Crisis on N Earths (N=5): Giant Robo: The Animation Episodes 1 and 2

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A commissioned essay for Bennett Jackson. Thanks for backing my Patreon!

We have not much discussed anime in this series thus far, but it is a fairly significant influence on American animation in general and the DCAU in particular. This will become especially true when a certain electric rodent kicks off the U.S. anime boom in a few years, but right from the start the influence of anime has been present in Batman: The Animated Series, as a consequence of the fact that the bulk of the animation is done by anime studios.

It is not always easy or even possible, however, to determine the direction of that influence. At times it seems quite apparent that the DCAU is being influenced by anime, especially when we get to Batman Beyond, and at other times it’s clear that particular anime are influenced by the DCAU and particularly Batman: The Animated Series, such as the Cowboy Bebop episode “Pierrot le Fou” or pretty much all of Big O. At still other times, however, similarities of tone, theme, and even visuals belie the impossibility of influence occurring in either direction.

For an example, we need look no further than Giant Robo: The Animation: The Day the Earth Stood Still, a seven-part anime series released direct to video one episode at a time over much of the 1990s. Before that, however, it is important to note that OVAs (Original Video Animations, the term in Japan for DTV anime) had quite a different cachet in the 1980s and 1990s than DTV releases have generally enjoyed in the U.S. Broadly, where in the U.S. DTV movies, and especially animated movies, are usually productions which lack the budget or quality to make it as feature films (the example most of us have encountered are Disney’s DTV sequels to their animated films, which are almost all terrible), while anime OVAs are works too expensive, niche, or ambitious to be profitable on television. Generally speaking, OVAs of the time had higher animation quality than televised anime, longer and more varied running times per episode, and fewer content restrictions; perhaps a better modern comparison would be a Netflix Original Series.

Giant Robo: The Animation is a particularly odd case, however. Like many anime, it is an adaptation of a manga series, but somewhat unusually, the manga being adapted, Mitsuteru Yokoyama’s Giant Robo, was more than 20 years old at the time the first episodes of Giant Robo: The Animation were released. To further complicate matters, the terms by which the manga were licensed severely restricted the animators; in particular, they were not allowed to use any of the supporting cast from the original manga or its live-action adaptation, forcing them to develop an original story. However, they were given permission by Yokoyama to use characters from his other works, resulting in most of the cast being imported directly from his adaptations of two classics of Chinese literature, The Water Margin and Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and a handful from his other works.

The result is a truly bizarre spectacle, even for anime. A near-future setting firmly in the late-80s conception of what the future would look like–think half Blade Runner, half Star Trek: The Next Generation–contains battles between giant robot designs straight out of children’s cartoons of the 1960s. Thrown into that mix are ninjas, medieval Chinese warriors with superpowers, and a generic villainous organization full of disposable mooks with the absurd name of Big Fire, and against this is set a surprisingly dark tale of environmental disaster, coverup, and revenge.

It is, in short, intensely anachronistic, relatively dark for its genre at the time (both in tone and frequently in terms of color palette), and populated with a mix of characters who belong in pulp science fiction, fantasy, and crime stories–and all rooted in reviving a comic book property that’s best known prior adaptation was a goofy live-action children’s show from the 1960s.

Sounding familiar?

But neither Giant Robo: The Animation nor Batman: The Animated Series could have influenced each other. The studio that animated Giant Robo, Mu, is not one of the ones that worked on BTAS (surprisingly, given how many did). And too much of what they have in common was determined in pre-production for there to be a reasonable chance for Giant Robo to have influenced BTAS in the mere five weeks between the first episode of the former and the first episode of the latter.

This isn’t the only case of Giant Robo‘s obvious influences turning out to be chronologically impossible. The first two episodes establish an initial plot that is obviously about nuclear power: the Shizuma Drive, a seemingly inexhaustible, clean, safe energy source, turns out to have an exploitable flaw being targeted by Big Fire, who essentially destroy Paris, unleashing an effect very much like the pop-cultural (and rather exaggerated) understanding of what the electromagnetic pulse effect produced by a high-altitude nuclear detonation would do: power shuts down, the lights go out, cars crash, trains derail, airplanes plummet from the sky. All of this is connected to a past disaster involving the first Shizuma Drive power plant, which essentially melted down, destroying an entire country.

All of this is clearly referencing the series of nuclear plant disasters and related coverups that ignited a furious debate over the use of nuclear power in Japan: the Monju sodium leak in 1995 and reveal that the operating company had concealed evidence they knew about the problem in advance; the fire and explosion at the Tokaimura reprocessing plant, information about which was initially repressed by the same company; and two incidents in 1999, the last of which killed two people.

Except for two problems: first, look at those dates again. They all occurred after the first two episodes had been released, and thus could not possibly have influenced them–just as BTAS couldn’t have. And the story itself is much more ambiguous in its attitude toward nuclear power than initially seems to be the case, given the big reveal at the end of the second episode: Giant Robo itself is powered by a nuclear reactor, the only one remaining in the world after the universal adoption of Shizuma Drives, which makes it immune to the effects Big Fire is exploiting and hence the best weapon against them.

This is particularly interesting because, unlike the Shizuma Drive-powered robots and vehicles that populate the series, Giant Robo is clearly in some sense alive. Anthropomorphizing the robots is common in mecha anime, of course, but Giant Robo appears to be fully independently sentient, more like the loyal pet (or, perhaps more appropriately, the Pokemon) of 12-year-old main character Daisaku Kusama than a tool. In particular, the resolution of the first episode’s cliffhanger involves Giant Robo bursting out of its hangar and flying off to rescue Daisaku from the attacking villain’s robot.

This in turn provides an interesting counterpoint to Daisaku and Robo’s first appearance, when he rides the robot in to rescue Ginrei–an Interpol agent whose slinky dresses and skill with a pistol suggest a character more at home in a 1960s spy thriller than a mecha show of the same period–and a fellow Interpol agent with costume, weapons, and powers out of the fantasy theme park version of medieval China. (Roughly eighty billion Interpol agents with costumes, weapons, and powers out of the fantasy theme park version of medieval China appear over the course of the story, mostly to get killed off within an episode or two of being introduced, and then about half of those come back later–the overall effect is astoundingly like trying to follow a big summer crossover event from Marvel or DC when you only regularly read one or two of the comics involved.)

But regardless of the characters involved, Daisaku’s entry in that first episode, riding on his gigantic toy, is the pure power fantasy of a child on the cusp of adolescence, wielding enormous power against evil, rescuing the beautiful young woman, and not entirely incidentally showing up the adult man accompanying her. By contrast, Robo’s arrival in the second episode is pure protector fantasy, the independent hero come to save the day and stop evil people from hurting us. Robo thus represents both the heroic power fantasy of the child–which, recall, is the kind of power fantasy that superheroes represent in the rare instance that they represent any kind of power fantasy–and the protector fantasy that is the usual fantasy represented by superheroes.

But this shouldn’t surprise us, given all the tonal and thematic similarities between Giant Robo: The Animation and Batman: The Animated Series. As with those other similarities, this is not evidence that one influenced the other, as that is basically impossible, but it may point to a shared influence between the two. And, as it turns out, there’s a case to be made that mecha–especially the quasi-sentient, independently acting mecha of the more old-fashioned mecha series, which Giant Robo rather self-consciously is–and superheroes share a common origin.

But we’ll cover that–along with more of Giant Robo–in a later essay…


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