Giant Robo couldn’t have unlikelier origins: it was derived from a 1960s-era schlock TV show about a kid and his giant flying robot, faced long and extremely difficult production problems that held up its completion, and was among the last of the major direct-to-video animated projects released in Japan. And yet this is one of the very best anime ever made, of an ambition and a scope that dwarfs many longer-running releases. Years after seeing it for the first time, it still feels fresh and new—it’s terrifically entertaining on the surface, and then you dig a little deeper and see that there is a real heart beating inside.
Giant Robo was the very first animated series I ever remember seeing, as opposed to standalone productions like Akira. It was an OAV (Original Animated Video), a direct-to-video product with a higher per-episode budget than TV shows. Such products could only recoup their production costs through direct sales on VHS or LaserDisc. Given that OAVs cost anywhere from ¥5,000 to ¥12,000 ($42 to $100 or more), the continued devotion of the hardcore anime lovers was what kept them going. Then the OAV market collapsed along with Japan’s bubble economy in general, and until very recently anime only survived through broadcast TV productions or theatrical releases. The direct-to-video market became the province of ultra-cheap gangster / crime / sex thrillers (much like the endless Basic Instinct knockoffs that filled video shelves over here through the Nineties), but many of the OAVs found a second life here in the USA as the market for professionally-released anime editions exploded.
It wasn’t until digital production assistance techniques and the DVD explosion came along that the OAV world started to come back to life. It’s still rough territory, but there is now a market where before there was nothing at all. All of this makes Giant Robo that much more impressive; it was animated in a lavish style that’s more reminiscent of a theatrical feature than a direct-to-video production, and done in the old-school painted-cel format rather than the computer-based systems that were just then coming into vogue courtesy of productions like Macross Plus. The look of the show is not quite like anything before or since: imagine, if you can, the retro-deco futurism of Sky Captain as seen by 1920s Japanese eyes.
The story begins—although I must emphasize that it only begins—with a classic pulp-SF setup of good versus evil. Battling for the side of light are the Experts of Justice, a collection of multi-powered heroes who blend their strengths as needed to keep Earth safe. The darkness is personified in Big Fire, a terrorist organization that will stop at nothing but total global control. The world they are clashing over is very much like ours, but with cooler-looking graphics and hardware, and one key technological innovation: the Shizuma Drive, a clean source of power that’s like cold fusion and zero-point energy rolled into one. The Nobel-prize winner who invented the drive, Dr. Shizuma himself, has just ended up on Big Fire’s hit list, and in the very first scenes of the series there is a battle to save him that wrecks most of Shanghai. (Put this first scene on for prospective anime fans, and if they’re not immediately hooked, something is clearly wrong with them.)
The fight to recover Dr. Shizuma is successful, but Shizuma himself has been steadily sliding into madness. He sees monsters in the shadows, all taking the form of a dead colleague who worked with him on his great creation (and whom he quite possible stole some thunder from). Most puzzling is the briefcase he carries, which contains what appears to be a Shizuma drive—but when plugged in, it causes every other Shizuma drive for miles around to malfunction and plunges the city into darkness. (It does not affect Giant Robo, however, for reasons that become crucially important later on.) Then Shizuma himself dies, Big Fire make clear the full extent of their plans to the world, and the rest of the story becomes a nearly nonstop blast of action.
Several of the Experts of Justice swim out of the chaos and into view. There is Yoshi, a giant wild boar of a man with trick battle-axes in his sleeves; Taiso, his cooler, more cunning and dashing colleague; the pensive Professor Gô. The two most significant are Ginrei, the one female member of the crew, and Daisaku—a young boy who would not normally be among people like this if it were not for the fact that he alone can command Giant Robo, the stories-tall mecha created by his dead father and originally controlled by Big Fire. They form an uneasy substitute family for each other—not just to keep each other in line (although Ginrei never tires of doing that), but also to provide guidance and perspective. They have every reason to believe completely in what they do, and no reason to doubt that it might be built on false pretenses.
Daisaku is not specifically the hero of the story, but becomes one of its foci because of what he can achieve. He has come to love this giant robot like it was his father—but the robot is not his father, of course, and at some point he is going to have to learn to be brave without it. Yoshi doesn’t think much of this upstart, but his unease is always clearly jealousy. The other Experts fill in the gap his dad left behind as best they can: Daisaku looks up to Ginrei as a big sister (and to Taiso and Youshi as big brothers, sort of)—but again, they are only able to do so much, and at some point he will need to stick his neck out with no one and nothing to back him up.
Where the good guys are a charmingly motley crew, the bad guys are gallery of grotesques led mainly by Lord Alberto, “The Shockwave”, sporting a cybernetic pince-nez and a deep-seated grudge against more than a few Experts of Justice. It’s also made clear early on that there are men behind the men—that the bad guys we see are merely lackeys for even larger, more dangerous people in the shadows. The “Mysterious Ten” of Big Fire (of which Alberto is but one) are the story’s Illuminati, manipulating events by both good and bad agents alike to produce the expected, or needed, outcomes. Everyone in the story is responsible for a certain amount of change in the world, but it comes at an ironic price: the Experts of Justice are not proud of what they changed it into, and Big Fire can only see what they want and absolutely nothing else.
The show leapfrogs neatly over its kitsch origins. The original Japanese live-action TV series Johnny Sokko and his Flying Robot was the loose inspiration, and the original comic (in two volumes, which I happen to have) was created by Mitsuteru Yokoyama—one of Japan’s more influential manga-ka who remains virtually unknown anywhere else. He not only created the comics that gave rise to Johnny Sokko and Robo, but Red Shadow, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Babel II, and another childhood-nostalgia favorite with giant robots: Tetsujin 28. The latter has been animated not once but three times (in 1963, 1980, and 2004) and now made into a live-action production as well. Gundam co-author Yasuhiro Imagawa lent a hand with the screenplay, along with veteran animator Eiichi Yamamoto, who’d made his mark before with productions derived from Osamu Tezuka’s works: Kimba the White Lion, and, yes, Astro-Boy.
For the score—a thrilling and symphonic suite that sold on CD both domestically and abroad—they turned to Masamichi Amano, now best known for his thundering, Wagneresque work on Battle Royale and a number of other highly apocalyptic anime: the many-chaptered (and -tentacled) Urotsukidôji series; the outstanding and generally underrated Princess Nine; and the live-action Korean / Hong Kong coproduction Musa. Music in anime is typically either disposable filler or marginally less disposable pop productions, so an actual orchestral score is in itself an attention-getter. And if you look into the animation credits, there are a number of familiar and entirely fitting names—most notably Hideaki Anno, whose equally apocalyptic Evangelion twisted about as many heads as Robo (although probably didn’t capture as many hearts).
The final episodes, which were only released after a great delay in production (the OAV market in Japan was essentially moribund at the time), go from pulp to grand opera. Great deeds are done, great sacrifices performed, and great and terrible secrets unveiled about the pasts of several key characters. In the wrong hands this would be leaden and tormented, but Giant Robo does something very right with this material: The more we learn about the pasts of everyone involved, the more their motives are given context and weight. Instead of looking at good guys and bad guys, we’re looking at people with complicated and sometimes deeply conflicted reasons for being what they are. Everyone wants something, and the things wanted by people with power become hard to separate into simple categories of good and evil. All anime should be this thrilling, this ambitious, and this satisfying.
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