The Past of Giant Robot Pilots, Today: Saejima of J-Decker

Brave Police J-Decker features Transformers-style giant robots acting as Japanese police officers, so they combine into more powerful forms but also each have their own gigantic office desks. It’s a fun series in the Brave franchise, of which Gaogaigar is probably the most well-known and popular. Created in the 1990s, the show can be surprisingly good at times, and has some entertaining characters. Arguably the most entertaining one is the commissioner (or according to Wikipedia, the “superintendent general”), Saejima Juuzou. If you recognize him at all, it’s likely because of the following screenshot:

Saejima is established pretty early on as being a fan of grand poses and cool-sounding (and looking) robots, and at first I thought he was just a cool, eccentric old dude, but my opinion of him changed for the (even) better halfway through the show. In a recap episode, Saejima talks about every robot member of the Brave Police and their various strengths, as well as lamenting the fact that he just can’t come up with an awesome enough name for the next combined robot form. At the end of the episode, he reminisces about his younger days as a police officer. We then get to see the photos on his wall, and one of them in particulr reveals a lot about the kind of person Saejima was in his youth.

That’s right, Saejima was actually once a robot pilot, hailing from the previous generation (or two), back when the mecha were more primitive and hair was more fabulous. Knowing this, it’s clear to me that Saejima’s passion about robots isn’t just because he’s an old guy with a sense for the dramatic, but that it’s actually based on his own experiences fighting crime in his trusty police robot. I wouldn’t be surprised if, rather than the pleasant and heartful melodies of what were at the time more current opening themes, Saejima’s police career sounded more like this.

Though they never touch on it past this episode, I think it does a lot for J-Decker because it connects it to previous decades of robot anime, and on top of that gives a sense that the world of J-Decker has always been amazing in different yet similar ways. Hell, if they decided to make a prequel all about Young Saejima fighting crime, I would be all over it.

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Brave Proles and Brave Pols

PS: The Perfect Codec Pack for This Show

In Celebration of a Life, Short-lived: Sym-Bionic Titan

This past weekend was the final episode of Sym-Bionic Titan. I wish I didn’t have to say that.

When I first started watching anime, one of the most enticing aspects of it over many of the American cartoons I watched at the time was that, not only did they have on-going stories, but that those stories actually finished. They had conclusions. They weren’t always good conclusions (or good shows), and many times they were so open-ended you weren’t sure what exactly had happened, but you knew that if you started something, chances are you’d get something final out of it by the end.

American cartoons had managed to get some decisive finishes through, such as in Gargoyles or Conan the Adventurer, and I’ll even count the end of the Saturday morning version of Sonic the Hedgehog as a decisive finish despite it setting the stage for another season that never came to be. But for every one of those, you got a Pirates of Darkwater, where the show was set up from the start to reach a certain conclusion, but the show just stops in the middle and all you’re left with is your own imaginative speculation and/or fanfiction. I thought we were past this era, but I was wrong.

Sym-Bionic Titan was the brainchild of Genndy Tartakovsky, the man behind Dexter’s Laboratory and Samurai Jack, and it was his most ambitious and best-looking work to date. Following a trio of aliens (Lance the soldier, Ilana the Princess, Octus the robot) who escaped to Earth as the last hope to save their world of Galaluna from a traitorous general, the show took cues from Japanese super robot cartoons, American action cartoons, teen films, and various other areas and channeled them through some of the most deft usage of flash animation I’d ever seen. Much like Panty & Stocking with Garterbelt (and I have drawn comparisons between them before), it poked fun at genre conventions from multiple genres, and did so with style and grace-disguised-as-clumsiness.  It was a sign that Genndy had learned a lot since working on Samurai Jack, where the animation was often nice but felt very flat, and he married it with excellent characters and an intriguing plot. There were many mysteries in the show. What was Modula’s true motive? What really happened to Lance’s dad? Who was the mysterious person behind the Galactic Guardian Group? While the show could have easily gone on forever, it was not in its best interest to do so, as there was a real sense of urgency throughout the show, especially when you learned more and more about the characters and where they came from and why, on a personal level, they fight.

But Sym-Bionic Titan ran its initial 20 episodes, and was not renewed for more. Genndy Tartakovsky has moved on from Cartoon Network, possibly frustrated that they never let him finish his works. Samurai Jack never fought his decisive battle with Aku, and it’s unlikely that Lance, Ilana, and Octus will ever be able to return to Galaluna for a showdown with Modula. Was the show not doing well? Was it just not getting the money behind it to continue on?

It turns out that the reason given is that the show was actually doing quite well, but it did not have enough toys connected to it. I can see this being a problem, but I have to point out the fact that the show is ABOUT PEOPLE WHO TRANSFORM INTO ROBOT SUITS WHO COMBINE INTO A GIANT ROBOT THAT FIGHTS GIANT MONSTERS. That they couldn’t figure out how to convert this concept into toys is nothing short of ridiculous, and so the reasoning behind the show’s cancellation feels flimsy at best, an act of malice at worst.

Now there’s a possibility that Genndy pulled a Bill Watterson and specifically forbade merchandise from being made, but I highly doubt that. For one thing, he had hoped for a continuation of the series. This much is obvious based merely on the way the show is set up and how its final episode leaves room for so much more, let alone him actually saying as such. For another, the show’s explicit homage to Japanese giant robot cartoons makes it very likely that Genndy was not ignorant of the genre’s toy-centric origins or the fact that giant robot anime practically grew that merchandise industry in Japan to enormous proportions.

