Pretty big robo, even bigger heart
Spoilers to follow…
Recently the fine folks at the Mechinations podcast invited me on to talk about the seventh and final episode of Yasuhiro Imagawa’s 1992-1998 OVA series, which happens to be one of my favorite hours of anime, period. You should give that episode and the rest of their coverage a listen! Along with Revolutionary Girl Utena and Evangelion, Giant Robo has been a go-to gun-to-the-head answer for my favorite anime since pretty much the minute after I first finished it in late 2010. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve seen it, I have a couple of cels from the last episode on my wall, and I think about it all the darn time. A monumental event of a series, one that I don’t feel too off base saying that it quickly impresses itself on many viewers as the biggest goddamn thing in the world. Telling a story of the complicated process of growing up, where learning about the wider world beyond one’s own limited experiences comes hand in hand with betrayals of the comfortable status quo of youth and the necessity to look face it head-on with an open heart. At the same time Robo, argues again and again that while we need to scrutinize the past in order to work towards the future, keeping the faith is paramount. And it’s all wrapped in the ever-present tension between adults and the next generation, and the fraught ways in which they communicate.
Robo looms large in my heart and it’s something I often struggle to neatly wrap up in words. That “giant” in the title is not for nothing and the fear of selling it short is real. On the flip side, I try not to oversell or be too pushy with favorites because of how easily that can morph into telling people they’re wrong. But Giant Robo, man, it is truly one of a kind. In the words of the great Shinji Higuchi, who in addition to being a key old school Gainax regular and accomplished special effects director, worked on the storyboards for the third episode, “when I think about Giant Robo, it’s like ‘snap.'”
Unfolding in a “future to come” out of time, simultaneously a decade or two ahead of us and existing like what the bright and fantastical world of 1999 might be if airships and huge rivets had remained stylish for 50 years. Maybe it’s the now out-of-fashion handmade quality of an analog production of cels and painted backgrounds, but the world of Giant Robo feels old and settled. Like it was there long before we see it and still around today, and this goes doubly for the large cast of colorful figures. Here battles between towering metal colossi, super spies, and magicians are commonplace in the ultimate struggle between the International Police Organization and the dastardly Big Fire group. Amidst all of this is 12-year-old Daisaku Kusama, a new member of the IPO’s elite Experts of Justice and charged by his late father as the sole operator of the most powerful robot on the planet, navigating these terrible burdens. The newest challenge is the revived fear of the Tragedy of Bashtarlle, an event that brought the world to its knees a decade prior, but out of its darkness came the Shizuma Drive, a clean and renewable power source that allowed mankind to flourish again. The mysterious Genya, backed by Big Fire, is in possession of a device that can recreate the effects of the Tragedy and has a bone to pick with the world at large. To confront Genya, Daisaku and the Experts will be forced to reckon with the origins of the Shizuma Drive and the cost of scientific progress. With each new layer peeled back, through a black and white flashback that takes on different meanings depending on who is narrating, the heroes learn more and more that there are no easy cure-alls to mankind’s problems and turning away from the ugly truth will only create more disaster. Giant Robo feels more and more timely than ever as the years roll on and the summers get hotter.
And then there’s Robo. When the situation calls for it, he can be a rock in the storm for Daisaku to cling to, capable of withstanding anything thrown at him. And at other times the storm itself, a divine fury of fists and missiles and mountain shattering weaponry. At once a giant metal surrogate father, big brother, and almost a lost child to Daisaku. And finally, eye smashed with Daisaku wrapped in place with loose wires, Dr. Kusama superimposed over him, Robo becomes the adult body capable of great change in the world at large. To say that Imagawa gets the core language and semiotics of the often hazily defined mecha subgenre is an understatement. Where so many others only fleetingly find their rhythm, with Robo, Imagawa and crew put on a full concert. And this is to say nothing of his later work putting his voice to other storied franchises with Mobile Fighter G Gundam, Tetsujin 28 (2004), and Mazinger Edition Z. I doubt there is anyone out there with a greater degree of skill and energy when it comes to these stories of heroism and metal giants.
Something that did throw me off initially and that maybe makes it a tougher sell was the presence of dozens and dozens of unfamiliar Mitsuteru Yokoyama characters from across a wide variety of genres. Robo is a very loose adaptation of Yokoyama’s 1967 live-action series/manga, itself a more fantasy geared take on his own earlier Tetsujin 28, taking only the most basic setup due to legal issues and instead being filled to the brim with characters from his larger body of work including Babel II, Sally the Witch, Godmars, and his manga adaptations of Chinese classics Water Margin and Romance of the Three Kingdoms. It’s why the IPO and Big Fire are all staffed by an incongruous collection of guys in snappy suits and anachronistic Chinese warriors and sci-fi technology is on equal footing with ancient sorcery. In Japan, Yokoyama and his vast canon are revered as foundational to the development of modern manga through multiple genres and styles and many of these characters simply appearing on screen would strike a chord in the audience. Robo is very much a celebration of that work but to Americans, this context is much more obscure. Virtually none of Yokoyama’s manga has been published in English and while we have seen some adaptations of his work air on TV, that connection just really isn’t there for 99% percent of the audience. Even my own shaky knowledge largely stems from my undying interest in what makes Giant Robo tick.
