The Mike Toole Show
Rise of Super Robot Island
by Michael Toole,
Several weeks back, I was introduced to this wonderful cartoon, produced by a group of Danish animation students as their final project. It's a damn nice piece of work-- polished, wryly amusing, and remarkably evocative of silly 80s toy tie-in cartoons. Frankly, it has "PILOT EPISODE FOR NEW ADULT SWIM SERIES" written all over it. There are props, character stereotypes, and other ideas from cartoons like BraveStarr, Galaxy Rangers, and Saber Rider & the Star Sheriffs baked in there. What do all of these shows have in common? Horses. Robot horses. Dare I say-- SUPER robot horses! So let's mount up on our robo-steeds and take another thrilling journey to the mysterious Super Robot Island!
Of course, the best way to open this journey is with the aforementioned Saber Rider. Saber Rider is what World Events Productions, the Voltron people, got busy with after Voltron had hit big. Recognizing the potential for both syndication money and lucrative toy bucks from the largely untapped anime market, WEP dove back in, and came up with 1984's Star Musketeer Bismark, a Studio Pierrot joint that took typical super robot trappings - a color-coded team of heroes and their giant robot - and applied a nifty western motif. WEP had enough resources to pound the show into whatever shape they desired, so they ended up creating no less than five episodes worth of all-new animation. This was mainly done so the bad guys, the Outriders, could be depicted as vanishing and returning to the "Vapor dimension" after being shot - can't have bad guys actually dying, no sir! In addition to new insert animation like this, several new episodes were dropped in, turning a 51-episode series into a 52-episode series and reshaping the narrative slightly to give the viewer the impression that the guy in black armor was the leader. If you're a super sentai fan, you'll see right through this ruse - everyone knows that the guy in red is always in charge! Anyway, it's fun to pick out these "new" episodes among the original Bismark ones - the animation is still by Pierrot, and it's generally OK, but character designer Shigeru Kato wasn't available, and his delicate touch is really obviously missing in the new footage:
Saber Rider's odd localization is a fun artifact, but it's kind of a shame it had to be altered at all. There's nothing all that crazy about the original, other than the cast's frequent visits to bars ("soda fountains," natch) and the fact that the leader is the race car driver with the Japanese flag on all of his stuff. Originally Shinji Hikari, he'd be redubbed Fireball; blue-plated, rootin/tootin/shootin cowboy American Bill Wilcox would become Colt; pink-armored French girl genius Marianne Louvre would become April Eagle; and black-clad Scottish cavalryman Richard Lancelot (holy crap, that's a great name) would be redubbed Saber Rider. Like I said earlier, the folks at WEP, led by script guru Mark Handler, cleverly (and sometimes not-so-cleverly) rearranged footage and dialogue to give Saber Rider leadership of the group. This isn't that much of a stretch; in the original, Richard is the smart, handsome, strategic guy anyway. But it's kind of funny how they drastically altered the narrative of the show, at great cost, more or less on a whim. The really important thing about Bismark, however, is the titular robot, a gigantic metal cowboy with a ten-gallon hat, a chrome six-shooter, and a steel poncho(!!). Check this dude out:
It's an awesome robot and an extra-awesome toy, which does almost everything the cartoon version does. Perplexingly, Bismark himself (he was called "Ramrod" in the dub) never found his way to US toy store shelves. Bismark is still immensely fun to watch in the show-- particularly in the dub, where he's voiced by no less than Optimus Prime himself, Peter Cullen. Saber Rider hung around for a solid few years in syndication and got sold to a bunch of other countries; more recently, there's been a cheapo DVD release (you can find the whole show for under $20, if you don't just watch it right here on ANN), a soundtrack CD (huh? really?), and perhaps most confusingly, there's a Saber Rider video game in development by German indie studio Firehazard. There was apparently a playable alpha at the last E3, but I can't find any screens of it, just promotional artwork that looks like it was cadged from old Bismark Japanese packaging. I'm intensely curious about this; hopefully it turns out better than the Italian Sailor Moon Nintendo DS game.
