Voltron: Legendary Defender, Gurren-Lagann, and Human Connection in Robot Cartoons

Voltron: Legendary Defender is huge in a way I think few would have predicted. Previous attempts at reviving Voltron have been iffy at best, and super robots just aren’t an attractive feature to many current anime fans. What gives the series so much presence in the general fandom space is that its characters are charismatic, but more importantly their interactions with each other fuel the burning desire in fans to see relationships form and grow.

The fandom situation with Voltron: Legendary Defender reminds me a lot of when Gurren-Lagann started to hit it big with anime fans of all stripes. In light of its popularity, you could sometimes find more dedicated giant robot enthusiasts wonder what the big deal was with Gurren-Lagann. After all, didn’t works like Shin Getter Robo: Armageddon, Gaogaigar, and Aim for the Top! all exhibit the escalating scale of power and war long before that? The difference, it turned out, was the characters and the way they bounced off of each other. Even those who cared little about fighting robots connected to the friendship and camaraderie shared by the members of the Dai Gurren-dan, and moments like Kamina’s famous speeches (“Believe in the me that believes in you!”) opened up the opportunity for viewers to become fans of these close, emotional bonds.

I hardly find fault in how non-mecha fans connect to mecha series, but I do get the impression that the majority of fans of Voltron: Legendary Defender don’t really care about the robots at all—a far cry from the impact made by the old 1980s series. In that case, if people remembered anything at all, it was Voltron itself. This approach isn’t wrong, but as someone who always holds a soft spot for giant robot appreciation, I sometimes feel as if there’s a crucial part of Voltron fandom missing. In a way, it reminds me of when I first stumbled upon Gundam Wing fanfiction as a kid, hoping that it would be stories of awesome unique Gundams. What I got instead was swathes of stories pairing all of the Wing boys together (as Relena got killed over and over to make room for them).

The fandom that Voltron: Legendary Defender has garnered sometimes feels reflected in the design of the new Voltron itself. This updated version is much rounder, giving it an appearance almost like a human athlete. It comes across as more “organic” in some sense. Yet this makes the robot Voltron itself more like an action hero and less like an imposing mechanical colossus, which is the impression I always get when looking at the classic Voltron/Golion.

Voltron: Legendary Defender might very well be what brings giant robots back into the forefront of fandoms, but it might be something less recognizable to those who have dwelled in the caverns of Planet Mecha. I have to wonder, then, if the robots themselves can ever hold great appeal to those viewers who prioritize the passionate interactions between characters. Perhaps the more the robot lions and Voltron itself are given hints of personalities, the more even non-mecha fans can come to appreciate them and their aesthetic.

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New York Comic Con 2016 Essay #1: Voltron, Megazord, and the American Soul of Chogokin

For this year’s New York Comic Con, I’m doing something a bit different with my coverage. Instead of doing a standard con report, with overviews and opinions on panels, artist alley, etc., I’m going to be writing a series of essays based on things I saw at NYCC 2016. Think of it like extended thought exercises and musings inspired by the con.

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As someone who loves giant robots, one of the highlights of New York Comic Con 2016 had to be the dual displays of Soul of Chogokin Voltron and Megazord. Created as high-end poseable figures with plenty of metal, show-accurate proportions and transformations, and as much articulation as their designs can allow, when something joins the Soul of Chogokin line it is like a rite of passage. It’s the pinnacle of mecha toys, and any fans of either robot likely already has them on their radars. Seeing them together, however, made me think about their significance to both American fans and the people responsible for the Soul of Chogokin line. These figures represent not only the fulfillment of childhood dreams, but are indicative of the complex interactions between nostalgia and specific cultural contexts.

Although I personally do not view Voltron or Megazord with the kind of near-religious fervor that grips so many other fans (granted Voltron was the show that introduced me to giant robots), I couldn’t help but be impressed by their designs. They’re both large, clearly very hefty, and capture well the particular quirks of both robots, perhaps even to the point that it would be jarring. For example, Voltron can look a little too squat, until you realize that it actually reflects the original design well, and the main reason we see it as being perhaps slightly lankier in proportions is because the iconic images of Voltron tend to be upward perspective shots.

