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The Legacy of Japan's Giant Robot Sci-Fi Shows

By Paul Gaita, The Wirecutter

King-sized mechanical warriors have been rocking and socking for over a half-century. Here are the legacies of four small screen adventures that helped give rise to Pacific Rim.

Pacific Rim underscored the fact that for a portion of the global science fiction fan community, the sight of a giant, human-controlled robot locked in combat with a monster remains a satisfying experience on a deeply primal level. Since 1956, children around the world have been drawing inspiration for playtime and dreamtime from such "Super Robot"-driven programs as Tetsujin 28-go, a 1963 anime series which played syndicated cartoon slots in the States as Gigantor; the frantic live-action Giant Robo, which aired in America under the title Johnny Sokko and His Flying Robot; the iconic anime serials Mazinger Z and Beast King GoLion (which became part of the framework for Voltron) and the sprawling Super Sentai franchise, from which the various Power Rangers programs culled special effects sequences.

Aimed largely at children, these and countless other shows featured colossal robots outfitted with an incredible array of weaponry to fight a seemingly endless horde of outrageous monsters, alien beings and other robots. These weekly face-offs, which largely followed the same strict format (monster is introduced in first act, robot fights monster in second act), inspired backyard re-enactments not only in Japan and America, but also in the households of Latin America, Europe and the Middle East. As film historian and author (the essential Critical History and Filmography of Toho’s Godzilla Series) David Kalat notes, “We want to imagine ourselves stomping the cities – we want to be the guy in the rubber suit, starring in a TV show and wrestling with our co-stars. The appeal of tokusatsu (special effects-driven science fiction) is that it makes cosplay seem like a profession, and TV shows like Johnny Sokko or Space Giants kept those things simple and deliciously accessible.”

The following are four seminal anime and live action series that served as the Urtext for the dozens, if not hundreds of Super Robot programs that followed in their wake, and in turn, directly influenced Pacific Rim.

Tetsujin 28-go (1963-1966)

The brainchild of prolific manga artist Mitsuteru Yokoyama, Tetsujin 28-go (literally, Iron Man #28) is widely considered to be Japan’s first Super Robot. The three-story high robot made his debut in 1956 as a manga in the pages of Shonen – the same magazine that launched Osamu Tezuka’s hugely influential Astro Boy in 1951 – and was decidedly darker in tone than the anime series. Tetsujin 28 is initially conceived as a weapon for the Japanese Empire during World War II, but becomes an agent for good when it passes into the hands of his creator’s son, a boy detective who uses the robot to battle international criminals.

Tetsujin 28 became a stalwart if slow-witted TV hero in 1963, enjoying 97 adventures over the course of three seasons; 52 of these were adapted for English-speaking audiences by writer/producer Fred Ladd (who performed similar duties for Astro Boy and Kimba the White Lion) as Gigantor, which debuted on WPIX in 1964. Follow-up series airing in 1980, 1992 and 2004, as well as a feature film version in 2005, testified to the show’s enduring popularity, but the greatest legacy of Tetsujin-28 was the manga, anime and live-action series that followed in its wake, many of which would adopt (and adapt) its basic tenets for their own stories.

Giant Robo (1967-1968)

We've detailed the history of this 1967-1968 tokusatsu series, adapted from a manga by Mitsuteru Yokoyama and aired in the United States as Johnny Sokko and His Flying Robot, in a previous story, but its importance to the Super Robot genre is worth repeating. The show's central premise – a young boy gains control of a massive robot, which is used against an army of evildoers – borrows heavily from Tetsujin-28, but also draws from two live-action science fiction series: Ultraman, produced by Toho’s special effects legend Eiji Tsuburaya, and Ambassador Magma (known in the States as Space Giants) which was adapted from a manga by Osamu Tezuka. Both programs featured huge protagonists equipped with a dizzying array of weaponry, which they wielded against aliens, monsters, misguided robots and the occasional errant dinosaur.

When facing off against the forces of Lovecraftian extraterrestrial Emperor Guillotine, Giant Robo’s human handler, Daisaku/Johnny Sokko, would instruct Giant Robo via a wristwatch communication device to employ one or more of his arsenal, which included the dreaded megaton punch, finger missiles, high-voltage wires and, on one memorable occasion, a massive flaming cross to dismiss a building-sized vampire. The vocal commands and monster army elements would become integral elements of most subsequent anime and tokusatsu, both Super Robot and otherwise. Giant Robo was twice revived by writer/director Yasuhiro Imagawa, first as the OVA (original video animation) series Giant Robo: The Day the Earth Stood Still (1992-1998) and then as the manga Giant Robo: The Day the Earth Burned (2006). A weekly animation series, GR: Giant Robo, was launched in 2007 to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Yokoyama’s creation. Serious Super Robot archaeologists my also remember a 1977 tokusatsu series called Daitetsujin 17 (Iron Robot 17), which borrowed heavily from Giant Robo while also producing some of the more bizarre/inept monster foes in ‘70s live action science fiction.

Mazinger Z (1972-1974)

The Super Robot genre reached the heights of popularity in the 1970s, largely due to this manga turned anime by artist Go Nagai, whose works include the popular (and controversial) Cutie Honey, Devilman and Violence Jack series. Many, if not all subsequent Japanese mecha series – mecha being the umbrella term for science fiction focused on robots or other machines – drew from Nagai’s blueprint for Mazinger Z, a colossal warrior machine created to fend off the world domination plans of Dr. Hell and his army of Mechanical Beasts, automatons unearthed from an ancient Greek civilization. Mazinger Z was the first series to imbue its titular robot with quasi-mystical powers – the name “Mazinger” is drawn from the Japanese words for “god” and “demon” – as well as the first Super Robot series to feature a robot piloted by a human user (brash young pilot Kouji Kabuto) from a cockpit located within the machine itself.

