In one of those "rare" occasions where Michael Bay shot his mouth off, he recently called out Guillermo Del Toro's Pacific Rim for being an alleged Transformers rip-off. But from watching the movie, it's clear that Pacific Rim's influences are firmly rooted in the giant robots of Japan, not the world of Hasbro toys. The current excitement for Pacific Rim made me think back to one of the best in the giant robo genre, Johnny Sokko and His Flying Robot, which was a Japanese series (originally titled Giant Robot) that ran for 26 episodes in the late sixties.
Sokko was a kid who controlled "Giant Robot" via a radio controlled wrist-watch, and he saved Japan from a number of monsters, including Dracalon, Nucleon, and Scaleon. The Darth Vader of the story was Emperor Guillotine from the Planet Gargoyle, a big green bad guy who looked like Cthulhu wearing a sparkly gold Elvis robe.
Giant Robot was created by Dr. Lucius Guardian, a scientist who was captured by the Gargoyle Gang. As part of the Gargoyle Gang's diabolical plan, they force Dr. Guardian to create Giant Robot, and make the enormous automation their weapon. Before Robot is activated, he's programmed to follow the commands of the first voice he hears through a radio-controlled wrist-watch. Thankfully, after Dr. Guardian's lab blows up, the first voice Giant Robot hears is Sokko's, and he becomes a force for good.
As the Giant Robot wiki page informed me, the Johnny Sokko show came to the States thanks to American International Pictures (AIP), the legendary low budget company that supplied the drive-ins and grindhouses with movies for decades. AIP had a TV division, which brought the series to the tube in 1969, where it mainly played UHF stations.
AIP then made a compilation film out of several Sokko episodes called Voyage Into Space, which is how many of us became acquainted with Giant Robot growing up. Even though it doesn't have Japan's favorite big green monster, Voyage Into Space often played on TV Godzilla marathons, and it also played on Saturday afternoons, as well as the wee hours of the morning. (Back in the day, B movies would play all night long on television before the infomercials took over.)
August Ragone, a Japanese monster expert who wrote the liner notes for the Johnny Sokko series box set, says, "A lot of foreign films that were deemed not suitable for theatrical exploitation were purchased, dubbed, and prepped for inclusion in TV packages to pad out AIP's catalog, In the case of Voyage Into Space, AIP-TV simply took some episodes and cut them together to make a faux feature film."
The giant robots of Japan, like Johnny Sokko's and Gigantor, have obsessive cult followings today, and Ragone became a Sokko fan from watching the show on local stations in San Francisco when he was a lad. "I was really into Japanese monster movies, and this was just another great thing to love," he says. "Tons of monsters and lots of action, just like Ultraman, which was my favorite."
As for why the show has such a loyal following today, Ragone says, "It appeals directly to pre-adolescent boyhood fantasies. It's a world where a ten-year old child is in charge, he's involved in dangerous, life or death situations as a secret agent, and he wields the most powerful weapon in the world: Giant Robot!"
When saving Japan, Giant Robot had rocket missiles that shot out of his fingertips, lasers that shot out of his eyes, and an "atomic punch" that could knock a monster into the middle of next week. Like a corner man in a boxing match, Sokko yelled out commands like, "Giant Robot! Punch hard! All your might! Use the hand missiles! Attack!"
As for Giant Robot's fictional specs, he's nearly a hundred feet tall, weighs 500 tons, and can hit Mach 17 when flying. In the classic Japanese tradition, Giant Robot was a guy in a suit, and Ragone says the suit was mostly made from fiberglass and plastic, with some rubber pieces here and there.
After beating up countless gigantic beasts that threaten Japan, Giant Robot has his last knock down, drag out brawl with Emperor Guillotine. Finally, Robot grabs Guillotine, flies off into space with him, and they crash into a meteor, which creates a beautiful supernova when they explode.
Tohru Hirayama, the show's producer, actually cried during the studio screening of the last episode, and several fans have admitted they were also genuinely moved when Giant Robot sacrificed himself to save the earth (something fans of the animated Transformers movie and The Iron Giant may be familiar with). At the end of the show, a sadder version of the show's theme song plays, which Steve Ryfle, another Japanese monster expert, calls "a cross between a military march and Ennio Morricone's theme for A Few Dollars More."
As Ryfle reminds me, the whole Japanese big robot craze began back with Tetsujin 28, or Gigantor as it was known in the States. Tetsujin 28 first debuted on Japanese TV in 1963, and made its way to the States in 1964. "The giant robot phenomenon and all its permutations evolved from that show," Ryfle says.
The giant robot genre exploded in the '70's with Mazinger Z, which was a big hit all over the world, except in the U.S.
The Gigantor series was launched after the success of Astro-Boy, and Ragone says the giant robot genre exploded in the '70's with Mazinger Z, which was a big hit all over the world, except in the U.S. "That's where Del Toro's frame of reference lays," Ragone continues. "He got to see all this cool stuff when it was broadcast in Mexico. Mazinger Z in particular was incredibly huge in Latin countries, and still is to this day."
As for the Transformers rip-off taunts directed at Pacific Rim, Ragone calls this "an ignorant assumption. The funny thing is the Transformers are Japanese in the first place. They sprung from the same toy line as Micronauts. With that being said, there was a long tradition of colossal monster-fighting automatons in Japan, long before Hasbro dumped that franchise on kids in the '80s."
The complete Johnny Sokko series is now available in a four-disc set from Shout! Factory, and it's good timing before the release of Pacific Rim. If Rim is a hit, we certainly hope that fans it will inspire people to back to the giant robot classics of yesteryear to see where all this cool stuff originally came from.
For the fans that already know the joys of Johnny Sokko, myself included, it's a great show to go back to and watch today. "A boy with his very own giant robot that can fly, shoot missiles, defeat monsters and save the world," Ryfle marvels. "Not only that, the boy is a secret agent with his own jet pack and gun. What's not to like?"