Above each of the displays was a painting of the robot below, with a little information card on the side to provide some extra insight on the artist who provided them, Nonaka Tsuyoshi. Reading these, what caught my attention was that not only was Nonaka responsible for the original Megazord design, but he was also the man responsible for starting the Soul of Chogokin line in the first place! In a way, the birth of the Soul of Chogokin Megazord can be viewed as Nonaka’s homecoming.

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There was another detail that I found even more notable. When describing Nonaka’s founding of the Soul of Chogokin line, the card stated that the toys were born out of his desire to celebrate the giant robots of his own youth, such as Mazinger Z. They were what inspired him, and so he in turn has given them the star treatment. Extending this line of thought, one can view Voltron and the Megazord as essentially the “Mazinger Z’s of America.” Many countries are introduced to super robots differently, and in the case of the US these two in particular are deeply woven into the fabric of pop culture. Remember, the original Japanese version of VoltronKing of Beasts Golion, isn’t a particularly notable show. Zyuranger, the show that would become Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers, is beloved among Super Sentai fans, but is considered one of many good iterations. In the United States, however, these robots are integral to introducing generations of kids to the wide world of mecha. Thus, the Soul of Chogokin line is doing what it was originally meant to, only in another cultural context.

Thinking further about the iconic aspect of Voltron and the Megazord, it’s fascinating just how lasting their presence is relative to the shows they came from. For example, because Voltron has that cool look and that place in American broadcast history, it can be remade again and again, most notably in the surprise hit Voltron: Legendary Defender. What’s even more striking about its presence, however, is that Vehicle Voltron is as absent from pop culture memory as Lion Voltron is enduring. In fact, notice how I’ve only said “Voltron” throughout this essay. I bet that, for many readers, they didn’t even notice that something was odd. There are a number of possible reasons why Lion Voltron is remembered whereas Vehicle Voltron largely is not: Lion Voltron came first, it aired on TV more often, and its colorful characters and overall design are more memorable (mouths for hands and feet!). Whatever the reason, what stands out to me is how fickle and unforgiving mass-nostalgia can be, even if there’s no real “blame” to go around.

Soul of Chogokin Voltron and Megazord are squarely aimed at the US market in a way that I’m not sure previous internationally beloved robots such as Grendizer (for much of Europe) and Voltes V (for the Philippines) previously were. In that respect, I predict this to be the start of a new relationship between Bandai and its potential consumers around the world. Given this potential, I’m rather curious as to what might come next. Perhaps we might someday see Soul of Chogokin representation for a robot that doesn’t even have its origins in Japan.

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[Apartment 507] Is “Voltron: Legendary Defender” Copying Anime?

I wrote a post looking at Voltron: Legendary Defender and its transformation sequence compared to that of King of Braves Gaogaigar. You can check it out at Apartment 507.

Robotech, Voltron, Nostalgia

When the Robotech/Voltron crossover comic was announced a few months ago, my immediate response was, “Why?” Of course the answer is “nostalgia grab,” but there’s something strange about both of these works and their continued presence in the geek public eye (and perhaps even beyond that). Unlike Transformers which not only has a huge variety of toys both old and new, as well as a long history of cartoons both from America and Japan (not to mention the live action films), both Robotech and Voltron do not really renew themselves, aside from the occasional thing like the The Shadow Chronicles or The Third Dimension.

Though this speaks more about the people I associate with, I can’t say I’ve ever talked to anyone, online or offline, who is hardcore into either Robotech or Voltron. I know that there’s a Robotech community of course (they even have an official site for it), though I have little interest in it. With Voltron, I know people who have fond memories of it, myself included, but the foundation that Voltron has in geek culture seems not only deeper than Robotech‘s but to the extent that, when you say cool giant robot with a signature finisher, Lion Voltron is just the default, or it shares that spot with the Megazord from Power Rangers. It’s like Voltron as a source of nostalgia goes so far beyond itself that the vague perception of it exceeds the influence of the actual anime. 

