A Movie with a Hell of a Build-Up: They Call Me Jeeg

When I first heard about the film They Call Me Jeeg, its premise intrigued me. Although named after an anime, it’s not actually based on Steel Jeeg, a 1970s anime firmly within the super robot subgenre. Rather, the film is a mob flick mixed with a superhero origin story, where the characters use the lore of Steel Jeeg as a reference point to understand the changes happening. 

Before getting into the movie itself, I want to say that its premise shows the degree to which giant robot anime has long penetrated the popular psyche of Italy. As an American, it has always felt remarkable. Sure, we have our Voltrons and Gigantors and the like, but it’s just not the same compared to the sheer range of influence Italy has experienced from Goldrake (aka Grendizer), L’imbattible Daitarn 3, and in this case Jeeg Robot. They Call Me Jeeg utilizes its titular mecha somewhat like how The Iron Giant uses Superman.

The hero of the story is Enzo Ceccotti, a small-time pickpocket who accidentally exposes himself to barrels of toxic waste while on the run. Unbeknownst to him, the experience makes him super strong and nigh-invulnerable. At first, he uses his newfound abilities to just commit bigger crimes, but when Alessia (the mentally unwell adult daughter of his boss) is threatened by higher members of the local gang, Enzo rescues her incognito. Alessia is obsessed with Steel Jeeg and sees everything through the lens of the 1970s anime, and confidently declares that Enzo is actually Shiba Hiroshi, the Immortal Cyborg and protagonist of Steel Jeeg. The contrast between Enzo’s flawed self and the ideal version Alessia sees in him—especially when dealing with the local gang leader, Fabio—becomes the main conflict of the film. Sometimes, it takes the world of fiction to provide a reference point of what one can be.

The general arc of the narrative is generally familiar to superhero fans (the gradual fulfillment of unrealized potential to save others), but the very grounded grittiness makes everything feel almost palpable: the emotions, the violence, the internal and external struggles. In this age of sleek and highly produced Marvel and DC films, They Call Me Jeeg stands out all the more. Enzo is a compelling main character precisely because he struggles with the idea of performing acts of good and questions if he’s even capable of it. In a sense, he reminds me of Denji from Chainsaw Man, and I mean that in a positive way. Whether to do the right thing even when it’s not immediately personally beneficial is a major question in the movie.

There are a few areas that might not play well with a current audience. I’m not particularly well read on the topic of mental health, but Alessia might come across as a bit stereotypical. That said, the film does show how her interpreting everything through Steel Jeeg is not just “random craziness” but her way of coping with past traumas. In terms of other issues, the flamboyant and unhinged nature of Fabio might reinforce the image of villainous gays, and there is some highly questionable consent. In regards to the former point, I think it might be trying to position Fabio as parallel to Queen Himika, the first major antagonist of Steel Jeeg. Also, it seems that the actor for Fabio, Luca Martinelli, is famous for portraying queer characters of all kinds. And as for the latter point, the act is not portrayed as a positive thing, but its presence can’t be ignored.

They Call Me Jeeg carries both a loftiness and a down-and-dirty feel that successfully Enzo’s struggles between the life he has led and the one he’s capable of. It’s not an anime movie in any traditional sense, but it takes a piece of pop culture and draws out a story based on the emotional connection Steel Jeeg has created in people. I wonder if we’ll ever see more like it.

My First Exposure to 70s Robots

I can still remember my first exposure to pre-Gundam giant robot anime. I had a VHS fansub which at the very end had a number of retro openings on it, a preview of what was to come from that fansub group. That’s where I was first introduced to Zambot 3, which I thought looked pretty cool, and where I first got a glimpse of the 80s’ Aura Battler Dunbine, whose catchy theme song sticks with me even today. At the same time, though, I remember distinctly thinking that Koutetsu Jeeg looked like the dumbest thing ever.  I still think Jeeg is an ugly robot with its pickle legs, but it was more the overall style, fashion, choice of song, everything, that made it seem so foreign to me as an anime fan. I loved robots then as I do now, but obviously I needed some education, and I’m glad that I now know better.

I think what really sticks out in my mind in that video was the second Mazinger Z opening, mainly because of the way that Mazinger Z itself was shaded. It didn’t have the standard shine+shade of later giant robot anime, and instead had these large areas of pencil (or something like it) blocked in. When you watch the opening, you can literally see the grit of the drawing materials right there on the limbs and stomach. I hated it then, thought it made the show look old and tacky, but looking back, the way it stuck in my mind is part of why I started being able to look well past the aesthetics of 90s anime I had become so accustomed to, and to eventually realize how much the time that we’re in influences the look of everything around us, including the entertainment we watch.

