A Child’s Toy No More
“I did not mind so much that people might have wanted to update the robots in Giant Robo. However, Mr. Imagawa and especially Kobayashi [Makoto] insisted on maintaining as much of my old style as possible. I was worried that, that would simply make it seem old fashioned, but in hindsight that was precisely made it so appealing” – Yokoyama Mitsuteru (1)
As I suggested in part one, the original idea for Imagawa Yashuhiro‘s take on Giant Robo was almost shot down at the gate by the fact that many of the rights were held by the companies (Japanese and American) who managed the Live Action version of the property and were not available at any price. However, Mr. Imagawa was not so easily put off, for he had, as I suggested, noted an unusual loophole in the convoluted trademark and copyright assignments: that the ‘character’ of Giant Robo (as well as a few of the associated elements, such as the other two GR series mechs, Kusama Daisaku, and the antagonist organization, Big Fire) still rested in the disposition of Master Yokoyama, and could be acquired for use far more easily (I have not been able to grasp why, so if anyone does know, would you be willing to pop the answer in the comments, please?). This on its own, however, would seem to be a Pyrrhic victory, in that without the other supporting characters and monsters/mechs (such as Emperor Guillotine, Satan Rose, Red Cobra or Mr. Gold) — whatever Imagawa did make — it certainly would not be ‘Giant Robo’.
Together! Allegiance, or Death! Yokoyama!
So… Imagawa was left with a title, a few mechs, a couple of characters, a very general concept, and a heartfelt desire to ‘do right’ by the grand old Man of Mecha. Taking something of a flash of insanity and running with it, he approached Master Yokoyama and suggested that the elements of the show be blended with those properties over which the artist still had either direct, or easily negotiable control to create a true, portmanteau anime. Though, as I suggested before, the notion seemed insane on the surface – as it proposed the blending of Ancient Chinese heroic literature with ninja series, tales of espionage, super heroes, psychic powers and, of course Giant Robots – but the earnest nature of Imagawa’s appeal touched the old master’s heart and tickled his fancy.
However, there was something else which seemed to have attracted his attention: the work of Kobayashi Makoto.
The illustration above is not the art which Imagawa showed Yokoyama, of course as this ‘eyecatch‘ was created following the success of episode one, and the funding of the rest of the series. However, one can see directly something remarkable in Kobayashi’s style, which is both precise in execution – as though from an infinitely settled technique – yet muted in a way that almost screams of the visual nostalgia which Imagawa wanted to express in his ‘updating’ of Giant Robo.
Born in 1960, Kobayashi has been a quiet industry powerhouse since the early 1980s, and even today is pushing the boundaries of design with a number of innovative CG projects.
He initially gained fame from a series of illustrations, as well as kitbashed and full scratch built models which served as the basis for some of the mecha in both Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam and Double Zeta: specifically with his design for one of Zeta’s terminal mechs, The O, which was very well received by fans, perhaps because of the way it and its pilot, Paptimus Scirocco, met their grisly ends.
This led to a number of high profile design jobs for Kobayashi. From classic movies such as Venus Wars, to recent series like Luck and Logic, Kobayashi seems to be able to turn his hand to almost any sort of style and directorial concept which has made him both a popular person with whom to work, and a fan favourite in that he does not seem to have a signature style to which he is dedicated.
Indeed, it was this very pragmatic idealism – as well as the incredible artistic talent this takes – which made him the ideal man for the Giant Robo ‘resurrection,’ even though at the beginning he was, like many folks on the project, uncertain about doing what Imagawa proposed.
I do not feel that this was because he wanted his own designs showcased or that he wanted Imagawa to create something ‘new’. Rather, I feel that his concern was that it would be seen as an insult to Master Yokoyama, by taking his designs and almost creating parodies of them. It seems to have taken quite some convincing by Imagawa and by the amused Master Yokoyama to get Kobayashi, and the rest of the design team to get into the headspace of the director and begin to see what Imagawa actually wanted. However, as you can see from Master Yokoyama’s musings above, Kobayashi’s realization was right on the money, despite his misgivings.
Everything New is Old Again
As you can see from the image on the left, the aesthetic for which Imagawa was shooting was an update of the classic Yokoyama characters, but a rejection of the prevailing styles of the late 80s/early 90s. Indeed, he voiced the opinion that just as folks had not dared to meddle about too much with the designs of Master Tezuka after he passed away, and as Miyazaki Hayao still seemed to be doing well with a more classical character design in all his works, it would be a shame to wash away the ‘hand of the Master’ when recreating Giant Robo.
It certainly took some time for the team to get the point, as much anime of the period was microscopically focused on bringing classic ’70s and ’80s series into line with the accepted visual styles of the time (and we all know how badly some of those series have aged). However, in the end, the correct aesthetic was achieved: clean, bright, and looking like they might have leaped directly from the 1960s in some ways.
This visual style certainly appealed to older fans, who were strong supporters of episode one on release, and helped get the general market into the swing of things.
NOTE: However, let us not lie to ourselves. This was no blockbuster. Part one slowly but steadily trickled out into the market, but not fast enough to justify greenlighting part two for such a long time (and on such a small budget) that, thanks to the part one having sold out as well as a desire to eat up enough screen time to justify an OAV release, 10 mins of time was devoted to the beginning to recap the events of part one.
A bit cheeky, but it worked well, especially as part two gave us our first look at Robo in action properly (the fight at the beginning of part one showcased the Big Fire mech better than it did Giant Robo after all).
And THAT is really what sold the series in the end, at least at the point of sale: the designs of Kobayashi Makoto.
The New Robo is lumpen and bumpen and seemingly all out of proportion, both to his Manga forebear and the very human tokusatsu version we have in the live action version, but he certainly looks the part, and for me, he’s still the number one Super Robot.
The Little Big Man…
Though this barely stands more than 12cm tall, you can see an impressive amount of detail work in the moldings and castings.
NOTE: Minor gripe. See the two holes in the middle of the back. There give access to the screws which secure front to rear. Could it have been so hard (or costly?) to have them plugged in some fashion? I know they will normally be covered by the backpack, but this little oversight rankles… 😀
He’s a graceful bugger, too. Even though he is very top heavy with the backpack on, the ratcheting of his joints is firm enough that he has a wide range of joint movement and can hold some pretty outlandish poses.
The heavy missiles in place in the shoulders. A simple pop and fit affair.
I still bemoan the lack of shoulder, chest, and waist missiles, but c’est la guerre.
The cannon… For such a small toy, this packs in some impressive detail.
Minor gripe: In the last episode this gun converts into a heavy missile, with which Robo and Daisaku effectively cripple the Eye of Folger.
Yes, I know… Compromises and price, but it would have been nice.
The Revoltech GR sets were nice enough, but this one knocks it into a cocked hat. The proportions are bang on, the color is matched to the very shade of Animex paint which was used for the in-show mech, and I could not imagine it being better, even if Master Kobayashi himself has been consulted on the design…
This is one of those moments when it comes down to an aesthetic binary: you like Giant Robo, or you don’t. I can find no physical flaws with the toy out of the box (though we shall see who well the joints wear with time), and if you are a fan of the series, this is the toy for which you are looking.
Perhaps not the one for which you are waiting (please… Bandai… Soul of Chogokin, soonish?) but the best way to show Bandai that there is sufficient interest in a larger Robo is to support this.
And so, from Big Robo, and little Robo, ’til next time!
(1) A Note on translation. This comes from an old interview from 2001. I’m no professional interpreter, nor translator, so keep that in mind.