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Friday, April 4, 2014

Robonimal Panda-Z: The Robonimation: Hello Kitty-style Mecha Before the Chogokin Hello Kitty!


Name: Japan Animationsong Makers Project (JAM Project for short)
Founded: July 19, 2000 (by Ichiro Mizuki)
Members:
Hironobu Kageyama (founding member)
Masaaki Endoh (founding member)
Hiroshi Kitadani (joined June 2002)
Masami Okui (joined March 2003)
Yoshiki Fukuyama (joined March 2003)
Ichiro Mizuki (fouding member; part time since August 2002)
Ricardo Cruz (Brazilian back-up vocalist since 2005)
Eizou Sakamoto (founding member; "Graduated" March 2003)
Rica Matsumoto (founding member; on hiatus since April 7, 2008)
Iconic Song: "SKILL"

It may be April, but JAM Project March is going into overtime!

Well, this is the end... After five anime that featured songs by the individual members it's time to talk about a title that has a song done by the group itself. Interestingly enough, though, while the group lamented at Otakon 2008 how insanely hard it was for them to learn how to properly sing their song for world peace, "No Border", in proper English, four years prior they sung a song in 100% English just fine... How fittingly absurd.


Parody can be an interesting thing, especially when one is distinctly focused around a specific property. In an interview with Newtype Magazine, Shuichi Oshida was a simple man in 1999 when his job at the time bought a Macintosh computer & he learned Adobe Illustrator on it, creating a panda-themed version of Mazinger Z for fun. Eventually, Oshida left his job & went freelance before finding a job at MegaHouse Corporation, who saw his creation. Absurdly enough, the company got the full blessing of Go Nagai & was allowed to create an entire merchandising line-up based on this parody, crediting Nagai with "Original Concept". In 2004 the company teamed with Bee Media, Synergy Japan, Bandai Visual, & TV network Kids Station to create Robonimal Panda-Z: The Robonimation, a series of 5-minute anime shorts that detailed the absurd lives of the many characters Oshida created. Against all seeming odds, Bandai Entertainment actually licensed this anime for DVD release in North America, releasing it in a similarly absurd fashion... Do you get a theme here?


"Robonimal World is under attack from the Warunimal Empire. Now, wearing the scarf left to him by his father, Pan-Taron takes flight in Panda-Z, the undefeatable robot built by his grandfather. So no matter how strong the enemy, the forces of good always prevail!" - Taken from the back cover of Bandai Entertainment's Anime Legends boxset release (absurdity!!!).

Panda-Z is definitely a bit of an oddball. For example, while one could categorize it as a mech anime there really isn't all that much battling between giant robots, and when there is battling it's pretty one-sided: Pan-Taron & Panda-Z always win with little to no trouble. That's okay, though, because this a parody that has its tongue planted so firmly in its cheek that you might wonder if there's even a tongue at all. The focus is completely on comedy, and the anime fits perfectly into five minute bites. That's because the stuff you see here is one part riffing on iconic mecha, one part wacky characters, & one part absurd humor. For example, Panda-Z itself has all of the hallmarks of Mainzger Z, right down to launching out of a pool that opens up, but only has one real special attack: A rocket punch that doesn't even come back to the robot. Now the concept of a non-returning rocket punch isn't exactly original & had been done before this show, but when you combine that with Taron's penchant for hot-blooded attacking you wind up with a giant robot that fires off both fists & is completely unable to retrieve its arms back... So Taron & Panda-Z just stand there, in front of the arms on the ground, for hours on end, hoping that the robot's arms somehow put themselves back where they belong.



Mazinger isn't the only mech that's parodied, though. There's Mougyuu, Taron's cow-themed "rival" who controls a giant cow robot via a remote control, Tetsujin 28-style. Unfortunately, Mougyuu's remote is hardwired to the robot, so if it has to run to his opponent then he's going to get pulled right behind it (actually, all of the Warunimal robots are like this); also, Mougyuu's hot-blooded temper (which has him get literal flames in his eyes) might result in him breaking the joystick, making his mech useless. In fact, Mougyuu's dedication to being a "bad guy" gets to the point where, when left stranded in "enemy" territory, he constantly denies any kindness that Taron shows him. Anyway, the major focus is on Taron & his friends, which include Denwan (a phone-dog), Eteckii (an electric monkey), Rabbina (a medical rabbit), and the Bear Rescue Squad lead by Fire Bear. Oddly enough, all the heroes, including Taron's grandfather Dr. Panjii, are obviously robots but Taron himself looks to be a regular panda. That's proven by the simple fact that the robots here are intensely susceptible to water; literally, a little water will result in complete & total shutdown.

