Those waiting for my column on Anime Fandom in North America, part 3, can take this as half of it; the half on “real robots”. The other half, on teenagers from outer space, will be covered next week.
Anime fandom in America, at least in Los Angeles, was founded on the anime giant robot TV cartoons – the individual giant, almost godlike, robots that were heroes themselves; that could only be piloted by a specific human hero (or heroes in the case of two or more smaller robots combining into a huge one). From 1976 to the early 1980s, we watched over a dozen TV programs that were variations of this stereotype.
We did not notice it when the first major change in this stereotype occurred. This was with Mobile Suit Gundam. The first episode was shown on Japanese TV in April 1979, but it was not shown on American TV. I think that we got our first video copies in early 1982.
These TV cartoons really blossomed forth in the early 1980s. The difference was that these were called “real robot” programs with battle armor or battle suits, not “giant robots”. They were treated as ordinary military vehicles, like fighter aircraft, not special robots with a special pilot. Anyone with the necessary training could pilot one. Programs with battle armor featured more realistic s-f stories about futuristic warfare, not monsters or super-villains. They were noticeably more sophisticated, for older boys rather than children.
Because we concentrated upon these programs, it seemed that the giant robots were almost all replaced by the battle suits in the 1980s. But the video compilations of all of the “mecha” TV cartoons in chronological order show that the giant robot TV cartoons really still predominated. After all, the TV cartoons were really for the children, not the adolescents; and the children preferred more simple plots with robot superheroes and supervillains. But there have been enough “real robot” TV serials to overfill this column. Here are some of my favorites, ranging from the early days of anime fandom to the late 1990s.
Mobile Suit Gundam. Kido Senshi Gundam. 43 episodes, April 7, 1979 to January 26, 1980. Creator Yoshiyuki Tomino, at the Nippon Sunrise studio, really wanted to make a cartoon serialization of Robert Heinlein’s s-f novel Starship Troopers, but the studio could not afford to license it; so Tomino wrote an original similar story. In the future Universal Century year 0079, Earth is under one government and is surrounded by several Lagrange space colony habitats. One of them secedes as the militaristic Principality of Zeon, and begins a preemptive war of independence, relying on its revolutionary battle armor. Mobile Suit Gundam follows two teenage boys; Amuro Ray of the Earth Federation, a pacifist who refuses to fight until he is forced to, and Char Aznable, a Zeon charismatic fighter ace modeled on World War I’s German Red Baron, in a scarlet battle suit. When Amuro’s Side 7 orbital colony is attacked by Zeon, Amuro is among the evacuees in the Federation’s White Base warship. As the White Base comes under attack and many of the evacuees and ship’s crew are killed, Amuro finds the secret RX-78 Gundam battle suit that the Federation has been developing, and becomes its pilot.
The sophisticated plot includes too many details and subplots to list here. Ironically considering its later success (Gundam is considered a ¥50,000,000,000 annual property today), the anime serial was a failure at first, with such a small audience that the planned 52-episode story was cut back to 39 episodes; Nippon Sunrise persuaded the TV broadcaster and the toy sponsor to increase this to 43 episodes so the conclusion would not look too rushed. It was not until the 43 episodes were reedited into three theatrical features in 1981-’82, the toy rights were bought by Bandai, and the whole concept was re-marketed for older boys and young adults instead of children that Gundam became a major success.
Ironically again, fans in both Japan and America pleaded for years for a sequel. When Tomino was brought to the 1984 World Science Fiction Convention in Los Angeles as a Special Guest, and announced that Nippon Sunrise was finally developing one, there was wild applause. This was Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam, with an improved Gundam battle suit and an entire new cast – followed quickly by Mobile Suit Gundam ZZ, V Gundam, G Gundam, Gundam W, Gundam X, etc., etc., etc., plus lots more animated and live-action theatrical features and OAV mini-series, not to mention s-f novels, until Gundam has become a joke among anime fans. Mobile Suit Gundam AGE is the most recent 49-episode TV serial, ending on September 23, 2012; with Gundam Build Fighters scheduled to start this October. But the original series is still a massively admired classic.
