The Mike Toole Show Return to Super Robot Island
by Michael Toole,
A vanishingly small few of you are nodding enthusiastically, because you're decrepit and old like me and can remember watching Gaiking on TV as children. Back in those days, we got our anime fix on broadcast and cable TV, and a blessed few TV stations in the US got a package of shows called Force Five. Force Five was awesome! It was a package of five separate anime TV series' brought to us by producer Jim Terry, who cleverly got around the 65-episode syndication minimum by selling a "5-pack" of shows, with each series being showcased on a corresponding day of the week. Sure, this approach involved episodes constantly being shown out of sequence, confusing edits and rewrites, and the complete obfuscation of the ongoing serial plotlines that got so many of us addicted to TV anime in the first place. On the other hand, the actual content of Force Five was irresistible to small children - Monday was Danguard Ace day, Tuesdays we were served a 3-course meal of Starvengers (a.k.a. Getter Robo G), and Wednesdays got us Spaceketeers (nee Starzinger), the only non robot-powered show of the bunch. The week would finish particularly strongly, with UFO Robot Grendizer on Thursdays (still my favorite of this bunch) and Gaiking on Fridays. Seeing the iconic hero robot again reminded me that Gaiking was a very welcome sight when I was little, because that meant it was Friday and the weekend was here! Thirty years later, I'm watching Gaiking on the computer screen, it's subtitled... and oh yeah, it's a totally different Gaiking.
That's right internet, today we make our brave return to the Island of Super Misfit Robots, to once again bear witness to the heroic metal men (and women!) that thrilled throngs of kids decades back, but have faded from the consciousness of modern anime fandom. Last time, I had an easy excuse to visit this topic, as it allowed me to spotlight Anime Midstream's curious release of the equally curious Matchless Raijin-Oh. That series seems to be keeping to its schedule of one DVD volume per year (volume 2 highlight: an episode entitled "Beware of Drunks"), so not much needs to be said about it this time. Super robots in general continue to keep a low profile in the commercial anime landscape, but there are two neat-o titles that are actually out there for huge swaths of the anime-loving public to enjoy. One of them is the aforementioned Gaiking: Legend of Daikū-maryū, in actuality a vivid reimagining of the 1976 original, which hit Japan's TV sets in 2005. The show is retooled to appeal to modern kids (instead of hot-blooded teens driving the robots, it's actual children) and there are some major alterations to the story and even some of the robot's special attacks, but the titular hero and the massive dragon-shaped battleship that spawns him, Daikumaryu, are still easily recognizable. The show isn't as outrageous as its predecessor (created by Go Nagai, though Toei tried to cut him out of the deal for years), but it's still a fine and fun series with tons of special attacks and the ever-reliable monster-of-the-week formula. This series has apparently been available for streaming on services like Crunchyroll and Toonzai for a fair bit of time, but it somehow slipped under my radar until I found it on Hulu. The subtitles are OK, but if you ask me this is the kind of series that cries out to be dubbed. Still, it's good to have Gaiking back!
Gaiking isn't the only super robot to get an interesting facelift in recent years. A favorite of mine in that category would have to be Kotetsu Jeeg, a pretty righteous Go Nagai joint from 1975 that, like so many other kickass robot shows, never got dubbed into English for the US market. The titular hero robot, an awesomely ugly yellow and green piece of work that looks kind of like a pissed off pro wrestler, did make his way to our shores in radically altered form, though - there was a super-cool magnetic Jeeg toy that was recast as both Baron Karza and Force Commander in Mattel's Micronauts toy line. What I really admire about Kotetsu Jeeg is that, in a genre known for incredibly cheesy transformation and attack sequences, Jeeg's was among the best and craziest. Not content to settle for the confusing sequence of chutes, tunnels, and ladders that most robot pilots would use to launch their brightly colored weapons of justice, Jeeg's hero Hiroshi would launch his motorcycle into the air, turn a somersault and transform into the head of the robot, and then his girlfriend would take a freakin' huge cannon and shoot the other Jeeg-parts into the air so he could combine and get to fighting. Jeeg was awesome and lasted for 46 episodes. I've seen five of them, but if someone had just put it on US TV when I was in first grade, I wouldn't be so far behind the curve! The funny thing is, thirty-two years later, there would be an all-new Jeeg on Japanese TV-- Kotetsushin Jeeg! But this Jeeg, directed by modern super robot anime standard-bearer Jun Kawagoe, is actually a direct sequel to the original, complete with hookups to the original story (now 50 years in the past) and appearances from the old show's characters. I think that this is pretty awesome, but at the same time - did kids watch this show, or was it honestly aimed at the fortysomething office workers and truck drivers who loved the original as children? Who was Kotetsushin Jeeg for, exactly? I mean, besides myself - like its predecessor, this show didn't get a US release, but it was widely fansubbed during its broadcast, and it was kinda too good for me to ignore. Sadly, this just isn't the kind of show that can really succeed commercially in North America, so those fansubs are probably all we're getting.
