Appreciating Yoshiyuki Tomino’s Brains
Spoilers to follow…
In an interview on the DVDs, series creator/director and typically somewhat hostile subject Yoshiyuki Tomino spoke about wanting to get away from what he considered to be stereotypical “Tomino Anime” when making 1998’s Brain Powerd and while that intent casts the show as a work of attempted personal expansion, it only reinforces that you can’t run from yourself. Because without a doubt, the 26 episode Brain Powerd (released in the U.S. with an extra “E” making the title more sensible, a supreme disservice to both the show at hand and any unaware viewer) is, in fact, one of the most irrevocably Tomino anime ever inflicted on reality. To many people, this would read as me saying it is a screaming disaster of thing, not worth anyone’s time and better lost to history, but only the first part is actually true. Over the last few years, I’ve had a rather good time diving into Tomino’s oeuvre, because let me to you, once you get past the positively tame original Mobile Suit Gundam, unquestionably his most famous and collaborative work, things get wild and Brain Powerd ranks among the very finest in this admittedly niche interest.
What continues to draw me to Tomino’s work (and I think what sends so many others packing) is how his unmistakably idiosyncratic voice cuts through the noise, for better and worse. He’s been in the industry since anime began weekly schedules in 1963 and directing for nearly five decades, almost every single effort carrying the baggage of productions that began to move toys or expand brands, and through all of it, he has cultivated a distinct style that cannot help but announce itself within moments. So much of his work is an oxymoron of loud free-wheeling personal expression and rigid formula designed to maximize product appeal. Through the years this relationship between singular vision and commerce has run the spectrum from amicable to outright contentious. From professional, using genre staples and routines to play the hits with panache or challenging audience expectations in meaningful ways, all the way to desperately trying to escape their limitations and seemingly trying to tear down productions before your eyes.
The original Gundam movies sharpened an already moving TV series, the second draft of Ideon transformed a fumbling space opera about transforming trucks into a full-blown creation myth, and Char’s Counterattack reckoned with its aging cast and their relationship with the next generation while trying (unsuccessfully) to put Gundam itself in the ground. Seldom do Tomino’s projects function as passive entertainment, they demand something from the viewer, many would say too much, but they are always fascinating to me. Much in the same way as I happily paid to see Cats theatrically three times, I am drawn to Tomino’s infamously outlandish personality hiding just below commercials for robot toys. To really experience a Tomino production is to sit down and have a conversation with it. Rarely smooth, communication is often a strained affair, and the intent often opaque, I wouldn’t ever want to miss out on one.
Even before the opening has finished, a sense of oddity has already set in. It’s about 15 seconds longer than the usual anime opening, which sounds minor but is actually very noticeable. Half a dozen nude women, several of which are very unimportant characters, slide across the screen superimposed over mystical iconography like the Sphinx and traditional Japanese temple gates. The accompanying lyrics bombard with promises of the sexiest sex you can imagine, hilarious given the rigidly clinical way the cast interacts. The titular Brain Powered robots appear in only 3 shots, with one being what looks to be a piece of promotional art awkwardly tossed in at the last minute at the behest of a surely desperately sweating producer. None of these 105 seconds speaks to the show itself, and the pieces will never come together as you contextualize who these people are and understand their roles in the story. Which actually makes it the ideal way to open every single episode. This isn’t false advertising so much as it is the first of many strange indulgences. And this is before you as a viewer have to accept these kids talking to their robots like large pet babies with swords. If you could abstract the experience of Brain Powerd into under 2 minutes, this intro is near perfect.
I’m of two minds on where to even begin talking about the nuts and bolts. Almost by design, Brain Powerd denies its audience of even a straight forward way to approach it. On one hand, there’s piecing together its ridiculously obtuse unspooling of worldbuilding and characterization which really only sort of becomes legible after sitting through the entirety of the run, for no good reason. But I think going too far in this direction is a less important and interesting way to engage with the show. Doing that doesn’t speak to the baffling moment to moment experience of being utterly adrift in its ocean of uncertainty, that route is more a discussion of the show as an idealized version of itself in different hands. The character of the work becomes a very different beast in cleanly arranging its disparate parts, and with everything about it being an uncoordinated mess, I might as well be talking about another show entirely. The jank is a vital piece of its identity.