What’s funny about a show like Voltron and its emblematic presence in US geek culture as de facto super robot is that the process of dubbing and adaptation that turned the anime King of Beasts Golion and Armored Fleet Dairugger into Voltron: Defender of the Universe happened with different anime in different countries to similar effect. In the Philippines, Voltes V exploded with popularity. In France and Italy, UFO Robo Grendizer captured attention as Goldorak and Goldrake respectively (with success in the Middle East to boot). In Brazil, Gloizer X became O Pirata do Espaço, the country’s first real exposure to giant robots. While it’s possible say that this was all a matter of timing and that they’re all interchangeable in that respect, I do think that the specific properties of each show had a major impact on how each country perceived giant robots from that point forward (I’m less sure about Gloizer X so if any Brazilians want to help, feel free to leave a comment).

One thing that I do believe plays a role in how these series become more specific in their nostalgic output is the level of support the original works have in Japan. I visited France recently, and when I went into the comic stores I would regularly see displays of Grendizer merchandise. Whether it was the Super Robot Chogokin or the Soul of Chogokin or a chibi version, it was all straight from Japan, sitting prominently in the store. Grendizer has enough cultural presence in Japan that it can continue to get these toys and even a fairly stable presence in Super Robot Wars, whereas Golion has had to content itself with just one Nintendo DS appearance. In lieu of support from Japan, Voltron‘s had to carve its own place, and often times it’s not even from the company World Events which holds the Voltron license but from fans conjuring it up in their own minds. And while Robotech is an utter legal mess due to the way it stifles the presence of Macross in the US, if you put that aside part of Robotech‘s prolonged presence comes from the fact that its fans want new Robotech to constantly feel like old Robotech, whereas Macross changes according to the whims of its dark lord Kawamori Shouji.

Actually I wouldn’t mind at all if Voltron got a revival with a solid piece of fiction to support it which doesn’t rely too much on nostalgia. I know we got Voltron Force, but the less said about that the better.

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.

Like ROBOTECH? Then You’ll Love THE OMEGA SKIES

It’s the exciting new series that has the animation critics calling it even better than Voltron and Macron-1…combined!

The Omega Skies centers around a boy destined for greatness. This boy, Renton Thurston, is a fan of the latest craze on the planet, SKY SURFING! Sky surfing is so popular that not only do people do it, but robots as well! However, what he couldn’t predict was that his love of Sky Surfing would lead him to meet a mysterious girl named Eureka!

Not only that, but she’s friends with the most out-there rebel and Sky Surfing pro, Holland!

Joining Holland and Eureka on their custom-made radical airship, the “Gecko,” Renton’s life is transformed as he too realizes he has the potential for greatness, especially when the alien menace, the Coraelians arrive! Action-packed fights explode everywhere the Sky Surfers go!

But just when you think the story’s over, there’s more! Don’t look below this line if you don’t want to ruin the big events in The Omega Skies!

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Inconsistency in Iconographic Character Design and the Aging Audience Mind

It was winter, around New Year’s one year when the Naruto anime in Japan aired an episode that acted as a set up to the long-anticipated Sasuke vs Gaara fight in the Chuunin exams. During this episode the characters were all terribly off-model, and not just for a few frames as the internet so likes to point out, but throughout the entire show. Taking a gander at the ending credits, it was very clear that this was some animation studio’s E team working on it. It was New Year’s after all and the New Year is a big deal in both Japan and Korea.

As a college-age student, I was not the primary audience for Naruto, as much as all college-age fans of Naruto might like to believe. Now, thinking back to my own childhood and knowing some of the things I’ve learned about animation, I have to wonder if I would have been so keen to pick up on inconsistency in character design, and if it would have mattered to me at all.