What if Bokurano were in SRW?

Bokurano is a manga by Kitoh Mohiro, creator of Shadow Star: Narutaru. The centerpiece of Bokurano is a large robot called Zearth, and so one technically is able to call it a giant robot manga, though as you might expect from the man who created Narutaru there are some serious twists. When it was adapted into an anime by GONZO these twists were less severe, but still most of them were present.

As with any giant robot series though, there’s always the potential to have it included in the Super Robot Wars series of crossover video games. Only thing is that Bokurano’s plot makes it an EXTREMELY difficult series to fit into the general framework of SRW games, particularly because SRW games tend to have an overall uplifting message, which Bokurano only arguably does half the time.

But that’s where the following challenge lies: How do you fit Bokurano into SRW without detracting too much from either?

I think it should be obvious, but I’m going to warn you here and now that everything below this line is going to be MAJOR spoilers for MULTIPLE series. You have been warned. Check the tags to see if there’s a show you don’t want ruined for you.

There are two main issues to deal with in regards to Bokurano. First, is that the idea of one pilot dying per battle until all of them are gone. Second, is the fact that when the Zearth wins, another Earth in another dimension gets destroyed. I think you might already be able to see how this clashes with some of the themes common to SRW.

Let’s address the one-pilot-per-battle thing first. One possibility is that the Zearth will not be deployable against anything but Bokurano enemies, and that every time you use it the pilot changes (and the spell list and stats of the pilot accordingly) until you reach the last pilot. Another possibility is to have the Zearth ALWAYS deployable except whenever you reach a stage that’s Bokurano plot-based you lose the current pilot.

Of course, you don’t want to just lose all the pilots and then have the Zearth unusable, so there has to be a way to revive the pilots and in a way where they never die again and then you can use all of them. A few possibilities spring to mind.

There’s Steel Jeeg, which stars the IMMORTAL Cyborg, Shiba Hiroshi. Somehow getting the Bokurano kids to make their bodies not entirely natural may be a way of circumventing it.

Another possibility is having Shinji from Evangelion somehow find the lost souls of the Bokurano pilots and return them to their bodies and then maybe do some magic with AT Fields.

There’s also Murasame Kenji from the Giant Robo OVA who is revived whenever he dies. Granted Giant Robo is off-limits due to the death of Yokoyama and the subsequent licensing cost hike, but let’s ignore that.

The ending of Ideon meanwhile involves civilizations dying and the humans and Buff clan members having their souls “reborn.” If this could be localized into the Zearth then that’s also a potential revival method. Also keep in mind the parallels between Ideon and Zearth, in that both are extremely powerful robots that have destroyed entire planets,  are absolutely frightening monsters when you realize their true identities, and wipe out all life if either of them lose.

Now what about the whole killing billions of innocent lives per battle? How can this cycle end once and for all? In this regard, we need to deal with series that address the concept of alternate and parallel universes.

The main one I can think of is Change! Shin Getter Robo: Armageddon. In a scene from this OVA, Shin Getter Robo and Shin Dragon perform a Shine Spark, during which they discover that there are alternate Getter Robos in alternate dimensions all fighting the good fight. Well what if all of the Getters work together to simultaneously stop the horrible contest of Bokurano?

Those are more or less the more well-thought-out possibilities I’ve considered. Of course, there’s lots of potential for other crossover plot points. Here’s a couple.

The act of destroying the cockpit of an enemy robot in Bokurano bears some resemblance to when Gaogaigar was about to crush the Zonder core until Mamoru stops it and shows that it’s actually a transformed human being. Perhaps the healing power of Mamoru could do something about the other cockpits.

God Mars
In God Mars, the main character Takeru’s robot Gaia has a bomb inside of it where if the main character dies the bomb is detonated and the Earth is destroyed. So with this, even though you don’t have a sure solution on how to keep the Earth from disappearing in the even that Zearth loses, it will at least allow the Bokurano kids to have someone older to relate to. Also, a robot named GAIA and a robot named ZEARTH? Eh? Eh?

So what can you think of? Let me know!

Neo Humans and Steel Cyborgs

Tatsunoko Pro’s latest adaptation of Shinzo Ningen Casshern, Casshern Sins, has Furuya Tohru playing the titular character. Furuya is not the original actor form the 70s despite his long history in anime, but luckily,he has experience playing the role of a man turned into a cyborg to fight an evil force: Koutetsu Jeeg.

The similarities don’t end there! Each show poses a vital question during its opening.

Casshern: “If Casshern won’t do it, who will?”

Jeeg: “If I stop (BAN BABAN) , then who will do it? (BAN BABAN)”

Clearly this role was made for the man.

Just like “fat guy in Paprika.”