The final entry in this trio of super robot originals and their recent remakes (combining all 3 would probably make a pretty badass robot, don't you think?) would be Dancougar. Dancougar is unique; unlike the other two, the original series, a 38-episode yarn from 1985, was released in its entirety on commercial VHS, courtesy of Software Sculptors. I was actually really excited to get these tapes when they hit stores in the mid-90s, because at the time they were way cheaper than most releases ($20 for 5 subbed episodes). Of course, I was also really excited because Dancougar was a great show that nobody in these parts seemed to know about. In retrospect, it's kind of surprising that Dancougar didn't get scooped up and aired on TV in the 80s, because it came out in Japan at the zenith of hype that shows like Voltron and Robotech were creating on these shores - and not only does the show look great, with fluid, colorful animation and distinctive character and robot designs, it uses a Voltron-esque formula that involves four animal-themed transforming robots all combining to form the mighty Dancougar. There was even a popular toy line ready to go with the series, but it wouldn't hit our shores for a decade. 22 years later, original mecha designer and fight jockey Masami Obari would return to the franchise to create Dancougar Nova, a 12-episode affair that was flogged as both a sequel and a remake to the original. It turned out to be neither - while it used a redesigned Dancougar robot as its central element, it doesn't share much in the way of story or themes - Japanese fans regard it as more of a successor to Obari's recent Gravion than a complement to the original Dancougar. I think Dancougar Nova kind of sucks, but in fairness, the original series had a really unique tone to it - ten years before Gainax would use religious themes and names as a flavor packet for their Evangelion stew, Dancougar was chock full of the stuff, with the ever-present idea that the titular robot was some sort of demigod waging war against other godly robots.
Of course, comparatively, the three original stories and their remakes discussed above are quite high profile. After all, two out of three of them got some sort of release in English on these shores! But do you remember Astroganger? Or Magnos, or Groizer X, or Blocker Corps. IV: Machine Blaster? How about Dai-Apollon? Well, now you will remember these shows, because I'm gonna help you! We can start with Astroganger, because that's the oldest of the bunch I'm discussing here, dating from way back in 1972. The series is a "kid and his robot pal" affair kinda like Gigantor or Babel II, but with the difference being that Astroganger is fully sentient, a robot made of living metal who protects and advises his little pal Kentaro, but has to do a lot of the fighting and thinking himself. He's also kind of ugly and weird looking, which will set the trend for the amazing retinue of miraculous robots discussed ahead. Astroganger was created by Knack Productions, a studio famed among fans all over the world for creating a mind-twisting array of so-bad-it's-good shows like Ninja The Wonderboy and Charge Man Ken. Astroganger doesn't have that level of infamy, but it's still a rough affair with a very unique super robot at the forefront.
Speaking of so-bad-it's-good, I can no longer keep silent about 1977's Magno Robo Ga-Keen, or as it's known around these parts, Magnos The Robot. In fairness, the series itself ain't that bad - directed by the legendary Tomoharu Kadomatsu, it featured a remarkably weird-looking robot that used an array of magnetic weapons and power-ups to save the day. It was the first super robot show to feature elaborate, drawn-out stock footage sequences for its transformations and attacks - in an era where not a single episode of Grendizer could go by without Duke Freed doing that weird arbitrary chair-spin to launch the robot from the saucer, Kadomatsu would up the ante, with sequences of the show's two heroes jumping and piroetting as they transformed into their hilariously ugly robot counterparts and floated up to augment and pilot the heroic robot itself. These bits could go on for minutes, and while I now think this approach is unforgivably cheap, I did really like repetition when I was a little kid, so maybe guys like Kadomatsu were on to something. The thing about Ga-Keen, though, is that it was clumsily edited into a 90-minute TV movie for distribution on American TV and home video. This amazing piece of work featured some of the most bizarre dialogue rewrites I've ever seen (the main villain is called "Xerxes Tire-Iron Dada"), and seems to be an endless highlight reel of the show's clumsiest, most strangely-animated moments. I think my favorite bit would have to be the part where Magnos, unable to muster the energy to fly, reconfigures into a wheeled version that looks like some sort of super robot paraplegic. Astoundingly, this film has been issued on DVD multiple times, so start searching those bargain bins for it!
If you look at Magnos and think "Nah, that one just isn't ugly enough," then Blocker Corps. IV: Machine Blaster is the show for you. This series hit the airwaves a year before Magnos, but boy, is it uglier! The plot is standard fare involving four stereotypically heroic characters (hot-blooded guy, quiet guy, little kid, and fat guy) and their enormously weird-looking robots. One of these robots is called Robocles, which may actually be the best name for a robot in the entire world. Speaking of awesome names, the show's main villains are called Hellqueen the 5th and Kai-Buddha. I guess it's not surprising that this show's contemporary Getter Robo G had to up the ante by including Space Hitler as one of the bad guys! Anyway, Machine Blaster was unaccountably popular in Italy, where it went under the title Astrorobot Ypsilon, and features an absolutely mindblowing special attack. See, when the going gets rough, Ishida and the other robot pilots don't form Voltron or launch rocket punches, they combine into an unstoppable ring of deadly power by doing this:
I literally cannot believe that we in the English-speaking world were robbed of this goodness, and forced to watch Laverne and Shirley meet Fonzie and his Talking Dog and They're All in the Army for Some Reason instead! Anyway, the parade of awesomely weird super robots isn't finished yet. From that same famed year of 1976, the incredibly busy Go Nagai would team up with the infamous and previously-mentioned Knack Studios to create Groizer X - or as I call him, Fat-Bot.
