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Friday, November 30, 2018

GR -Giant Robo-: You're Not Alexand... Er, I Mean Imagawa!

I've said it before here, but it bears repeating that Mitsuteru Yokoyama might be one of the most underappreciated people in the history of anime & manga, and that even applies to mecha. While the likes of Go Nagai, Ken Ishikawa, Yoshiyuki Tomino, & even Tadao Nagahama are acknowledged for their contributions to the genre, they all worked off of the template that Yokoyama introduced back in 1956 with Tetsujin 28. After that manga was made into a wildly successful TV anime from 1963 to 1966, Toei Company contacted Yokoyama with an offer for him to create a pilot for a new tokusatsu show, likely to follow up on the success of shows like Ultraman & Ambassador Magma. What Yokoyama created was Giant Robo, which still featured a teenage boy controlling a giant robot by way of a voice-operated remote control on his wrist; unlike Tetsujin, though, which could be controlled by anyone, Robo could only be controlled by a "hero". The toku series ran from 1967 to 1968 for 26 episodes, & would shortly later be brought over to North America under the Johnny Sokko and his Flying Robot. Alongside this, & similar to what Go Nagai & Shotaro Ishinomori would do with their creations later on, Yokoyama also drew his own manga take on Giant Robo, which ran for three volumes in Weekly Shonen Sunday while the show aired on TV.

Of course, as time went on, this title has become associated with something else entirely: The 1992-1998 OVA series Giant Robo: The Day the Earth Stood Still. Created by cult-favorite director Yasuhiro Imagawa, this OVA was not really an adaptation of Giant Robo, as Imagawa was actually barred from using any of the supporting cast from either the manga or toku. In response, the OVA became a celebration of Mitsuteru Yokoyama in general, featuring characters from a bevy of the man's manga catalog. That honestly seems like how the Fleischer Brothers didn't want to make Superman cartoons in the 40s, so they asked for an absurd amount of money... Only to wind up making said cartoons because they were being paid more than they ever had. Still, once that OVA came & went, the name "Giant Robo" was automatically linked with what Imagawa created. That's why, when production company Softgarage announced a new 13-episode TV anime to celebrate Giant Robo's 40th Anniversary, there was a fair bit of trepidation, hesitation, & annoyance from anime fans, even with it being in the seemingly good hands of director Masahiko Murata (Mazinkaiser, Corpse Princess) & head writer Chiaki J. Konaka (Digimon Tamers, Serial Experiments Lain); fans wanted more of Imagawa's story, not something completely unrelated. In the end, 2007's GR -Giant Robo- has become a bit of a mystery to most people, as the only English translation it ever received was for the first three episodes by Softgarage itself via its YouTube channel... Which quickly only became Episodes 2 & 3, as BandaiChannel copyright claimed Episode 1 not long after Softgarage put it up in 2009; yes, the Japanese production company got copyright claimed by the Japanese streaming service. Those who have seen some part of this show also aren't too hot on it, either, so I want to finally see for myself what happened with the Giant Robo anime no one speaks of.

Daisaku Kusama is an 18 year old high school dropout who lives on South Yangauni Island, off the west coast of Okinawa, & works at a local Diving Shop. One day he takes on a job to accompany a Ms. Alex Mackenzie to dive down to the Yonaguni Monument, only for Daisaku to see something unexpected underwater: A young girl. After that he sees visions of flying pyramids & giant robots, similar to the one that Turkish troops were combating outside of Ankara, as reported by the "nationless" Broadcasting Frontline Network. After nearly passing out & getting saved by Alex, Daisaku decides to head back later that night on his own, only to find ruins of a pyramid that he enters. This is just the start of Daisaku's journey with the United Nations Independent System of Mobile (or simply UNISOM), which Alex is a Colonel within, as the "mastermind" of GR-1, the "Giant Robo" he makes a contract with, as he battles against the mysterious group Gigantic Rebellion Operators, or GRO, which command the other GRs that have been unleashed upon the Earth a year prior. Also, how does V, a blind girl with a bum leg who looks like the one Daisaku saw underwater, relate to all of this, and how much does the BFN truly know about what they've reported on for the past year?