But for the sake of clarity and some context later on, the show takes place sometime in the future, where humanity finds itself on brink of ruin when the ancient biological alien space ship, Orphan, threatens to rise from its ocean resting place to finish destabilizing the environment and drain the Earth of its life energy. In the center of this slowly unfolding calamity are two groups; on one side are the Reclaimers, feeling dejected at mankind’s treatment of itself and the Earth, they aid in Orphan’s rise. And on the other is a loose collection of individuals aboard the experimental ocean vessel, the Novis Noah, who haven’t given up hope and fight to turn things around. Yuu Isami, a Reclaimer robot pilot who can’t abide by his parent’s wishes to fight for Orphan escapes and joins the Novis Noah with the orphan (it’s a theme) Hime Utsumiya, who like so many mecha pilots before her, finds herself in control of a special Brain Powered and saddled with the responsibility of using it before the first episode’s credits roll.
Now, none of this is particularly complicated, and honestly, cumbersome as it is, sticks pretty close to the Sunrise robot show playbook they’ve been running since the 1970s all the way to the present day. The ragtag team of heroes hang out and emotionally clash on the nth iteration of White Base. The bad guys needle them once or so an episode with a low stakes robot brawl. There’s a number of surprisingly easily pulled off infiltration missions on both sides. Sudden side switching with little scrutiny. It’s very familiar. It’s all in the delivery, that upside down, backwards, smashed into dozens of pieces, and hurled at odd intervals, typically unmotivated by the context of the scene as the cast as shouts in each other’s directions delivery. It isn’t clear until the final episodes what Orphan even looks like or how big it is (a slightly important detail of this oncoming apocalypse). Why is the Novis Noah run like a democracy or a business instead of a military vessel depending on the episode? And of course, there’s a trio of orphan children pushing mops around and delivering sandwiches because it’s a crusty relic of 70s children’s programming. The glue holding all of these well-worn pieces together has never been weaker. Hell, the Brains being influenced by the young pilots’ hearts, contrary to the title, is downright quaint.
Whereas many shows will get the basic building blocks out of the way early and move on to digging into their characters, their relationships, and the worlds that they inhabit, Brain Powerd scatters its vital information across the entire run, never allowing a sense of solid understanding to take shape. And that’s on top of contending with the mix of incomprehensibly connected proper nouns, twice as many players as the narrative can support, with pacing and scene construction that shows an utter disregard for even the notion that an audience, presumably of young adults, would be attempting to view it. As a result, far more energy is spent trying to put together the things like the relationship between Brain Powereds, Grand Chers, and Anti-bodies, something that by all accounts shouldn’t be a puzzle in the first place, that could have been directed at connecting with the show at large and its ideas. It is exhausting. This is a steely-eyed, inelegant attempt at a sort of natural immersion, like joining a discussion midway through and being able to pick it up after listening for a moment or two without having to recap everything that came before. A stab at subverting overtly artificial storytelling techniques like an omnipotent narrator (Tomino often opts to instead have the cast step back slightly and joke about events as they unfold in previews and recaps) or “as you know” exposition. Another nod towards naturalism comes in how many scenes are punctuated by people bumping into stuff, tripping, trailing off sentences after as conversations shift, and just otherwise highlighting the little awkward moments of everyday life. They can read as oddly placed old-fashioned slapstick but I’m always happy to see them. Where anime so often only motivates movement and body language for very specific purposes, I love these small beats of somebody fumbling only to shoot back up as if nothing happened in the background. They give these otherwise very alien scenes a charming jolt of humanity.