Dougram. Taiyo no Kiba Dougram; Fang of the Sun Dougram. 75 episodes, October 23, 1981 to March 25, 1983. “Not justice; I want to get truth!” The story, by Ryosuke Takahashi, opens with the wreck of the Dougram in the desert on the planet Deloyer, and develops as a flashback telling what happened. In SC (Space Century) 140, political unrest on the desert colony planet Deloyer escalates into a war of independence from the tyrannical Earth Federation. The story follows teenage Crinn Cashim, the rebellious son of power-hungry Governor Denon Cashim who has the support of the Federation. Crinn joins a mostly teenage guerilla team, the Deloyer 7, popularly known as the Fang of the Sun, fighting for Deloyer’s independence. The Fang of the Sun have the prototype Dougram combat armor; the Federation troops use lots of inferior armors, mostly the Soltic H-8 Roundfacers. Despite thirteen types of combat armor (with expensive toys of each of them), Takahashi and Nippon Sunrise developed a story that was light on expensive action scenes and heavy on political and military intrigue, with lots of talking-head conversations, telephone calls, conferences, and so on. The result was not much action but a complex, realistic military s-f drama.
Xabungle. Sento Meka Xabungle; Combat Mecha Xabungle. 50 episodes, February 6, 1982 to January 29, 1983. This began as a lighthearted “space Western” by Gundam creator Yoshiyuki Tomino, and gradually grew more complex and serious. On the planet Zora, presumably settled by humans who have forgotten their origins, civilization is fragmented and slowly running down. The Sand Rats, a gang of juvenile delinquents, meet a loner, Jiron Amos. They make him one of their team after he helps them out; he accepts to further his own goal of vengeance against Timp Shaloon, who murdered his parents a week ago. The Sand Rats are out to steal themselves some Walker Machines, all-purpose vehicles. Jiron hotwires a giant Xabungle model Walker Machine, used by the military. The Sand Rats use the Xabungle mainly for a home and team transportation. More common in Xabungle is the smaller Blue Gale personal Walker Machines. This was one of the first anime series that noticeably began as lighthearted comedic action and gradually became more serious. Probably the extreme is the 1998 space Western Trigun, which starts out as almost a slapstick comedy and ends up slit-your-wrists depressing.
Macross. Chojiku Yosai Macross; Super Dimension Fortress Macross. 36 episodes, October 3, 1982 to June 26, 1983. In 1999 (then 16 years in the future), a humongously large robot war machine crashes on Earth. Ten years later, after learning to run it, a bridge crew is assigned to take it into space for its breakdown cruise. They accidentally trigger a space-warp transition to Pluto orbit. Fearing to set off anything else, they take months to return to Earth by conventional power. They find Earth under attack by the Zentradi, giant humanoid aliens who have come after the SDF-1 Macross. Macross was conceived as a parody of the giant robot genre; a robot so large that a city could be built inside it. It was made more serious, and developed as a teen romantic triangle against a space war, between young military pilot Hikaru Ichijo and two girls, Macross bridge officer Misa Hayase and Chinese pop-singer Lin Min Mei. Everyone lives within the Macross; the main individual battle armor are the popular VF-1 Valkyrie transforming fighter planes.
Macross was fantastically popular. In Japan, the original TV anime was expanded from 26 to 39 episodes. It has been revived over thirty years in TV sequels, OAVs, and a theatrical feature. It was the first real-robot anime to become well-known in America, as the most popular component of the American-produced Robotech, which has had its own original sequels.
VOTOMS. Soko Kihei VOTOMS; Armored Trooper VOTOMS. 52 episodes, April 1, 1983 to March 23, 1984. This was created by Ryosuke Takahashi and Nippon Sunrise, and is very similar in mood to their Dougram although very different in plot. In an interstellar war that has gone on for so long that nobody remembers why it began, a soldier named Chirico Cuvie, the pilot of a one-man Armored Trooper suit (officially a VOTOMS, for Vertical One-man Tank for Offense and ManeuverS), is set up for betrayal during a mission to capture a mysterious woman super-soldier, and left to die. He escapes from the Gilgamesh military into a seedy civilian world, and progressively moves to other cultures as he flees ahead of the military and criminal gangs. As he avoids capture, Chirico tries to learn about his own mysterious past, which may involve Fyana, the woman super-soldier. There are clues that both may be experimental super-soldiers or cyborgs, and may be immortal.
