The year 1977 is something of a contradictory time in anime. Although the industry at this point was at the beginning of an animation boom and had been firmly established for over a decade, it can be difficult to pinpoint the exact level of experimentation vs. continuation of formulaic trends, simply because in many cases the individual works of 1977 featured both.
The '70s were the golden age of giant robot anime, and with six super robot-themed anime debuting (as well as five holdovers from the previous year) 1977 was no exception to that trend. Somewhat unfortunately for the robot anime of that year, the legendary arrival of Mobile Suit Gundam in 1979 tends to overshadow them as a whole, but while nothing in 1977 broke the mold as Gundam would, there were a few series which pushed that mold to its very limits. These shows managed to convey new and interesting ideas while working well within established convention, an impressive feat in its own right.
The Limits of the Super Robot
To first understand the strength of the more daring robot anime of 1977, it’s important to get an idea of the heights of mediocrity the genre reached as well. Combining Squadron Mechander Robo is a near-inexplicable mishmash of thin story and toy functionality with the worst weakness for a giant robot ever [Footnote 1]. Superhuman Squadron Barattack is a goofy show whose most enduring legacy is an attractive female character. As for Super Uniting Magic Robo Ginguiser, well, take a look for yourself.
Initially, Super Electromagnetic Machine Voltes V (pronounced “Five”) appears to be more of the same, and even aesthetically it looks like a re-tread of the previous year’s Super Electromagnetic Robo Combattler V (actually pronounced “V”), but its sense of drama and its weighty subject matter prove otherwise. The second in director Tadao Nagahama’s “Romance Robot Trilogy” after Combattler V, Voltes V’s narrative begins with your typical alien invasion and ends tackling themes such as racism, slavery, and revolution. The series is all the more impressive because of the way it frames these ideas in the personal stories of its characters, most notably through the charismatic enemy commander Heinel and his desire to prove himself in light of his father’s betrayal to their empire. The blond Heinel, himself the successor to Reideen the Brave’s Prince Sharkin and Combattler V’s Garuda, would along with 1978’s Brave Leader Daimos set the stage for the iconic Gundam antagonist Char Aznable. Interestingly, the series would eventually be translated and broadcasted in the Philippines, where its reputation as a masterpiece is arguably even stronger than in Japan.
Short-term Trends and Enduring Franchises
Although robots were the biggest part of anime in 1977, there were a number of other notable currents and curiosities as well. Banking on the popularity of the 1977 Japanese Grand Prix, the second biggest theme of the year was the high-speed exotic car, as 1977 saw four anime about race cars, super-powered or otherwise, in Ultra Supercar Gattiger, Fierce Race! Rubenkaiser, Fly! Machine Hiryû, and Arrow Emblem: Hawk of the Grand Prix, up from just the one in 1976 (Machine Hayabusa). Even Mechander Robo saw its heroes get motor vehicles part-way through, as if to capitalize on the trend. While there are clear precedents and successors such as Mach GoGoGo (Speed Racer) and Initial D, this particular brand of car fever in anime would turn out to be mainly limited to 1977.
In a couple of cases 1977 actually introduced sequels which would go on to define their franchises as a whole. At this time, the second TV series of Lupin the Third, Monkey Punch’s famous expert thief, debuted to great success. Running for a whopping 155 episodes, the title successfully combines a light-hearted and comedic tone with more violent and action-packed elements, making it a solid middle point between the extremes of other Lupin adaptations. Established as the definitive Lupin anime, its reputation as the most well-known animated version is only really challenged by Hayao Miyazaki’s Castle of Cagliostro.
Similarly, Yatterman, the second anime in the Time Bokan series, has largely outstripped its predecessor (simply titled Time Bokan) in popularity and presence in the public consciousness. Featuring a heroic couple who uses modified toys (and a giant robot dog) to fight the “Dorombo Gang,” a Boris-and-Natasha/Team-Rocket-esque trio, the show’s absurd sense of humor and memorable characters garnered Yatterman a popularity which continues even to this day, as is apparent from its highly successful 2008 remake, its 2009 live-action film, and the inclusion of multiple characters in the Tatsunoko vs. Capcom fighting game series.
With all of the metal flying about, the anime of 1977 can give off a rather masculine impression, but there were also a few shôjo series. The volleyball-themed Attack on Tomorrow tried to draw on the popularity of the 1977 Volleyball World Cup in Japan, while Charlotte of the Young Grass went for a Candy Candy-style dramatic angle. Probably the most impressive shôjo of the year, however, would be the Victorian-themed anime Her Majesty’s Petite Angie.
The last anime to discuss is by far the most unusual anime of 1977, aesthetically or otherwise, to the extent that people might even technically disqualify it as anime. Great Dinosaur War Izenborg was a collaboration between animation industry veteran studio Toei (which worked on shows such as Voltes V) and Tsuburaya, the studio behind the Ultraman series. The resulting product portrays humans through the use of cel animation, while fight sequences utilize a combination of model cities, miniatures, and live people in spandex and rubber suits. Although at first Izenborg simply switches between the two as necessary, it eventually achieves a small degree of Roger Rabbit-style integration.
1977 was a time of experimentation and evolution within well-defined boundaries, where the most significant changes involved subtle degrees of innovation. The level of ideas, sophistication, and experimentation of the time feel like they were just on the cusp of something greater. While we benefit from hindsight, when taken as a whole the anime of 1977 creates the impression that big changes were right on the horizon.
[Footnote 1:] Whenever the heroes docked into Mechander Robo, an enemy missile capable of destroying it in one shot would automatically launch from space and home in on the robot. The heroes had to defeat the enemy robot(s) within 3 minutes and then eject from the robot, which would for some reason foil the missile’s tracking system and cause it to malfunction.
[Footnote 2:] In my experience, whenever you mention Zambot 3 to a Japanese person with a passing familiarity towards it, the first thing they say is, “Oh, the one with the human bombs.”
Next Time: Whoops! We missed one (on purpose), but we're heading back! Sherman, set the machine for 1972!