Domo Arigato, Mister Giant Roboto
November 02, 2012
In our last blog post, we looked at the world of Japanese giant monsters, the daikaiju. But Japanese pop culture has had an equally long love affair with giant robots. Unlike the daikaiju, which mostly feature in live-action tokusatsu, giant robots are also a mainstay of manga and anime. And, as we’ve seen with daikaiju, what starts in Japanese pop culture often finds its way into American pop culture as well.
Some discussion of terminology is necessary here. The Japanese term mecha refers to any mechanical device, whereas robotto refers to any limbed, more-or-less humanoid mechanical device. There are two basic types of giant robot: super robots and real robots. Super robots (sūpā robotto) are essentially robotic superheroes with near-fantastical powers. Real robots (riaru robotto), on the other hand, are based on (more-or-less) plausible science and engineering and are seen as being relatively common products of advanced technology.
The first Japanese giant robot was the 1956 anime Iron Man 28 (Tetsujin 28-go), released in the US as Gigantor. My first experience with giant robots was the 1967-1969 toskusatsu TV show Giant Robo (Jaianto Robo), released in US as Johnny Sokko and His Flying Robot. The Americanized version was a staple of after school and Saturday local television in the 1970s. While we laugh at the ridiculously bad special effects of Johnny Sokko today, I was so frightened by one episode of this show that I freaked out and wouldn’t watch it for quite some time!
The 1970s and early 1980s were the golden years of Japanese giant robot anime, with such titles as Mazinger Z, Getter Robo, and Mobile Suit Gundam. Japanese toy companies capitalized by bringing out associated toy lines, beginning a long and very profitable relationship between animation franchises and toys that extends to this very day. It was in the form of a toy that Japanese giant robots made their next major appearance in American pop culture: the Shogun Warrior. In fact, one of my friends still has one in near mint condition!
Japanese anime is not made exclusively for children. As such, it often contains violence (and even nudity) that Western audiences would find shocking in what they would consider to be cartoons for kids. To make Japanese anime more child-friendly for American markets, the original Japanese anime were often extensively edited. The prime example of this in the giant robot genre was Voltron, Defender of the Universe. This very popular cartoon was created by editing together two different Japanese animes!
Perhaps no other franchise better represents the relationship between toy makers and entertainment franchises' and between Japanese and American pop cultures than the Transformers. First, Hasbro bought the distribution rights to several Japanese toy lines and rebranded them as the Transformers. Then, Hasbro teamed up with Marvel Comics to produce the animated Transformers television program, which was animated by Toei Animation Studio in Japan. The toy line was remodeled to fit the television series, and the rest is history.
I feel that the success of the Transformers basically killed all giant robot competition in the mainstream American media, other than short-lived knockoffs like the GoBots. The Japanese never lost their fascination with giant robots of all kinds though. The biggest change was a pronounced shift from super robots like Giant Robo and Voltron to the real robot genre, especially of the human-piloted giant mecha variety. Some notable examples that you can find at MCPL are the Patlabor, Mobile Suit Gundam and Robotech franchises. Japanese anime and manga remain fascinated with the giant robot to this day. I expect the growing manga/anime market in the US is bringing giant robots other than Transformers back to pop cultural relevance, as seen by Guillermo del Toro’s upcoming Pacific Rim.
Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention The Iron Giant, the wonderful but woefully underseen 1999 animated film by future Pixar golden boy Brad Bird. No, it’s not Japanese, but it does have a marvelous super robot from outer space who befriends a young boy in 1950s Maine. I can’t recommend this film highly enough for children and their parents.
In this look at the symbiosis between Japanese and American pop cultures, I have mentioned in passing that interest in manga and anime has surged in recent years. Looking back, I realize that I was watching anime way back in the 1970s and 1980s. I just didn’t know at the time that it was called anime. In my next post, I’ll take a look at some of the earliest inroads of anime into American pop culture.