By this point in Tomino’s career, hastily thrusting the audience into a story with the cast and engines of the plot already speeding by, without so much as a look back to get caught up was already a calling card that has only intensified with time. There’s a very distinct way his work unfolds, best seen in moments of heated shouting where nothing quite clicks together when from out of left field comes a sudden new piece of information or blunt observation that shatters the already thin concept of character voice and sends the entire scene spiraling. An early moment begins with Yuu grumbling about no one remembering his birthday before walking into a control room and pulling a gun on a pair of scientists. Only then is it revealed that they are his parents and he has had it with them being absorbed in the whole Orphan business. Not the last parental reveal at gunpoint either! To further add to the chaotic moment is his sister, Iko Isami but angrily insisting to be called Quincy Issa, interrupting with her own speech, gun drawn. The motivating incident behind Yuu’s sudden betrayal is only vaguely laid out across the next half dozen episodes. And all of this comes after a jarring one year time skip. It’s a lot to take in, especially considering it’s only the first episode. I admire the effort to drop us into this drama without handrails but the result is pure mayhem and then it is further broken when characters launch into yelling fan wiki lore pages at each other or Yuu announcing “I have an absurd family!” after many episodes of murky interactions with them. Brain Powerd is a mess that only Yoshiyuki Tomino could have given the world and I ate it up.
I considered making this post an easier to digest “top 10 hilarious moments” list, it might have been shorter and probably funnier because goodness is there ever a selection of top-shelf madness. But I felt I needed to do an upsettingly long deep dive. So here’s a quick sampler: Kanan Grimms, Yuu’s Reclaimer comrade and fellow turncoat having a flashback to before she was born when her father wanted to abort her (which caused me to do a triple take and made me question my ability to process the otherwise basic combination of images and sound). Main robot rival Jonathan Glen, a fully evolved Men’s Rights Activist fusion of past Tomino jerks Jerid Mesa, Glemy Toto, and Cronicle Asher, sneaking on to the Novis Noah and bumping into his estranged mother. Who just so happens to be the captain because the web of relationships in this show never bothers to gesture at making logical sense, and forgetting his mission, launches into an argument about sperm and missed Christmases. This would not be the last of Jonathan stealing entire episodes. Quincy Issa admonishing her workaholic mother with perhaps Tomino’s greatest cathartic ramble ever and another piece of evidence in support of my theory that none of these kids really understands the specifics of where babies come from. Baron Maximillian, a mysterious nipple armored, rocket snowboarding figure who just sort of strolls in from another show during the final stretch like someone accidentally left the door open. And then there’s everyone making casual, one-sided conversations with their robots, which they all delightfully call “Brain,” leading to dozens of instances of lines like “I’m sorry, Brain!” and it never stops being funny. Moments like these and so many more give the show a tension the story regularly fails to do. Sure, there’s a lot of boring nothing, but you never really know when things are going to swerve into something amazing. This post is already long enough but suffice it to say, Brain Powerd is a beautiful treasure trove of madness that any reprint worth its salt would prominently note “from the director of Garzey’s Wing” in the ad copy. I suspect people telling me not to watch it were trying to hoard its riches for themselves.
So two thousand words in, what is Brain Powerd really about? Tomino has never been one to rest on surface-level conflicts and resolutions and digging into what he’s trying, with as heavy an emphasis on trying as I can impress, to say is always a big part of the appeal. Well, as the cast of the Fast & Furious franchise would say, Brain Powerd is about family. Top to bottom, fractured familial bonds sit at the center of every conflict from Yuu resenting his grandmother for having his mother, who then treated her children like cogs in a machine, to the pilots and their Brain Powereds forming parent/child dynamics. And it all feeds into what direction Orphan’s relationship with Earth itself will ultimately take. That apocalypse with rising seas, splintering land masses, and population displacement mostly happening offscreen, is just the tension between these people’s frayed bonds writ large. It’s messy for a million little reasons outlined above and because the transition between the in-universe specifics and broader themes is typically a weak point for Tomino. His hands always seem to clumsily knock over many of the pieces on the board as they directly reach towards the audience. But there’s something in all that noise and it makes a kind of sense.
