Introduction: “Gattai Girls” is a series of posts dedicated to looking at giant robot anime featuring prominent female characters due to their relative rarity within that genre.
Here, “prominent” is primarily defined by two traits. First, the female character has to be either a main character (as opposed to a sidekick or support character), or she has to be in a role which distinguishes her. Second, the female character has to actually pilot a giant robot, preferrably the main giant robot of the series she’s in.
For example, Aim for the Top! would qualify because of Noriko (main character, pilots the most important mecha of her show), while Vision of Escaflowne would not, because Hitomi does not engage in any combat despite being a main character, nor would Full Metal Panic! because the most prominent robot pilot, Melissa Mao, is not prominent enough.
Between its generic Monster of the Week stories, basic “defend the world from evil” plot, and its overtly toy-oriented design, the 1976 anime Gowapper 5 Godam by Tatsunoko Pro is a largely bland and mediocre giant robot series. Following the “Gowapper 5,” a team of five kids whose purpose is to “go on adventures” (really) and who discover a giant robot, even the normal saving grace of such a show, the giant robot itself, is lacking.
Though one can ignore the Rudolph nose, the titular robot is so blocky and aesthetically awkward that even the animators for the show who are otherwise skilled at producing action scenes cannot make Godam look impressive. Despite a handful of fairly impressive episodes which manage some good bits of characterization or interesting moral dilemmas, overall Gowapper 5 Godam would be even more forgotten than it already is if not for two reasons.
First, the character designs were by Amano Yoshitaka of Final Fantasy fame, who worked on many other Tatsunoko anime as well.
Second, it is the first ever giant robot anime to feature a prominent female character in a leadership position.
Misaki Youko transcends the “token female character” position in a number of ways. In addition to being the unmistakable leader of the Gowapper 5 (she wears the red uniform and her teammates consistently refer to her as such), she is clever, courageous, cool under pressure, a highly-skilled fighter (possibly the most skilled of the five), always dresses sensibly, and, perhaps most amazingly of all, never actually gets kidnapped or put in damsel-in-distress situations. She shows strong leadership even in moments of weakness, at one point willing to relinquish her position for what she feels is her own error in judgment, and is able to pilot Godam effectively and deal the finishing blow on multiple occasions to the enemy. Even today, such a character is a rare exception in the mecha genre (especially when you exclude those shows where all of the pilots are female), let alone in 1976.
However, while Youko as a character remains extremely capable, she is hurt by the fact that the show itself can never actually decide if Youko is its main character or not. Even the opening flip flops between emphasizing her as the most important character and focusing on the blue second-in-command, Gou.
Looking at who is most prominent when piloting Godam itself, a method which would work with just about any other giant robot show, doesn’t really apply here. While Godam is the centerpiece of the series, usually the Gowapper 5 go out and fight hand to hand or in their personal vehicles, leaving whoever is left behind to pilot the robot, whether that’s Youko or Gou or one of their three comically misshapen teammates. Much later in the series when they start to regularly pilot it all at once, Gou sits in the center chair, but then other times Youko acts like the main character, even being the one to directly defeat a major villain.
Because of the way that Youko receives fewer and fewer episodes devoted to her as the show goes on, I get the feeling that the makers of Gowapper 5 Godam originally wanted her to be the undisputed protagonist (with Gou as deuteragonist), but something had to make them backpedal, possibly as early as when they were making the opening. The fact that Gou, the character who has more of the look you’d expect from a giant robot hero, overall gets the most episodes dedicated to him (followed by the youngest character, Norisuke) makes me think that they determined that a female as the central character of the show was hurting their sales and that they had to do something about it. Moreover, the odd 36-episode length of Gowapper 5 Godam and the number of sudden introductions of new merchandise into the series in the last 1/3 of the show hints at a possibly troubled production or low toy sales which they would have to try and overturn. At the same time, the fact that Youko continues to be prominent even at the very end might imply that this was an on-going conflict throughout the show’s production.
As the first true female leader in a giant robot anime, Misaki Youko is in many ways a pioneering character. She is well ahead of her time to the extent that she may have been too much for the very anime she comes from. In that respect, she perhaps not only the patron saint of female protagonists in mecha, but also the patron saint of characters who transcend the quality of their own anime.