The Mike Toole Show
Super Robot Island: Dork of the Moon
by Michael Toole,
This week, despite knowing better, I went and saw Transformers 3. Now, I did enjoy myself, simply because the film is one brain-shredding, deafening spectacle after another, but I could tell right away that what I was watching wouldn't bear much thought, or repeat viewings. Chalk it up to the baffling plot. Or maybe the absurd, barely coherent script. Or the frankly shocking intensity of the violence of the film, which may as well have been called Robo with a Shotgun. In any case, I find myself wondering what the problem is. I should love any movie with giant robots in it, right? Because giant, transforming robots are fantastic, and movies are fantastic. Somehow, the ingredients didn't bind as well as I hoped they would, and my thoughts went to other robots. Neglected robots.
I love returning to this magical wonderland of not-quite famous super robots and mecha. I can think of plenty of them, particularly when I blow the dust off of my copy of View Broadly Super Robots (warning: this book will teach you katakana), and most of them come from Japanese cartoons. So here we go, it's time to gather around the TV and watch your favorite awesome combining hero! You know the one I mean, right? This godlike super robot is created by fusing the mechanical masters of land, sea, and air, so let's all enjoy our favorite
wait a minute, who the hell is that
That is Space Emperor God Sigma, or God Σ if I'm being particular. He comes from the far future year of 1980, where he loyally defends the citizens of Trinity City from incursions by the dreaded alien Eldar Empire. Powered by trinium and the hot-blooded hot-bloodedness of his main pilot, Toshiya Dan, this robot combines from three separate, earth, sea, and air-based robots. That's right, long before Centurions sold a lot of awkward toy battle armor using the same concept, God Σ was fighting for freedom over land, sea, and air. I love the design of God Sigma in particular because it has a calculated familiarity - it was contemporaneous with fare like GoLion and Godmars, and looks like it came from the same neighborhood. Not surprisingly, God Σ toys were part of Bandai's charmingly weird GODAIKIN toy line, which made incursions into the US in the early 80s.
Now that I've got God Σ out of the way, let's get a little more chronological and hop back to 1976, the year that both me and the movie Logan's Run were born. Tatsunoko's main man Ippei Kuri was casting his eyes towards the lucrative super robot market, and the studio managed to out-ugly pretty much every other super robot ever (yes, including Ga-keen and Dai-Apollon!) with Gowapper 5 Godam, a show that features not just the ugliest vehicles, not just the ugliest robots, not just the ugliest costumes, but the ugliest everything! But Gowapper did one thing that no other super robot series had tried before - it put a fiery girl character named Yoko Misaki in the main cockpit, casting a female as the hero long before it became common. It's a series that's pretty well remembered perhaps because of its quirks - they still make expensive toys of Godam itself, and I find myself strangely compelled to get one. It's just so awful.
Down the road at Nippon Animation, a director named Masami Anno eyed these proceedings jealously, and decided to have a crack at the "ugliest robot" crown. He... acquitted himself well, actually:
Sends a chill down your spine, doesn't it? It's Gingaizer! This 1977 hero robot was actually designed by Kazutaka Miyatake, the super-awesome bro who designed the mecha in Orguss and mentored Macross superstar Shoji Kawamori. Yeah, robot designers were... different back then. The show's bizarre stock footage sequences are much-loved among the nico nico crowd, though I can't confess to having seen much of this show - is it an action series? Is it a comedy? It does feature episode direction by future Bee Train conductor Koichi Mashimo, so maybe it's neither. What it is, is fascinatingly ugly. This is one of those super robots where they couldn't make really good toys for about 20 years because they had to figure out how the hell to engineer the thing's improbable transformation sequences - kinda like Getter Robo.
How do you make a super robot more super? You put it inside another bigger, awesomer super robot! Machine Robo totally had that science down, but a decade prior, Gordian Warrior was twice as crazy! See, in Machine Robo, our hero Rom Stol, when confronted with danger, jumped first into the robot armor called Kenryu, and then his final attack would involve leaping into the even-bigger Vikung-fu. Gordian's hero, Daigo, starts off in a light combat suit, clambers into the warrior robot Prosetter, who then climbs into Dillinger (yep, Dillinger). When even Dillinger isn't up to the task, it slips into an even BIGGER robot called Garbin. This show is neat to watch, because it was right when the aforementioned Tatsunoko were starting to shift from wacky comic heroes like Yattaman and Muteking to slightly more realistic wacky comic heroes, like Urashiman. The Gordian crew are still very much super robots, but they're robots that are starting to get that "mecha" look.
