Sunday, May 17, 2020

Shin Super Robot Sunday: Mazinger Z

Throughout the course of this survey, giant robots have appeared in two forms: an enemy to be defeated by the hero, and a powerful external sidekick to the hero. 

Mazinger Z would add an entirely new dynamic to the Mecha genre. 

Go Nagai, the pen name of Kiyoshi Nagai, began working as a manga artist in the 1960s. In 1968, he was invited to be a contributor to the very first issue of Weekly Shōnen Jump (intended as a competitor to the already successful Weekly Shōnen Magazine and Weekly Shōnen Sunday magazines aimed at teenage boys). His contribution was Harenchi Gakuen (Shameless School) a high school sex comedy series that inadvertently created the ecchi genre of manga. Controversial at the time, it proved to be a big success for Nagai, because if there's anything teenage boys like, its sex jokes and boobs. Despite outraged PTO groups, the series would eventually spawn multiple live action and animated adaptations, and the success of the comic allowed Nagai to start up Dynamic Productions in 1969 to manage his business relations and contracts, and it evolved into a kind of studio, with Ken Ishikawa joining the same year as an assistant and becoming a major manga artist in his own right (more on him in a later entry).


In June of 1972, Nagai's Devilman manga began, and in July an anime based on it began airing. A horror-action series that would become one of his flagship franchises, the anime was significantly toned down for television. The same year, on October second, Mazinger Z debuted in Weekly Shōnen Jump and a subsequent anime series from Toei Animation would begin airing on December third. 


A fan of Astro Boy and Tetsujin 28-go, Nagai added a significant twist to Mecha. The hero, a teenage boy instead of an adolescent or young adult, would pilot the robot from inside as a kind of alter ego. Giant heroes fighting monsters were not new. Giant robots with pilots were not new. Teenage heroes were not new. Combining all three of those element together was new. The pilot was now the superhero, and the giant robot was his costume. The Super Robot had arrived.


The hero in question is one Kouji Kabuto, a motorcyle riding average teenager with a kid brother Shiro, living with his grandfather Juzo Kabuto. Juzo is a scientist, and has been secretly building a giant robot, Mazinger Z, to combat the coming threat of Dr. Hell, a former colleague who went mad after discovering the ancient ruins of the Mycenae Empire and their mechanical beasts. 

Dr. Hell makes a power play to assassinate Dr. Kabuto, and succeeds, but not before Juzo gives Kouji control of the 18 meter (59 ft) tall robot, telling him he can have the power of a god or a devil with the robot. Without any training, Kouji's first attempts to pilot the robot are disastrous, until he teams up with Professor Gennosuke Yumi, the leader of the Photon Power Laboratory and former colleague of Juzo, and Yumi's tempestous daughter, Sayaka.


Sayaka has her own robot, first the Aphrodite A and later the Diana A, and Kouji is later joined by high school rival/biker/braggart/comic relief Boss, who gets his own robot later, the comical Boss Borot. 

Kouji fights his way through Dr. Hell's army of mechanical beasts and the mad scientist's lieutenants like Baron Ashura (a man and a woman merged together through bizarre superscience into a literal half-man half-woman), Count Brocken (a Nazi officer with a monocle whose body carries around his disembodied head), and the anime exclusive Viscount Pygman (a muscular tribal warrior with the upper torso of a pygmy where the head would normally be). 

Dr. Hell's into some weird stuff.


The manga and anime would bake a number of story tropes directly into the genre. Kouji is a hot-blooded hero with more courage than sense, which gets him into, and subsequently, out of danger. Sayaka is equally hot-blooded and she and Kouji bicker constantly, mixing arguments where they slap each other with moments of genuine care for each other. Kouji calls out most of his attacks, with his most signature move, the rocket punch (itself drawn from Giant Robo) becoming a signature element in mecha stories moving forward. Mazinger Z gets an upgrade partway through the series (the Jet Scrander, which allows him to fly). Sayaka gets an entire new robot after the Aphrodite A is trashed too many times. Not to mention things like a super metal alloy that allows the robot to survive punishing combat, and the oppai missiles, which are literal boob missiles. 

Mazinger Z was a smash success. The manga would run in both Weekly Shōnen Jump and Boken Oh (another shōnen magazine) until 1947.The anime itself would air for a staggering 92 episodes, concluding in September of 1974. Mazinger Z toys brought a new level of merchandising synergy to an animated franchise, The anime industry, which was in a general decline at the time, would rev up in response to the success of Mazinger, and the Super Robot boom of the 70s would follow.


Mazinger Z would see significant overseas success, as well. The show was exceptionally popular in Spanish speaking regions, from Spain to Mexico. So popular, that in the 1980s, a 40ft tall statue was built in Tarragona, Spain at the entrance of a planned suburban development. The suburb never materialized, but the statue still stands. 


In the US, a cut down version would be aired in Hawaii with an English dub for about 30 episodes. Notably, it had an English version of the theme song sung by the original singer, Isao Sasaki.


The anime would see a second release in 1985 as the heavily edited Tranzor Z, by Three B. Productions Ltd. Only 65 of the 92 episodes were aired, and everyone's names were Americanized, which was typical for the era. Hence, Kouji Kabuto became Tommy Davis, and so on. 

Releases of the actual show have been hard to come by over the years, with an infamously bad Hong Kong subtitle lovingly referred to as the "Crabstick Sub" as one of the few ways to watch the show in the past. In 2013, Discotek Media announced a Western DVD release for the series (along with other Go Nagai-created series like Devilman and Cutie Honey).


As the functional equivalent of Superman for the Super Robot genre, Mazinger Z has become a staple of the Super Robot Wars series of crossover strategy games from Banpresto. Super Robot Wars deserves its own entry because of how complicated it can get, but in brief, its a long-running series of tactical strategy games (in the vein of Fire Emblem and Final Fantasy Tactics) that features multiple Mecha series and their plotlines colliding in a crossover storyline. Mazinger, in one form or another, has appeared in every installment of Super Robot Wars, not counting the Original Generations series (again, its complicated).


Its not an exaggeration to say that Mazinger Z was a sea change for Mecha as a genre. Its success led to an immediate shift in giant robot storytelling and most subsequent Mecha series were an imiation or reaction to the kind of stories Mazinger Z was telling. This includes the birth of the Real Robot genre at the end of the 1970s. 

Go Nagai hit a goldmine with a combination of pure heroism, cool robots, freaky monsters, and beautiful women.


Next time on Shin Super Robot Sunday: Mitsuteru Yokoyama returns. Again.



JD Cowan said...

Mitsuteru Yokoyama really deserves more attention. Babel II alone did so much to influence what came that it is a shame the he is barely mentioned these days.

K. Paul Kalvaitis said...

Funny you should mention Babel II...