Giant Robo and the Human Robot

by eternal on March 20, 2010

Giant Robo is like a time machine, except you never know which direction it’ll take you in. Alternating between unusual predictions for the future and now humorously clichéd plot devices from the past, Imagawa Yasuhiro‘s classic shows its age without detracting from its initial quality. For an old-school super robot show, Giant Robo actually packs quite a punch with its story, providing something to hold the viewer’s attention beyond the awe of Robo and its sheer power.

Among the many things that a person could say about the show, one particular element stood out in my mind: the treatment of Robo within the story. It leads to some interesting food for thought about the early days of the mecha genre; the days long before Gundam and Macross.

Though I have yet to see the other shows myself, I always hear that mecha anime in the late 70s and early 80s – particularly within the super robot subgenre – were based around toy sales. As they say (via PatzPrime), some of the most well-known mecha and shounen anime of all time were aimed at kids, and if the mecha industry relied on toy sales to make a profit, it’s only natural that many of the shows would have to focus on simple but exciting storylines and identifiable mechanical designs.

According to ANN, the source material for Giant Robo predates even the days of Voltes V and Mazinger Z. I believe the live-action series was also adapted from a manga written in the same period. I’m not sure how closely the anime follows the source, but regardless, Giant Robo‘s heart is in a different world than the one we know today. The robots of Giant Robo are not tools of war or secret weapons. In fact, I’d hesitate to even call them machines. The BF Group’s mechs have almost no explanation behind them, aside from the fact that they look nice.

As for Robo himself? I’d sooner call him a superhero than a machine.

This train of thought struck me during this infamous scene, in which Robo appeared to be shedding tears. I had always found his mechanical design to be odd – seemingly real eyes, a facial expression, and something that looks vaguely like hair – but the more I thought about it, the more evidence I found. The most obvious sign is the fact that Robo cannot be piloted. He’s simply commanded through Daisaku’s watch, like a nobleman calling for his butler. Story-wise, too, Robo is treated more as a character than a machine. His wins and losses seem directly related to his relationship with his master, as if he were a teammate rather than a secret weapon like the Gundam. For all intents and purposes, you could say that Giant Robo is named after its protagonist.

Realistically, I don’t think that Robo is the protagonist of the story, but his portrayal as a superhero rather than a mech got me thinking about the mecha genre as a whole. Looking at it this way, Giant Robo feels like a prototype super robot show, to the point that it has more in common with the underlying themes of trust and courage in modern shounen than the dark “kill-’em-all Tomino” style of storytelling that I associate with mecha. Admittedly, I don’t have much of a timeline in my head to help with this theory, but Giant Robo is too much of a melodramatic, story-driven, action-packed show for me to compare it to either the real robot or super robot subgenres. In my mind, it exists somewhere in the distant history of super robot shows, when robots were just another version of superheroes to be idolized and adored; and when the grim portrayal of the robot as a war machine had yet to come about.

Having finally seen a bit of the iconic real robot franchises from the early 80s, Giant Robo made me realize that there is more to the history of mecha than meets the eye. It’s still too early for me to come to any conclusions aside from the ones stated above, but I welcome any information on this old-yet-new chapter in anime history.


{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

schneider March 20, 2010 at 11:26 pm

The story about the production of the Giant Robo OVA is that Imagawa wasn’t given permission to use characters from the Giant Robo manga, other than Daisaku and Robo themselves. What he did instead was to take various characters from Mitsuteru Yokoyama’s body of work and threw them into the show. That explains why people in tuxedos fight alongside people clothed in ancient Chinese garb, or that guy with the funny hat. Essentially, Giant Robo: The Animation is a homage to Yokoyama’s decade-spanning career.

I’m also a huge fan of the non-piloted mecha concept, and would like to see more of it.


Dorian Cornelius Jasper March 21, 2010 at 12:41 am

You’re quite right that Robo is less a machine and more a superhero. The difference between him and later “super robots” is that he’s his own character while the latter are effectively “costumes” and “powers” for their pilots.

Note how much of the Gundam franchise treats those Mobile Suits piloted by important characters. They’re often “powered costumes,” too. I would also note that heroic themes in robot shows predate darker themes by quite some time. Giant Robo was an homage and call-back in many ways.


digitalboy March 25, 2010 at 9:42 pm

All I can think about is the end of The Iron Giant wherein the giant, at terms with it’s humanity, and about to save the world, says to the little boy ‘I’m Superman’ and flies off to make the ultimate sacrifice.


ETERNAL March 31, 2010 at 9:46 pm

@ Schneider: That explains a lot, actually. Thanks.

@ Dorian Cornelius Jasper: It took me most of the series to realize it, but yes, I see what you mean. I’ll definitely have to take a look at the older super robot shows at some point. At the very least, I’ve stopped mentally classifying them under the same time period as Gundam.

@ digitalboy: Well there you go: textual evidence that could have helped this post quite a bit :P


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