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Sunday, April 6, 2014

Robot Girls Z: He Ain't "Stupid_Boy", He's My Brother... Er, Sister... Er, You Get It

Sometimes a genre becomes a niche as time goes on & other genre's become more popular. In terms of anime this applies very strongly to mecha, which was mega-popular in the 70s & 80s before becoming slightly less notable during the 90s & turning into a big niche in the 00s. Sure, franchises like Gundam & Macross maintain their "mainstream" status, but for most classic mech anime series they end up becoming relegated to appearances in Super Robot Wars & the occasional re-release, if not getting remade for newer audiences. As much as more "militant" fans of the genre want to argue, the proof is in the pudding with the absolute failure of titles like Shin Mazinger or the purposefully short-lived productions like Mazinger SKL; quality of these shows aside, as they're both awesome, these titles tend to not appeal to modern day "otaku". Therefore, anime studios sometimes think of new ways to utilize their classic titles in ways that can appeal to modern fans...

At Tokyo Anime Fair 2009 Toei Animation announced a new project called Toei Robot Girls, which would feature four of their 70s mecha (Gaiking, Ga-Keen, Balatack, & Danguard Ace) anthropomorphised into young girls; naturally, some mecha fans took this as Toei taking a literal "fecal matter" over their precious classic mech anime. Anyway, this project was made into a 4-koma/panel gag manga & in 2011 had a short pilot film made (which was simply two shorts stitched together into one product); Toei even used the girls to advertise new DVD sets for the very anime they were based on! Anyway, in July 2013 Toei announced a new part of this project: Robot Girls Z. This would act as a sort-of-sequel to the original pilot & focus on anthropomorphised versions of Go Nagai's iconic Mazinger Z, Great Mazinger, & Grendizer. Unlike Toei Robot Girls, though, this wouldn't be a simple pilot but rather an entire miniseries of anime shorts, debuting in January 2014; an "episode 0" short was made alongside the announcement. Well, the miniseries ended this past March, even getting simulcasted over at CrunchyRoll, so the question must be answered: Is Robot Girls Z the utter eradication of mech anime as we know it... Or is it, you know, actually good & militaristic fans are just being insane?

In the Nerima ward of Tokyo is "Photonic City", which is the home of Robot Girls Team Z, made up of Z-chan, Gre-chan, & Grenda-san. Their job is to promote the use of photonic energy while protecting resources from being stolen by the Mechanical Beat Girls of Dr. Hell's Underground Empire, lead by Baron Ashura. But, quite honestly, just who are the real villains here: The Mechanical Beast Girls, who perform petty acts of villainy as a job, or Team Z, who seem to take personal joy in defeating their opponents & don't seem to care about any & all collateral damage they cause to the city?

If that description for Robot Girls Z sounds completely absurd, audacious, & ridiculous to you... That's because it is, and the show knows it. Each of the nine shorts, combined into three "episodes", feature some sort of situation that leads to a silly climax. Whether it's Dr. Hell's "new" Mechanical Beast Girls being useless against Team Z, Team T (the original Toei Robot Girls themselves) racing Team Z in a marathon for main character status, Grenda's adoration for an idol who has a horrible singing voice, Z trying to be nice to her "little sister" Minerva X (who hates the other two girls & is actually a boy), or Baron Ashura realizing that maybe, just maybe, she, Garada K7, & Doublas M2 "need" Team Z in some weird sort of friendly rivalry, among other stories, this anime doesn't aim at being absolutely serious.

In the end a title like this succeeds as well as its characters do in keeping your interest, and luckily this anime does well on that end. Z is probably the best of the bunch by taking Koji Kabuto's "Bring it on!" attitude & twisting it into a full-on obsession, even claiming that "justice" is something that she either cares nothing about or proclaims is for her alone. Gre actually is the opposite of Tetsuya Tsurugi by being generally bored with what's going on around her, preferring to play her handheld gaming console, & responding in a very matter of fact fashion, though she can also be easily angered at times too, especially when it comes to Minerva's advances toward Z. Grenda is probably the closest in terms of being similar to her referenced mech's pilot, Duke Fleed in this case, by being the most naturally calm of the trio, though she's also the most potentially violent one of them all due to her calm demeanor while threatening her opponent. Considering how Baron Ashura is evil but seemingly only because it's her job, Garada being a "go-getter" type of girl, & Doublas being very shy without her double-head hand puppets, Team Z tends to come out more like the real evil when it comes to fights. It's very similar to what one would see in Astro Fighter Sunred, which featured a tokustatsu hero who was a complete asshole & villains who were absolutely polite & well-mannered.

