Yokoyama Mitsuteru’s Tetsujin 28 is one of the landmarks of anime and manga, a classic among classics and a significant influence on the history of comics and animation in Japan. It is widely considered the “father” of the giant robot genre, being the first notable manga to feature a towering humanoid behemoth of steel and jet engines in a heroic role. It rivaled Tezuka’s Tetsuwan Atom in popularity, bringing with it a more base thrill than Tezuka’s stories. One thing Tetsujin 28 did not do, however, was really look at its own contents and try to incorporate them into a greater story, which is where the 2004 anime adaptation of Tetsujin 28 comes in.
Tetsujin 28 2004 was directed by Imagawa Yasuhiro, who is known for his work on shows such as G Gundam and Giant Robo the Animation: The Day the Earth Stood Still. The latter is of particular significance, as Giant Robo is adapted from a manga/live-action show by Tetsujin 28‘s creator Yokoyama, and acts not only as a story of gaining maturity and forging destiny, but also as a tribute to Yokoyama’s works in general. So Imagawa, being no stranger to the works of Yokoyama, approaches this adaptation by putting a subtle, yet profound spin on the story of Tetsujin 28, using in the 21st century what was not available to Yokoyama back when he was creating the original manga: hindsight.
Tetsujin 28 is the titular giant robot of the series, and in the story’s premise it is a product of World War II, a super weapon designed to fight the Allies that finds a new purpose in post-war Japan. Its “master” is 10-year old boy detective Kaneda Shoutarou, the son of Tetsujin’s original creator. With his trusty remote control, Shoutarou uses the iron golem not to wage war, but to protect peace and stop crime. With these essential ideas, that of a weapon of destruction finding a new identity as a guardian of good, and the young boy at its controls, Imagawa transforms Tetsujin 28 into a story about the relationship between the people of post-war Japan and the demons of their past, tying the characters and stories from Tetsujin 28 into actual historical events and paralleling the development of Shoutarou and Tetsujin with the development of Japan.
Though Tetsujin 28 is most certainly a giant robot series, it is not as much of one as you might think. Many times the episodes feel more like detective fiction, and in a great number of instances the antagonists don’t even utilize giant robots. Instead, the recurring theme among the villains in Tetsujin 28 is that they are all relics of World War II and the weapons developments that were going on at the time, ranging from artificial intelligence to hideous disease to genetic manipulation and a host of other mad sciences. Shoutarou must constantly confront the past and the horrors that came from the very same war in which Tetsujin itself was created. That’s not to say that giant robots are out of the question, of course. The series takes Tetsujin’s greatest rival, the Black Ox, and increases its role in the story. This is actually a hallmark of director Imagawa, his interest in fleshing out villains, and he ends up giving a somewhat similar treatment to Ox as he did Baron Ashura in Shin Mazinger.
The strength of the visuals in Tetsujin 28 are perhaps best exemplified by the show’s portrayal of Tetsujin itself. While Tetsujin’s face is completely static, it is still able to convey a sense of mood and emotion by utilizing a technique from the No plays of Japan, where the apparent expressions on No masks change depending on the angle at which they’re seen. Viewed from below or straight on, Tetsujin’s eyes appear large and friendly. From above however, the visor on Tetsujin’s head turns its expression into a vicious glare, a look often enhanced by changing the color of Tetsujin’s eyes from a bright yellow to a menacing red.
The show’s visual direction isn’t all good however. Tetsujin 28 has this odd tendency to use these extremely awkward digital transitions which can really jolt you out of the show. They really do stick out poorly, though it’s my only real complaint in terms of visual direction.
There is a near-constant gravity in the 2004 Tetsujin 28 series, and it can be a lot to take in, especially if you expect the series to be as lighthearted as its source material, and doubly so when you factor in the potential incongruity of the tone of the series and the character designs. Everyone in the show, from Shoutarou to Police Chief Ohtsuka to scoundrel Murasame Kenji are drawn to resemble the original manga’s look, with only slight updates to their designs. The animation looks new, but the characters look very old-fashioned, and Tetsujin 28 thus potentially runs into the same problem that Tezuka’s work does in front of a modern audience. To the show’s credit however, while the character designs are old-fashioned, almost none of them take on the useless slapstick roles that characterized older series. Ohtsuka in particular benefits from this transformation, as his role as police chief is greatly expanded upon and he is shown to have an iron resolve fitting his position. Many other elements from the original series are taken as well, such as the fact that the 10-year old Shoutarou not only drives a car but also carries a loaded gun and isn’t afraid to bust a few heads to reach his goal. Again, it can be a difficult pill to swallow.
Overall though, Tetsujin 28 is a very intelligent show that asks a lot of good questions, and is thoroughly entertaining throughout, though it can get depressing at times given the subject matter. At 26 episodes, it’s a bit of an investment but I think it pays off very well.