A mechanical titan emerges from a pool of water, piloted by an impetuous youth. With the power of Japanese science, this boy and his robot use lasers, mjssiles, and (of course) rocket punches to defend the Earth from the forces of evil. This simple concept became one of the foundations of anime and manga, helping to spawn the “super robot” genre as we know it, and made Mazinger Z a household title across Japan. The 2018 animated film, Mazinger Z: Infinity is the latest iteration, joining other recent Nagai Go revamps such as Devilman Crybaby and Cutie Honey Universe.
As one of the seminal works of an entire genre, Mazinger Z has been re-imagined and reworked time and time again. Whether it’s a mythological alternate world (God Mazinger), an ultra-macho 90s edition (Mazinkaiser), a mid-2000s meta epic (Shin Mazinger), or something else entirely, there’s always a desire to return to the father of super robots. Common to all of these works is a desire for action, tension, and spectacle, so it’s interesting to see how each film navigates the balance between new and nostalgic, as well as where on the Nagai spectrum of “goofy to gory” it falls.
Mazinger Z: Infinity takes place ten years after Kabuto Kouji, the hot-blooded hero of the original series, defeated his arch-nemesis, the mad scientist Dr. Hell. Now in his late 20s and a scientist, he researches photon energy (the power source of Mazinger Z) alongside his childhood love interest, Yumi Sayaka, spreading a clean energy source around the world. But when the forces of Dr. Hell reemerge with the goal of retrieving Mazinger Infinity—a mysterious robot/artifact that dwarfs even Mazinger Z in size—the people of Earth and Kabuto Kouji have to decide how to best protect their planet. Key to this conflict is a girl found inside Mazinger Infinity named Lisa.
The action scenes are amazing, as expected. The very first thing the audience sees is Great Mazinger in combat, piloted by Tsurugi Tetsuya, using nearly all his signature moves as if to make clear that this film revels in the thrill of combat. Later sequences are similarly impressive, especially in how they focus not on the classic one-on-one battles of the 70s but on large-scale clashes. The rest of the film, i.e. the non-action moments, tend to feel kind of safe and harmless at least in terms of presentation, like what one might typically expect from a Tezuka Production anime (Mazinger Z: Infinity is by Toei Animation). Visually speaking, Devilman Crybaby this isnot. If Mazinger Z: Infinity was just about fighting, it probably would have been good enough. The film, however, is surprisingly ambitious.
This desire to do more can be seen in both the world-building and the messages conveyed, as blunt and hamfisted as they are in execution. Throughout the movie, there are numerous cases that show, “what if the technology of the Mazinger world has progressed?” Not only is photon energy ubiquitous, but it was even instrumental to helping the world rebuild from disaster—which is probably Dr. Hell-related but also draws parallels to the 3.11 Fukushima triple disaster. Robots of a global peacekeeping force are based off of the Mazinger series, and Kouji’s little brother Shirou is a pilot.
Yet while Mazinger Z being powered by a miraculous energy might have once been interpreted as a kinder look at nuclear power, Mazinger Z: Infinity takes a contemporary stance in light of 3.11. At one point, Sayaka expresses that although photon energy is an incredibly clean source of energy, it can still be exploited by humans for less than altruistic purposes. Mazinger is classically described as having the potential to be a “god or demon”—a notion that not so subtly reflects humanity’s relationship with technology. Messages about life and family further reflect a desire to communicate social morals, which is quite different from most of the previous sequels and re-imaginings.
While the movie is meant to take place a decade later, that 10-year difference feels massive and more like the 50 years that have passed since Mazinger Z debuted. Yes, Kouji is still in his prime, so his inevitable return to the cockpit can be less of a Rocky Balboa or The Last Jedi Luke Skywalker situation. But for everything else, that decade of time embodies various cultural and historical changes since Mazinger Z debuted, and includes idols, home computers, the internet, and more. Lisa, with her robotic personality, can even be seen as a Nagai version of Ayanami Rei from Neon Genesis Evangelion. On a similar note, Kouji is faced at one point with a very Shinji-esque situation, but approaches it as only the very first super robot pilot would.
One aspect of Kouji’s aging I enjoy is the fact that he became a scientist; it’s the future I always wanted for him. His grandfather and father were both scientists who built Mazingers, so I always thought it would only make sense. I just wish he would build his own robot finally, but perhaps him being more of a “peacetime” scientist is important.