The other Robot Girls are similarly silly. Gai-chan/Gaiking is the de-facto leader of Team T & takes offense to her team being considered "second stringers" or complete unknowns (though they are based on lesser-known mech anime); she has a drill, though, which Z wishes she had. Jeeg-san/Steel Jeeg completely embraces her super robot origins, speaking in a very dramatic fashion that is made fun of as being absolutely "cheesy" (let's face it, though... that's partly why we love super robots); if only she didn't have a hard time finding her equippable weapons inside her Big Shooter tote bag. Her Team G partner, Get-chan/Getter Robo, is an outright "ojou-san", finding fighting to be "barbaric" (though she has no problem throwing a Getter Tomahawk) and has three personal assistants who look like Ryoma, Hayato, & Musashi, the pilots of the actual Getter Robo; just don't get her outfit dirty, because she hates that (luckily she can Getter Change into a new outfit). There are even non-robot references, like Jack & Mary King running a food truck that gets continually destroyed, Dr. Hell continually getting angry at Ashura's lack of positive results, and even "Iza Ike! Robot Gundan" by Isao Sasaki & Columbia Yuri Kago-kai (from the Grendizer - Getter Robo G - Great Mazinger Kessen! Daikaijuu crossover movie from 1976) being played during the last story when all of the Robot Girls team up to combat The Great General of Darkness-ko, who is appropriately gigantic compared to the girls. There's a bunch of references that fans of mecha will notice & find to be in good taste here.

Now one complaint I'm sure hardcore mecha fans will bring up is that turning these iconic robots into teenage girls (though some, like Grenda & Jeeg, are likely young adults) is nothing more than "moe-fying" for nothing more than fanservice... But, honestly, that kind of fanservice isn't all that common here. Sure, there is the occasional scene where the Team Z girls are put in purposefully awkward situations for the sake of fanservice, the third & sixth stories especially, but even then it's done more for comedy & not so much for titillation; the audacity & absurdity of those scenes are so obvious that you can't take them seriously one bit. In fact, these girls are pretty damn chaste when compared to other blatantly fanservice-oriented productions. Outside of Grenda, Jeeg, & Gacky/Ga-Keen, none of the girls are really "well endowed", jokes are actually made about how flat some of the girls are, & panty shots are pretty much non-existent, unless clothing gets destroyed; even then the shots are more like "Well, it can't be helped" rather than "Ooh, look! Panties!!". If you were worried that this production was "taking advantage of" or "exploiting" these robots then you can drop those suspicions, but if you're simply angry that they've all been turned into girls then I'm sure you've already made up your mind about this show & nothing I can say will change that.

The series marks the sophomore effort by "aho_boy" Hiroshi Ikehata, a former gif animator who made his directorial debut in 2011 with Ring ni Kakero 1: Sekai Taikai-hen after doing episode direction for a few years; he also directed the Toei Robot Girls shorts, but those were relatively minor works. Even before 2011, though, Ikehata had already made his name known to those who pay special attention the animators & episode directors. For example, Ben Ettinger of Anipages (a site to read to if you want to know more about animation itself) was already talking about Ikehata being a "loose cannon" & similar to Hiroyuki Imasihi (Dead Leaves, Gurren Lagann, Kill la Kill) back in 2008 due to his direction for specific episodes like #39 of Hayate the Combat Butler. Considering the name he had made for himself coming into 2011 it's all the more sad that Sekai Taikai-hen was essentially ignored by fans when it aired three years ago (some people have even mislabeled RGZ as Ikehata's directorial debut, even though ANN always got it right). I personally loved the style he gave RnK1 for Season 4, which I brought up in my review of it back in June 2011. Much like that show RGZ definitely showcases Ikehata's love of the old-school, which comes through in this show's embracing of audacity. Ikehata is also known for nice, fluid animation & a giving his work a lot of life to it, which is definitely the case here. While there isn't quite as much combative action as in RnK1, everything flows excellently & the entire production is full of energy &, most importantly, a sense of outright fun to it. Personally, I still enjoyed Sekai Taikai-hen more, but Robot Girls Z assures me that I probably should always watch any future anime that Hiroshi Ikehata directs, because he's definitely a person to look out for in the future. In the meantime, check out his resume so far, which includes episode direction & storyboarding for anime like Kill la Kill (ep 9), Gurren Lagann (ep 22), Soul Eater (ep 34), & Accel World (eps 5, 11, 17, & 23), and he's assistant director for Black Bullet, which debuts this Tuesday (April 8).