Giant Gorg. 26 episodes, April 5, 1984 to September 27, 1984. I probably shouldn’t include this here, but I can’t resist. When mysterious Austral Island rises to the surface of the South Pacific, it is explored by Drs. Tagami from Japan and Wave from the U.S. It supposedly submerges again right away. Later when Dr. Tagami dies, he leaves a letter telling his young son Yuu to go to Dr. Wave in New York to learn the real secret of Austral Island. Yuu finds Dr. Wave and his little sister Doris (who is Yuu’s age) living in a New York slum, and targeted for murder by the GAIL megacorporation which is a major secret financial contributor to both Ronald Reagan and Yuri Andropov. GAIL has suppressed the fact that Austral Island is still there, and has sent a research team to discover its secret. Yuu, the Waves, and their small party go to Austral to beat GAIL to the secret.
We were halfway through Episode 3 when I started laughing hysterically. I had just recognized the plot by Yoshikazu Yasuhiko (who also did the character designs) – until they get to Austral Island, anyway – as a reversal of the first months of Milton Caniff’s classic Terry and the Pirates. A plucky young Japanese orphan comes to exotic America to have adventures with colorful native characters. Instead of the Dragon Lady, there is Lady Lynx, the femme fatale boss of all the Las Vegas casinos. The NYC slum is realistically graffitied with background words like FUCK. Dr. Wave and his Great Dane Argus are comic-relief caricatures of Woody Allen and Scooby-Doo; a teamup that has to be seen to be believed. Each episode ends with the caption in English, “TUNE IN TO THE NEXT the same GORG time the same GORG channel”, which made it obvious that one of Yasuhiko’s influences was the 1966-’68 Batman TV comedy.
I later learned that Nippon Sunrise was very proud of getting away with the first four episodes before the sponsor realized that their giant robot toy was not in it, and ordered the studio to include it from then on. Also, Giant Gorg was originally planned as a very short series – 18 episodes, I think – and when it was more popular than expected, the studio was ordered to expand it to 26. This resulted in a lot of obvious padding, mostly in trekking around Austral Island and not finding Giant Gorg’s secret.
Giant Gorg was never a battle suit. It was an intelligent artificial life form, not under anyone’s control. Yuu did not enter into it; he rode either in Gorg’s hand or in a cupola atop its head. Gorg usually did what Yuu wanted, but as though it was consciously agreeing to it rather than following orders. Giant Gorg was an intelligent and extremely likeable s-f serial (except for the episodes that were padding and did not go anywhere).
Let’s jump ahead to some of the “real robot” TV anime series from the late 1980s and the 1990s.
Patlabor. Kido Keisatsu Patlabor; Mobile Police Patlabor. 47 episodes, October 11, 1989 to September 26, 1990. Also known as Patlabor On Television, to distinguish it from the earlier 7-episode OAV series whose popularity led to the TV series. Made by Sunrise, Inc., which changed its name from Nippon Sunrise in 1987.
What if the police had battle armor instead of patrol cars? That’s the premise of Patlabor, which stood for “Patrol Labor”, a Labor being a battle suit used for heavy industrial and commercial purposes. In the near future, girl rookie Noa Izumi joins the Tokyo Metropolitan Police, Special Vehicle Section 2, Division 2; the Patlabor Division, comprised of six other officers and two mechanics. Besides Noa, there are Captain Kiichi Goto, a sleepy-looking but very sharp commander; Asuma Shinohara, the son of the president of Shinohara Heavy Industries, who joined the police force to prove that he can make it on his own without his father’s influence; Isao Ohta, a loud male chauvinist pig and proud of it; Mikiyasu Shinshi, the only married man in SV-2; and Hiromi Yamazaki, a “gentle giant”. There are also several other regular supporting characters: the mechanics; Kanuka Clancy, temporarily attached to SV-2 from the NYPD to study the effectiveness of Labors for police work; the officers of SV-1; and so on.
Patlabor was very popular due to clever writing. All of the characters were intelligent (maybe except for the blustering Ohta). The cast may have been inspired in part by the cast of the popular American movie and TV series M.A.S.H. Patlabor’s fans never knew what kind of episode to expect next; a realistic police drama, a soap opera about the off-duty lives of the members of SV-2; a police comedy like the Naked Gun series; a parody of Japanese monster movies; an anti-bureaucracy satire; or something else. Patlabor inspired three theatrical features, several OAVs, novels, video games, and a live-action feature is currently in preproduction.