Before Mazinger Z: Infinity, there were special interviews with the staff, and what’s notable is the utter lack of pretention. When asked what they key point of the film is, the response was “entertainment.” When asked what fans should look out for, the answer was essentially “cool robot fights.” It’s a largely straightforward film that wears all of its messages on its sleeve, speaking to kids and adults alike.
A final note about nostalgia: One original character for Mazinger Z: Infinity is the leader of the joint forces that defend against Dr. Hell’s mechanical beasts. That character is voiced by Ishimaru Hiroya—the original voice of Kabuto Kouji.
While at this point we have an understanding of the concept of a “weak” protagonists in giant robot anime thanks to characters like Ikari Shinji from Evangelion, rarely are main robots allowed to exude an image of weakness and vulnerability as well. If we even look at Shinji himself, while he’s known for being passive and lacking in will, the actual EVA-01 looks monstrous and acts even more terrifyingly.
In most cases when there is a “weak mecha,” it ends up being a joke character’s ride, whether that’s Boss Borot from Mazinger Z or Kerot from Combattler V. In terms of actual main-focus giant robots, the closest this concept gets its maybe Dai-Guard the almost-literal “budget robot,” or perhaps the perpetually incomplete Guntsuku-1 from Robotics;Notes. Maybe the Scope Dog from VOTOMS counts because it’s so disposable, but like Dai-Guard it still at least looks strong.
Of course it only makes sense that mecha tend to be on the powerful side; they’re giant mechanical humanoids after all. It’s just something I’m starting to consider a potential limitation of the genre and an interesting space to explore.
One of the defining traits of director Imagawa Yasuhiro’s adaptive works is the way in which he takes a large mass of disparate information pertaining to a particular work and organizes it such that the themes and concepts are strengthened and made more vibrant through cohesion and consistency. With Giant Robo, it’s an amplification of the history of legendary manga creator and Tezuka contemporary Yokoyama Mitsuteru. With Tetsujin 28 (also originally by Yokoyama) it’s about highlighting Tetsujin 28 as a connection between post-war Japan and the militarism which had preceded this period. With G Gundam, in spite of the fighting tournament setting, it’s about the effects of continued conflict on the Earth. Shin Mazinger Shougeki! Z-Hen takes Mazinger Z’s iconic status as the super robot and shows just how much influence it’s had on the genre as a whole while also providing an argument for how Mazinger as a whole gives much food for thought if only one delves a little deeper.
What I find particular interesting about Shin Mazinger as an adaptation is the way in which Mazinger Z’s attacks themselves have been reorganized to strengthen the image of Mazinger. For example, take the Photon Energy Beam, Mazinger Z’s eye lasers. Generally they’re considered one of its weaker attacks, even often being the first and least-damaging move for Mazinger Z in the Super Robot Wars franchise. In Shin Mazinger, however, it is initially Mazinger’s strongest weapon When taking into consideration what Mazinger Z is supposed to be, a robot whose basic power comes from a combination of its Super Alloy Z (which the bombastic narration is very keen on making the viewer remember by deliberately repeating its name) and its miraculous Photon Energy power source. Tapping directly into the very thing that moves Mazinger Z only makes sense as a highly destructive attack.
When it comes to Mazinger Z’s arsenal and its cultural influence, however, there is nothing in all of the history of super robots with more imitators, successors, and homages than the Rocket Punch. What does Shin Mazinger do? For one, it makes the Rocket Punch the very first attack that Mazinger Z does in the show while giving it a fanfare worthy of the gods, but Imagawa doesn’t even leave it at that. He adds new elements to Mazinger Z so that the Rocket Punch, or a variation of it, is the greatest, most visually striking, and memorable thing that Mazinger Z can do. When Mazinger Z performs the Big Bang Punch, it literally transforms its entire body into a massive fist and becomes one with the Rocket Punch, such that Mazinger Z’s most lasting legacy (outside of the act of actually having someone control the robot from within) is also its most potent weapon.
Shin Mazinger takes Mazinger Z’s attacks and asks, “Why are these moves fun and exciting?” In doing so, it is able to play around with Mazinger Z as a cultural object and bring attention to not only what made it conceptually interesting to its fans in the first place, but also what potential still lies within it.
On the recent Anime World Order podcast there was an e-mail from a listener lamenting the lack of “real mecha anime.” The AWO guys (Clarissa was absent) concurred with his view, and said that, while they understand the argument that elements they don’t enjoy in current shows were present in past robot anime, the ratio of ingredients for baking this “cake” has changed for the worse. As one of the people who speaks about elements of current robot shows being able to trace their elements back to previous decades, and who has argued this point before, I agree that the shows of today are different. Different things are emphasized to differing degrees, and the robots are not always used in the same ways as they would in the past. My question in response is simply, what is wrong with this change?