Now that I've whetted your appetite for super robotography, let's wind the clock back and talk about even more of those great old heroic robot adventures that didn't get the attention they deserved the first time around. I'm gonna start off with a doozy, and that doozy is called Mechander Robo. Mechander Robo is interesting to look at for several reasons. It's one of those combining robots a la Getter Robo, which means that our trio of heroes, led by the hot-blooded and awesomely-named alien Jimmy Orion, launch in these ridiculous vehicles that are basically planes with fists. Once they've combined to form Mechander Robo itself, the machine's attacks are incredibly, hilariously violent. Sure, we've all seen Mazinger Z roast the bad guys and Voltron chop them up, but there's something reassuringly abstract about their superpowered weaponry. Mechander's biggest weapons are a pair of spiked shields, which the robot wields to outrageously destructive effect-- not only does it launch them at enemies, it uses them as bludgeoning tools, and seems particularly adept at crushing enemy robot heads between the two shields. It's not gruesome, but it sure is violent! Mechander Robo also has a cool plot, in which the aliens have already conquered earth and ringed it with a network of spy satellites. When the good guys attack, they have only minutes to disable or destroy the bad guys and clear out, or the defense network will kick in and nuke the entire area! Finally, Mechander Robo has a weird pedigree - it's not animated by a big operation like Toei, instead helmed by the diminutive Wako Pro, who typically acted as a second unit rather than produce shows themselves. Still, the series boasted Kunio "Yes, I'm the guy who designed Gundam" Okawara as its robot designer. Infamously, the show's chief sponsor, toy manufacturer Bullmark (look, here's a great Mechander Robo toy commercial!), ran out of money in 1977, which forced Wako to reuse more and more animation as their coffers, robbed of precious sponsorship cash, emptied. You know how most shows get a recap episode, and some get multiple ones, and nobody really likes them? Yeah, well, Mechander Robo's finale was a recap episode. The show was dubbed in English for the Philippenes as "Mekanda" - drop me a line if you find it, because I sure can't, and god knows I've been searching!
Also in the great year of 1977-- the year of Star Wars-- the gods at Toei saw fit to bestow upon us Chojin Sentai Baratack. Baratack was one of those shows that was almost incomprehensibly ugly; the robot looks like some sort of unholy, inbred progeny of all 3 original Getter Robo configurations, and the color- and personality-coded pilots all have weird, cartoony faces and silly uniforms with capes. My favorite is Franco, who has a pompadour that would give REDLINE's JD a run for his money. Baratack is also one of those great old robot toys that used magnets - think of Kotetsu Jeeg and Magnos, aka Magna-robo Ga-keen. Baratack's "regular" configuration was a squat-looking bot with a drill and claw for arms, but these could be ingeniously recognfigured in any number of ways. To be honest, I've only seen a little Baratack, so instead of trying to sound like I know all about it, I'll use it as an excuse to talk about the Toei Robot Girls.
Look at this, right here. (That's Baratack-chan on the left.) To someone like me, it exemplifies just about everything right and wrong about the current state of anime. Here's a show - not really a show, just a set of commercial footage that's been packaged as a pilot film - that fondly reminisces about those great old robot heroes by reinventing them as adorable tween girls. I love the crisp, stylized animation! I really dig the fact that the girls are all personifications of lesser-known but deserving robots: Gaiking, Ga-keen, Danguard Ace, and of course, Baratack. And I'm a little-- only a little-- bummed out by the fact that Toei opted to take this route to freshen up their second string of robot heroes. Not because it sexualizes them-- because really, it doesn't at all, it's quite chaste-- but because it just seems like such a dumb, easy otaku-bait route to take. To me, the way to bring back these guys is to give the stuff that made them great in the first place - the larger than life heroes, the over-the-top special attacks - a fresh coat of paint, a la the new Mazinger Z series. What do you say, readers? Am I overthinking this? I will say one thing - if they turn this into a big-budget OVA, silly nerd-catnip that it is, I'll be watching. I literally will not be able to look away. My name is Mike, and I'm a super robotaholic.
