Is it me, or would Giant Robo fit right in with the Yu-Gi-Oh universe?
Unlike some of my fellow anime bloggers, I don’t rely on muscle memory regarding stuff I watched five years ago and thus barely remember now when it comes to deciding my favorite anime. The decision to never put anything on the list I have no interest in rewatching already limits me from following Draggle’s example and putting Monster on anyways, and whenever I get some free time, a few years pass, and some niggling doubts arise as a result of that, I go through my shelf looking for the thing I have doubts on and put it in the PS3. Or if I can’t own it, I turn to Netflix or downloadable files or whatever and watch it through that. Thankfully, I didn’t have to do the latter for Giant Robo because I purchased the DVDs back in the day when the thing was like 30 bucks. It does come with the downside of owning that Ginrei Special that I’ve personally never watched but heard it was bad, but despite my problems with the anime industry in general, I will support it if it releases things I like.
That said, the reason I started having doubts about Giant Robo is because of my recent bad luck with anime that entertain merely through novelty and style, with some anime I used to enjoy because of that failing to hold up after a revisit (Baccano for instance). It’s not that I can’t enjoy stuff that’s meant to be “entertaining” first and foremost, but a large part of said entertainment comes from creating laughs, and anime in general is about as successful with humor as celebrities are at keeping stable marriages. Now I’ve seen the anime like three times prior to my recent rewatch because I was trying hard to get into a style of storytelling that I wasn’t used to in order to praise it like the big boys, so I had the majority of the story committed to memory. And I know there’s a lot more to Giant Robo than blockbuster appeal and kung-fu fighting – the nuclear commentary, becoming a man, differing ideologies in regards to creating a perfect world, sacrifices you must make to achieve peace, etc. – but I’ve seen those themes done so many times now that I was afraid that Giant Robo would no longer stand out in regards to them. And you know what? I was right.
In case you’re not up on your 90s anime and don’t know what Giant Robo is about, I’ll fill you in. Sometime after the third energy revolution due to a new invention called the Shizuma Drive replacing petroleum energy for the nuclear kind, two rival organizations called the Experts of Justice and Big Fire are locked in a fierce battle because the latter wants to dominate the world whilst the former thinks that’d be a bit of a bad idea. Said organizations fight in a sort of downtrodden future due to mankind’s dependency on their new technology along with the circumstances that gave birth to it in the first place being pretty damn grim on account of it nearly destroying the world. But people have superpowers for no adequately explained reason, so it’s not that bad a future. Although I could do without the blue skin, thank you very much.
Despite not having superpowers and being only twelve years old, Daisaku Kusama is the Experts of Justice’s main player due to him being in control of giant robot that looks like an Egyptian pharaoh and surpasses all superpowers on Earth, Giant Robo. Because apparently, in this universe, mecha >>>> superheroes. You know, as a guy who grew up on superhero stuff and doesn’t care one bit for the robot genre, I am pretty offended. Although Giant Robo does need regular maintenance to stay in top shape, especially when it comes to refilling his artificial tear ducts after his hand gets blown off, so I guess it’s a fair trade-off. But getting back to the story, there’s not really much else to say about it. It’s two organizations fighting each other with both sides taking casualties and secrets regarding the Shizuma Drive along with the characters’ own histories being revealed in the process. Oh, and Daisaku grows into more of a man even if he can’t fight without his robot buddy. Pretty standard stuff on paper, and the same is sort of true in practice as well.
I suppose if you’re one of those people who get entertained solely by seeing all your favorite nerdy things together in one place along with some excellent direction and a decent operatic score, Giant Robo does a pretty good job of scratching that itch. Certainly a lot better than Pixels – which I’m not going to review because it was a given that it’d be doomed the moment Adam Sandler’s name was attached to it. Everything actually has a purpose besides looking cool – although given the director’s resume, that’s mostly why the superhumans fight like Jet Li to begin with – and it’s all done on an epic scale to boot. The only thing that’s not quite so epic is the characterization, which is pretty much my main fault with the OVA series. They conform mostly to standard 90s stereotypes that you can see in most of today’s JRPGs, and even Tales of Symphonia in its dated nature had more complexity to its cast than this.
Daisaku is pretty much your standard goody-two shoes trying to accomplish things he’s too young to actually handle, and goes through all the usual challenges someone on his position would get into such as failing, having people sacrifice themselves for him, and ultimately saving the day in his own way. In other words, he’s basically a Disney protagonist combined with Edward Furlong from Terminator 2. The other characters are mostly there to support his journey with only hints of a much larger story for each of them. This would have been fine bordering on awesome if Daisaku had been a stronger “heart” that glued the various set pieces together, but since he’s not, they’re just kind of there to move the plot along at best. The closest another character gets to being really integral to the story is Ginrei, and that only happens when she gets chained up and has her entire lower body shot off with a cannon.
As for the villains, they’re pretty much your average Saturday morning cartoon stereotypes right down to the main bad guy doing evil because he had a communication error with his daddy. And boy are the voice actors aware of this, because I watched the entire thing dubbed and they were hamming it up like they were in a 4Kids studio except under competent management. This makes them somewhat entertaining, but it also makes the clash of ideals that this thing wants to really sell kinda weak since it’s clear I’m not supposed to be rooting for a team who hires guys with an evil moustache. I did kinda like the moustache guy though, because something about antagonists joining the good guy side at a critical moment since he doesn’t want to be controlled by a buffoon and denying that he’s really helping in the process is cute to me. Aw, who’s a good little moustache with an eyepatch that would blow me apart in a nanosecond if I so much as said that stuff to your face? You are.
With the story not providing great characterization, the themes are not quite as epic as they should be. And it’s not like Giant Robo has really aged in any noticeable way unless you just really hate retro-90s designs – in which case you’ve given yourself away “Ushio and Tora should have gone under the same modernization as Parasyte” whiners – as what it has to say about humanity’s energy evolution and such is still relevant today, hence why I’m able to enjoy some of the more recent monster movies that have come out. Having said that, I think the kitchen sink approach to this show doesn’t work as well today as it did in the 90s. Whilst I generally like the idea of Imagawa combining so many genres I usually enjoy into one complete package, they have a tendency to interfere with each other, preventing Giant Robo from ever reaching the same peaks its genre predecessors have achieved.
If you don’t get what I mean, compare how wuxia is used here to another cartoon that tributes from that era like, say, the Airbender series. True, I’m one of the few people who doesn’t really care for it, but you can’t deny that Airbender achieves much more with its kung-fu elements and not just because it’s a much longer series. Whilst the change in overall quality if you put everything else that characterizes Giant Robo in the franchise is debatable, the martial arts aspect wouldn’t shine nearly as much in Airbender as it does now. Unless you made Robo join in the fun of course, but by then, we’re just going into straight fantasy territory occupied by the American-made Silent Hill sequels. And lord knows those actual sequels are bad enough.
So whilst I can still recommend Giant Robo as a generally fun time, it’s no longer the kind of fun that makes me go “yes, yes. All of this and more. I want to rewatch this every year! Give it to me!” More like the kind of fun that makes me go “well that was alright, but I think I’d rather watch Terminator 2 again”. If you are a mecha fan – let alone a fan of the classic style – than Giant Robo will probably be to you what The Lion King is to Disney fans. And even if you’re not, it’s still worth a watch for the epic scale of the production alone. Basically, what I’m saying is “give it a chance, but don’t expect to love it if you don’t have any particular fondness for generic 80s-90s nostalgia”.
PS: For the record, whilst the negative reaction towards Pixels is a little overblown, it’s just as sexist as the reviews say it is.