius just wears really big novelty sunglasses. As for the Voltron connection, World Events Productions was actually investigating this series as a primary candidate for localization for their new Voltron concept-- but when the producers sent word to Toei to send "that robot cartoon with the lion," Toei sent over GoLion instead, and history was made. WEP has said that a full-length pilot episode was dubbed and broadcast in a couple of markets, but they haven't figured out a way to release it to fans. They need to get on the case, I want to see Daltanius in English!
Take a generational step back beyond Voltron, and what do you get? You get the Shogun Warriors. Many fans are familiar with these popular toys from Mattel-- toys with their origins in awesome super robot cartoons-- so I won't dwell on the subject. But there's one thing about the franchise worth noting, and that's the fact that it was the first (and often only) taste a lot us North American kids got of robots like Reideen, Combattler V, and Daimos. Now, this trio of robots has one thing in common: they're all TOTALLY AWESOME. Okay, um, they have two things in common-- they're totally awesome, and they're tied to cartoons directed by this guy named Tadao Nagahama. Actually, Reideen is more like a prelude to the other two-- it's a little older, and was co-directed by some mug named Yoshiyuki Tomino. (Does that make it better or worse? You decide!) The thing about these shows is that, while brightly colored and full of crazy special attacks, buildings crumbling, and mad super-science, there were also little details like good characterization, strong plot continuity, and emotionally involving stories. The first generation of anime geeks from the 60s was growing up, you see, and they hungered for something a little more complex than just good kids doing good deeds in their good robots. Combattler V and Daimos, along with a third show called Voltus V (no widespread toys in America, sadly), would really put Nagahama on the map, later becoming known as his "Robot Romance Trilogy." Their influence is still felt today. And hey, Nagahama directed Daltanius, too! Isn't that awesome? Then he died of hepatitis.
Hepatitis sucks. They need to make a super robot that can destroy it with some sort of eye-beam or cool boomerang, and--
Whoops, got off track there. I brought up the Robot Romance Trilogy to highlight a neat trend that you see in super robot cartoons and toy lines-- not always, but sometimes, they're grouped by theme by the creators and toy companies. You know Gaogaigar, right? Well, it's actually part of a big, decade-long series of shows collectively called the Brave Saga. These shows have no real continuity; they aren't sequels, they don't really share worlds or characters, but they have shared creative staff over the years (damn near every single robot in the Brave saga is designed by Kunio Okawara, the genius behind the original Gundam designs), they have similar awesome robot visual motifs, and they all have the word "Brave" in their titles. So the whole thing started in 1990 with Brave Exkaiser, and continued with favorites like Brave Police J-Decker, Golden Brave Goldoran, Brave Little Toaster, and of course, King of the Braves Gaogaigar. It's really awesome that we eventually got Gaogaigar on DVD, but you know what sucks? Every single goddamn Brave series had a ton of totally cool toys from Takara. Look at some of this stuff!
Mindblowing, right? But not as mindblowing as the fact that so many people were deprived of both the awesome cartoons and the great toy robots! The Robot Romance and Brave sagas aren't the only "themed" super robot shows, either. They're both actually pretty well-known, at least among devotees of the genre. But there are a couple of groups that are somewhat lesser-known. One of then is the J9 Trilogy. This 3-part (loose) saga of awesome heroes and even awesomer robots kicked off in 1981 with Galactic Cyclone Bryger. They set the bar pretty high with this one-- it's got a team of mercenary do-gooders called J9, featuring a tough fighter named Blaster Kid (I guess it would've been awkward if a guy with a name like that became an accountant instead...), it's got bad guys that want to blow up the goddamned planet Jupiter, and it's got the titular robot, which is created by smashing an awesome battle car and fighter plane into each other at high speed. I also really dig Bryger because it's the first super robot series that has an art style that really strays from what guys like Tadao Nagahama and Go Nagai had set up as the "norm" of super robot aesthetics, with their spiky-haired heroes and brightly-colored, stovepipe-armed hero robots. Character designer Kazuo Komatsubara was reportedly asked by producers to make the characters look Lupin the 3rd-ish, and he accomplishes this in the best way possible.