It wouldn’t be a Tomino production, particularly one taking some bigger swings, without a trip into his Terrible Gender Politics, and man, he really went for the fences in Brain Powerd. There’s the usual background radiation of regressive attitudes about women being destined to be mothers or otherwise emotional caregivers and any deviation from that being abnormal. Then there’s Hime being set up as the protagonist before being shuffled into the corner while we are forced to drown in Yuu’s angst. This is more or less standard-issue Tomino, though it bubbles up occasionally into plain-spoken, didactic moments like where several characters, unwinding after a hard day of robot fighting and reflecting on the state of their splitting world, begin parroting “yeah women have stopped mothers” at each other with dead-eyed looks as the episode fades out. It’s the batshit weird times that truly send it into the stratosphere and make the show into a carnival ride of Bad Takes difficult to take too much serious offense with. It’s Jonathan recalling to Yuu’s mother the apparently old-fashioned nugget of wisdom that states “a mother’s son is virtually her lover” as he talks about hunting him down and she smiles wryly, appearing to agree. It’s in how, in a clear example of development as a writer, the death of the otherworldly empath is combined with Yuu gaining an upgraded robot. No longer must the midseason upgrade simply sit close to a tragic (not to mention spiritually motivating) death of a romantic interest, her demise is now the direct catalyst for the protagonist’s new robot. That’s efficiency!
To get the heart of Brain Powerd‘s terrible messaging, it is worth highlighting Jonathan Glen, who is The Worst and perhaps Tomino’s most pronounced sleazebag. He’s also the source of many of the show’s greatest moments, which automatically elevates him to one of the best characters. I couldn’t wait for the next scene of Jonathon squeezing his nipples through his uniform, an affectation I can only guess was to communicate toughness or an oddball declaration of manhood. The problem is that according to how things play, Jonathan is right and that’s bad. Jonathan is a gnashing, cackling Reclaimer who only views his role within Orphan as a means to gain power, if he had a knife, he would only stop licking it long enough to yell at anyone within earshot about his issues with women or to boast to Yuu that he’s been sleeping with his mother. At times, he approaches what could be a decent look at toxic masculinity, that is until the show makes sure to cast the blame for his outlook on his mother, Anoa McCormick, for being a single working parent. “If only she had a husband and spent more Christmases with him as a child” Brain Powerd argues, Jonathan, who is an adult and somehow not responsible for his actions, wouldn’t be so awful. And this applies across the board, Yuu’s parents don’t see their children for who they are, and his grandmother is to blame for not managing his mother well enough when she was younger. If these wounds aren’t healed, Orphan could turn the world into a husk. Tomino ultimately forgives, but it’s a stern lecture. Just as Gundam and its sequels saw adults as harmful stewards of society, Brain Powerd directs a not-insignificant amount of scorn towards emotionally distant parents and elders. But whereas Gundam took issue with corruption, mismanagement, and societal hostility, here Tomino finds anxiety in the breaking up of the nuclear family, and women are cast as the perpetrators.
It is something of a miracle that the wonderful Turn A Gundam, which began airing mere months later in 1999, was almost a full 180-degree reversal of so many of these retrograde sentiments. The women of Turn A are not only in command of their own rich independent stories and drives, but without Dianna Soreil and Kihel Heim’s pivotal perspectives, the show simply would not have shape. But that is an outlier and many of Tomino’s female characters have historically been ruled by chaotic, unfathomable emotional hurricanes that the works they are stuck in do not have an interest in investigating. That is when they aren’t cold-heartedly rattling off conservative gender-essentialist viewpoints at Dutch angles. So often they are treated with a deep unease as if they are fundamentally alien in origin and the idea of them having multiple roles, or ones outside of traditionally subservient ones is cast with great distrust. The worst part is that I’ve always gotten the impression that he thinks these are progressive moves towards better representation. It’s just that these women and their stories feel like they come from isolated navel-gazing, not from interaction, listening, reading, or just plain old respect. And I’m not touching on the many interviews where he suddenly slams on the gas and speeds to horny town. I will never deny that Tomino is a problematic favorite and that anyone interested in his work should be aware of these attitudes.
