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Saturday, December 12, 2015

Demo Disc Vol. 4: Accidental Acquisition of Audacious Absurdity

When I conceived of Demo Disc last year, I didn't just want to create it as a way for me to write about anime I couldn't normally cover via a full review by test driving them via an episode or two (or three). I also wanted Demo Disc to be the way I could larger portions of titles that I still wouldn't be able to write proper reviews for. There are plenty of anime series out there that, on the unofficial front, were never fully fansubbed (& are either nigh-impossible to find raws for or aren't worth the effort in my opinion to hunt for), or were never given complete releases here in North America. These would be more in-depth than the single-episode compilations of the usual Demo Disc "volumes", but not complete enough to be full-on reviews. Therefore, I think the best title to introduce this second variant of Demo Disc would have to be one that, for all intents & purposes, we never were meant to even get over here.

Companies outside of Japan that want to release anime obviously have lots of legalese to go through in order to obtain the licenses they want for the shows that they want to release. Sometimes the Japanese licensor will toss in other shows alongside what the company really wants, often called a "package deal", but this here is truly a one-of-a-kind series in the history of the North American anime industry... Because it was licensed by accident. As the story goes, shortly after buying anime software company Software Sculptors in 1995 (which was originally co-founded by John Sirabella, future founder of Media Blasters), Central Park Media was looking for anime to release under its new label. The company looked at what anime studio Ashi Pro (now Production Reed) had in its catalog, and was interested in bringing titles like 1985's Dancougar - Super Bestial Machine God over. What happened next has never truly been explained, & I'm not sure if any one person even knows the complete story, but somehow no one at CPM realized that the contract for licensing Dancougar included another Ashi Pro TV series, 1986-1987's Machine Robo: Revenge of Cronos, based on the Machine Robo line of transforming toys that actually saw release over here as GoBots; in fact, this anime was brought to America in the 80s as Revenge of the GoBots.

Yes, CPM had inadvertently licensed an entire TV anime series, or at least the first 15 episodes of it, & didn't even know that it had happened until the materials for Machine Robo arrived at the office from Japan. Even though the company had absolutely no interest at all in the product, CPM founder John O'Donnell decided that, since they had the materials already, they would still put what they received out, which resulted in VHS tapes being released sub-only in 1997. John Sirabella once told me that he had no care for either Machine Robo or Dancougar & wanted to have nothing to do with them, though he did love the former's opening theme; still, you can find Sirabella's name on some VHS tapes for, at least, Dancougar. After such an odd & confounding circumstance, you'd think CPM would never tough the series again, but you'd be dead wrong. No, from 2003-2004 CPM would actually re-release those episodes of Machine Robo on sub-only DVD singles; in fact, episodes 11-15 were given their very first release, as they were never on VHS. While this re-release would receive (sarcastic) praise from Mike Toole's old site AnimeJump, even getting quoted on the third DVD, former CPM drone (& present Answerman for ANN) Justin Sevakis shared a similar view towards the show as Sirabella, minus any love for the OP.

Hell, even I wasn't really positive towards it when I listed it as an anime I'd love to review but couldn't at the time. Since then the subs from the bootleg DVDs have been ripped & released online, but I'm beyond the point where I want to rely on poorly-done bootleg subs, so in place of a proper review I'll instead make this volume of Demo Disc all about the 15 episodes that CPM put out on DVD. I do wonder if I was being too harsh on the show back in the day, especially since I only saw the first DVD. Was Mike Toole right about "loving it" after seeing it, even if it was actually in an ironic sense, or were Sirabella & Sevakis right in their outright dismissal? Or is it actually worth your time, legitimately? It's time to find out, at least in regards to the first third of the show.

Cronos is a planet that is the home of many different sentient robotic beings that live in relative peace. Some are gigantic, some are smaller, some can transform into various forms (jets, tanks... rocks), and one specific group, the Cronos Clan, are instead humanoid robots that can't transform at all. One day, however, a secret society known as Gandora appears in Cronos' orbit, ready to attack any robot that gets in their way. They are lead by Gades, who wishes to obtain the mysterious Hyribead, which will supposedly grant him immortality. The only mechanoid on Cronos who knows where the Hyribead is Master Kirai Stol, who teaches his son Rom & his friends Blue Jet (who can transform into a red jet) & Rod Drill (who can transform into an auger) the Tenkuu Chushinken/Sky Space & Heart Fist. Gandora attacks Kirai's home, but Kirai winds up killing himself to keep the location secret. He also tells Rom to follow the mystical Wolf Sword in order to locate the Hyribead & stop Gandora's ambitions. Alongside Jet, Drill, his younger sister Reina, & their friend Triple Jim (who can transform into both a car & a helicopter), Rom can also call upon the giant robot Blade Dragon to aid him in battle. Should Blade Dragon not be enough (& it never is), though, Rom can then call upon the even larger giant robo Vikung-Fu.

