Christmas, Nostalgia, and Shinkalion

It’s not uncommon for children’s cartoons to offer something to the parents watching with their kids, yet when it came to Shinkansen Henkei Robo Shinkalion: THE ANIMATION, I had believed that there wasn’t much in it for adults beyond those who already have an appreciation for a more classic type of kids’ anime. Recently, however, I’ve come to realize that what Shinkalion offers its older viewers is a dip into nostalgia—not only because of its relatively old-fashioned narrative beats, but also literal callbacks to pop culture moments of yesteryear.

In a recent tweet, fellow mecha enthusiast Tom Aznable points out how Shinkalion actually features near shot-for-shot re-creations of late 1980s Christmas-themed commercials for Japan Railways, complete with 4:3 aspect ratio, a faux-CRT filter, and actual recordings of “Christmas Eve” by the renowned Yamashita Tatsuro. You can see side by side comparisons in the link above, as well as the full commercials below:

I was unfamiliar with that particular song, but it’s apparently considered a Christmas classic in Japan. And, like so many things Japanese, it just oozes nostalgia, and now it’s forever on my playlist. 

In the context of the anime itself, the protagonist Hayasugi Hayato is a supreme train otaku, and so he thinks of everything—including other characters’ romantic recollections—in relation to trains. But the show is clearly using these moments to trigger powerful memories in its older viewers. Shinkalion doesn’t even limit it to Christmas commercials, either. Given all this, it becomes clearer that the Evangelion episode of Shinkalion, where Hayato visits Tokyo-3 and Shinji pilots a Shinkalion version of EVA-01, is also meant to play into this nostalgia.

The way that Shinkalion taps into a past zeitgeist makes me further aware of the improbability of the series ever getting licensed in English. The series is already focused primarily on viewers in Japan by virtue of its purpose and subject material. The show wants you to buy bullet train toys from Takara Tomy and encourages you to ride the train more (not exactly unwelcome in the grand scheme of things), and without the merch and the accessibility to the shinkansen—or, for that matter, the familiarity of Japanese high-speed rail—it would remain a weird and foreign thing to most kids in the US and other English-primary countries. When you throw the 80s and 90s Japanese media references on there as well, it becomes an even more difficult sell. Yamashita Tatsuro might be gaining more of an international reputation than ever thanks to his role as the king of city pop, but it’s those commercials just aren’t going to hit nearly as hard as they did with Japanese viewers.

There will always be something lost in cultural translation, but there need to be a lot of moving parts for this to work out, including likely a licensing process involving Japan Railways. And while Shinkalion has managed to reach beyond Japan and to places like Hong Kong, Asia’s relationship with anime is very different from the rest of the world’s due to proximity. 

Still, I wouldn’t mind a Christmas miracle whereby Shinkalion gets licensed in some form—even a streaming-only release. There would likely be some music rights limitations that would alter the experience, as even the Japanese official Youtube versions of Shinkalion episodes had to replace “Christmas Eve” and “Cruel Angel’s Thesis,” but it would be a relatively small price to pay. As the line from the Japan Railways Christmas commercials puts it, “Getting to see you is the ultimate present.”

Thoughts on Shinkalion, the Robot Anime Designed to Promote Bullet Trains

Shinkansen Henkei Robo Shinkalion is the most blatant advertisement in cartoon form that I’ve seen in a long time. It’s so upfront with its true purpose—promoting Japan Railways’ shinkansen (aka bullet train) system—that it’s right in the title. But I actually don’t mind the extreme shilling of Shinkalion all that much, and it’s for one simple reason: the Japanese train system, including its shinkansen, is astoundingly good.

The hero of Shinkalion is a young boy named Hayasugi Hayato, a total train otaku. Hayato discovers that his dad, ostensible a Japan Railways (JR) employee, works for a secret division dedicated to fending off monsters attacking Earth. In an emergency, Hayato becomes the pilot of a Shinkalion, a super-advanced train that can transform into a giant robo, and helps his dad in their fight against the forces of evil. Naturally, all Shinkalions are based on actual, real-world shinkansen trains. Incidentally, one recurring gag among Japanese Shinkalion viewers is referring to the series as a reverse-Evangelion because it’s about a young pilot who can’t wait to support his dad on his mission to fight off monstrous invaders.

It’s not just the Shinkalions themselves that are selling Japanese trains to the audience, as nearly everything about the anime talks up the country’s rail service. Hayato’s family name, Hayasugi, is a homophone for “way too fast” in Japanese—a reference to the high speeds of the shinkansen. His catchphrase, “I’m Hayasugi Hayato, the guy who always makes it on time!”, is based on the fact that the Japan rail system is famously on-schedule. Whereas other train systems around the world might see a 10-minute delay as “reasonable,” a five-minute difference is considered “extreme” in Japan. This is part of why train otaku exist, as it’s not just the mechanical aspects of the trains themselves that hold appeal. The precision and complexity allows enthusiasts to imagine riding from one part of Japan to another while planning the most perfectly efficient route possible.

While Shinkalion is indeed mainly about high-speed trains, it also advertises for a few other things. There’s tourism, the natural extension for a show about trains, with the ending theme showing various famous landmarks across Japan. While I haven’t researched it, I’m confident that all locales presented are reachable by shinkansen. Then there’s the Google product placement. Not only is one of the characters a popular Youtuber, they even use the term Youtube and show it off. The strangest promotion is the fact that the Vocaloid, Hatsune Miku (or a convenient alternate version of her), is a pilot in the show—and she’s actually voiced by the Hatsune Miku software! In this instance, it might be JR that’s benefiting from the association instead of the other way around. The result is that Shinkalion is a kind of marketing black matter. The characters would have to be plastered with logos like NASCAR racers for it to go any further.

I’ve taken bullet trains, and they’re an amazingly comfortable experience. I’ve taken regular trains, and they’re so reliable it makes coming back to New York City’s subway system almost feel like culture shock. If this fairly generic giant robot cartoon wants to sell me on shinkansen, it can do that all day long. That said, I would be wary of Shinkalion becoming propaganda for JR as this perfect entity, because there’s evidence that it isn’t. Glancing at reviews on Glassdoor, there are multiple negative comments about the companies being extremely conservative businesses and thus stifling its own growth. Perhaps the efficiency of the system comes at a (human) price.

Still, I can enjoy Shinkalion for what it is. This 500-yen Shinkalion model kit I bought is a testament to that.