Success and Failure in the Ongoing Attempt to Bring Kids Back to Giant Robots

Giant robot anime began very squarely in the domain of children. Loud, boldly colored robots appeared on TV (at least, once color TV became common), and the toys based on them came full of fun gimmicks and gizmos. Over time, there was a maturing of the genre in many ways, both in terms of themes presented and the aging of fans, so by the time we got into the 2000s, things changed. Between Pokemon, card games, and more, giant robots have just not been the ticket to big toy sales among kids. Thus, most giant robot anime of the last fifteen years rely more on adult tastes and nostalgia, or at the very least have been aimed at young adults. However, every so often, you’ll see moves to try to reclaim giant robots for kids, and they communicate a reality that mecha alone tend not to capture kids’ hearts in this day and age.

Gundam AGE

One of the more significant attempts to capture that younger audience was 2011’s Gundam AGE, because of how Gundam is what arguably kicked off the move toward mature audiences all those years ago and because it’s traditionally been such a sales juggernaut. Although keeping the traditional “robots in war” staples, Gundam AGE was a concerted effort to target kids, right down to more toyetic robot and weapon designs. Unfortunately, the series pleased pretty much no one, including me, despite my initially high hopes. The story was a mess, and the model kits failed to attract older and younger customers alike, to the extent that a kitbash of Madoka from Madoka Magica with beefy Gundam arms became more of a sales point than the actual merch. Later Gundam overtures towards kid audiences were more successful via the Gundam Build Fighters and Gundam Build Divers spin-offs, but both treat the mecha as collectible items utilized in virtual environments—closer to the popular style of Japanese kids’ shows.

Chousoku Henkei Gyrozetter

Another instance is 2012’s Chousoku Henkei Gyrozetter, though this one is odd in that what it ultimately tried to promote was not toys or model kits, though some did come out. Rather, like Aikatsu! and Pripara, the bread and butter of Gyrozetter was the card-based arcade game. Ultimately, it was called a major mistake on the part of Square-Enix. Personally, I think the show is very enjoyable, but it’s also arguably better known for its attractive older characters than anything else—so not exactly kid’s stuff. 

While hitting the mark seems difficult, there is one company that seems intent on making giant robot anime work for kids: toy maker Takara Tomy, the originator of Transformers. In addition to that long-standing international cultural staple (whose success has so many external factors that it’s hard to gauge in terms of success as “anime”), it’s Takara Tomy that keeps taking swings, down to even pushing the ZOIDS franchise as their “third pillar” along with Transformers and Beyblade. 

2018’s ZOIDS Wild anime is a continuation of the ZOIDS franchise, which has been receiving animated adaptations since 1999’s ZOIDS: Chaotic Century. Given its longevity, it would be easy to assume that they’re doing something right with their use and portrayal of giant robots, but I think there’s a key factor that keeps ZOIDS relatively popular: the use of animal-shaped robots as opposed to humanoid ones. The more universal appeal of dinosaurs and cool beasts does a lot of the heavy lifting. 

Tomica Kizuna Gattai Earth Granner

Along this vein, Tomica Hyper Rescue Drive Head (2017) and Tomica Kizuna Gattai Earth Granner (2020) both involve motor vehicles that can transform into robots—and, unlike Gyrozetter, have the many toys to show. The Tomica line is primarily more about cars than mechs, and the toys have enormous success in Asia. Again, the robots are not the main popularity factor, acting instead as an additional flourish to push it over the edge. Transformers, in a sense, combines both ZOIDS and Tomica’s appeals together, while also banking on brand recognition. Moreover, while giant robots are still a staple of tokusatsu, they’re more a secondary component to the color-coded-hero fantasy that defines these live-action series. The previous Tomica tokusatsu series use cars in a similar manner. 

Shinkansen Henkei Robo Shinkalion

The strangest case might very well be 2018’s Shinkansen Henkei Robo Shinkalion THE ANIMATION is a series about bullet train (“Shinkansen”) robots sponsored by the East Japan Railway Company. Somewhat like Gyrozetter, there’s an unconventional ultimate goal—promoting Japan’s high-speed rail system—but unlike Gyrozetter, the toy and merchandise line is definitely there. In addition, while ZOIDS Wild, Drive Head, and Earth Granner all target boys ages 10-12, I can’t help but notice how aggressively kid-friendly Shinkalion’s aesthetics are, from the character designs to the story. What really makes Shinkalion an oddity, however, is that its success isn’t measured solely in toy sales, but also the degree to which it creates good PR for Japan’s public transportation.

It does sadden me that mecha don’t appear to carry an inherent appeal for kids these days, but I do think that sprinkling in robots can potentially push these franchises into becoming more memorable and enjoyable. Also, I’d like to think that Takara Tomy is laying down a foundation for it to happen in the future, and much like how adults who grew up with super robots in the 1970s grew attached to them, perhaps in a couple of decades we’ll see nostalgia for the Shinkalions and Earth Granners of the world.

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.