Non-Subpar Robot: Astroganger

I first encountered Astroganger while watching a collection of robot anime throughout the decades. There it was, right after the black-and-white 1960s Tetsujin 28 and right before Mazinger Z. But there’s a reason Japan puts those other two on massive pedestals and considers Astroganger a weird relic that’s more meme fodder than anything else: the show comes across as dated even within the context of its time period, especially because it debuted just two months before Mazinger Z. Even watching the openings (both of which are sung by the legendary Mizuki Ichiro), you can see how much more impactful and eye-catching one is over the other.

Is Astroganger really that bad, though? The answer I’ve come to is “no.” While it’s not stellar, the show holds up fairly okay watching it in 2022. 

The story of Astroganger is that the Earth is being invaded by aliens called Blasters, who want to take all the oxygen for themselves. The only force powerful enough to stop them turns out to be Ganger, a sentient robot made of “living metal,” who can become even stronger when merged with a young boy named Hoshi Kantaro. Both Ganger and Kantaro have ties back to the far-off planet of Kantaros, which was devastated by the Blasters, and together, the combination fights robot monsters using kicks, punches, slams, and other physical moves.

Astroganger pushes few envelopes and its writing often glosses over things in ways that assume kids won’t notice or care, but it also does present its story with tension and drama in ways that I can imagine young viewers at the time would love. The series has that basic superhero appeal of a secret identity, but on a child rather than an adult. The show is extremely episodic overall, but it generally feels like a gradual escalation of challenges for Kantaro and Gangar, so that threats in later episodes are presented as bigger deals than in earlier ones. That said, the final episode’s adversary feels weirdly anticlimactic, which is then made all the stranger by the fact that the conclusion is extremely climactic.

The fights are where the series feels like it came so close to being something more, but ultimately falls into an “Eh, decent” range. Many of the battles revolve around either Ganger overcoming the opponent through sheer strength and willpower or figuring out some weakness. However, many times, the “trick” is essentially told to Kantaro by his scientist dad, or it seems to come out of nowhere. For example, while fighting a robot in one episode, Ganger goes, “I’ve figure it out. Your weakness is your hands!” He then proceeds to rip them off and the robot explodes—except nothing about the information presented either by words or action indicates that the hands were the Achilles’s heel. Both the willpower fights and the “strategic” fights remind me of mediocre pro wrestling matches: they can be fun but they’re also lacking in some ways, and you’re not supposed to think too hard about it.

Knack, the studio behind Astroganger, is also infamous for Chargeman Ken: an anime with five-minute-long episodes that are so bad and bizarre that they’ve become the butt of many jokes online. Astroganger often looks cheap at times, but it’s nowhere near as dire as Chargeman Ken, which it actually predates. In fact, some stories in Chargeman Ken now come across to me as taking episode plots from Astroganger and shoving their contents into a questionably digestible bite-size experience in a manner reminiscent of Homer Simpson. 

This includes the notorious episode “Dynamite in the Brain.” The Astroganger version is less pathologically amoral, but it’s still kind of weird, which tracks.

Another aspect Astroganger shares with Chargeman Ken is its decidedly unimpressive antagonists. The Blasters are pretty generic alien beings who are all interchangeable, and the only way you can tell who’s in charge is because their leaders are named and visibly numbered “Blaster 1” and “Blaster 2,” like it’s Bananas in Pajamas. Dr. Hell and Baron Ashura they are decidedly not.

I give all these criticisms, but I do want to note that in terms of excitement and entertainment, Astroganger would probably give most American cartoons throughout the 70s and 80s a run for their money. The fact that it has a fairly decisive finale (albeit odd in many ways) is something I can appreciate. In many respects, the show holds up okay. Not great, but okay. 

PS: I’ve recently learned that Astroganger was quite popular in the Middle East, to the extent that an interview with a famous Arabic voice actor lists Astroganger as the main title he’s known for. It’s also a beloved work in Syria, and the final episodes actually moved people to tears. The official upload has all sorts of comments by people from that region talking about how much they loved the show. If we ever get an international Super Robot Wars, I would like to see Astroganger alongside Grendizer, so that such a game could show its appreciation to the Middle Eastern fans who love these anime.