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.

Hey Sunrise, You Know What Would Be an EXCELLENT Way to Celebrate 20 Years of Yuusha?

MAKE PROJECT Z! DO IT!

For those who aren’t aware of Project Z, it was the proposed sequel to Gaogaigar Final that was included with the DVDs of Gaogaigar Final: Grand Glorious Gathering, which was a re-editing of the OVAs to fit the time slots of a TV broadcast. What was really cool about Project Z though is that not only was it to be a direct continuation of the GGG story, but it also was to incorporate elements from Betterman, which was this weird sci-fi horror series which took place in the GGG universe but hardly included any actual crossover with the main series.

It also gave off a very different mood. If Gaogaigar is CSI: Miami, then Betterman is CSI: New York.

So when last we saw our heroes in Gaogaigar Final, well, we didn’t, and the only ones able to return were Mamoru and Ikumi, the two children of alien origin whose abilities allowed them to purify the enemy. Once the kid sidekicks of the robot-piloting ultra heroes, as of Project Z they were to be teenagers who were now themselves the heroic super robot pilots. It had the potential to be this real coming-of-age story akin to Gurren-Lagann.

An interesting aspect of the whole Project Z concept from a mecha perspective was that the main robot of Project Z was supposed to be an amalgam of the robots from Betterman with the technology of Gaogaigar into a single cohesive design. The robots in Gaogaigar are sentient beings created based on alien technology called “Super Mechanoids,” whereas the robots in Betterman are purely human creations devoid of thought called “Neuronoids.” Joined together, they would create GAOGAIGO, a “Neuromechanoid” whose co-pilots would have been Mamoru and Ikumi.

They actually got pretty far with this idea, even creating an action figure based on the design.

Cool, no? Another interesting to point out is that the Gao machines used in the transformation are the ones remaining on Earth. That’s why you have Gaofighgar’s Liner Gao II as the shoulder armor, but also Stealth Gao II from the second half of the TV series.

In addition, because the robots in Betterman were anything but super, Gaogaigo’s design ends up being a mix of real robot and super robot technology. It’d be like if you took a Scope Dog from Votoms and cross-bred it with Gurren-Lagann.

And here’s what would have been really amazing. The base robot of Gaogaigo, called “Kakuseijin Gaigo,” incorporates the Neuronoid ability to change modes and appearance depending on who is the co-pilot. So if Mamoru was in control of Gaigo when it turned into Gaogaigo, then surely when Ikumi was in control we’d get a robot based off of King J-Der. If you look at the Gaigo mode that has Ikumi in control, it even kind of looks like J-Der!


Ikumi’s Accept Mode Gaigo (top), Mamoru’s Active Mode Gaigo (bottom)

So that’s what could have been, or what perhaps could still be. I’m holding out hope that some day our heroes will return to us.

The Personal Side of Giant Robot Fighting: Shinkon Gattai Godannar

When it comes to Shinkon Gattai Godannar, everyone’s first impression is this:


Exhibit A

Followed by this:


Exhibit B

And they’re definitely right in that Godannar contains both, but unfortunately those are the only things they notice, and will often-times write the series off as trash. I’m here to tell you, however, that while those two elements featured above are ever-present, to the point that you’ll be seeing them invariably in every episode, what you see isn’t necessarily what you get. I want to try and set the record straight, even though I’m well aware that it is in many ways a futile effort and that Godannar is just about the most difficult show to convince people to watch who aren’t enticed by Exhibits A and B.

If it sounds like I’m being defensive, it’s because I am. It’s just that I know how difficult its shell can be to penetrate, and I’m tired of people writing the show off as some vapid exercise in fanservice. Don’t get me wrong, the girls in this show are hot, with character designs by Kimura Takahiro of Gaogaigar, Betterman, and Code Geass fame, but they only scratch the surface of what’s really there.

Aoi Anna is a 17 year old girl who is the target of affection of every guy at her school. She’s beautiful, buxom, has a great personality, and is a match for anyone when it comes to physical competition. But while many girls her age are dating, Anna already has a fiancee. And while many teenagers are only beginning to consider their future, Annas already has a goal: to become a giant robot pilot. Her husband meanwhile is Saruwatari Gou, a man widely respected as the greatest robot pilot ever known.

Gou, however, is not a hot-blooded, gung-ho, never-say-die teenager, but rather a 30+ battle-scarred veteran able to temper his ferocious passion in battle with experience and foresight. He once lost the love of his life, a casualty of his life’s duty as the world’s greatest pilot, and has sworn to never let it happen again. With the aid of giant robot teams from all over the world, Anna and Gou must defend humanity by piloting the mighty robot “Godannar” while also living together as a newlywed couple.