I’ve recently had the opportunity to watch many episodes of the old Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon, the one that began in the 80s and ran for close to a decade, and it was then that I realized that for the Shredder, nothing was ever actually consistent. There was the helmet, the claws, the cape, the overall outfit, but from one shot to the next the thickness and curvature of the helmet would change, the arm guards would just do whatever, and it looked like each scene was drawn by a different person. And they probably were! But I didn’t really notice, or at least not that I can recall. I remember sometimes the Shredder looking more awesome than other times, but that’s about it.

World Events licensed the Japanese robot anime King of Beasts Golion and Space Musketeer Bismarck, and transformed them into Voltron: Defender of the Universe and Saber Rider and the Star Sheriffs respectively. Both shows were popular enough with kids that they ended up creating extra episodes from scratch. Without the guiding hand of the original Japanese companies though, the shows just did not end up looking the same.

If you look at a lot of cartoons animated in Japan in the 80s for American audiences, such as Bionic Six or Galaxy Rangers, many of the openings are much more visually impressive than the actual episodes. Of course, openings being superior in quality to the show they precede should not be unfamiliar territory to anime fans.

Decades before Voltron and Bionic Six, the anime 8-Man was brought to America as 8th Man. At Otakon 2008, Mike Toole in his panel “Dubs That Time Forgot” pointed out that in the custom American intro for 8th Man, the character design used for the titular character didn’t even resemble the original Japanese design beyond a basic level.

Now, I watched both Voltron and Saber Rider as a kid but as I was very young at the time I barely remember anything about them, aside from the fact that smaller robots combining into a single mighty robot was the best idea ever (see also: Transformers, Gobots). Did I catch any of these extra episodes? I really don’t know. As for 8th Man, I wasn’t even born yet. But somehow I don’t think most kids were angry that the show tried to trick them into believing two different designs were the same character.

Kids need only a few iconic things to identify the character. With Shredder, it’s a mean-looking metal helmet ninja guy (something you can also see in the more recent TV series). With Voltron, it’s some people in color-coded outfits and a robot with lion heads for limbs and a sword that blazes. With 8th Man it’s a giant 8 on his chest.

I’m not asking whether companies right or wrong to rely on these aspects and hoping kids wouldn’t notice the difference, or whether or not they insult children’s intelligence by doing so. And I am not defending inconsistency in animation or saying that it is totally okay to just forget what your own characters look like. At the end of the day, Yashigani doesn’t help anyone, and there are times when characters are so off-model that they break even the important iconic features of a character. What I am asking instead is, what is and should be prioritized when it comes to presenting a character to children? And then, how does this affect media for older people that grows out of these preconceptions?

American superhero comics were once the domain of children, and it’s there that you see the strength of symbols and in characters. An S on the chest, a blue outfit with red cape, and a confident stance, and you’ve got Superman. Individual artist differences don’t matter as much as getting the basics of Kal-El down. But then over the years superhero comics became more and more geared towards adult readers, as they are today. Since then, the practice of having different artists and writers on the same character has become a staple of the genre, but now with this older readership this practice is celebrated. It is touted as one of the unique features of comics, where for better or for worse an Alan Moore Swamp Thing-level revamp can be conceived and then taken away months later, but with the record that the same character has many different approaches both in terms of story and subtle visual changes.

And now we have anime which, like comics, started off in the realm of children and grew to encompass adults, adults who were once those very same children. And then when watching anime for at least a certain subset of adults (otaku) became more commonplace, anime started gearing towards them to a certain degree, and with every passing year we see more of this. Scott McCloud in Understanding Comics talks about how he considers of the great strengths of manga to be its use of characters as iconography, which I’m extending towards anime as well. But how has icon usage in character design changed if at all in this journey towards adulthood?  One of the long-standing strengths of anime I feel is the way in which it provides material for adults to enjoy even within children’s shows. Is more consciously consistent (or intentionally inconsistent) character design a higher necessity when the target audience is older? Is an older audience what’s needed to truly appreciate a Shinbo-style unorthodox approach to a show? These questions don’t necessarily need answering, but I feel they may lead to finding out parts of the truth about how anime and its audience interact.