The water weakness is just a small piece of the third part that makes this show work: The absurdity of it all. This show essentially flips everything over, including the dinner table (and episode's worth!), & makes the smaller, seemingly minor problems into gigantic obstacles while making the Warunimal Empire come off as mostly incompetent. For example, there are four shorts dedicated to having Taron & his friends take on Dr. Jangarly in games of Old Maid, because Jangarly's robot, Black Ham Gear, isn't completed until the final episode. Unfortunately for Jangarly, he's horrible at the game. First his light brightens when his foe is about to take the joker (which would result in a win for him), and after taking it off the smoke from his cigar accumulates in his clear skull, resulting in him shorting out. Of course, don't take Taron & company to be absolute angels either, as they take no hesitation in taking advantage of Jangarly's short to purposefully put the joker in his claw, or tease Mougyuu with delicious batteries (which are a food source for everyone [that shouldn't be eaten by real people!]) since they know he won't accept it. Taron & his friends can be outright assholes and not just to their foes. In episode 5 Panjii comes home sick & experiences a surreal vision that results in him winding up outside the lab before falling down; Taron's solution is not to bring in his grandfather but rather give him a blanket & leave him outside like a hobo! Even Taron gets the short end of the stick once or twice, like when he asks Denwan for the receiver on his head so that he can call Panda-Z for a fight, only for Denwan to demand payment for the call.



To be fair, Taron's robonimal friends aren't any tougher. For example, there are three stories which have everyone trying to find out a way to bring Rabbina in from the rain, since water is so dangerous to them, but since the robonimals aren't exactly geniuses they end up shorting out themselves while Rabbina stays dry until the rain stops. It's all very silly stuff but it really works extremely well, mainly because of the pacing. As mentioned before, each episode is only 5 minutes long, but once you take out the opening & ending credits you find out that the actual stories are only about 3 minutes long. This results in the stories being constantly in motion, never slowing down & losing your attention, which really works in the show's favor. Finally, just to add to the absurdity, this is actually a "silent anime"; yeah, there's no voice work in this show. Characters do talk fairly often, but this is handled by way of intertitles... And that's actually kind of awesome. It really just adds to the crazy, absurd nature of this show, and the intertitles themselves aren't just simple kanji "text" on a black screen; the "font" changes depending on who's talking & how their emotions are at the moment, for example.

Considering how silly & ridiculous this show is, one wouldn't expect to hear that it was directed by a man who has done a few violent & bloody anime... But that's the case with Panda-Z, which was directed by Mamoru Kanbe, of Elfen Lied, Demon Prince Enma, & Psycho Diver: Soul Siren fame. Now, to be fair, Kanbe has also directed lighter fare, like Machine Robo Rescue, both seasons of You & Me., & I"s Pure, so at the very least the man has range. Panda-Z definitely fits in with Kanbe's lighter fare, but considering some of the absurdity shown here you kind of see some hints of his harsher fare. Toshiyuki Komaru's character designs adapt Shuichi Oshida's original work, and it does give off a bit of a Hello Kitty vibe; to its credit, though, it kind of helps lend a bit of charm to the visuals. Komaru also works as the animation director here and, while it definitely wasn't a big-budget show by any means, the show looks clean, the animation is without errors, & overall everything is filled with life. The music was performed by the "Panda-Z Band" & lead by Yougo Konno, with Hironobu Kageyama assisting Konno with production, and it's definitely a rock-focused soundtrack; everything has that hard-hitting rock sound, which actually fits the style of the show ideally. The opening theme, "VOYAGER" by JAM Project, is an equally ideal rock song that the supergroup performs in full English (pretty well, at that!). Even though it plays for every single episode I never felt like skipping it simply because it's such a fun song to listen & sing with; it's definitely a personal favorite JAM song of mine. The ending is "VOYAGER Ending Ver." by Kageyama & Konno, which is a slow instrumental take on the opening theme that actually sounds really cool & laid back; unfortunately it only lasts about 30 seconds (the full version plays throughout all of episode 28, a surprisingly introspective episode).



As mentioned at the beginning, Bandai Entertainment did license this series & released it on DVD here in North America. This was no doubt a license put on them (some might say "forced") by Bandai Visual, made all the more obvious by the way it was released: Across six single DVDs from 2005-2006 that were only 30 minutes long each. Understandably, Bandai did price them extremely cheap at $15/DVD (the first DVD did have a $20 special edition that came with a sweet mini-figure of Panda-Z itself), but it's obvious that this was being released with a very Japanese-style mentality, especially when DVDs only came out every two months. Thankfully, Bandai did eventually re-release Panda-Z in a way that made sense with 2008's complete collection under their "Anime Legends" label. The weird thing, though, is that the 6-disc release makes sense from a viewing perspective, because in half-hour bursts (5 episodes at a time) the show works really well; two discs after one another also works fine, too. It just doesn't make sense from a consumer perspective. Technically, though, the DVDs aren't simply 30 minutes of content because each DVD has a 3D-animated short that actually looks okay still, though obviously animated by just a couple of people, as well as a short live-action "minisode" (as if the episodes weren't short enough) that utilizes Panda-Z & Pan-Taron toys; they're usually pretty funny, too. Sure, that only amount to another 5-7 minutes/DVD, but it's something.



Robonimal Panda-Z: The Robonimation is definitely an odd little show, but it's not without its charm. The Hello Kitty-ish look makes it look patently skip-worthy but the absurd humor it goes for, combined with the short-length episodes, actually gives it a fun & silly style to it that makes it worth giving a watch. It doesn't take up much of your time, about 3 hours total, and it's even dirt cheap to buy now! Literally, you can either buy the six single DVDs for mere dollars each, even the special edition of Volume 1, or you can get the complete collection for about $15; it doesn't even need a license rescue at this point! It's patently silly, kind of cute, & absolutely worth a watch... Oh, and I did mention that it's pretty damn absurd?



Absurd, I tell ya!!!!

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