But none of that actually matters because thanks to world-class economical character writing, acting through the combination of animation and voice acting, and confidence that boy detectives and shapeshifting monks fighting ninjas while huge robots with stovepipe arms smash into each other is way cooler at face value than any detailed lore heavy explanation could ever enhance. Knowing the context of all of the Yokoyama tributes is fascinating but the OVA more than works on its own merits without any prior relationship with the source material. Each successive character may be another deep-cut reference to a manga from decades ago that you’ve never heard of but they’re also realized as their own person within Giant Robo‘s eclectic framework. The rainbow of sci-fi, fantasy, and martial arts works in the same way as Star Wars‘ blending pulp space opera and westerns merged, it’s overflowing with imagination and gusto that plows right past any pedantic questioning. And one of Robo‘s greatest feats is instilling a great deal of weight and pathos to the complicated web of relationships and histories to this sizable cast through oftentimes only a handful of lines, subtle gestures, and outstanding voice acting. Where the weight of a lifelong rivalry reaches its climax with Alberto’s final words addressed to his fallen nemesis with a knowing smile or Yoshi’s warm paternal guidance sold completely through the reassuring softness of her voice during a moment of doubt. The way so much can be gleaned from what isn’t said or almost imperceptible changes in tone and body language. Imagawa always brings his love of world cinema to his anime works and you can see it in the broad strokes with the many references to the films of his youth and love of wuxia but the attention to character acting is an undersung treasure here. For what could easily be an impossibly dense parade of references to other works, Robo hums with a life all its own. I don’t like to say you have to rewatch stuff to really get it, but I’ve been revisiting Giant Robo for over a decade now and it still feels like I’m seeing so much for the first time.
I, of course, cannot avoid talking about the cliffhanger ending, which completes the Still Earth Operation and much more importantly, Daisaku’s arc, but leaves the fate of the world for another day. The battle rages on, it must, off in that future to come, which shines so brightly. It’s easy to see Robo‘s final moments as an unfulfilled promise and perhaps in 1998, it was. It is well known Imagawa and crew planned The Day the Earth Stood Still as one of several arcs in a grander story. But we aren’t left empty-handed, Daisaku’s story means something. Tragedy and failure are not the end, they can shape us but do not define us. We create ourselves and our futures. Like I think many first-time viewers, I certainly struggled with accepting there would be no more. But the longer Robo has sat with me, I see how there’s something kind of perfect about a story of struggling to reach that future, that beautiful night, and only getting a glimpse of it. The narrator assures us Daisaku and Robo will be right in the thick of things in that final battle, and because of the events of The Day the Earth Stood Still, we know he got his head on straight and his eyes are open. That’s enough.
Perhaps if things had played out differently, we would have seen more Robo; Daisaku teaming up with Shotaro Kaneda and Tetsujin, the GR Plan laid bare, and that final battle at the Tower of Babel waged. But so much could have gone awry and The Day the Earth Stood Still is nothing short of a miracle of consistency. They never had to switch studios or saw catastrophic staff departures. There’s no bad episode where the animation went into the dumpster or the direction goes haywire. The production values are through the roof throughout. There’s such a careful consideration and energized execution to every scene, every frame. The final episode, “Grand Finale” came out nearly three years after the previous episode and somehow still blows what came before away. I just cannot imagine a world where that high level of craftsmanship and drive could be maintained while not falling to the all too common OVA pitfalls. I can however very easily imagine a scenario where interest slumped, resources thinned, and we got disheartened early 2000s low-resolution digipaint episodes. What was produced captured lightning in a bottle at a very specific place and time and is easily among the greatest anime ever made, anything further is not necessary.
I could probably go on forever about the countless moments of tenderness, sadness, regret, and joy in Giant Robo. Those big operatic moments of tragedy and wills clashing down to the smallest little touches. The stray tear opening up his watch as Daisaku begins to realize that his father’s parting question of “Can happiness be achieved without sacrifice?” certainly has an easy answer looking at the chaos around him, but that the real solution lies in the making of a world where tragedy doesn’t have to pave the road forward, before unleashing Robo’s full wrath on the Volger Sphere is so sincere and mythic in scope that it’s permanently seared into my mind. Not as bombastic but no less impactful is Tetsugyu giving him a little pat on the back just before the final push, such a small moment but it’s everything to that relationship that’s been building for seven episodes. And then there’s Masamichi Amano’s orchestral score, full of memorable motifs and stirring movements charging the drama and sending an already knockout production into the stratosphere. The cinematic eye at work is consistently jaw-dropping and the design work of this alternate future as seen from the hopes of the past has a lived-in thoughtfulness at its center. Imagawa’s trademark pathos and heart, along with his sharp sense of scale, has never been better. Just the thought of trying to condense all Giant Robo has going for it to a blog entry feels disrespectful to the ambition and craft on display. I spent three hours talking on a Saturday night about just the final episode and began this post tack on some extra notes and kept going. I’m 2000 words deep and I still feel like I’ve only given Giant Robo a woefully cursory glance, but as I’ve learned through the years, words will fail me on this one. Sometimes all you can do is stand in awe. Man, Giant Robo.
Giant Robo: The Day the Earth Stood Still is available through Discotek Media on Blu-ray.