From what I understand, when Anime World Order and their listener say they desire proper mecha shows, what they are actually looking for are shows heavily featuring action, power, and manliness as represented by giant robots. While I too am a fan of cool robots shooting lasers and all sorts of diplays of machismo, and I’m aware that Daryl and Gerald’s tastes are not exactly the same as their listener, the problem is that if you define “proper mecha” as such, then the genre becomes extremely limited. Who draws the line to say, “this is the correct amount of robot prominence in a mecha show?” You can point to Mobile Suit Gundam and say that it’s a show that has the “right ratio” of elements, but I can point to Mazinger Z and say how actually different it is compared to Gundam in terms of narrative focus and even the ways in which the robots are used, not to mention the differences between Gundam the movies vs. Gundam the TV series. How about Superdimensional Fortress Macross, which (indirectly) takes the Char-Amuro-Lalah love triangle and transforms it into a main draw of that series?
The reason I bring this up is firstly because I want to emphasize how much that ratio has changed even within the conventional history of robot anime (and I am deliberately avoiding bringing Evangelion into the equation due to its unusual position), but even more importantly because the shows which “get it right” in the current age are the product of adjusting the ratio in favor of a certain perspective on what giant robot anime should be like. Shin Getter Robo vs. Neo Getter Robo is brought up frequently in the podcast as an example of a relatively recent giant robot anime done right (or at least in the spirit of the old stuff), but it does not actually have the same ratio of elements as the robot anime of the past. If anything, it’s somewhere between the tamer Getter Robo anime of the 1970s and the harsher Getter Robo Go manga in terms of action and violence, and to highlight certain elements of each while ignoring others makes not for a show like the old stuff, but one which emphasizes certain desired elements from the previous works. This is hardly a problem as Shin Getter Robo vs. Neo Getter Robo does in fact offer the things that AWO says it does, but it’s also the result of distilling a robot anime into something more focused and specific to the preferences of particular viewers, which is not that different from the objections leveled at the current audience of robot anime.
I understand that this criticism is primarily aimed at Code Geass and other anime like it which put characters front and center in their stories and use robots for flavor. While I could argue that shows like Votoms do the same thing only in a way which emphasizes a masculine ideal, if we assume that current shows simply do not have enough robots, then I have to ask why the thrill of violence and power should be the primary motivation of robot anime? AWO speaks of the sacrifices that robot fans must endure in current mecha shows, but what about the same sacrifices people made in the past to enjoy those old robot shows when the ratio may not have been ideal for them? If people see elements such as romance, attractiveness of characters, drama of war, friendship, or any number of themes in robot anime, then I think it’s fair to say, “You know what, it’s cool that those elements are there, but wouldn’t it be great if there were anime which really brought those things to the forefront for people instead of having them buried beneath layers of action?” Using robots as a means to tell the story at hand, having problems solved by thoughts and intentions instead of by robots as a power metaphor, those sound like great ways to convey a narrative or express an idea. De-emphasizing power in a giant robot anime can and often does lead to interesting things.
Turn A Gundam, which isn’t a “modern” mecha series like Code Geass, but still places both a different level and type of emphasis on its mecha component, results in an overall stronger story because of it. The 2004 remake of Tetsujin 28 is hardly like the old 1960s one, because the theme shifted from “isn’t it cool that this kid has a robot?” to “exploring the post-war condition of Japan and the specters of the war through this robot as a science fictional element.” Yes, the latter theme was part of the original manga and anime to an extent, but by not having to value the proper “ratio,” it was able to do more. Robotics;Notes possesses many of the “flaws” of current robot anime such as an emphasis on high school, a lack of robot action, and a strong dose of drama, but it’s also an anime which emphasizes the thematic purpose attributed to giant robots. It uses the intimacy of a high school setting to show the bonds the characters have with the concept of giant robots, and does so by utilizing the “modern formula” that is supposedly anti-mecha. In all three cases, their amount of straight-up conventional robot fighting is less than expected, but it allows them to serve different purposes.
Gerald spoke of Die Hard and how keeping its constituent elements but not understanding it as a whole does not necessarily make for a proper Die Hard. That might be true, but why are we limiting the scope to just one movie? Action movies can be Commando, but they can also be Highlander or The Dark Knight. If that example is too broad, then let’s look at a franchise like The Fast and the Furious. After four movies about racing cars in deserts or highways and having some vague infiltration plot, Fast Five comes out and changes the formula into what is essentially a heist film. By focusing more on action with purpose and the teamwork element, and being less about the cars themselves, the result is a much more solid and well-rounded film which is still undoubtedly of the action genre.
