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Old School
Giant Robo

by Mike Crandol,
The Giant Robot: what is it about this wholly impractical, utterly ridiculous concept that fascinates us so? For almost half a century the Japanese have been spinning tales of these mechanical behemoths, from the unabashedly campy Ultraman to the gravely serious Patlabor. It's easy to snicker at a couple of 200-foot tall tin cans engaged in a wrestling match with Tokyo as the mat, but most people will admit there's something intangibly cool about it.

As fans of the giant robot genre grew up over the decades, so, too, did the robots themselves. The kiddie-friendly Gigantor of the 1960s, a singular creation who obeyed the commands of his 10-year-old master, gave way to the epic space opera Gundam, in which adolescents battled for the future of the planet in sleek, mass-produced humanoid machines. Patlabor brought the giant robot to the adult world and speculated on its potential everyday uses as a group of twenty-something police officers utilized their Ingrams to clear accident sites and enforce roadblocks. Giants Robots have even dabbled in the metaphysical and philosophical as complex metaphors in Neon Genesis Evangelion.

But no matter how grown-up it may seem these days, the reason the Giant Robot myth endures is that it appeals to the kid in all of us. It's the ultimate toy, the Power Wheels your parents wouldn't buy you as a child. In its purest form any giant robot show is about a kid (or kid-at-heart) and his invincible metal pal. Director Yasuhiro Imagawa gets back to the genre's roots in his epic masterwork Giant Robo, which takes the best of the old and mixes it with the best of the new to create the definitive giant robot story.

Designed to evoke the classic manga work of artist Mitsuteru Yokoyama, Giant Robo is the greatest 1930s sci-fi movie serial that never was. 12-year-old Daisaku Kusama uses his remote-control wristwatch to command the mighty Giant Robo, and together they work with the elite superhero team the Experts of Justice to combat Big Fire, “an underworld organization whose only goal is absolute world domination”. Robo and the Experts travel the globe fighting their enemies in one action-packed episode after another.

Big Fire's latest plot revolves around the Shizuma Drive, a pollution-free energy source that powers everything from jet engines to electric toothbrushes. During the drive's test phase an unstable Shizuma sample exploded and destroyed the entire country of Bashtarlle. The blame was placed on Dr. Franken Von Folger, a scientist who died in the catastrophe, and ten years later his son Genya seeks revenge on the world that he feels unjustly crucified his father for the mishap. He joins with Big Fire to destroy every Shizuma drive on the planet and thus cripple all of humanity. The Experts of Justice's best chances to defeat Genya and Big Fire lie with Giant Robo, whose nuclear core makes him immune to Genya's Anti-Shizuma weapon, and Gin-Rei, a sexy sharpshooter with a hidden connection to Genya and Von Folger. With an assortment of superpowered allies at their side, Daisaku and Gin-Rei confront Big Fire in one of the most titanic struggles ever put to animation.

To call all of this “over-the-top” would be an understatement. Superpowers are a prerequisite for living on Giant Robo's Earth. Anyone who's anyone can jump 50 feet and lift 5 times their weight, and the more powerful beings approach godlike status. Daisaku's mentor Taisou is a human power generator, and Justice Expert Kenji Murasame's talent is…get this… he can't die. Big Fire agents shoot fireballs from their fists with aplomb and rip people in half with a literal snap of their fingers. Then of course there are the robots. He's called Giant Robo for a reason: he's roughly the size of an aircraft carrier, and his evil robotic counterparts are no less improbably huge. Superhuman combatants and enormous metal monsters alike come together in an immense clash of anime titans that makes Dragon Ball Z look like Hello Kitty in comparison.

It's amazingly camp, and that's part of the fun, but it's all so well crafted and passionately portrayed in the end you can't help but take it seriously. Imagawa's directorial skill and conviction pushes this overly melodramatic tale beyond its own kitsch and into the realm of homeric epic. It avoids the formulaic structure of most OVA series; the story never gets sidetracked and barrels along at a relentless pace from one installment to the next, making Giant Robo seem less like a video series and more like a single grand film. The hyper-realistic characters face some very human dilemas: strongman Tetsugyu finds his role in the Experts usurped by Daisaku and Robo, Gin-Rei must make a crucial choice between duty and family, and Daisaku struggles to fulfill his father's dying wish for peace without sacrifice. Like the plays of Shakespeare or the great Norse sagas, Giant Robo features a cast of mythic but approachable heroes, not only telling an incredibly fantastic story but also completely drawing the audience into its world.