So now having gone on for entirely too god damn long, let’s talk about the ramshackle production values because just like everything else, they are a source of frustration, boredom, and hilarity. Brain Powerd is not an attractive show, especially in its first half where nearly every aspect seems provisional at best. Animation has a dumpy quality to it, there’s a general disinterest in exploring the science fiction setting, with most scenes taking place in bare rooms or at night, and the robots listlessly slide around in a frozen neutral pose most of the time (though a few episodes in they figure out that stylistic “whoosh” noises and a short-range teleporting effect makes this seem more purposeful and not out of budgetary necessity). Mamoru Nagano, of The Five Star Stories, in a very rare TV gig provided the designs for the Brain Powereds and Grand Chers but the effort is lost in the tangle. I don’t know if there were shifts in money and resources behind the scenes or if they were biting off more than they could chew but his uniquely proportioned designs simply don’t work at this production’s scope. Where they are supposed to be stark and imposing, they just look blank and barren. When the machine-like hard right angles of their heads meet the more flesh and bone shapes of their bodies, the animators seem at a loss for how to juggle it all. In the same DVD interview, music composer and all-around icon Yoko Kanno speaks about putting together a soundtrack based on Tomino’s incomprehensible direction notes and this seems to broadly apply to just about everything in Brain Powerd. There are some genuinely solid Kanno tracks and like everything else, they’re buried under poor implementation and a production-wide lack of creative synergy, another wrong Turn A Gundam would amend. The fifteen-year-old DVDs certainly did it no favors but even if this finds its way into an HD remaster, and though the production appeared to rally itself in the second half, Brain Powerd is always going to be kind of crummy.
Over 20 years after airing, the show’s legacy is largely boiled down to “Tomino’s Evangelion” and to sidestep the numerous interviews with amusingly contradictory statements on the subject, watching it in 2020, Brain Powerd more neatly slots into Tomino’s running collection of ideas and stylistic quirks than a reaction to Gainax’s 1995 juggernaut. There are similar aspects that were likely informed at least in part by Evangelion, the organic robots, secretive mythology infused organizations, and particularly the finale in space, and sponsors were almost certainly eager to play up comparisons, but Gainax has never shied away from acknowledging their own creative debt to Tomino’s past work. Just as Aura Battler Dunbine touched on the zero-sum game of 1980s Cold War nuclear posturing, here he puts America’s heavy-handed armed interventions of the 1990s on blast. And specifically in Brain Powerd‘s manic cadence and goofy undertones, I can see an early shift towards the more energetic and bouncy style of Gundam: Reconguista in G. That downbeat, scorched Earth “Kill ’em All” Tomino was already a thing of the past and a more upbeat, happy ending inclined mood was on the rise by 1998.
“So what you’re saying is that Brain Powerd is bad?” To that, I say yes, and also no, but then kind of yes again, this time in the good way. There’s a rough, deeply flawed humanity to Tomino’s work that I can’t help but love. To sit down and really dig into one of his pieces is to return to my bullshit. Certainly not for everyone and I wouldn’t recommend it for a beginner but to answer the question posed by Bandai’s woefully lacking promotional trailer: after so many words, yes, Brain Powerd is in me. Dull as dirt for long stretches, frustrating to the point of yelling at my TV, regularly laugh out loud bizarre, and unforgettable in its own way. A sincere to a fault comedy of errors and determined, hopelessly unaware piece of disaster art for the ages. At the end of the day, I had a better time with and fonder memories of Brain Powerd than I do with many shows I would legitimately call good.
Brain Powerd was licensed and released several times by the now-defunct Bandai Entertainment in the 2000s and is long out of print. The last word on the license came in 2013 when Sentai Filmworks rescued it along with many other Bandai titles, though it has yet to materialize either on disc or streaming services. I very much hope it becomes available again, I need to menace my friends and enemies with it.