Look at that Bryger toy. Want it? I want it. After Bryger came Galactic Gale Baxinger, featuring a team of mercenary do-gooders called J9 led by Don Condor and featuring a tough guy called Billy the Shot. Taking place hundreds of years after the total destruction of Jupiter (hey, wait a second!), Don and company use their radical space motorcycles to uphold the power of the Bafuku government. That's right, they're a thinly-veiled super robot version of the Shinsengumi, with crazy early 80s glam outfits to emphasize their authority! And of course, their space bikes combine to form Baxinger, which is one of those robots with a face. Which type do you prefer, the robots with faces (Voltron, Gravion) or without (Mazinger Z, Combattler V)? I like robots with nice, dignified faces, but there's something about the weird face protectors that guys like Optimus Prime have. Ultimately, I think they need to make more robots with beards.
By 1983, the whole J9 concept was getting stale, so to cap it off we got Galactic Whirlwhind Sasuraiger. In the far future year of 2911, a guy named Phileas Fogg er, I.C. Blues makes a wager with the Reform Club err, I mean, evil gangster Bloody God (seriously!) that he can travel around the world in eight look, you get it, right? It's a pastiche of the famous Jules Verne novel, crossed with roaring 20s gangster imagery. It already sounds like a winner, right? But it gets better, because Blues travels the galaxy in his transforming space train, the Sasuraiger! It took a real genius to wake up and say to themselves, “Hmmm, Galaxy Express 999 had trains in space, how can I make the idea even crazier?!” Sasuraiger, that's how! Just like its predecessors, the series is bursting with charm and cool robots. Interestingly, the Sasuraiger actually made an appearance on our shores, as part of the Convertors toy line. Have a gander:
The Convertors were a line of toys sold in the JC Penney catalog. They were kind of like the GoBots, and-- "What the hell is GoBots," you say?! Oh god, I'm old!
The final brick in this magnificent column-shaped... uh, chimney, I guess...? would be Sunrise's Eldoran trilogy. This trio of shows produced from 1991 to 1994 is an awful lot like the Brave series, only the toys were made by Tomy instead of Takara. The series featured Ganbarger (I love this title, because it can also be transliterated as "Gunburger," which sounds delicious) and Gosaurer, but those are the second and third chapters. Okay, there's a fourth one too, but that was a one-off OVA anniversary special. What I really want to talk about is the first Eldoran TV series, Matchless Raijin-Oh. Check out the toy!
It's fantastic, right? It's loaded with snap-on parts and spring-loaded missiles sized perfectly to fit into the average toddler's windpipe. I definitely want one now; I can only imagine how much my eight-year-old self would've wanted it. But now that I've got you lusting after decades-old molded lumps of plastic and die-cast metal, I'm gonna take a break from all that and bring this puppy home by talking about Anime Midstream's release of the first five episodes of Raijin-Oh on DVD.
"Wait a minute," you're all saying in unison, which is kind of creepy, "who are these Anime Midstream upstarts?" Well, that's exactly what they are: upstarts. Producer Jimmy Taylor tells me, quite coyly, that his company simply opened negotiations with Sunrise (yes, the Gundam guys) and selected Raijin-Oh from a potential list of titles the Japanese animation giant was offering for international sale. The guy makes it sound easy, but pounding and shaping a pretty hoary old super robot show into something presentable, let alone entertaining, has got to be a daunting task. Fortunately, Anime Midstream acquit themselves reasonably well, given the source material and the fact that this is a bunch of people creating their first bilingual DVD ever.
But what's the deal with Raijin-Oh? Well, it's a kids' show, so it can really be summed up in a couple of sentences, so here goes. Earth is threatened by the Jaku Empire, evil invaders from the 5th dimension, and only Eldoran has the power to stop them. But Eldoran is badly hurt, so he entrusts the guardian robot hero Raijin-Oh to a bunch of fourth-graders. Yeah, it's basically like Green Lantern, only instead of an outrageously powerful ring, it's a ten-story tall robot, and instead of Hal Jordan, we're stuck with Jin Hyuuga, a cocksure kid with a heart of gold. His classmates have their reservations about becoming defenders of planet earth, but Jin doesn't hesitate, eagerly leaping into Raijin-Oh's cockpit at the first opportunity. From there we get the seemingly endless parade of monsters of the week, but these monsters are kind of fun because they embody a number of things that the children dislike. A grain silo-sized dinosaur is going to seem more fun and awesome than fearsome to a ten-year-old piloting a huge robot, so it would stand to reason that a far scarier adversary for a C-average student would be an enormous, gibbering test booklet. Yeah, this is fun stuff.