Ikehata is mainly for the visuals, though, which are backed up by Kazuho Hyodo's (another relative newcomer) series composition. Hyodo's writing here is generally really well done, showcasing a nice mix of comedy duo-style joking as well as some enjoyable dedication to the melodramatic style of giant robot storytelling when needed. The character designs by Tetusya Kawakami (Shigofumi, the upcoming Nanana's Buried Treasure) obviously focus on making the Robot Girls look generally cute & "attractive", but I personally don't find them to be egregiously so nor do I find them to be within the "definition of moe" (at least, how most people tend to define that look); it's cute, sure, but it's also somewhat timeless in its style. I can't find crediting for who did the music, but overall it was appropriately silly & fitting, though nothing noteworthy. On the other hand, the opening theme, "Robot Girls Z" by Kikai♡Shoujotai (Team Z & Team G), is absolutely memorable & tons of fun to listen to, even paying homage at the very beginning to Mazinger Z's iconic opening; it's just as fun & silly as the show itself ("Maji ka? Maji de. Mazinga ZEEEEEEEET!!!"). The ending theme, "Team Z no Chikara!" by Robot Girls Team Z, is also a fun little song about the Team Z girls, but not quite as instantly enjoyable as the opening. As mentioned earlier, the last story also includes Isao Sasaki's classic opening theme to the 1976 crossover movie from Toei, and it actually fits the scenes nicely, while also leading to an appropriately parodying end result.

The cast follows the animation's lead by being intensely spirited & having tons of fun, giving a few newcomer seiyuu a chance to shine. Z is voiced by Mariko Honda (Yuk Aioi in Nichijou, Pandora in Ring ni Kakero 1: Sekai Taikai-hen), who goes into her character full-bore & obviously had the time of her life doing the role; her manic screaming even makes it into the opening theme! Gre is performed by Inori Minase (Suzu in Love Lab), who delivers an extremely entertaining dull interest in everything around her, though she has her moments of real emotion when needed; still, you'll never think of Thunder Break the same way after hearing Minase's memorably droll delivery. Grenda is done by Kazusa Aranami (Treasurer in Kämpfer, Tomoe in Da Capo III), who does a nice job as the calm-yet-dangerous member of Team Z. Other notable performances include Aya Hisakawa's energetically evil Baron Ashura, Bin Shimada's easily-angered Dr. Hell, & Minami Tsuda's Jeeg-san, who is easily the most "super robot pilot" of them all, but my favorite performance is actually by complete newcomer Yukiko Morishita, who voices Garada K7. Morishita's delivery as Garada is absolutely engrossing & full of love and energy, fitting the girl's attitude perfectly; I hope she ends up becoming more prolific as her career continues, because if this role is any indication she deserves it.

No DVD/BD cover yet, but this works well enough.

While Robot Girls Z certainly won't go down as a modern-day classic or even one of the absolute best shows of 2014, by any means, it's still a fun as hell little production that is much better than first impressions might give off. Now, is it a blatant way for Toei to utilize some of its older properties for nothing more than advertising & potentially attracting modern day fans? Oh hell yes. Now, is it, as some mecha fans might argue, the "moefication" of iconic super robots & ruining of what made them appealing in the first place? I would argue no, simply because the female fanservice is pretty damn tame for the most part & the robot homaging and parodying is obviously done by those who loved these steel giants in the first place. If anything, RGZ was a place for those new to the industry, both in the staff & cast, to come together & showcase what they were capable of; from that perspective the show is an absolute success. For me it showed that Hiroshi Ikehata wasn't a "one-hit wonder" in terms of directing, but for most people it might be their first look at what "aho_boy" can do when put at the director's chair, while the newcomers in the cast pulled their weight & showcased what they are capable of; hopefully this show will only be the beginning of larger things for all of them. At only ~90 minutes long it isn't a big commitment by any means, so if you have a CrunchyRoll account & like giant robots (and aren't the kind who take personal offense to this kind of stuff being made) then definitely check it out... You might be surprised by how much you like it.

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