Without a doubt, and this needs to be stated immediately, GR -Giant Robo- is NOT Giant Robo: The Day the Earth Stood Still, and you have to accept that before you even start watching this series. Yasuhiro Imagawa's OVA series was epic, bombastic, & very much in the over-the-top style that he was known for, but this TV series is the complete & utter opposite from the very beginning. The biggest, by far, is the pacing of the TV series, which is much slower & methodical than the more sweeping pace of the OVA. GR in general has a much more downbeat mood to it than the OVA, and in turn it focuses a lot more on establishing shots, slow reveals, & maintaining a constant mystery to all of the GRs, & the ancient civilization that first created them over 50,000 years ago. I can completely understand if people instantly had some sort of disdain for this series simply because it wasn't more of the OVA, but at the same time it's not like this series even tried to imitate Imagawa's vision. With that out of the way, let's move on to what exactly GR -Giant Robo- tries to do, as its own creation.

One thing to consider is that, even through this anime isn't a direct 1:1 adaptation of the manga (the fates of some characters are different than in the original story), it still seems to follow a similar concept as that era when it comes to whether you should consider this a "super robot" or "real robot" anime. A lot of what has become "standard" in a super robot series, like hot-blooded attack screaming, utterly ludicrous designs & sensibilities (Breast Missiles, anyone?), & a general ignorance of things like the laws of physics, were actually solidified by Go Nagai, Ken Ishikawa, & Dynamic Pro via works like Mazinger Z, Getter Robo, & UFO Robo Grendizer, not by Mitsuteru Yokoyama. While titles like Tetsujin 28 & Giant Robo are ostensibly categorized as "super robots", they are actually handled in as realistic of a fashion as their concepts tend to allow; things like physics are stretched, but almost never outright ignored. Not just that, but Tetsujin & Robo are effectively golems that require commands to operate, but in certain instances can act autonomously in a very limited fashion, making them even less like your standard "robot". In turn, GR -Giant Robo- is an anime that heavily straddles the line between super & real robot, with the GRs definitely looking super robot in their designs & abilities, but at the same time said abilities are still based on realism. GR-3, for example, flies by way of a giant turbine on its back, and can fire missiles of its own creation from the wings it can open up. Looking it design-wise, it's obviously not realistic, but the way it works still follows some sense of logical understanding. Likewise, there aren't many "traditional" giant robot battles to be found here, and those that do happen tend to be rather fast in finishing up. Yes, that sounds bizarre for a show with the term "giant robot" in the title, but let me explain.

Similarly, the story is told in an extremely slow burn & serialized fashion, rather than the episodic nature super robot anime tend to follow. By the end of the first six episodes, there have only been two real fights, and the first was very basic, and all that's known about GR-1 is that Daisaku knows that it's considered "Edoph's Iron God" (or "Edoph's Greatest God", if you go off of the on-screen text in Episode 1), with "Edoph" likely being a corruption of the Egyptian city of Edfu (same exact katakana), while information of GRO is very slowly dripped out to the viewer. I'm sure that to most people this likely sounds to be a major flaw with the series, and I do agree that the pace could be tightened somewhat, but I don't feel that the series simply wastes its time with the slow pace. Instead, it uses that time focus more on the (relatively small) cast & to establish the generally downbeat & mysterious mood. The first half uses this time to showcase Daisaku as a young man with little to no real direction in life; he never finished high school, & ditched his mother to live out on a small island, away from it all. When he makes the contract with GR-1, he's suddenly given a weight of responsibility that he has no idea how to comprehend at first, and even considers a grave way to remove the burden from his shoulders, before eventually accepting that GR-1 has given his life new meaning, even if he wasn't exactly looking for one. He's definitely not the spunky boy detective that most anime fans will recognize him as, though the trench coat look is given an Easter egg appearance in Episode 10, but GR's Daisaku Kusama is an interesting take on the character.

