The toughest reviews to write are the ones about something so near and dear to you that trying to unpack it feels like unscrewing your own heart. Giant Robo is at least one third of the reason I ended up creating this site; it along with Macross Plus and AKIRA, were my gateway drugs into anime over two decades ago. But with a beautifully restored release of Giant Robo now out for English-speaking audiences, I owed it to myself to see if time had been less kind to it than my own affection (see: Ninja Scroll). What a relief — and a thrill, and a delight — to see Giant Robo hold up so well. You've heard of Space Opera; here's Steampunk (Dieselpunk?) Opera, rendered in mind-boggling hand-drawn animation that remains a milestone decades later. And it shares a quality with the best operas: it has something to say about human nature, in both a grandiloquent and compelling way.
For great justice, or for absolute power
Like Blade Runner, Giant Robo is set in a future that is not "our" future, but a possible one from another lifetime. An invention called the "Shizuma Drive", named for its creator, has brought the world endless and clean energy. Daily life looks like a 1930s Thrilling Wonder Stories cover illustration. Then comes "Big Fire", the secret society of super-powered terrorists seeking to subjugate the world with an army of giant robots, controlled by people with superhuman abilities. Up against them are the "Experts Of Justice", also superhumanly powered. Among their number is a twelve-year-old boy, Daisaku Kusama, he with sole control over one of Big Fire's repurposed battle machines, the titular Giant Robo.
The Experts' latest mission: Find and protect Dr. Shizuma, now on the run from Big Fire's minions. Literally on the run, as the first time we see him he's fleeing across the top of a moving train snaking through the megalopolis of this mutant future's Shanghai. Sent to protect him are Tetsugyū ("Iron Ox"), a meat-headed lummox wielding dual war axes on chains, and Ginrei ("Silver Bell"), a gun-slinging lady superspy who makes James Bond look like a wimp because he never did all that stuff in a party dress and high heels. And, finally, Daisaku and Giant Robo as well, who deliver a building-toppling finale to an extended action sequence — one that in a lesser series would be the climax but here is just the cold-open hook.
It's not at first clear what has happened to Shizuma. He's become a paranoid, gibbering wreck, protecting with his life a case containing what looks like a Shizuma Drive, but when the the robe-wearing, fan-wielding Professor Gō takes one glance at it, he knows something is massively amiss. The pipe-smoking Chief Chūjo also suspects any answers will be troubling, especially when they find Dr. Shizuma's former colleagues dead in Paris. All except for one: Dr. Franken von Vogler, the pariah of the team, the one whose madness allegedly unleashed untold destruction and turned their Apollo moonshot into Chernobyl. The world moved past the "tragedy of Bashtarle", as it was known, and built anew with Shizuma's work, but somehow von Vogler survived, and now wants revenge.
Worse, he has help. One of Big Fire's most ambitious new members, Genya — a dashing young man with no apparent powers of his own, but immense technical genius — has provided von Vogler with the help he needs. The drive in Shizuma's possession was one of three that negates and destroys the workings of all other Shizuma Drives in its presence. Genya has the other two, and has outfitted a Death Star-like craft with them. With two, he can circle the globe and bring cities to their knees one by one; with three, the world would come to a standstill for keeps.
Fathers, sons, daughters, legacies
Three stories emerge from this, a big one and two little ones. The big one is the clash between Big Fire and the Experts, waged with the most gloriously over-the-top action seen in animation anywhere. The first smaller one — in the sense of "more intimate" — is between Ginrei and Genya. We learn fairly early on that they are von Vogler's children — that they were firsthand witnesses to the Bashtarle disaster, that they only survived because of power they share (and which might kill them if they use it again), and that they both want their father's memory to no longer be anathema. Genya has no qualms about leveling the world to make this happen; Ginrei is convinced this is not what her father wanted, but how can she dispute this when her father is seemingly saying otherwise?
