Friday, December 6, 2013

The Origin of the Super Robot Genre

During the century leading up to World War II Japan had, over a remarkably short period of time, gone from a feudal society to an industrial one. The shock of a foreign civilization with superior technology arriving on their shores had spurred a rapid rise into an industrial power.
The boys growing up in Japan during World War II were fed a steady diet of propaganda about the might of their country's war machines. For kids fascinated by strength and technology, it was an easy sell. The destruction of cities at the end of the war only reinforced the message of the awe-inspiring power of technology for destruction.
One of the directions this took was a story about nuclear side-effects bringing to life a prehistoric monster that proceeds to devastate the cities of Japan. Godzilla's name comes from the Japanese word for whale (kujira) as a giant sea monster, and the word for gorilla (gorira), bringing to mind King Kong as another giant monster that devastated cities. His skin was deliberately modeled after the keloid scars of Hiroshima survivors. This film spawned an entire genre of Japanese movies about giant monsters.
Those giants will come into the story a little later. The stories about technology took a decidedly more personal turn.
Osamu Tezuka published the comic book Metropolis in 1949. He was 21 years old. A lot of the tropes we associate with Japanese manga and anime are already present in this work: the large eyes (he was influenced by the style of the Mickey Mouse comics popular at the time), the influences of technology for good and ill, shifting gender roles, the young protagonist, a person with the potential to explode with power, and most importantly, robots. A young child discovers that he is not a boy at all, but an artificial creation, with the power to destroy or remake the world.
Soon after he wrote Astro Boy, about another robot who was treated as human until he finds himself cast out. In this story, like Metropolis, there are many robots of all different shapes and sizes. Some, including ones Astro Boy faces in combat, are gigantic.
A lot of American films including robots from this time treated them as something to be feared, but in the Japanese stories a robot was usually associated with the hero. I think part of the reason might be the Japanese attitude about spirits. Shinto teaches that all kinds of things-- waterfalls, mountains, trees-- have spirits or kami of their own. So the whole idea of a robot being a person, someone with emotions and a point of view and personal worth, was not as hard for them to accept as it has been for traditionally Christian societies, which see a wide gulf between the spirits of humans and all other things.
In 1956, Mitsuteru Yokoyama wrote Tetsujin 28-Go (which translates as Ironman #28). The name may have been influenced by the names of American warplanes, like the B-29. This story is of a boy who has a remote control for the giant robot of the title. A few years later he wrote Giant Robo (a television version was broadcast in the US in the 1970s as Johnny Sokko and his Giant Robot), another story about a boy who has a giant robot that responds to his every command.
In 1972, Go Nagai wrote a comic called Mazinger Z (the animated version was broadcast in the US as Tranzor Z in the 1980s). For the first time in this story, the robot is not self aware or remote controlled, but piloted from within the head. This was the beginning of the super robot (スーパーロボット) genre of Japanese cartoons. Mazinger Z battled mainly against people transformed into giant monstrosities-- similar to the sort of monsters that showed up in Godzilla movies. The popular toy version was made of heavy die-cast metal, and could fire off its fists as launched weapons.
During the 70s and 80s, many super robot comics, cartoons, and toys were developed. A lot of these we would call mechs or mecha, which is actually a generic term for anything mechanical in Japan. The AT-ATs and AT-STs from Empire Strikes Back (a film very heavily influenced by Japanese imagery) are examples of these, as are Gundam and Mechwarrior.
One of the more interesting developments was transforming robots. The Microman toyline (so-called because the toys were much smaller than the 12-inch Gi-Joe size action figures the company had been selling previously-- in the US these were called Micronauts) featured what may be the first transforming robot in 1974. Some later toys from this series were rebranded in the US as Bumblebee, Megatron, and Soundwave, some of the first generation of Transformers toys. These were not actually meant to be giant robots, originally-- the Microman toys were said to be from from another, smaller world, and disguised themselves as toys on earth, either life-sized toy guns and cassette player, or miniature toy cars.

2 comments:

Rebecca Holt Stay said...

Interesting to see how many of those movements we were on the edge of or wished we could find the toys in America.

D said...

(As Daniel likes to say) I know, right? For example, we had Micronauts, but I never realized it was the same line that developed into Transformers.