Similarly, Alex Mackenzie is kind of in the same predicament as Daisaku at first. She wasn't meant to be at Yonaguni Island, as UNISOM felt that the chances of finding a GR there were low, but took her chances and broke protocol. Once GR-1 was found, & Daisaku is discovered to be the operator, she effectively takes him under her wing, becoming someone that Daisaku can always rely on when in need. Alex even eventually shows some affection for Daisaku, but deep down feels guilty about falling for a young man roughly 10 years her junior. Introduced a little later is "Texas", a UNISOM agent who was originally meant to be one of GRO's nameless operators, as they all use codenames based on locations (Kansas, Kiev, Dublin, etc.), but managed to escape & helps give names to the faces the viewer is shown every now & then. Over at GRO, there main two characters are Colonel Mike Hoggis & Isabella Reid, who are the two in charge of completing missions by way of their GRs & the codenamed operators. Hoggis is very much focused on simply getting the job done, no matter what, to please the mysterious GRO leader, while Isabella is shown to be much more sympathetic, as she treats her operators like actual people, & worries about their well being when in battle against Daisaku/GR-1, or when operating something that's known to possibly break their minds, like the many-armed GR-8 Dakora. There's V, who is considered an "interpreter", as she can sense the feelings deep within the GRs, and ties into the "Avatars" that built the GRs for their original purpose, which humanity does not adhere to. Finally, we have the recurring characters from BFN, anchorman Max Chanplin, reporter Maria Voinich, & cameraman Fred Chan. Max is only ever seen behind the news desk during BFN reports, usually shown with scanlines for effect, while Maria is constantly on the chase for where UNISOM & GRO are heading next. For the first half you don't get too much from them, but in the second half we start to see more indications as to what BFN, & especially Max, truly is. Likewise, Maria & Fred stay absolutely dedicated to their jobs as journalists, and they start to realize that they might just be pawns in a larger scheme.

I will say, though, that the reveal of who one of the real masterminds actually is is an amusing one, as it pays a weird sort of homage to Giant Robo's history. Is everything, like the true purpose of the GRs, fully explained by the end? Not quite, though I do wish I had a translation for those last few episodes, but a lot of it can be ascertained on your own, which I wouldn't be surprised was part of the intention.

As mentioned at the start, GR -Giant Robo- definitely wasn't given a lazy treatment, and this is all the more emphasized by the fact that the director & head writer had heavy direct involvement with the production. Director Masahiko Murata didn't simply oversee the production, but actually directed seven episodes himself, primarily the beginning, end, & the first real fight halfway through, and he also storyboarded nine episodes himself, leaving only three episodes that he had no direct involvement with. The end result is a rather pretty looking show, with the animation by A.G.C.T. maintaining a consistently quality, and there are very few moments that rely on CG; unlike most modern mech anime, GR features hand-drawn giant robots, which is great. Likewise, aside from having the notable Michiko Yokote help write the first two episodes, Chiaki J. Konaka wrote every single episode himself, which would especially help explain the slow burn execution & single-drop-at-a-time divulging of information until the last three episodes, where the flood gates burst open. If you look at his other TV anime work, like Hellsing TV, The Big O, Texhnolyze, & Narutaru, then you can tell that he prefers to let things stew & simmer inside the viewers' minds, rather than simply exposit information to them when necessary. Now, to be fair, this also means that any problems people wind up having with GR's plot or pacing can be attributed solely to Konaka, and it may say something that this is actually the last anime that Konaka has ever worked on, with the sole exception being a single episode of Hell Girl: Three Vessels in 2009; he was attached to write for both Despera & the Shishou Series, but neither anime happened. To be quite honest, I wouldn't be surprised if Murata & Konaka made sure that GR was as different from Imgawa's Robo as possible in an attempt to distance their anime from that one, but that likely wound up backfiring on them. This is not to say anything in regards to the actual quality of the show, but I'm very sure that aiming to be as much of a unique product resulted in most people not really giving it a chance, especially since there's always the Imagawa OVA series in the minds of mech fans. It also didn't help that Giant Robo: The Day the Earth Burned, the alternate universe manga retelling of the OVA that Imagawa himself wrote, was already about a year into its serialization when GR -Giant Robo- debuted, so interested fans in Japan already had a Giant Robo to pay attention to.