Okay, I'm not going to beat around the bush here & try to explain Machine Robo as being anything more than it really is. This is, without a shadow of a doubt, a mid-80s mech anime made with the sole purpose of shilling a line of children's toys by Bandai that was competing with Takara's Transformers line. Sevakis once recalled that, when his & his CPM coworkers were starting work on the DVD release, another employee who grew up in Japan told them "You know this is a show for 3 year olds, right?", and I'm positive that's a major factor why he, & Sirabella before him, looked at this show with such disdain. It absolutely is not a show aimed for them & no one in the anime industry would have willingly gotten the license to it. Backing up their point is the simple fact that the show is annoyingly repetitive for the first four episodes. While the minutiae may differ between them, the basic set up for these episodes (& the show at large) never really changes: Rom & crew end up in a new location on Cronos, wind up getting involved in whatever issue the locals are involved in (usually, but not always, Gandora instigated), the gang ends up fighting a Gandora commander, Rom summons Blade Dragon before promptly moving onto Vikung-Fu (because Blade Dragon doesn't really amount to much), the day is saved, & Rom & crew move on to the next location; rinse & repeat for all 15 episodes on these DVDs (& likely for most of the show).

The most repetitive part of all this is that the enemy Rom fights in all of the first four episodes is Devil Satan 6 (technically "Devil Saturn 6" to poke fun at God Mars, but Neil Nadelman's translation is way cooler), which is the combined form of six specific Gandora commanders. While it makes sense for the first two episodes (debut & then wanting a rematch), by the third fight it's already boring. Thankfully, after episode 4 the show spreads its wings, so to speak, & uses a different one-off commander for each episode. In fact, from episode 5 on, Machine Robo actually becomes really enjoyable, and that's due to three things: The characters, the individual stories, & the overall style the show utilizes.

Without a doubt, the best part of Machine Robo is the cast of characters, specifically because every one of the major & recurring ones have great personalities. Rom Stol is a justice-loving warrior who stands against any & all evil that he comes across, and when his foes ask who he is he tells them that they don't deserve to know his name (because they aren't worthy of it & because they'll usually be dead soon enough). Blue Jet, even though he's colored red (go figure), is a stoic swordsman who sticks to his sense of justice as closely as he sticks to his code of honor & fair fighting; still, when not in battle he knows how to joke around & mess with his buddies for the fun of it. Rod Drill is the most excitable of the bunch, yelling out his kiai louder than anyone else & showing tons of emotion, but he also knows his limits yet still tries to stand strong if Rom & Jet aren't around. Reina is the soft heart of the crew, trying to keep unneeded violence to a minimum, but can take out grunts on her own if the situation calls for it. As for Triple Jim... He's what I call "Triple Useless", because while he is willing to take the damage if it lets his friends escape, he can't fight at all & even his attempts of being the sacrificial lamb sometimes wind up being pointless. The camaraderie between the leads is very well done, from Rom & Blade being a good fighting duo to Drill & Jim trying to use each other as living shields when being barraged with a rain of arrows. Even if an episode itself is kind of middling, you still want to watch because the characters are awesome.

This applies to Gandora, too, but to a lesser extent. Gades is a giant hulk of a robot that commands everything from his spaceship, complete with little robots continually wiping him clean. Grujious is an ambitious second in command whose head is inside of a liquid-filled tank, easily making him visually memorable. Diondora is the other, female second in command & the most humanoid of the villains; where Grujious is more ambitious & fast acting, though, Diondora goes for more thought out plans. The various commanders that make up Devil Satan 6 come off like a group of bad-boy delinquents if they were also a sentai group, i.e. they're brash, cocky, & love combining when needed, but can't quite fully deliver on their missions. Some of the one-off commanders are cool, too, like Grovine (an honorable warrior who joined Gandora after being chased out of his hometown after peace came to it; they had no need for warriors at that point), Brocco (a convict who inadvertently became a hero to a city when he protected it while trying to steal from it), & Zagam (a Gandora follower who fell in love with a robot girl on Cronos until she died from an avalanche). The last DVD also establishes a rival for Rom named Gardi, who wields a Wolf Sword-like blade called Shooting Star, saying that the two blades are destined to clash until one is destroyed. While it is a highly-episodic show, the various characters alone do make it worth watching each episode.