Speaking of that "mecha" look, the 1984 series Galvion definitely had it! If you liked Cyber City OEDO 808 (and I know you did,) you might also like Galvion because of its similar premise, in which convicted crooks drive hot transforming robo-sports cars around the city, saving the innocent and preventing trouble to earn time that can be used against their prison sentences. This TV series was cancelled several episodes early due to lousy ratings - it purportedly has a hilariously rushed ending, but I haven't seen it yet. Don't worry, since it's directed by Koichi "M.D. Geist" Ohata, it's definitely on the list. Galvion was one of those properties that drove me insane as a kid, because several toy robo-cars from the show were carried at a local gift ship. The boxes had the title, key artwork, all the awesome stuff - and the show itself was nowhere to be found on TV! Fortunately, the internet would ride to my rescue just 15 years later. Like the similarly awesome Sasuraiger, Galvion got more US cred courtesy of JC Penney's Converters toys - the main character's car appeared, cleverly renamed "Monty Carlo." Ha!
Man, 1984 was a good year for awesome robots. One of my favorite big robot shows ever came out in 1984, and that's Sunrise's Giant Gorg. Gorg isn't really as lost as many of the shows I talk about here - it's a truly excellent series that is well-remembered for its incredible animation and direction by Yoshikazu Yasuhiko. The series itself opens in a hilariously dated "future" New York, where our hero Yu arrives to talk to his dead dad's old research partner. Numerous unexpected friends and messy tangles with bad guys later, Yu finds himself on an island in the Pacific, trying to communicate with a giant, sentient blue thing - Gorg! Way back in 2000, Bandai Entertainment actually got the rights to Giant Gorg, as well as the studio's SPT Layzner, with plans to release them in inexpensive sub-only brick packs. This never came to fruition - I've been told by more than one off-the-record source that this was due to Sunrise sending Bandai Entertainment substandard masters that simply weren't good enough for home video release. Gorg is right there at the top of my list of shows I really want to watch, so I wish the companies could clear this mess up.
1984 was also the year of the least-beloved Mazinger. Which one, you ask? Was it some weird sequel or spinoff of Great Mazinger, or Mazinkaiser, or something? No, it was God Mazinger, a fantasy adventure where the titular robot is more like a stone golem that only vaguely resembles its namesake. Still, the show is right out of Go Nagai's head, and it's fun to watch the big guy go crazy on the bad guys with his giant sword.
I'll close off this visit to Super Robot-jima with a look at one of the better-known 80s robot shows, 1986's Machine Robo: Revenge of Cronos. You remember the GoBots, right? And the Transformers? You remember how the toy market kind of pitted them against each other, and Transformers was the clear victor from the beginning? You remember that awful GoBots Hanna-Barbera cartoon, with the dense, complicated lyrics ("The GOBOTS! The GOBOTS!")? Well, before all of that branding happened, GoBots and Transformers also fought for toy shelf supremacy in Japan, where Tomy's Machine Robo line crossed swords with Takara's Diaclone. These toys, many of them designed by famous anime mecha designers, were not originally supported by anime - but when Hasbro climbed into bed with Takara and bankrolled the Transformers cartoon in 1985, Tomy knew that something had to be done, and fast. They got the deal with Tonka that led to the awful American cartoon, but at the same time, they enlisted the aid of Ashi Pro to create the local Machine Robo: Revenge of Cronos.
Machine Robo is actually available on DVD, and that tale alone is a convoluted one involving an accounting error and the series getting licensed by accident. Still, licensor Central Park Media had a go with the show, releasing a total of 3 volumes on disc. This doesn't even account for half of the show's crazy awesomeness, in which Rom Stol and his hot sister Leina search for a source of unlimited energy, all while fighting off the incursions of the Devil Satan Six. Machine Robo's world is one where some robots look like transforming vehicles, and others, like Rom and Leina, have skin and hair. Also, these robots are robo-luddites, tilling the earth with plows and living in huts until the bad guys attack. The show's cheap, hilarious formula (Rom always ends the episode with a canned speech, a transformation sequence, and a fight) is kind of awesome, and I love the fact that Leina was anime's "it" girl of 1986. Yeah, you know how Rei Ayanami was the cover-girl on every damn nerd magazine from 1995-1997? In Japan, in the late 80s, it was this cutie:
Oh baby! An expensive figma-a-like of Leina just got released, so she's still got her fans. And that brings this super robot safari to a close - I'm trying to cover everything, and we're finally starting to come out of the heady 70s and into the cheap, gaudy, toy-commercial cartoon 80s. But there's still a ton of hidden awesomeness, like Laserion, and Mechander Robo, and the fascinatingly weird, cheap reduxes of Gigantor and Getter Robo. What was your favorite obscure super robot show of the 80s? Sound off in the comments - and remember, Voltron doesn't count! We all liked Voltron.
As an aside, if you're going to Otakon in two weeks, come and meet me! I'll be hosting yet another Dubs that Time Forgot (again, with 100% new material) and co-hosting a panel on underrated mecha DVDs with my pal Doug. Let's look forward to it!
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