Gasaraki. 25 episodes, October 4, 1998 to March 28, 1999. This series, directed but not written by Ryosuke Takahashi for Sunrise, is set in the very near future. It involves a war between the United Nations (mainly the U.S. Army) and the mythical Middle Eastern nation of Belgistan, and was clearly partially inspired by the Gulf War against Iraq. The main focus is upon the Japanese family-run Gowa Corporate Group of arms merchants. They sell military hardware to the Japanese Self Defense Force, and would really like to make the U.S. Army a customer. The Gowa family has just developed Tactical Armors, and Yushiro Gowa, a quiet teenager and the “omega” of the family, is assigned to demonstrate them to the JSDF. Suddenly, when the U.S. forces are about to capture Belgistan’s capital, they are surprised and defeated by a new force using what appears to be TA technology. The Gowas rush to take advantage of this by presenting their TAs to the American military as superior, and getting the JSDF to deploy its team (including Yushiro) testing the TAs to Belgistan to try them out under real battlefield conditions. Gasaraki mixes realistic modern Middle Eastern military action (with TAs instead of tanks and armored support vehicles) with the jockeying for power within the large Gowa family, and fictional but realistic Japanese politico-economic drama featuring the zaibatsu, the powerful families that manipulate and control the national economy. Gasaraki also contains elements of kabuki and noh theater, traditional Japanese mysticism including the Shinto religion, the modern role of samurai, and the mystery of what Gasuraki is. A suspenseful modern s-f drama, but deliberately mature, cynical, and depressing.
A sample episode of Gasuraki is posted here.
Dai-Guard. Chikyu Boei Kigyo Dai-Guard; Terrestrial Defense Corporation Dai Guard. 26 episodes, October 5, 1999 to March 28, 2000. Hey, a “real robot” anime TV series by a studio other than Sunrise! This was by then-brand-new XEBEC, Inc.
In 2018, Japan is attacked by giant monsters called Heterodynes which conventional weapons are helpless against. The 21st Century Defense Security Corporation, under subcontract to the government, designs the Dai-Guard, a giant battle armor that takes three people to run it, to fight the Heterodynes. But before it can do so, the Heterodynes all disappear again. Left with a giant robot and nothing to fight, the military gives the Dai-Guard to its manufacturer in lieu of payment. Jump to 2030. Japan has been at peace for twelve years. The 21st CDS Corp. has not found anything better to do with Dai-Guard than to use it as a giant corporate mascot and advertisement, run by its Public Relation Division. The PR Division assigns three of its young office workers, Shunsuke Akagi, Ibuki Momoi, and Keiichiro Aoyama, to learn to pilot it and take it out for publicity jaunts.
While out at a seacoast security exposition with lots of tourists, a new Heterodyne unexpectedly attacks, causing a panic. Hotheaded Akagi wants to use the Dai-Guard for what it was intended for, Ibuki dithers, and Aoyama says that he never expected to operate the Dai-Guard for real; he just wants to evacuate! But when women and children are about to be killed and nothing else can stop the Heterodyne, the others reluctantly listen to Akagi and power up the Dai-Guard. It is badly battered in the ensuing fight, but the Heterodyne is pushed back into the sea and vanishes.
Akagi assumes that they are heroes, but they are almost fired for using the Dai-Guard without authorization. Akagi is buried under a mountain of damage forms to fill out, and told that the cost of repairing the Dai-Guard will come out of his salary. Corporate executives tremble at the thought of damage claims and lawsuits against the company; and now that the Heterodynes have returned, the military wants the Dai-Guard back. Business rivals that never took the 21st CDS Corp. seriously before now try to sabotage its operations. As Wikipedia says, “Dai-Guard’s alien fighting soon begins to take a backseat to the bureaucratic troubles and office politics that the Corporation faces.” The nominal giant robot gradually fades out of its own series to be replaced by the human drama. The series ends with the public attitude shifting from demanding the Dai-Guard and the 21st CDS Corp. to permanently end the Heterodyne menace, to fatalistically looking upon the Heterodynes as disasters like earthquakes or volcanic eruptions, which must be combatted but can never be eliminated; and nobody’s responsibility.
Whew! This has been my longest column. This should be enough “real robots” to satisfy everyone; but to close, here is a brief glimpse of Brain Powerd (1998). Don’t you wish that American TV cartoons were more like this?