Okay, I'm starting to run out of space (ha!) so let's bring things home. I started this column by talking about a new animation that evoked the spirit of a great old cartoon - now let's cut to the chase and look at some lesser-loved super robot remakes. First on the list has got to be The New Adventures of Gigantor, aka Shin Tetsujin 28. The original Gigantor B&W cartoon, all about the boy detective Jimmy Sparks and his space age robot buddy, is famous, but it's very firmly rooted in the 1950s setting that creator Mitsuteru Yokoyama laid out for it, so the idea of a remake-- one that would bring the action to the present day of 1980-- wasn't a bad one at all. Tokyo Movie Shinsha undertook this remake, while at the same time Tezuka Productions were having their second crack at Astro Boy. Anyway, American fans will remember this show, because it ran on the Sci-Fi Channel for several years. It's interesting to look at, but the more realistic look of Shotaro/Jimmy and his buddies is kind of jarring at first. I'm tempted to think that this one found its way to our airwaves because it was fairly easy to adapt - 1992's Tetsujin 28 FX, a full-out sequel rather than a remake, would make for a tougher challenge. I absolutely love the look of this show - it's so much more aggressively nineties than the previous attempt was eighties, and it takes the goofy route of centering all the action around Shotaro's son, who has a whole team of buddies, a mecha'd-up Gigantor, and a special new gun-shaped controller that probably sold reasonably well as a toy. This is another one of those shows that I've spent years searching for, convinced that there was a dub created somewhere, but no dice. Finally, there's the 2004 Yasuhiro Imagawa-directed Tetsujin 28, which we got on DVD here in North America courtesy of the late, great Geneon. I watched this show from start to finish - it does a great job of evoking the 1950s go-go economic miracle spirit of the original, but it's oddly free of Imagawa's signature high tempo and high tension. The director also helmed a Tetsujin 28 movie, which he has since disavowed - which makes me really, really want to see it!
If you want to talk shows that both came out here and were sorta-unnecessary remakes, the buck's got to stop at Dangaioh. The original Dangaioh is pretty well-known among older fans, simply because it was one of the first anime released on commercial VHS in America. US Renditions unleashed it on the world alongside fare like Macros II, Orguss, and Gunbuster. I love the look of the original Dangaioh - it was animated by AIC, directed by the great Toshihiro Hirano, and featured support work by luminaries like Shoji Kawamori, Masami Obari, and Koichi Ohata. The plot is less interesting; actually, the most interesting thing about the first episode is the robot's final psychic attack, which was memorably translated as "SIDEKICK WAVE!!" rather than "PSYCHIC WAVE!!" Dangaioh never got a fair shake on DVD - Manga Entertainment's release was a weird chopped-together melange of episode 2 and 3, and dub-only to boot. Robo-fans got a second dose of Dangaioh courtesy of 2001's TV series G-Dangaioh, and... wow. This thing is a spectacular piece of crap. I only saw the first DVD myself, but it sports ugly characters and mecha, nonsensical plotting, and some of the worst TV animation of its day. If you're in the US and you've always wondered about the quality of English dubs produced in the Philippenes, G-Dangaioh will get you hooked up. Nowadays, you can get the DVDs of this one for about a buck each; still too expensive!
The king of awesome super robot remakes and sequels is definitely Getter Robo! The original combining robot hero, a creation of Ken Ishikawa and Go Nagai, was a big favorite, as was immediate sequel Getter Robo G. But after Nagai seemed to dominate the super robot world throughout the 70s, inventing almost all of the cliches we've come to know and love in the process, he split with Toei rather acrimoniously after they denied him creative credit on Gaiking - a stupid move, as one look at the show is enough to make it obvious that it's one of his. A lawsuit and more then a decade ensued before the prolific creator and the big animation studio finally buried the hatchet and collaborated to create a new 50-episode series. Actually, Nagai and Ishikawa's hands aren't that evident in the TV series, Getter Robo Go, which features no real connection to previous Getter stories. Along with a famously ugly redesign of Getter Robo itself, the show is kinda the red-headed stepchild of the Getter franchise, which would continue to grow over the next decade. Nagai and Ishikawa would create a Getter Robo Go manga, a typically and wonderfully violent version that actually got released by Viz under the title Venger Robo, but the franchise wouldn't roar back to life until 1998's Getter Robo Armageddon. This new 13-episode project, which took its visual cues from the Super Robot Wars games and its story from an earlier drama CD, was tipped as a lavish return to form for director Yasuhiro Imagawa, who'd just limped over the finish line with Giant Robo. The thing is, Imagawa was never going to last; Bandai Visual will tell you that his infamous scheduling problems led to his dismissal after episode 3, but Imagawa himself shows disappointment when asked about the series, for which he had big plans. The way he tells it, his departure was completely unexpected. Oh well, that's business - fortunately, veteran director Jun Kawagoe was brought aboard to right the ship, and while the series never regained the feverish highs of its first 3 episodes, it's still good stuff.