So even with the lack of an ending, is Sym-Bionic Titan worth watching? Yes, very much so. Do it.

Easily Misconstrued Title: Taekwon V Invades Japan

On August 7th, Robot Taekwon V makes its Japanese theatrical debut.

A Korean animated film from the 1970s about a super robot utilizing the power of Taekwondo, Taekwon V was thought to be “lost” for many years, in the sense that no good copy of the film could be found. This all changed in 2007 when an excellent-quality print was discovered.

Though Korean in origin, Taekwon V is clearly based off of the Japanese Mazinger Z, a similarity that its creator Kim Cheong-gi acknowledges, stating that he wanted to create a Korean hero for Korean children and simply assuming that this was the way robots were supposed to look.

While the bad blood extends well past animation and into the irredeemable treatment the people of Korea faced at the hands of the Japanese occupation before and during World War II, in this narrow scope the issue has always been the idea that “Korea just copies Japanese animation.” My previous post about this topic generated quite a bit of controversy and discussion, so take a look if you feel so inclined. By the way, I still maintain my stance, even if the movie features animation ripped straight of Bambi.

This is why it’s all the more amazing that Taekwon V is actually getting shown in Japan, even if it’s at only a single theater. No doubt it’s going to generate more racial slurs on the internet, but in a way I feel like it’s a big step forward. Also, I don’t think anyone can really blame a 30+ year old cartoon from an era with an almost non-existent animation industry for having taken some shortcuts. Well actually, you can, but I think looking at it in terms of copying/not copying is only seeing one side of a much more complex shape. There’s plain old “making stuff people enjoy regardless of how it’s made,” also plain old “making profit,” and other aspects as well.

By the way, the movie will be in Korean with Japanese subtitles, so sorry English speakers living in Japan who might be able to actually see it.

The trailer for all of you cool cats:

As well as an incendiary video from a while back:

The Feminine Touch to the Manly Spirit

Whenever I listen to the full version of the opening to Brave of the Sun Fighbird, a particular lyric gets my attention. Not present in the TV version, the line says, “Kanashimi o kudake, taiyou no tsubasa,” or “Crush sadness, oh wings of the sun.” The way the singer Yasuko Kamoshita emphasizes each syllable of “kanashimi o kudake” sends a jolt of excitement through me.

I think the reason why I notice it so much is because it’s a super robot theme sung by a woman. However, it’s not just because it’s a female vocalist, but because I feel like given the exact same song with the exact same fiery lyrics, male singers and female singers for super robot anime produce different results. Music’s not my strong suit, but if I had to describe the difference, it’s that the male singers tend to sound more passionate while the female singers tend to sound more heartfelt. When Kamoshita tells Fighbird to “crush sadness,” you can hear a twinge of sadness in her voice too.

You might be thinking, “But wait a second, it might just be because this is a 90s anime and at that point anime songs were changing!” And you’d be right on both points, but I think that this feeling extends back towards previous decades as well. Let’s not forget that female singers for super robot anime have been around for quite a while. I get the same impression from Horie Mitsuko’s work on Super Electromagnetic Machine Voltes V and Space Demon Daikengo, as well as MIO/MIQ’s Aura Battler Dunbine and Heavy Metal L-Gaim openings, though those two  are real robot shows so that genre shift factors in as well.

“Men and women sound different!” seems like such an obvious thing, but it really makes me aware of how the same song or piece of art can take on varying emotions once you change certain pieces.

For a fun comparison, let’s look at various openings throughout the decades featuring duets between Horie Mitsuko and anime song legend Mizuki Ichirou.

Good Ol’ Rock Fighter, Nuthin’ Beats That!

I was thinking about my early experiences with the Super Robot Wars series when I remembered the first SRW game I bought, Super Robot Wars R for the Game Boy Advance. The animations at this point were still very much “paper cutouts sliding against a background,” but I was stoked whenever I could land a finishing move on a boss, especially one of the crossover attacks. However, I think what characterized my play experience for R more than anything else was the fact that I could not read Japanese too well at the time, and so for the first 70% of the game I did not realize that your units had the option to “defend” or to “dodge,” rather than just trading hits with the enemy.

I think it’s very possible that if that game were more difficult, I would have gotten fed up with it a lot more quickly, trying to wonder how I could overcome those seemingly insurmountable odds. Perhaps ignorance was bliss for just the right amount of time.

Yes I Am Quoting Myself

For the Reverse Thieves’ second Speakeasy Podcast they compared Gurren-Lagann and Shin Mazinger, discussing why the former has a much more universal appeal among current anime fans than the latter. One of the topics that interested me was the false assumption that if a person likes Gurren-Lagann then the next step is Shin Mazinger, or similarly that if a person likes Gundam W that they will like the original Gundam as well. I thought of an analogous situation which I think sums up this problem quite well, and I wanted to have it on-hand and on-blog.

So consider, if you will, the following hypothetical conversation.

“Hey, what’s your favorite cereal?”

“Frosted Flakes!”

“Well if you like Frosted Flakes, I think you’ll enjoy CORN FLAKES! It’s the ORIGIN of Frosted Flakes!”

The person recommending Corn Flakes has his heart in the right place, but doesn’t realize that the reason why the other person likes Frosted Flakes so much might be mainly because of the sugar frosting, i.e. everything that Frosted Flakes have that Corn Flakes do not.

Reducing things down is not the answer for everyone, and just like Frosted Flakes vs Corn Flakes, I think people enjoy the total package of Gurren-Lagann, making it difficult to sell some fans on the idea of Gurren-Lagann stripped down to its bare essentials.