Or to put it in terms of Daryl’s analogy, yes if you change the proportion of ingredients when baking a cake, you get something different. The thing is, cakes are but one possibility. What we have now are robot pies, robot souffles, robot quiches, robot donuts. You might prefer cake in the end, but all of those are equally valid and can be equally delicious.
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.
On the most recent Speakeasy Podcast, the Reverse Thieves discussed spinoffs/re-imaginings/sequels of series we love, with the caveat that they had to have definite endings, and asked listeners to come up with their own examples. It was actually a difficult question for me at first because what would have been my top two choices, Genshiken and Eureka Seven, are now currently enjoying sequels themselves. Obviously fortunate for me, but still a monkey wrench into the question at hand.
Then I remembered another idea I had some years ago: an anime starring Boss, the bumbling side character from Mazinger Z and his eponymous mecha, the Boss Borot. Sure, we got Shin Mazinger with its more charitable portrayal of Boss wherein he showed some competence and a fair amount of courage, but he was still ultimately on the sidelines. What I would like instead is a show where Boss and his Borot are in the spotlight, and a villain appears that he has to deal with more or less all by himself.
The way I picture it, the villain would be this diabolical mastermind who would always envision the mysterious pilot of that “round menace” to be some genius tactician who can read five moves ahead, when in fact Boss probably defeated him accidentally. It would be a relationship similar to Inspector Gadget and Dr. Claw, or if we want to just stick to anime examples, Boss would be like Yurika from Nadesico or Captain Tylor (though I’ve never actually seen The Irresponsible Captain Tylor so I’m hesitant to make that comparison only on what I know from listening to others).
I’m not really sure if there should be a Penny to provide competent support, though. Maybe his henchmen Nuke and Mucha would be help enough.
In any case, I even thought of the main hook for the opening theme.
If you were to ask someone informed what the most influential giant robot series of all time were, they’d probably give the following answer: Mazinger Z, Mobile Suit Gundam, Super Dimensional Fortress Macross, Neon Genesis Evangelion. Isn’t it amazing then, when you realize that all four of these series have had recent revivals, as if the Forces of Anime have deemed this period of time to be the celebration of all things humanoid and mechanical?
Mazinger Z has the new Imagawa-directed Shin Mazinger Shougeki! Z-Hen, which takes elements of the entirety of Mazinger lore and its remakes (as well as much of Nagai’s works) and incorporates them into a single cohesive story that explores and brings to light the thematic elements which make Mazinger Z itself such a prominent part of anime’s history. As the first Super Robot to be piloted from within, and the first to declare its attacks with passionate yells, and then in 2009 to make such a show feel fresh and original, I think we’re all the better for knowing it exists.
Gundam received a new series set in our timeline (AD) in the form of Gundam 00, as well as a return to the Universal Century timeline that few expected after all these years in the form of Gundam Unicorn and Ring of Gundam. There’s also the massive celebration of its 30th anniversary in real life, which includes life-size Gundams, weddings on life-size Gundams, and musical concerts. Whichevery way you prefer your Gundam, whether you’re an old-school curmudgeon or someone who came in from Wing or SEED, there’s a message for you, and that message is “Gundam is Amazing!”
Macross Frontier meanwhile celebrated the franchise’s 25th anniversary. Unlike Gundam, Macross doesn’t just get animated series updates every year, so to have a full series emerge and capture much of the energy of the original Macross while still being true to its current era of anime made Frontier a joy to follow. The most interesting departures, so to speak, were the extremely current-era character designs (in contrast with the classic 80’s Mikimoto ones), and the ways in which the concept of the “pop idol” has morphed over the course of two or three decades.
Evangelion is in the process of having its story entirely re-animated and retold in a series of movies which seek to do more than just cash in on an already perpetually marketable franchise, though that’s not to say that they don’t do so at all, and instead also transform the story in dramatic ways, from adding entirely new characters to subtle changes in the characters’ personalities and actions, everything is moving towards the idea that things will Not Be the Same. It’s also the newest series of the bunch, and thus the “freshest” in the public consciousness.