What happened after that remains at the top of my anime DVD wish-list: 2000's Shin Getter Robo vs Neo Getter Robo! This Jun Kawagoe-helmed 4-episode series hits all the right notes - it starts with a massive dinosaur invasion of New York (the context is a bit touchy, as it does depict the monsters laying waste to a still-standing World Trade Center), it has appealing hooks to the original show, it's wall-to-wall action, and it's all over in 100 minutes. Hardcore robot nerds prize this one for its depiction of Texas Mack, the cowboy-themed official super robot of the good ole U-S-A! Texas Mack made regular appearances in the original Getter Robo shows, but as a joke character - here, the robot and its pilot, Jack King, are still gloriously absurd (Jack seems incapable of speaking Japanese OR English), but they're mighty heroes and friendly rivals to the Getter Team. Don't miss Jack's little sister, Mary, who pilots the best vehicle in all of super robot-dom: the Hat Machine! To me, Shin vs Neo seems like a picture-perfect candidate for DVD release - it's accessible, it's well-animated, and it all goes on one disc. But for some reason, we never got it - instead, we got Kawagoe's next project, 2004's New Getter Robo. This is one of those shows that killed Geneon, a decent series with a small audience that they paid way too much for. There's nothing wrong with it, either - the animation isn't top shelf, but it's got all of your favorites, including a weird amalgam of wacky fat guys Musashi and Benkei. Bizarrely, it's also got renowned 12th-century artisan and shaman Abe no Seimei as the villain, voiced by suave guy Takehito Koyasu. That's right, the famous courtier, subject of countless TV and movie depictions, uses evil onmyou magic to attack the world! This one's still fairly easy to find on DVD.
I'll close things off by pointing out a super robot saga that we're finally getting in English, 1998's Gekiganger III! This is one of the weirdest super robot shows ever made, as it started as a show-within-a-show on Xebec's Martian Successor Nadesico. Ostensibly an in-world pastiche of Getter Robo that the Nadesico's crew becomes increasingly obsessed with, the series gained enough momentum to get its own little OVA, which featured a patched-together version of all of the animation created for Nadesico, as well as a short mini-movie sequel. In Gekiganger III's world, the plans for an amazing robot are discovered by a scientist - apparently, a race of super-cavemen left the plans for us to find! The stereotypical crew (hot-blooded hero, quiet smart guy, and wacky fat guy) are assembled, and Gekiganger III takes flight! Over the course of Nadesico, plot details (like the heroic death of one character, a direct reference to Getter Robo's finale) are revealed. Most amusingly, Nadesico's mid-series recap episode is narrated by the cast of Gekiganger III, who turn things around and comment on the actions of the Nadesico crew. I already own all of Nadesico, but I'm going to re-buy the whole thing when Nozomi re-releases it, because it'll finally include Gekiganger III!
I'm getting a little antsy these days, because there just aren't enough super robot shows around. What's your favorite current story of heroic heroes and their hero robots? Is it Guilty Crown? Is it Aquarion EVOL? Or are you yucky and old like me, and can't think of anything more recent than that Mazinger show from 2009? Let me know in the comments. As for Super Robot Island, I've reached the point where I'm starting to struggle to come up with robots I haven't talked about: but there are some! There's Laserion, and Gear Fighter Dendoh, and Acrobunch, and Webdiver, and Daigunder - and more! Who knows when Super Robot Island will rise again?!
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