As for the rest of the staff, the mecha designs were handled by Tatsuo Yamada (Mazinkaiser, Durarara!!), which are much truer to Yokoyama's original designs than the bulkier & more rounded designs from Imagawa's OVA, though still given more than enough of a new sytle, and he even created some brand new GRs to look at. From what I could research, Yokoyama's manga only featured GR-1, GR-2, & GR-3, as well as the Dakora (which was unnumbered originally), but GR -Giant Robo- winds up having nine GRs, numbered 0 to 8, and they match up rather well; one could have seen Yokoyama design these new GRs similarly. Still, some weren't fans of Yamada's take on the robots, and the same can be said of the character designs by Shigeyuki Suga (Boogiepop Phantom [2000], Kino's Journey [2003]), which some derided as being "bland". Personally, I think they work extremely well for the show & do pay fair homage to Yokoyama's style well enough, though I can certainly see where others would want something with more of a visual punch. The music was done by Shin'ya Kimura, under the alias Kimushin, who's best known as the keyboardist for J-Rock band WANDS. Befitting that pedigree, Kimura's soundtrack is heavy on rock music, & really good compositions at that, but is actually only sparingly used, with the anime instead relying more on utilizing a lack of music; there are also non-rock compositions to be found, but the hard rock tracks are the highlight. Kimura also helped create GR's opening theme, "Answer" by rockwell (no, not that one), which is another great rock song that strongly matches the more mysterious & downbeat tone of the series; interestingly enough, the full version actually tones down the rock influence. Ending theme "it was yesterday" by Hirona is a good complement by being a much slower-paced song, with the footage looking to tie more in with V; from what I can tell, Hirona only ever released a solitary single for this song, & then left the industry.

As for the voice cast, it's lead by Daisuke Namikawa (Musashi in Gundoh Musashi, Toru Oikawa in Haikyu!!), who does a very good job with keeping Daisaku from being a character who grows into his position of responsibility, but without truly going too far in either being unsure or passionate. Alex is voiced by the venerable Romi Park, but you wouldn't realize it first, because she doesn't have to heighten the pitch of her voice to sound more boyish; this is Romi Park using her own natural voice, maybe even deepened a little, & it really works. As for someone who sounds exactly like you'd think, Texas is performed by Fumihiko Tachiki, and he voices the character with the usual kind of gruff & sarcasm that many of his most iconic roles tend to have. As for the villains, Hoggis & Isabella are voiced by Masayuki Omoro (Izo Motobe in Grappler Baki) & Sayaka Ohara (Erza Scarlet in Fairy Tail), and they both do good jobs, especially Ohara whenever Isabella is looking out for the safety of her Operators. V is voiced by Miyuu Sawai (Usagi Tsukino in Sailor Moon [live-action]), and while she's not known for voice work, she does a respectable job here; the character is mostly a bit unemotional, so her performance matches as well as can be. Finally, we have Iemasa Kayumi (The Puppet Master in Ghost in the Shell) as Max & Saeko Chiba (Birdy in Birdy the Mighty: Decode) as Maria, and both sound ideal as journalists; I could easily buy either of them as real-life news reporters.

Finally, there's also a pilot film produced by Softgarage that predates GR, and wound up being included as an extra in the "Premium" DVD boxset. Interestingly enough, this 5-minute pilot is actually completely unlike the later TV series, instead sticking completely to Yokoyama's original manga vision. Similarly, the pilot has a completely different staff behind it, with Mitsuru Hongo (Outlaw Star, IGPX) leading a staff at OLM, featuring Yoshihiko Takakura (Crayon Shin-chan) doing character designs, Hiroyuki Nishimura (LBX) doing mech designs, & Kaoru Wada doing the music. Overall, it's pretty cut & dry, simply showing an older Daisaku (in the iconic trench coat) escaping Big Fire goons, followed by GR-1 taking on GR-2, GR-3, & Dakora. Really, there's not much else to say about it, other than it's animated very well, looks pretty much exactly like Yokoyama's original style, and animates a fair bit closer to Imagawa's OVA than what the TV series wound up being. Obviously, once Chiaki Konaka got involved, everything about it changed. It is worth a watch, though, if only to see what Yokoyama's original manga would have looked like if adapted to anime 100% accurately.