Luckily, the episodes themselves do have some cool stories as well. For example, one has the crew coming to Drill's hometown, which is in a cold war with the town across the river because both sides want the Romtron that helps keep them alive, while another sees Rom being told that he has to marry a tough female warrior (who can transform into a lioness mode) after besting her in battle; naturally, Rom finds this awkward, though he highly respects her skills. The best episode of the lot, though, is episode 14, where the two children of Jingi (a one-shot commander) go after Rom to avenge the death of their father. While it would be easy to simply follow the basic formula I mentioned above stringently, the individual stories do try to be a little more than that whenever possible. Hell, sometimes Vikung-Fu isn't summoned for the climactic battle, though those instances don't really see Blade Dragon finishing off the enemy, either. If there's a comparison I would make here it would likely be to Matchless Raijin-Oh, but only because they share the same man behind the series composition/head writing, Hideki Sonoda. While Sonoda's resume is mainly filled with anime originally aimed at younger audiences, like Borgman, Tetsujin 28 FX, & Pokémon, he does seem to know how to elevate them enough to be more than just hollow entertainment. His titles aim to be much more than toy/game advertisements, and that's proven by how a lot of the anime he's worked on is generally looked at with fondness & continued positivity.

Yeah, this was made by a professional anime company... I got nothing.

Then there's the overall style of the show, which is another appeal. Easily the most memorable & iconic bit of style to Machine Robo is whenever Rom sneaks up on his foes. Just when Gandora think they have the upper hand, Rom will always shout out at them, getting their attention. Following that Rom delivers a poetic soliloquy about justice, love, happiness, the evil of egotism, or something along those lines. Afterwards, the enemy will do the usual "Who are you?!", followed by Rom's "You don't deserve to know my name!", even if the enemy obviously knows who it is. This is all wrapped up with an outstanding piece of background music by series music composer Tachi Akano (Sengoku Majin GoShogun) called "Tenkuuyori no Shisa/Emissary from the Heavens", obviously done in homage to Sergio Leone's iconic spaghetti westerns & Clint Eastwood's Man With no Name. Yes, Rom does it in every single episode, but it never gets old, mainly because Rom has a completely different soliloquy every single time; maybe he starts to repeat after these episodes, but I kind of doubt it. The martial arts aspect is also very fun, with Rom's hand-to-hand style, Jet's sword style, & Drill's more Judo or Sumo style featuring all sorts of named attacks, and that extends to Vikung-Fu as well. In a genre that was all about beam sabers, laser pistols, & various energy attacks at the time, Machine Robo gave itself a neat identity by being all about martial arts, which likely helped make it memorable & beloved by mecha fans for the time. It did get into a couple of Super Robot Wars games, after all, not to mention Vikung-Fu even being given an all-metal Soul of Chogokin figure a few years ago.

While I don't tend to talk staff in depth for Demo Disc, Machine Robo does have a couple of interesting names in its credits, especially those who would go on to bigger work. In fact, this series was the second anime Masami Obari ever worked on, after Dancougar, doing animation direction for the first two episodes as well doing the key animation for the ED sequence (you can definitely tell it's Obari just by how Rom's face is drawn at the start); Obari has also occasionally drawn Vikung-Fu for the fun of it throughout the years. Character designer Nobuyoshi Habara, aside from doing a good job here, would go on to direct anime like Steam Detectives, Broken Blade, & every entry in the Fafner franchise (minus the movie). Co-mech designer Takahiro Yamada would move on to creating the mechs for shows like Next Senki Ehrgeiz, the Eldoran Series, Borgman, & GaoGaiGar's Zonder Robos. While Akano's music in general is pretty good, it's the OP & ED that take the cake. The OP, "Machine Robo Hono" by Martin, is a super-catchy theme that you could easily dance to yet fits the series like a glove; it's easy to see why Sirabella was a fan of it. The ED, "Aoi Heart no Stranger" by Ema Watanabe, is 150% pure 80s in how it's composed, and it sounds perfect. And though it's not featured on these DVDs, the second OP, "Shouri no Machine Robo" by Masato Shimon, is just as great as the first OP.