Godannar is a very atypical giant robot anime, something which becomes more and more apparent as the show goes on. For example, the enemy in Godannar is a race of grotesque creatures of unknown origins known as the “Mimetic Beasts,” and that is all you ever learn about them. They are not Dr. Hell or Zeon or the Vajra, they do not have a mysterious past to delve into or personalities to hate. Instead, the real function of the Mimetic Beasts is to act as a backdrop for the characters to develop their relationships and grow.

While the show features robots prominently, its real focus is on characters and romance and on the relationships and bonds that develop between comrades-in-arms, instead of the conflict, politics, and the character development through antagonism that you usually see in giant robot shows, real or super. It is a more personal look at the men and women who defend the planet by jumping in steel golems and punching aliens.

Yes, if you watch Godannar you’ll be getting a faceful of cameltoe on a regular basis, but if you think the show is going to be about a guy who walks into girls changing and then gets punched through the roof, then I am glad to correct your mistake. Unlike what you might expect out of a typical fanservice anime, the men and women of Godannar barely bat an eyelash at the skintight suits and giant breasts which populate every scene, as if such scenery is merely commonplace in the world of the future. Instead, the only female characters to whom the men of Godannar react to are the ones they care for the most, which only reinforces the true theme of the series: love.

And through it all, particularly with the sexual aspect of the character designs, what may be most surprising of all is how strong the female characters are in Godannar. Not only are they on equal terms with their male counterparts, being every bit as capable on the battlefield as the guys, but they are also full of confidence, intelligence, and compassion, and never are they forced into the role of the damsel. There are no Aphrodai A’s to rescue, and for that matter no Boss Borots to bumble along to reinforce the idea of how strong Mazinger Z is. Each character and each robot pulls their weight in the heat of battle, and every relationship is equal, even if they may at first appear otherwise.

Godannar can be a difficult show to approach and to get past that initial impression of boobs and metal, but if you want to see a show with very good characterization and relationship development which also plays with the common tropes of anime to create a stronger story overall, then I think you should check it out. I know that the series is not for everyone, and for those who are not as familiar with super robots the clever subversion of the genre which occurs in Godannar may be lost or a non-issue, but I think many more people would enjoy the series than are willing to give it a chance.

They’re Like Robots, Except Giant!

Much like my attempt at compiling “Non-Japanese” magical girl shows, I’ve recently started a Youtube playlist consisting of “Non-Japanese” giant robot shows. My definition of “Non-Japanese” here is somewhat lenient, as I’ve also included anime which were heavily adapted for foreign audiences, as well as shows animated in Japan for foreign audiences. Something like Voltron which was based on Golion and Dairugger XV but then got additional episodes made due to the popularity of Voltron counts as both. Parodies are okay as well, as evidenced by The X-Treme Adventures of Brandon and Mallory.

I’m taking suggestions, so if anyone knows any series/movies/whatever besides the ones I have already, please chime in. Please keep in mind that they must be lean more towards the “robot” side and less towards the “powered suit” side, though I understand that such a line is blurry at best. To give you an idea of where the line is, I do not consider The Centurions or Jayce and the Wheeled Warriors to be giant robot series. Dino-Riders is on the fence, but if you can convince me that a T-Rex in advanced techno armor is not that different from an Evangelion, then I might include it as well. But most likely not.

Let Me Tell You About My New Favorite Nico Tag

You want to watch a lot of anime but you don’t have a lot of time. And you want it to all be about robots. Well, let me introduce you to or “Robot Anime Scene Compilations.”

Have you ever wanted to check out the awesome fights in a giant robot anime, but didn’t want to wade through 50 billion episodes and endless filler to reach the few fight scenes that might be somehow significant? Well, the Robot Anime Scene Compilation tag is there for you and me.

Want to watch the greatest fights from Getter Robo or God Mars? Well here’s your chance, and rather than killing 100 hours worth of time, all you need is 30 minutes per video.

Are shows like Grendizer and Baldios too high-brow and high-quality for you? Well then you can take a look at some of the not-so-fondly remembered robots, like Gloizer X and Srungle!

It’s thanks to this tag that I found out Michiru takes over for a captured Hayato towards the end of Getter Robo G, and on top of that she’s actually not useless!

So go forth, watch some robots, and come back a more learned anime citizen.

Four Kings Meet in a Room to Discuss the Meaning of a Punch Made out of Rocket

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.