What’s also interesting about this is that when you step back and look, you’ll see that each of these series has influenced the one after it in very powerful ways, whether indirectly or otherwise. Mazinger Z set the stage for the super robot formula, which led to a young Tomino Yoshiyuki working on super robot series, then getting tired of them, eventually leading to Gundam, the first series to really push the idea of giant robots as tools, and to advance the concept of a war with no real winners that existed in series such as Daimos and Zambot 3. Macross is an evolution of this “real robot” concept thanks to a staff that fell in love with Gundam years ago, and now includes real-world vehicles transforming directly into robots, a much greater emphasis on character relationships, and an optimistic spin with the idea that the power of songs can influence two warring cultures and bring them closer to one another. Evangelion’s director Anno Hideaki worked on Macross, and the influence of both it and Gundam and even Mazinger Z permeate throughout its episodes and general design. The “Monster of the Week” formula made popular by Mazinger Z finds its revival in the form of the mysterious “Angels” in Evangelion, but the story and the monsters are merely part of a philosophical backdrop. Characters are entirely the focus of the series, and these children are so intrinsically flawed that some do not enjoy them as characters.
And now it’s like all of these series are sitting in the same room, feeling the weight of their years of fame, and standing shoulder to shoulder, eager to see what happens next in the world of giant robot anime. And then sitting in the same room is Tetsujin 28, which nods its head in approval.
Are giant robots still capable of capturing imagination and transforming world-views after all this time? I think so, and I think it’s happening as you read this.
One of the most amazing and shocking reveals in the world of giant robot villainy was the discovery that Mazinger Z’s infamous first two adversaries, Garada K7 and Doublas M2, were actually once a single sentient entity known as Garadoubla. Garadoubla turns out to be a heroic figure to the Mycenae and also a warrior of honor and pride (and also three heads). In fact, he was so beloved that they referred to him as the Hero Garadoubla. Thanks to extensive research, I have unraveled more information on this god of the Mycenae.
Archaeological evidence shows that Garadoubla was to the Mycenaeans what Mazinger Z is to the modern Japanese. Children would play with clay dolls fashioned after Garadoubla’s visage. Musicians would sing about the strength, size, and reliability of Garadoubla when he unites the power of justice, love, and friendship. The most famous of the songs celebrating Garadoubla began with the following opening chorus:
Ga Ra Ra! Ga Ra Ra! Garadoubla! Ga Ra Ra! Ga Ra Ra Ra Garadoubla!
According to records, the heroic tales of Garadoubla, the honorable warrior of the Mycenae, were recorded on ancient illustrated stone tablets by a well-regarded artisan known as Gonagacles. Sadly most of his work was destroyed in the great fire that exterminated the Mycenae Empire, but the memories of his adventures would remain in the Greek consciousness and would eventually be retold as Garadoubkaisar and Etumos Garadoubla.
Back when Shin Mazinger first began, I told everyone to go check it out based purely on the strength of its first episode. I assume some of you followed my advice, but there are probably many readers who were still unsure. Maybe they checked out the first episode (which acts like a final episode), and got too confused. Well, with over half of the series finished at this point I am back to tell you once again and emphatically to take some time out to watch Shin Mazinger Shougeki!! Z-Hen.
The director Imagawa, famous for Giant Robo and G Gundam, among others, does not make the story unwatchable for those who are unfamiliar with the Mazinger series of classic and pivotal giant robot anime. Every character that matters is introduced as if you’ve never seen them at all, and many of the characters weren’t even originally in the Mazinger Z manga or anime! Now, Imagawa has a tendency to pull characters from other works loosely related to the source material in question, but it’s never done in a Marvel comics kind of way where they refer you back to a previous comic book release to get all the details. No worries there.
Unlike what many would expect, there isn’t a giant robot fight scene every episode, which I know disappoints some, but know that what’s really happening is a buildup to an even better fight later on in the series. This happens again, and again, and again. On top of that, each fight is choreographed and animated surprisingly well, especially when it seems like the show was (and possibly still is) operating on a very limited budget. No matter what’s going on, you can expect a certain degree of high quality.
As for the story itself, Shin Mazinger plays out like a children’s story as one might expect based on its source material, but it’s done with a strong sense of sophistication and respect for what it means to be a children’s story, with enough twists to make it watchable for its new intended audience of older viewers. It’s not like Alan Moore who is all, “Well what if we took superheroes and made them crazy and grim and realistic?” If Imagawa were to do super hero comics, he would ask, “Well what if we took real life, and made it more like super hero comics?” That’s pretty much where Shin Mazinger comes from.
If you’re still hesitant about watching Shin Mazinger, you should maybe check out the episode reviews of it over at Subatomic Brainfreeze, as Sub is all about HYPING it up.