But with a story this far-out you need to have good animation to hold it all together, no matter how convincing your characters are. Fortunately Giant Robo's animation is among the best ever produced for a direct-to-video release. It's no Disney movie to be sure but these are some of the most exciting action sequences ever put to animation. Most of the battles are fully animated and are simply beautiful in their execution. The typical anime shortcuts are here but Imagawa's expert direction glosses over the occasional static shot or reused run-cycle with breakneck pacing and an eye for emotional storytelling. Highlights include the opening train-chase in episode 1, a showdown in Shanghai in volume 4, and the episode-long all-out war that caps off the series.

The series' greatest asset however is its incredible score by Masamichi Amano. As bombastic as the story itself, Giant Robo's soundtrack was recorded by Poland's National Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra and is one of anime's…heck, animation's crowning musical accomplishments. It has an almost operatic quality, which is emphasized by the recurring use of composer Gaetano Donizetti's “Una Furtiva Iagrima”, and the many themes are every bit as memorable as the themes from Star Wars or Indiana Jones. This adds immensely to the cinematic tone of this series and gives you the feeling that you are indeed watching something special.

But behind the orchestra, the animation, the fantastic cast of characters and the magnificent plot, it's the bond between Daisaku and Robo that's at the heart of the show. The series delves much deeper into their relationship than the superficial attachments found in other giant robot stories, establishing an honest emotional connection between child and machine. Bequeathed to the young boy by his murdered father, Robo becomes the orphaned Daisaku's guardian and surrogate parent. In a sense Robo is Daiskau's father. More importantly, he is the instrument by which Daisaku can achieve his father's hopes and dreams for a better world.

This is mirrored by Genya's mad devotion to his own father and his quest to wreak havoc on the planet in Von Folger's name. Just like Daisaku, Genya uses his father's legacy, the Anti-Shizuma Drive, to carry out what he believes is Von Folger's final request. Two sides of the same coin, Daisaku and Genya come to understand one another even as they fight for opposing ideals. One of the most dramatic aspects of the series is the knowledge that the fulfilling of one dead father's wish will come at the expense of the other's.

Thus Giant Robo ends with a dedication “to all fathers and their children”, a multifaceted statement. For Giant Robo is not just a story of sons and fathers, it's a story made with today's sophisticated methods in the style of yesterday's adventure tales. It is based on the collective life's work of manga artist Mitsuteru Yokoyama, whose beloved creations many Japanese grew up with in the 1960s and 70s. While the story is original, every character in Giant Robo is derived from a different Yokoyama work…many hail from “Tales of the Water Margin” which takes place in ancient China…and though the connections are lost on most of Japan's youth the series is one great big trip down Memory Lane for many of their parents. It was also a labor of love for Imagawa, who desired to create the ultimate tribute to his inspiration Yokoyama and spent over five years bringing Giant Robo to life. The first installment appeared in 1992, but the series did not conclude until 1998.

It is also worth mentioning that there was a three-episode Gin-Rei OVA series released in Japan during the second half of Giant Robo's production. They are broad self-parodies of the more serious main series and are absolutely hilarious, but have never been released in the US.

Manga Entertainment handled the American VHS distribution of Giant Robo in a curious fashion. The English dubbed version spread the seven-episode saga over six volumes, but the Japanese-language release comprised the same material on a mere three tapes…a rare instance of the subtitled collection being cheaper than the dubbed. Only very recently have the videos gone out of print; they are still available at some online dealers like Robert's Anime Corner Store, but are going fast, and do not show up on eBay very frequently. Plans had been mentioned for an eventual two-disc DVD release but evidently a question of rights is preventing Manga from moving ahead with the project. It could be a long time in coming. Any giant robot fan that has yet to see the adventures of “the mightiest robot of our world” can't afford to wait. Grab those primitive VHS tapes while you still can.

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