The robot vs. monster stuff, while sporting some cute gimmicks, is kind of par for the course-- plenty of stock footage transformation and attack scenes, and Raijin-Oh almost always resorts to his spear and magic helmet to kill the bad guy. What sets Raijin-Oh apart are the little details. Remember that old Spider-Man cartoon where Spidey lives in an apartment with Iceman and Firestar, and when you yank on a certain trophy on the mantlepiece the whole place goes crazy and flip-flops around and turns into a crime-busting headquarters? Well, in Raijin-Oh, the entire school campus does that. If that's not enough, keep your eyes peeled for the totally ineffectual JSDF secretary of defense, who arrives on campus to tersely inform the students that it's the military's job to handle invading aliens, and it's just not appropriate for children to try and help out. When it turns out that the kids are the only ones with the hardware and the moxie to win the day, the military man is all like "Well okay, I guess you kids can defend the earth... but no funny business!" and storms out. The kids themselves, once they get into robot-fightin' mode, don outfits that would look at home on the 1984 Jackson Five Victory album cover. It's just that kind of show. And of course, there's a great big roarin’ lion head in there somewhere.
Production-wise, the DVD is... a hard sell, really. Raijin-Oh is almost 20 years old, and desperately in need of some remastering-- it looks like even just finding the original film masters and giving them a chemical bath would do a world of good; the footage is grainy and a little dark. The subtitled version is workmanlike, comprehensible but full of tangled syntax. As for the dub, I really want to like it, but I can only kind of like it so far. Anime Midstream took a novel approach by recruiting most of their voice talent from the local anime con. The resulting batch of newly-minted voice actors sounds like... a bunch of kids doing a fan dub. There's not much to be done about it; they're new at this, after all, and if you go back and listen to Orguss, Animaze's first dub, it's not really any better. I hope they improve-- lead actress Yuki has got the overconfident, brash leader thing down pat, but she can't pull off Jin's fierce, hot-blooded cries of "UNMATCHABLE RAIJIN-OHHHHHH!!" It kinda sounds like she's holding back; it kinda sounds like the whole cast is holding back. Hopefully with experience they'll cut loose. Anime St. Louis guest of honor Mike Reynolds, the elder, absolutely awesome gravel-throated voice of a thousand old guys and villains, makes a cool cameo to lend some class to the proceedings.
So, that's Raijin-Oh, a series that, in an era of cheap-o box sets, is coming out five episodes at a time in single discs. It runs counter to the entire way the anime market is going. The show is old and not at all what most American fans like. Because of that, I have to admire Anime Midstream's gumption in getting this release out. There's absolutely no way they're going to get rich doing this, and the fruits of their labor are good fun, if a little sloppy. And hey, while the DVD's technical specs aren't perfect, at least it's better than anything TOKYOPOP could have released.
So there you have it: a whole bunch of data about a whole bunch of awesome robots that you and I probably didn't get to play with as a kid. But hey, know what's cool? Anime has stuck around. It used to rear its head only occasionally, but we've had anime in our living rooms continuously for over a decade. Because of that, we're seeing a sizeable generation of fans who've grown up with Sailor Moon and Pokémon and are starting to have kids. Don't forget to buy awesome robots for yourself the kids to play with! Finally, I know that a whole bunch of you readers will rush to the forum to chastise me for excluding this robot or that one. That's not necessary. There are dozens and dozens of relatively obscure yet awesome robots, from Space Emperor God Sigma to Video Warrior Laserion. I omitted some robots for one reason and one reason only: more columns down the road! After all, why make one column about lesser-known super robots when I can make two? Better yet, I could make three, and then they could combine into the mighty Toolescolumnar, which would battle against the evil forces of Deadline. That would make a great toy! Someone get Bandai on the line.
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