Any kid that grew up in the 1980s is familiar with giant Japanese robots like Voltron and Transformers. But those are just a small taste of the dozens of mechanical men that make up the "Super Robot" genre that has been popular in Japanese manga (comic books) and anime (cartoons) for more than 50 years. Although a complete history would be a monumental undertaking, here are a few of the influential giant robots you should know.
1. Tetsujin 28-go
Tetsujin 28-go follows the adventures of a 10-year-old boy, Shotaro Kaneda, and his remote-controlled, rocket-powered giant robot, Tetsujin 28 (Iron Man #28). The robot was built by Shotaro's father as a secret weapon during World War II, but the war ended and Dr. Kaneda died before #28 ever saw action. Now, Shotaro uses #28 to solve crimes and defend the world from other giant robots, like his nemesis, Black Ox. That is unless someone else gets their hands on the remote control, for whoever has the remote can command Tetsujin 28 to do their bidding.
Not only did writer/illustrator Mitsuteru Yokoyama's Tetsujin 28-go create the concept of a Super Robot, but it helped establish many of the common tropes of the genre, like the "orphaned boy wonder" that controls the titular giant robot. It first debuted as a manga in 1956, before it was adapted for television in 1963 as an anime, which helped it find international acclaim. As is common with foreign translations, many of the Japanese names were changed for a regional audience. For example, in America, Shotaro Kaneda became Little Jimmy Sparks, and his giant robot became known as Gigantor, a name that still resonates with kids from the era.
The opening sequence of Gigantor
Tetsujin 28 remains an iconic character in Japanese popular culture. The long-running manga and anime are still best-sellers and have been followed by numerous sequels and remakes over the years. And in 2009, the big robot himself was immortalized as a life-sized, 60-foot-tall, 50-ton statue in Yokoyama's hometown of Kobe:
The official unveiling of the Tetsujin 28 statue in Kobe
If you'd like to check out the adventures of Gigantor, you can watch the whole series for free on Hulu.
2. Giant Robo
Thanks to 1954's Gojira (Godzilla), Japanese audiences became obsessed with tokusatsu, a style of film making in which special effects take center stage and that often incorporates actors who dress in rubber suits to portray monsters, aliens, and superheroes. The style has also been used for television shows, including the first live-action Super Robot on TV, Giant Robo.
Tetsujin 28-go creator Mitsuteru Yokoyama developed Giant Robo for TV and as a manga, both debuting in 1967. Robo's master, a 12-year-old boy named Daisaku Kusama, is part of a secret police force known as Unicorn. Unicorn, made up of both kids and adults, battles the giant robots and monsters of the evil alien Emperor Guillotine and his human henchmen, known collectively as "Big Fire." Like #28, Giant Robo can fly and possesses incredible strength, but he also has an arsenal of weapons at his command, including laser beam eyes, fingertip missiles, a super strong "Megaton Punch," and other surprises. To control Robo, Daisaku speaks into his wristwatch, announcing the name of the special attack he wants Robo to execute, a practice that has since become common in the Super Robot genre.
Giant Robo was adapted for American audiences under the name Johnny Sokko and His Flying Robot. Other than a few name changes, like Daisaku becoming Johnny Sokko and Big Fire becoming The Gargoyle Gang, the show was a pretty faithful translation. This is a bit surprising, because Giant Robo was pretty violent by American TV standards, with characters dying left and right, and even the child agents of Unicorn taking the occasional bullet. You can find out for yourself over at Hulu, where the show is streaming.
Giant Robo remains popular in Japan and has been featured in numerous manga and anime sequels, most notably the critically acclaimed anime, Giant Robo: The Day the Earth Stood Still.
3. Mazinger Z
When the evil Dr. Hell unleashes his robotic Mechanical Beasts on Japan, Professor Juzo Kabuto develops his own giant robot, Mazinger Z, made from a mysterious alloy called Chogokin, to take them on. However, the professor is killed by one of Hell's henchmen, so it's up to the professor's grandson, Kouji, to command the robot and save Tokyo.
The opening sequence of the Mazinger Z anime
Mazinger Z, created by Go Nagai, debuted in 1972 as both an anime and a manga. The series was influential on many levels, most notably because it introduced the concept of a human pilot inside the giant robot, unlike the external remote controls of Tetsujin 28-go and Giant Robo. Kouji used a small hover craft that locked into Mazinger Z's head, which not only controlled the robot's motions, but also his arsenal of special weapons, like laser beam eyes, heat rays from his chest plate, and the now genre staple, "Rocket Punch," which launched the robot's fist towards the enemy. The show also featured the first female Super Robot, Aphrodite A, a very un-P.C. heroine whose only special attack was to fire missiles from her breasts. In addition, toy company Popy borrowed the word Chogokin to name their line of die-cast metal Super Robot action figures that were incredibly popular in Japan through the 1970s and early '80s.