Oh, and how can I forget the most important person of all... The art director. For those unfamiliar with CPM, the company loved to promote a show by tying it to another show by way of shared staff members. While that can work for someone like the director, head writer, mech designer, etc., the crew at CPM pushed it to an absurd extreme with Machine Robo by touting that it was "From the Art Director of Blue Seed!" There are two problems with that, though. First, the "art director" is best described as the person in charge of the staff that paints the backgrounds; an important role, no doubt, but not one to really promote here. Second, CPM didn't even get the credit right! Neither of Machine Robo's art directors, Toshihisa Tojo nor Yoshito Watanabe, worked on Blue Seed, & the reverse applies to Blue Seed's art directors, Kazuhiro Kinoshita & Yoshimi Umino. The two shows do share voice actor Kazuhiko Inoue, who's Rom is possibly one of his all-time most iconic roles. If anything, I think CPM meant to link the show to episode director & storyboarder Kiyoshi Murayama, as he would direct the Blue Seed Beyond OVA, but even that was only for the third & final episode, making the link uber-tenuous. I've always looked at the art director tie-in as the absolute lowest that CPM ever went for a blatant way to promote something, & now realizing that it's also essentially false advertising is just the cherry on top.

I have a feeling that last cover is a blatant spoiler that we'll never know anything about...

Machine Robo: Revenge of Cronos may have been a title that CPM never meant or wanted to license, but it's not like the company was thrown a stinker. Yes, it's an anime that was made for little kids so that they could beg their parents to buy them transforming robot toys, but most mech anime out there is made for the same exact reason when you get down to brass tacks; to judge it poorly based solely on that while giving other titles of its ilk a pass is silly. Admittedly, this show isn't going to win any awards when it comes to stuff like animation, even for its time, but I will admit that I misjudged the show when I saw that first DVD years back. Now, to be fair, the show stumbles a good bit early on due to the repetitive reliance on fighting Devil Satan 6, but after that the show improves considerably & can even surprise you in just how well it tells its stories & makes its characters feel real. It certainly won't appeal to most people, which is where it was lost on people like John Sirabella & Justin Sevakis, but for those who enjoy super robot style mech anime there may just be something you'll find fun here. Still, though CPM certainly tried to sell this show during the DVD re-release, maybe too hard at times (seriously, if it isn't that silly sing-a-long thing I showed an image from, it's using "Why" by Evil Adam for the trailers in an attempt to make the show seem more "EXTREME!!!" than it is), it still is going to be a hard sell for most people. I don't even see Discotek Media ever rescuing it.

Remember, this is an anime that we got a third of by complete & total accident. The chances of someone being legitimately interested in bringing over all of Machine Robo are next to non-existent, and that's not even including semi-sequel series Machine Robo: Butchigiri Battle Hackers (which I only know has a cheesy fun hip-hop inspired OP) & spiritual successor Shutsugeki! Machine Robo Rescue (which I've heard is actually pretty good); both also had Hideki Sonoda leading the writing team, so that's a positive. Luckily, these DVDs are still dirt cheap to buy, so if you're curious then by all means check them out.


  1. The ultimate irony of course is that while Machine Robo got a DVD release of its first 15 episodes, the series CPM was originally after, Dancougar, never made the jump to R1 DVD! Just one more oddity to add to the pile of the most eccentrically run anime licensing company of all, the late lamented CPM!

    With a complete set of official subs for the series, hopefully it's only a matter of time before Dancougar reaches the interest of someone like Discotek and finally gets a subbed DVD release.

    1. Actually, CPM had plans to release Dancougar on DVD. While doing the VOTOMS re-release in the mid-00s, CPM did say that Dancougar was going to see a similar re-release. Unfortunately, after VOTOMS the company went into its death throes, and with that any chance of a Dancougar DVD release.

      Luckily, since then Japan did receive a Blu-Ray release of Dancougar, so if it was ever to see another release over here, then it will look way better than what CPM ever could have put out at the time.