You need to be a little careful around Fat-Bot. Don't talk about his weight, or his heavy breathing, or about the massive, endless trail of empty Doritos bags and Mountain Dew bottles behind him. Because if you do, and he gets a little mad, he'll transform into a giant jet bomber and level your entire city. Groizer X did his chubby robot-into-jet act for 36 episodes; the show didn't make waves in Japan or Italy or the Spanish-speaking world, but somehow it got pretty big in Brazil back when the place was under military rule. Maybe it's because they called the series "The Space Pirate" instead of "Ha Ha, look at this Weird Plane-bot." Thing is, Groizer X has persisted just enough that he's gotten a couple of awesome new toy versions and a cameo in Yasuhiro Imagawa's amazing Shin Mazinger TV series. Gone, but not forgotten!
Man, 1976 was a good year for weird super robots. It must've been because I was born that year. If that's the case, then I really have to apologize, because Dai-Apollon would be my fault. Wait a minute, Dai-Apollon is awesome! In that case, I really have to take credit for it. Er, anyway, Dai-Apollon is awesome mainly because it... it's a football super robot. And I'm not talking about soccer football, either, I'm talking about gridiron goddamned football. Take a look:
Yeah, that's a super robot, and he's wearing a football helmet! Dai-Apollon even wields a football-shaped sword, and the robot is controlled by a pack of orphaned kids who have their own amateur football team. Probably the best part of the entire football motif is that it's fused weirdly with super sentai sensibilities, so heroic leader Takeshi gets to wear a red football uniform (with pads and everything - if you look closely, maybe you can make out Pat Patriot on the shoulders!), while the girl is stuck in a pink uniform. The kid summon their robot by chanting "U! F! O!" cheerleader-style, and the launch sequence is completed when Dai-Apollon reaches up and locks his helmet grille into place. It's pretty awesome stuff, though typically roughly animated, and without it, we just might have never gotten Eyeshield 21! Like some other shows of this era, Dai-Apollon never got shown on TV in English, but there was an oddball 90-minute VHS edit entitled Shadow World. That's one that's worth tracking down.
The marshal of this parade of super robot awesomeness will be... heck, let's go with Gold Lightan, shall we? From 1981, Gold Lightan is a Tatsunoko joint that, like good old Astroganger, involves a heroic robot that can think and reason for himself. The gimmick is, Gold Lightan disguises himself carefully as an item that can be placed in the pocket of his kid pal, Hiro. What could this item be? Surely it's something that you'd expect to find in a little boy's pockets. A yo-yo, perhaps? Maybe a candy bar, or a baseball, or even a slingshot or a calculator? No, silly, Gold Lightan is a cigarette lighter! I applaud Tatsunoko for this visionary idea, because there's really nothing more important than teaching our children that smoking cigarettes and lighting fires is cool. Well alright, Hiro doesn't do any of this stuff, but it still strikes me as a hilariously bad idea to sell a toy that looks like a Zippo to small children. Maybe that's why it never got dubbed and imported. On the upside, Gold Lightan was fun and entertaining, a breezy superhero tale that sits well with Tatsunoko favorites like Yatterman and Urashiman.
Of course, I can't round this column off without a surprise guest. If the three robots I mentioned first are kind of like a Getter Team of combining robot remakes, then this one would be the Texas Mack counterpart - a smaller, weirder affair that is somehow even cooler than the main guys. The actual anime I'm talking about here would be Mazinkaiser SKL, a brand new OVA series that will be available for fans here in North America in May, courtesy of Media Blasters. As the title suggests, SKL builds on the sprawling mythology of Go Nagai's Mazinger Z, which already features a broad and confusing map of sequels, movies, OVAs, and spinoffs. The big hook this time is that the robot isn't piloted by a familiar hero like Koji or Tetsuya, but by two separate brand new heroes, Ken and Ryo, who must work together to control the outrageously powerful MazinKaiser. The series effectively combines classic super robot stylings with great action animation, complete with opener by 80s metal heroes Loudness, and the two protagonists are amusingly man-pretty in a way that makes me wonder if they weren't carefully redesigned to be fujoshi bait. Whatever, it's all good-- super robot anime just isn't common enough in this part of the world, and I applaud Media Blasters for ending the drought with the flavorful Mazinkaiser SKL.
In my original column on this subject, I said that I'd definitely be doing a second and third entry, because you need at least three to create an awesome combining robot column. I'm not even sure I need to stop at three, to be honest, because I've still got God Sigma and Gowapper 5 and Gordian and Gingaizer and Baldios and Trider G7 and tons more to talk about. In any event, mark my words - we've returned to the Island of Super Misfit Robots once, so if we keep to the schedule, we'll be coming back and going Beneath the Island of Super Misfit Robots sometime soon. Until then, gang, say your prayers, take your vitamins, and keep looking for awesome super robot toys and cartoons!
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