The Mike Toole Show
Super Robot Island: Final
by Michael Toole,
Last time, I wrote about how I was hanging out in Baltimore, waiting to see JAM Project. JAM Project's many members are famous for a variety of tunes - Hironobu Kageyama did the Dragon Ball Z songs, and Masami Okui's known for her Utena and Yu-Gi-Oh! tunes, to name a few examples. But as a unit, JAM Project are most commonly associated with super robot stuff, be it the Super Robot Wars franchise, Shin Mazinger Shogeki Z, or even the Japanese opening to the Transformers: Animated TV series. This was manifested at the show by sights like a an audience member who was dressed kinda like Domon Kasshu from G-Gundam (cape, headband, long hair) but in real life, and the moment when, standing in line, I overheard a voice behind me proclaim, “I'm wearing a Kotetsu Jeeg t-shirt, your argument is invalid.” I immediately whirled around and responded, “I'm wearing a Grendizer t-shirt, YOUR argument is invalid!”
...yeah, we got past that little disagreement. Oh shit, I'm talking about super robots again!
This is actually going to be our final visit to the magical, mystical, myth-tastical Super Robot Island for some time, simply because, as near as I can tell, with this column I'll have at least mentioned, in passing, every single damn minor-to-midrange robot show from the sixties until at least the year 2000 (the big guys, like the Brave series and Mazinger Z, will end up with their own columns eventually). There's been good robot anime post-2000, of course, but I feel like we're just not far enough away from those times to strap on the nostalgia goggles. As I do far too often, I'll start with the seventies, and beloved favorite of children everywhere, Daikengo!
wait a minute, who the hell is that
We're in some pretty strange waters at this point. Daikengo was, in some respects, a typical Toei robot joint of the late 1970s - heroic alien prince Ryger uses the irresistible power of the super robot Daikengo to battle against Lady Baracross and her funny-looking robot henchman, Roboleon, so-called because he wears a Napoleon hat. Daikengo aired in 1978, and it's one of that small number of anime productions that never got a proper DVD reissue, and so has become fiendishly difficult to find and watch - unless you speak Italian, because it was dubbed and shown in Italy. Two things set Daikengo apart, though - for one, the robot itself had one of those face-protector dealies, which would, at key moments, split open to reveal a horrifying fanged mouth that belches fire OH MY GOD - and for two, the main robot and many of the bad guy robots were designed by a newly-freelance artist named Kunio Okawara. Okawara had just recently broken with full-time employment at the famed Tatsunoko, where he'd spent most of the 70s drawing cool robots and vehicles for the likes of Gatchaman and Tekkaman. Now he was freelance, and billing himself as an expert in メカニックデザイン “mecha design,” - an emerging category of animation artist that he and Mitsuki Nakamura pretty much invented while at Tatsunoko.
After going freelance, Okawara was one of the busiest guys in anime for something like six years. He signed on with Nippon Sunrise to draw the robots for a new series called Zanbot 3, under director Yoshiyuki Tomino. Tomino liked Okawara's work so much that he quickly called him back in for Daitarn 3. Zanbot 3 made its mark by being surprisingly and distressingly bleak; Daitarn 3 couldn't be any more different. In Daitarn 3’s world, a super-scientist creates super-smart androids, who predictably rebel, kill the scientist, and start hassling us earthmen with dire promises of how much better our lives will be after we're all converted into cyborgs (conversion is mandatory). Standing in their way is Banjo Haran, the son of the dead scientist, his swingin’ spy pals Reika and Beauty, and his amazing solar-powered Mars-alloy robot, Daitarn 3! Despite the alien-invasion backdrop, Daitarn 3 sports surprisingly funny, zippy dialogue; even the cannon fodder bad guys get to have quips and one-liners. Looking at Daitarn-3 and Daikengo, you can see that Okawara really likes a good, solid, honest face on his robots. I'm down with that. Naturally, director Tomino liked Okawara's work, and asked him to return again for a new project called Gunboy. During development, the title was changed to Gundam, and the rest is history.
Gundam stuff would keep Okawara busy, but he'd return from the stricter, more refined world of Real Robot anime in 1980, all for the sake of Trider G7 and Daioja. These shows are pretty entertaining aberrations in the world of super robot anime; the jolly, toy-like robots, the super-powered attacks, and the oddly dignified robo-faces are present, but each show is an interesting spin on your average hot-blooded robot hero saga. Trider G7 concerns an invasion of alien robots, but rather than comically nefarious baddies, the encroaching Robot Empire are a truly alien species that can't figure out what humankind, or their champion, a golden robot built with stolen technology, are all about. Instead, a great deal of the show's plot is about the daily life of pilot Watta Takeo and his pals. The robot itself features seven different transformations, all of which require differently-designed toys, which was probably good news to toy manufacturer Clover. Daioja is a purer action show, but it's another weird take on the beloved Mito Komon saga, in which an incognito government official roams the land, using his awesome authority and equally awesome team of assistants to put both outlaws and corrupt politicians in their place. This time, however, protagonist Prince Mito is the royal person, and when he decides to take his ultimate robot on a tour of his galactic empire, he discovers a new problem to solve or bad guy to beat every single week. Daioja is notable not just for Okawara's involvement, but for helping ramp up the mecha design chops of a young artist named Yutaka Izubuchi.