Other significant tropes established by the series include the addition of a female robot pilot (who operated Aphrodite A, a robot with female characteristics) and Mazinger’s deployment of its astonishing array of weapons on verbal commands (“ROCKET PUNCH!”) from Kabuto – a bit borrowed from Giant Robo and utilized in nearly every subsequent Nagai and Super Robot series. Mazinger Z would spawn an incredible number of sequels and affiliated anime and manga titles over the next four decades, most notably its immediate sequel, Great Mazinger (1974), and UFO Robo Grendizer (1975-1976), which teamed Kabuto with exiled alien Prince Duke Fleed to battle the malevolent Vegan Empire with the titular robot (known as Grandizer in American broadcasts as part of the syndicated Force Five series and Goldorak in its popular run in France and Canada). Mazinger and Grendizer would also turn up as in “chibi” form (also known as “Super Deformed,” i.e., a style of drawing characters as child-like figures with large heads) in the odd CB Chara Go Nagai World (1991), which teamed them with similarly transformed version of Nagai’s Devilman and Violence Jack. Most recently, the Mazinger franchise has continued with the 2001 OAV Mazinkizer and Shin Mazinger Impact! Z Chapter (2009), a reboot directed by Yasuhiro Imagawa.

Mazinger Z drew huge ratings during its network run on Fuji Television, which spurred other anime producers to launch their own similar programs. Animator Ken Ishikawa would expand upon a suggestion by Nagai for his own highly influential Getter Robo (1974), which established the idea of independent mecha that united to form a larger single unit – a concept later utilized by the Super Sentai/Power Rangers franchise and Beast King GoLion (1982-1984) and Armored Fleet Dairugger XV (1982-1984), which were later edited to construct the vastly popular Voltron (1984-1985).

The combining concept would also inform the “Real Robot” subgenre (in which robots and other mecha are based upon harder, more reality-based scientific and industrial designs), as exemplified by Mobile Suit Gundam (1979), the Macross franchise (1982-2013), which was used to construct the Stateside Robotech series, and Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995-1996). Meanwhile, Raideen (1975-1976) would expand upon the mystical elements of Mazinger with its titular robot, the giant protector of the lost civilization of Mu, while Nagai’s Gaiking (1976-1977) established the concept of the “super carrier,” a dragon-shaped transport called the Daiku Maryu (Kargosaur in the English-language version, broadcast on Force Five), which housed the horned Super Robot Gaiking.

Other significant scions of Mazinger during this period include Gatchaman (1972-1974), which was translated into the American series Battle of the Planets and G-Force: Guardians of Space; Magne Robo Gakeen (1976-1977); Danguard Ace (1978-1979) and Starzinger (a.k.a. Spaceketeers, 1978-1979), which rounded out the Force Five lineup. Even Spider-Man, who enjoyed a head-spinning Japanese translation from 1978 to 1979, piloted his own Super Robot, Leopardon. It, along with Great Mazinger, Getter Robo, Gaiking, Brave Raideen and Danguard – along with Godzilla and Rodan – were must-have toys from Mattel in the late 1970s, as well as the stars of a Marvel Comics series from 1980 to 1981.

(Mazinger Z, Great Mazinger, UFO Robo Grendizer, Shin Mazinger, Getter Robo, Gaiking, Gakeen, Danguard Ace and Spider-Man appear to be available only through individual sellers on Amazon, grey market or import disc; Voltron is available on Region 1 DVD from Classic Media, Anime Works and Media Blasters; Gatchman is available on Region 1 DVD from Section 23; and Starzingers is available on DVD from Shout! Factory).

The Super Sentai Series (1975-present)

Though more of a tokusatsu series than Super Robot, this long-running superhero franchise from Toei Co., Ltd and toy/video game/model manufacturer Bandai was the primary introduction to Super Robots for young viewers in the early 1990s. Each of the 37 individual series focused on a team of young people who gained magical or technologically advanced powers in order to defeat an array of super-villains and their monstrous allies. However, the mecha elements were not introduced until the third series, Battle Fever J (1979-1980), a collaboration between Toei and Marvel that was spawned by the success of their offbeat take on Spider-Man. The Super Robot was soon a key element in all subsequent Super Sentai series, which began to explore the American market through pilots by Marvel and Saban Productions in the mid-1980s, though most American viewers got their first taste of Super Sentai at the end of the decade through the USA Network’s Night Flight, which aired comically redubbed episodes of Kagaku Sentai Dynaman (1983-1984).

Saban chief Haim Saban would finally strike paydirt with Mighty Morphin Power Rangers (1993-1995), which combined special effects sequences from Kyoryu Sentai Zyuranger (1992) with new live-action elements featuring a multi-ethnic cast. The Power Rangers would become a dominant force in children’s television around the world, generating an equally large number of related series while generating millions of dollars in related merchandise. Few, if any of the millions of children who gamely reproduced the Power Rangers’ orchestrated moves in backyard battles around the world, knew that their heroes were the latest in a long and storied line of Super Robot heroes that fought for interplanetary justice for over four decades; fewer still could have predicted that these mighty mecha would remain popular enough during this period to warrant their own multi-million-dollar, CGI tribute in Pacific Rim.