The anime made its way to syndication in America as 1985's Tranzor Z. However, it didn't get much traction, because network censors demanded the show be heavily edited for violent content, rendering some episodes virtually unwatchable. Overseas, Mazinger Z was followed closely by two sequels, Great Mazinger (1974) and UFO Robot Grendizer (1975), which starred different robots but tied the shows together with common characters to create the Mazinger Trilogy (the three robots are together in the image above left). It went on hiatus until the 1984 anime, God Mazinger, but has pretty much been in some type of manga or anime ever since.
The opening sequence of Tranzor Z for American audiences
4. Getter Robo
Although Professor Saotome initially created three specially designed jets for space exploration, those plans changed when the Dinosaur Empire, evolved from the few dinosaurs that survived extinction, attacked with robotic Mechasauruses. Now, the professor must convince three teenage pilots to combine forces and become the Getter Robo team to save mankind.
The opening sequence of the Getter Robo anime
The Getter Robo manga and anime series, created by Ken Ishikawa and Go Nagai in 1974, only ran for one year, but it introduced "combining robots" to the genre, without which we wouldn't have Voltron or the Constructicons from Transformers. The three jets joined together to form three different robots, each with its own special weapons, and each best suited for fighting in a particular environment — Getter-1 was good for aerial combat, Getter-2 was better on the ground, and Getter-3 was made for underwater melees.
The original show was never adapted for American audiences, but its immediate sequel, Getter Robo G (as well as the Mazinger Z sequel, UFO Robot Grendizer) was adapted as part of a series called Force Five, a syndicated collection of anime shows that was popular in the U.S. during the late '70s and early '80s. In Japan, the series has seen numerous sequels, most recently with 2004's New Getter Robo.
5. Brave Raideen
The opening sequence of Raideen the Brave, with English subtitles of the song lyrics
Released in 1975, the anime Raideen the Brave (commonly called Brave Raideen) told the story of Akira, a young boy who discovers he is a descendant of the lost continent of Mu. When the Demon Empire attacks Earth, Akira is the only one that can pilot the ancient Mu robot, Raideen, in order to defeat Barao, the leader of the Demons.
Akira "fading in," or entering, Raideen for the first time
After beating up his enemy with missiles, a shield and sword hidden in his forearm, a boomerang, a bow with giant arrows, and other awesome weapons, Raideen's special finishing move was to turn into the God Bird, a jet plane with even more special attacks. Not only was this transformation a new concept in anime and manga, but it also revolutionized robot toys. With just a few twists and turns, the Chogokin Raideen action figure could change into the God Bird just like on the show. Since then, many other Super Robots have had alternate forms, including everyone's favorite Robots in Disguise, the Transformers.
Brave Raideen was, and continues to be, a very popular anime in Japan, spawning two remakes — 1996's Raideen the Superior and Raideen in 2006. It's also credited with becoming the first anime to reach a mainstream audience in America, as it was broadcast in syndication across many markets, and even had merchandising tie-ins like T-shirts and toys.
6. Shogun Warriors
Thanks to the stateside popularity of Brave Raideen, Marvel Comics and the Toei Company, the producer of many Super Robot anime, entered into a deal that enabled both companies to develop the other's creative properties into new shows and comic books. Toei used this opportunity to bring a few Marvel-inspired TV shows to Japan, including Spider-Man. Marvel created the Shogun Warriors, a comic book series that starred a handful of Toei's Super Robots. Released in 1979 and only running for 20 issues (the cover of the first issue is at left), the comic is mostly forgotten today. However, the same can't be said for the tie-in toys from Mattel.
The Shogun Warriors toyline featured 13 Super Robot action figures like Brave Raideen (the name was Americanized as "Raydeen"), Great Mazinger, Grandizer, the three robots from Getter Robo G, and others that were popular in Japan, including the giant robot, Leopardon, used by the Japanese version of Spider-Man. (The Japanese Spider-Man show was obviously quite a bit different than the American comic, but that's another mental_floss story for another day.) Kids loved all the accessories, the ability to transform some of the robots into other configurations, and the spring-loaded Rocket Punch action, which became a signature of the line.
A commercial for Shogun Warriors toys
But the toys didn't last long after parents reported that kids were swallowing tiny missiles or getting hit in the eye with those spring-loaded fists. These injuries contributed to stronger regulations in the toy industry and, as a result, sales quickly declined. The Shogun Warriors toys were gone by 1980, but their awesomeness paved the way for Transformers, Voltron, and, arguably, the entire Japanese toy, anime, and manga craze that has since become a national phenomenon in the United States.
Since their peak in the 1970s, Super Robots have been on the decline. Oddly enough, this is often attributed to the creators of Brave Raideen, Yoshiyuki Tomino and Yoshikazu Yasuhiko, with their anime Mobile Suit Gundam released in 1979. Gundam created a new genre called "Real Robots" that has since spawned popular titles like Patlabor, Macross, and Robotech. As opposed to Super Robots, which are essentially indestructible metal superheroes, Real Robot stories take into account things like fuel consumption, limited ammunition, and machine maintenance; perhaps more importantly, the good guys don't always win. While both robot genres have their place in modern pop culture, the uncontested reign of the Super Robot is, sadly, a thing of the past.