Before Mobile Suit Gundam, Yoshiyuki Tomino created Muteki Choujin Zambot 3. Zambot 3 is very appropriately the predecessor to Gundam, and to watch it is to see how Gundam eventually developed into an idea in its own right. At the same time, the show stands very well on its own.
Zambot 3 is about a group of refugees from a distant planet named Beal which was destroyed by the evil entity known as Gaizok. The survivors of Beal, known as the Jin Family and numbering only a handful, migrated to Earth where they have been preparing for Gaizok’s inevitable invasion. The only thing that can stop Gaizok is the mighty robot, Zambot 3 and its three young pilots, Jin Kappei, Kamie Uchuuta, and Kamikita Keiko. Fighting Gaizok’s “Mecha Boost” monsters, however, is not the biggest problem that the Beal-seijin face.
There is no way to mistake Zambot 3 for a real robot. The weapons have no explainable technology, its combination sequence is unnecessarily long, and attack names are shouted out with fervor. However, while the robot itself is extravagant fantasy, that doesn’t hold true for the setting in which it’s placed. Zambot 3 may be the only thing standing between the Earth and annihilation by Gaizok, but the people of Japan don’t see it that way. Cities are destroyed, and many are left homeless. Of course, they’re the lucky ones, as the collateral damage resulting from the battles between Zambot 3 and the Mecha Boosts claim many lives. All of this results in an overall hatred of the Jin Family by the very people they protect. “If you weren’t here, Gaizok wouldn’t attack the Earth, and none of this would have ever happened!” The people’s hysteria stemming from this view is very real, and while a little disturbing, it’s easy to see why their panic and fear would lead them to try and stone a 12 year old boy to death. While the pilots are able to endure most of the intolerance towards them, it becomes especially painful when the pilots’ own friends also begin to view the Jin Family in a negative light. Kappei, for instance, has little doubt that what he does is right, but when confronted about it is unable to find the right words to defend himself, and because of this becomes angry and frustrated. They may be the pilots of Zambot 3, but the show doesn’t fail to remind you that in the end, they’re still just kids.
The age of the pilots is one of the more frequent criticisms thrown at Zambot 3, but if the show has any weaknesses, it’s not that the pilots are kids. While I think their “immaturity” is frequently exaggerated (15 is the age Amuro Ray first got onto the Gundam), all three pilots are dedicated to the fight against Gaizok, and all three have the skill to back it up. The show tastefully portrays the fact that all three pilots are at a transitional age. They’re surprisingly mature in some ways, expectedly immature in others, and often forced into situations which they can’t win, even if they destroy the Mecha Boost that’s attacking the city. As to WHY they pilot it instead of their very much alive parents or older siblings, it’s because they’ve been trained to pilot it. As to why they had their kids being trained to pilot it, I’ll cop out and say, “It’s just anime.” By making the pilots relatively young, it eliminates the need for comic sidekicks. If you’re going to give kids characters to relate to, why not have them relate to characters who can actually do something?
That’s not to say the show doesn’t have any problems; there are two in particular which stand out. First, is that the show suffers from inconsistent animation. The show actually looks like it has a lower budget than ones from years before it, like Reideen the Brave. Mouths sometimes stay in place while the rest of the head moves. Colors and features change at random. While this may hold true for most shows from this era, it can be particularly jarring in Zambot 3. If I hadn’t seen the line art, I would think that the animators of Zambot 3 had no base character designs to work from. That said, the artwork picks up towards the end of the series.
Second, is the villains. While Gaizock may be a powerful threat, it’s not a terribly interesting one until the second half of the series. Much time is spent per episode showing the antics of Butcher as he schemes and plots. By schemes and plots, I mean tries on jewelry, gets his mustache shaved, and at one point holds a rock concert in the Bandock which no one (save the viewer) will ever see. I suspect that these scenes are similar to the comic relief that kid sidekicks and zany best friends usually provide, but I’m not sure how much kids even back in 1977 could enjoy a big, fat purple alien with a mustache and goatee playing pool or getting a tan. By the second half of the series, though, things get more serious as Butcher reveals his ultimate plan. I dont want to spoil it, but let’s just say it DOESN’T involve building bigger monsters, doomsday lasers or anything of that sort.
At 23 episodes, Zambot 3 is surprisingly short for a giant robot series from the 70’s. Combined with Tomino’s ability to facilitate an ongoing plot where one would least expect it, results in a very good pacing, ESPECIALLY for a giant robot series from the 70’s. The first episode introduces Kappei, Zambo Ace, and the basic premise. The second episode introduces Uchuuta and Keiko. The third episode debuts Zambot itself. After that, all of the episodes, while containing an obvious Monster of the Week battle, advance the overall story, mostly through the emotions and tensions of the characters involved. To restate, things really pick up in the second half. If you already know the reputations of Zambot 3 and Tomino, nothing more needs to be said. If you don’t know, well, just watch if you can. While Zambot 3 is not as revolutionary as Gundam, the concepts that Zambot present as a robot anime act as a very strong bridge between the “real robot” sub-genre that Gundam would create, and the “super robot” shows that preceded it.