For most audiences in America, anime arrived in the ‘80s. In celebrated titles like Akira and Grave of the Fireflies, the new highly stylized animation taught unaware Westerners the value of the ethereal Eastern approach. It was an aesthetic carried over to popular cartoon series like G-Force and Robotech catching on quickly with the underage demo. But for those of us old enough to remember local kids shows and syndicated cartoon packages, our first exposure to the artform was probably the spunky Speed Racer. Arriving in the late ‘60s, the Mach 5’s main man and his supportive family unit offered an ideal so surreal that many of us early fans weren’t sure if we were watching moving images, or some mock transmission from a faraway planet.
A few years before, however, an NBC executive named Fred Ladd had seen the future of pen and ink entertainment, and decided to retrofit it for waking Western audiences. He took a pair of Japanese imports, redressed them with English dubs and significantly less violent scripts, and unleashed them on a clueless grade school clientele. Astro Boy was one of his famous revamps. The other was the space age robot Gigantor. Both have since become legends in the world of hand drawn amusement. With the former hitting the big screen in Fall in an epic CG experiment, E1 Entertainment is releasing the second of its two volume DVD set featuring the mighty machine that was quicker than quick and stronger than strong.
For anyone interested in seeing the original Japanese version of Gigantor - known as Tetsujin 28-go or Iron Man #28 upon initial release - this set is not for you. Instead, this is a work of heady nostalgia, an occasionally exasperating, always enlightening look at how violent, sovereign-ccentric storylines built to bring the island nation out of the post-World War II malaise were reimagined as a big-eyed boy’s adventure tale. Tetsujin 28-go‘s main narrative saw the development of a metal giant to help Japan maintain its Pacific superiority during the international conflict. When all aggressions cease, the robot is redeployed to help stop criminal and other enemies. Based on manga creator Mitsuteru Yokoyama life as a child refugee, the entire project was supposed to suggest the immeasurable destructive power of mindless military policies.
In America, everything was shifted to the future. Little Jimmy Sparks, the 12 year old in charge of the remote unit that operates Gigantor, lives in the year 2000. His father invented the mighty machine, but Jim has since been orphaned (?) and lives with his Uncle Dr. Bob Brilliant on a remote island. Another resident is inept police inspector Ignatz J. Blooper. Ladd only mined 52 of the Japanese episodes for his own purposes, chopping them up and censoring content to create the beloved series we know today. First and foremost on the cutting room floor was the excessive violence inherent in the Asian version. With its post-War setting and frequent espionage themes, there were lots of underhanded activities and deadly consequences. Also gone was a lot of the seriousness, replaced with a sense of silliness and slapstick deemed more “appropriate” for American kids.
As a result, the 26 episodes offered here present a curious balancing act. On the one hand, there is a real sci-fi specialness to what the original Tetsujin was offering. The notion of a humungous protector giving the Japanese a sense of peace remains part of the production. But as with any Westernized work, it gets buried in a burlesque that sees many of the villains as comic and several of the storylines as borderline surreal. The first three discs contain seven episodes each. The last offers five, as well as a few fascinating bonus features. With so many titles to discuss, it’s impossible to address each individual installment separately. What’s interesting overall is how prevalent the Cold War themes are. Even in simple or straightforward storylines, the Communist threat is omnipresent.
Of particular note are segments like “10,000 Gigantors” (multiple copycat robots are built to overrun a far off planet), “The Robot Olympics” (Gigantor battles Taurus of Bulba for gold medal superiority), “The Space Cats” (complete with aliens from the planet Magnapus) and “The Insect Monsters!” (featuring such Jay Ward-esque pun names like Dr. Buzz Bugaboo and Brany Mantis). They match well with other standouts such as “Mangaman from Outer Space” and “Battle of the Giant Robots” (part of a long running reliance on other oversized machines to clash with out heroes), as well as “The Evil Robot Brain” and “Danger’s Dinosaurs”. Ladd definitely saw something more juvenile in the Japanese original, and it’s the sense of wonder and excitement he brings to the material that really sells it to a less than prepared fanbase.
After all, even to this day, Gigantor looks like nothing in late ‘50s/early ‘60s animation. With their early comic strip influences (Little Nemo was a clear reference point) and the comic book like reliance on panel type reactions shots (lots of electrical sparks, lightning bolts, and energy lines here), these fuzzy, foggy black and white beauties represent the growing pains of anime. The added content present on the DVD also emphasizes the novelty and initial reaction to the show. It also showcases Yokoyama’s contribution, including his use of his own memories as part of the creative process. In conjunction with the original volume, which brought the first 26 shows to viewers, these box sets cement the status of Gigantor as an innovative and true original.
And yet one wonders how the fanboys will react to this obvious blast from the past. Anime has grown by leaps and bounds since the days of Tetsujin 28-go and its forerunners, and by today’s standards, this obviously tinkered with title looks positively primitive. It can’t hold a future shock illustration to something like Appleseed. And yet that’s also part of Gigantor‘s charms. Like the roots of rock and roll, or the foundations of film itself, the beginnings of the Japanese cartoon format are fascinating in their stylized shortcut mentality. Unlike Disney who sweated every detail, the Asian aesthetic was one of punch and power. Getting to the meat of a situation was far more important than languishing over a beautifully painted backdrop. Gigantor gets massive kudos for clearing the way to this new and important genre. That it also stands on its own, beyond said novelty, is a very nice surprise indeed.