Then there's the third small/intimate story, Daisaku's. His father engineered Giant Robo under duress, the better to aid their efforts for world conquest, but turned against them and gave Daisaku exclusive command of his creation. Amongst the Experts of Justice, he found a surrogate family, even if Tetsugyū harbors resentment for how a kid not even into his teens gets trusted with such power. It takes Tetsugyū's comrade-in-arms, the electricity-harnessing Taisou, to provide perspective: This is a burden, one Daisaku didn't ask for, and one that falls to all the rest of us to help him live with. More than that, though, is the way Daisaku realizes his legacy and that of his enemy Genya are spiritually identical: what son doesn't want to live up to his father's name? And under it all there's the fundamental fear that without Giant Robo, Daisaku is nothing at all, just a kid helpless to stand by and watch as the world grinds itself to pieces and as all those who cared for him, like Taisou and his staff-wielding wife Yōshi (an absolute scene-stealer), go to their deaths.
All three of these stories interlock and supplant each other, and spin off substories of their own. My personal favorite is that of Professor Gō, von Vogler's former disciple, and also a witness to Bashtarle's last moments. He and Ginrei were the only two to make it out of the lab alive, and only the two of them know the truth of what happened, one that the rest of the world was only to happy to bury so it could solve the rest of its problems with Dr. Shizuma's inventions. Like Daisaku and Ginrei, he carries paradoxical burdens that have no easy answer. His brilliance may help stop Genya's superweapons (or at least slow their destruction), but it's only his heart and spirit that can help those closest to him.
The power of pastiche
On first seeing Giant Robo all those years ago, knowing nothing about where it came from, I noted it felt less like one thing and more like a dozen things all melted together. Turns out I was right. Mitsuteru Yokoyama, creator of the original Giant Robo (which some of us in the West know by way of its live-action version Johnny Sokko), had a panpoly of works to his name, and the Giant Robo animation project ended up becoming homage to a great many of them. Legal issues apparently prevented director Yasuhiro Imagawa from using any Robo characters other than Daisaku and Giant Robo, and so his team set about creating a new world hybridized from many of Yokoyama's other works. This kind of pastichery is fascinating to me; I loved how Naoki Urasawa drew freely from many corners of Osamu Tezuka's shared mythology to create his Astro-Boy homage Pluto. With Giant Robo, though, the other works used are unavailable in English (Tezuka at least has some), so many of the nuances of drawing on this character or that work don't come through for us the way it would for Japanese audiences. Maybe someday Yokoyama's work will be translated, and thus retroactively render Giant Robo a very different experience for us, but for now all we have is the surface.
Still, what a surface it is. Absurd style is an anime hallmark, but it rarely gets more absurd than in Giant Robo. When the armies that provide field support for Big Fire and the Experts of Justice step out onto the field late in the story, they do so on horseback and with drawn swords, as per the way Yokoyama's adaptations of classic Chinese literature have been spun into the mix. And yet it doesn't feel wrong; it's right in character with the setting's mix of retro-future tech and retro-cultural style. It just feels like another incarnation of how this alternate time-and-place works. In our world, we use absurdly powerful pocket computers to send each other silly pictures of cats; why would it be absurd for another world to send Taoist magicians and ninja to fight samurai and wuxia heroes? It's absurd for about ten seconds, and then the total conviction of the creators washes over you and wipes away all doubt.
One of the tags I have on this site is "Analog Animation", for works animated by way of hand-painted cels without digital assistance. Giant Robo would be no less entertaining and enthralling if it had been produced with modern animation technology, but the hand-drawn production combines even more beautifully with its alterna-future look, enhanced further by Yokoyama's retro character designs. It already had a timelessness to it when it came out; it's doubly timeless now. And what we see is maybe half of what was originally planned, but it's the half we have, and the one to be cherished.
I owe Giant Robo several debts. First was how it provided a grand introduction to anime at a time when it was just beginning to wash ashore here. But beyond that is how it allowed me to feel less inhibited about making stories with the complete courage of their outlandish creative convictions. This is more than just "if they can do it, why not me?"; it's "this is what rewards await you for being fearless". I think Daisaku would agree.