Without a doubt, when it comes to watching GR -Giant Robo-, one has to throw away every single idea of what they know Giant Robo as, if all they know is Yasuhiro Imagawa's version, which itself wasn't really all that much like Giant Robo in the first place. In fact, upon using the ANN Encyclopedia to compare the two, there is almost nothing shared between them, outside of three animators (& using the same studios for in-betweens & backgrounds), anime veteran Takashi Watanabe (who did "Mecha Rresearch" for the OVA, & storyboarded two episodes of GR), and both having Isshin Chiba & Iemasa Kayumi in roles, neither of which would be considered "major"; adding in the Gin Rei OVAs only adds in Michiko Yokote, who wrote for both. On the one hand, this does result in GR -Giant Robo- being its own take on Mitsuteru Yokoyama's creation, allowing it to live (& die) solely based on its own actions. On the other hand, the Giant Robo name has become so synonymous with Imagawa's take that it has essentially overtaken even Yokoyama's original version, resulting in this newer anime becoming more Sisyphean than anything, where anything good it does will have next to no attention given, because of the sheer weight of what came before. It's a similar situation to Mars, another of Yokoyama's mech manga, as it was quickly overtaken by the anime God Mars, which only used the basic concept, & in turn barely anyone cared about the 90s OVA adaptation or 2003's Shin Seiki Den Mars, both of which were closer to Yokoyama's original manga.

In fact, upon double-checking, this remains the last "serious" attempt at adapting Mitsuteru Yokoyama's work to anime, with the only thing since GR being 2013-2016's Tetsujin 28 Gao!, which was a comical version meant for little children. There have been various manga re-imaginings, though. Also, much like Imagawa's OVA, GR ends with an indication that more story could be told, since the true enemy of the GRs was never actually shown in full, but we'll likely never see that come to pass. Well, at least these two Giant Robo anime do have something notable in common, in the end.
Yay, GR-1 does the pose! GAO!!

Does that mean that GR -Giant Robo- is a bad mech anime, one that killed any future interest in adapting Yokoyama to anime? No, not by any means, and I do feel that it was given the cold shoulder by anime fans rather unjustly; even if they didn't mean to, they judged it for not being like Imagawa's creation, which is unfair. Is GR -Giant Robo- better than Giant Robo: The Day the Earth Stood Still? No, but it's not even trying to be that. Instead, Masahiko Murata & Chiaki J. Konaka decided to create their own version of Yokoyama's original concept, and I think they succeeded rather well, in that regard; in fact, in some ways they aimed for even loftier heights than Imagawa did. You really have to go into this show with an open mind, & try to forget about Imagawa's vision, but there is something really cool to find here. Unfortunately, though, I doubt we'll ever see any sort of official English release for GR -Giant Robo-, if only because of "that other anime".


  1. Thanks a lot for this article! I actually watched this series dubbed in portuguese, no less (It was apparently broadcast in Brazil) and, since I'm Spanish, I found it pretty easy to at least understand all the basic plot points. I truly like this series a lot and it's in fact one of my fav mecha ever. It shares the director with Gilgamesh, which I love to bits, and so it does have a similar dark, moody vibe. Wish it was more popular though, who knows, maybe we'll eventually get a fansub or something!

    1. Maybe it'll get a fansub, but I do know that there's just a general sense of apathy regarding GR. I get why that is, but I was honestly surprised by how good this series was.

  2. I think I would have liked the show more had they stuck to the pilot's aesthetic rather than the Evangelion esque final product.

    That said I've started to grow to like GR Giant Robo for how bizarre it is in the grander Giant Robo franchise (which isn't terribly big to say the least) and for trying to be different from the other GR series'.

    I also like the nods the show gives to my favorite version of Giant Robo, that being the tokusatsu version from Toei. GR4 is directly modeled after the villain robot Calamity (or Cleopat as it is known in the English dub), the UNISOM organization's name being a riff on the UNICORN organization from the toku and the big bad (spoilers for those who haven't seen the show) name is a riff on the English name for Daisaku Kusama in the toku (Johnny Sokko).

    1. Agreed on more or less anything. The thing with Johnny Sokko in GR is that he essentially comes from out of nowhere. I think there was, maybe, one or two silhouetted shots of him in the entire show before his big reveal, which kind of made the reveal itself feel a bit hollow.