So here's a mecha artist that, after a long and happy relationship with Tatsunoko, went solo and did a bunch of well-known stuff for Sunrise. (And don't think that his super robot work was all he was doing-- he was also turning in “real robot” fare for the likes of Armored Trooper VOTOMS, SPT Layzner, and many others.) Does that mean his output for Tatsunoko dropped off? Nope, it sure didn't! Okawara continued to chip in design input regularly to fare like Urashiman and Otasukeman, but his contribution to the fifth and sixth installments of the Time Bokan series, Yattodetaman and Ippatsuman, are notable because they bring super robots to the forefront of the action-comedy franchise. Actually, Yattodetaman's robot, Daikyojin, isn't the central character, but just a frequently-used player; in Ippatsuman, however, the title character pilots Gyakuten-oh, a bona-fide super robot, in the service of his company Time Lease, a rental agency battling with the incompetent Skull Lease to be the #1 leasing company in the... yeah, whatever. Anyway, Okawara has kept the fire burning with Tatsunoko over the years, and has been more than happy to share his artistic wealth with many creators and studios.
I'll close off this look at Kunio Okawara's lesser-known robot heroes with two more oddities. One of them is 1990's Granzort, which to my eyes looks like a rigorously focus-grouped commercial for toys and model kits - hero Daichi is a little kid who goes to the moon, aids a weird race of rabbit people in their fight against evil, and uses a souped-up toy disc gun to summon his mighty robot, the titular Granzort. He even boards the thing using a rocket-powered skateboard. Granzort itself, along with its mystical cohorts, transforms from a giant scary robo-head into a more typical battlin’ robot. There's a lot going on in this show, and I suspect most of it is in the service of selling toys and video games, but it's a remarkably good-looking series that's been fully fansubbed, so if you're curious, Granzort is out there. Last but not least is a truly unlikely series that Okawara himself insists contains his favorite mecha design work, 1993's Iron Leaguer. Iron Leaguer takes the super robot concept and hitches it to sports in a way never seen before, with a whole team of battlin’ sentient robots who specialize in a variety of activities. The leader is Magnum Ace, a valiant baseball pitcher, and he's backed by the likes of Mach Windy (Soccer), Bull Armor (football), and Top Joy (basketball). While the series is loaded with the requisite stock footage attacks, its pitched battles between good sports-bots and evil sports-bots are tons of fun to watch, and are a genuine showcase for Okawara's creativity. It's a shame we didn't get this one in the states!
There are a few final titles I need to give some shout-outs to. There's War of the Flying Saucers from 1975, an interesting 30-minute theatrical feature starring the UFO-riffic super robot Gattaiger, a direct prototype for UFO Robot Grendizer. There's 1982's Acrobunch, a 5-vehicles-makes-an-ugly-robot TV series from the J9 people. There's Govarian, an interesting example of Go Nagai kinda-sorta ripping off his own Mazinger Z; the plot is significantly different, involving robots controlled with psychic energy, but the title robot looks an awful lot like Nagai's classic black and white steel warrior. There's 1984's Laserion, which has the distinction of being the very first anime to employ the idea of virtual reality-- suck it, Serial Experiments Lain! I haven't seen much Laserion myself; I think my favorite part of the show is its official Spanish title, El Super Láser. Why do things just sound more awesome when you put ‘El’ in front? Rounding off this cavalcade right at the cusp of the millennium is 2000's El Gear Fighter Dendoh-- er, just Gear Fighter Dendoh. a flashy super robot arms race between the humans of GEAR and an invading army of evil alien robots.
After all's said and done, we've got something like a hundred ‘pure’ super robot shows, by my reckoning, between 1963 and 2000. That number seems a little low, actually, but either way that's a ton of hot-blooded heroics, rocket punches, and shining, gleaming face-bots. What is it about the faces, anyway? Gundam really gave us the idea that face protectors were just as good, if not better, than robot mouths and noses, but both versions persist, both inside and outside of the pioneering Kunio Okawara's body of work. The Gundam look is pretty impressive, but there's something weirdly macho about a robot that actually frowns and grimaces. Maybe every robot should have a face!
...or maybe not. Now that we're way past 2000 and have a decade-plus of NEW super robots, which is your favorite? Do you like Godannar, which took robot fanservice to new and strange places? How about Super Robot Wars, with its huge cast of hilariously-named pilots? Maybe you're a true traditionalist and are just waiting for the next remake of a classic from the 70s. Last question: roboface, or not? Sound off in the comments!
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