1976 was a chaotic mess.
Separate earthquakes killed over 20,000, 200,000, and 4,000 in Honduras and Guatemala, China, and Turkey. 5,000 people died when a tidal wave hit the Philippines. The world saw the first outbreak of the Ebola virus in Zaire and over 150 people passed away. The notorious serial killer "Son of Sam" terrified New York City with his .44 caliber Bulldog revolver. China’s Chairman Mao Zedong, Communist savior or perhaps brutal dictator, breathed his last.
In the same year, the first supersonic passenger airplane took its maiden flight, the first publicly available supercomputer was released by Cray, and Apple Computer was founded. Viking 2 landed on Mars and took high quality close up pictures for the first time. The meme was introduced in The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins.
American aerospace company Lockheed spent $22 million dollars bribing foreign governments. Lockheed paid off the Prime Minister of Japan, the head of All Nippon Airways, and yakuza scumbag and behind the scenes political mover Yoshio Kodama to get Japan to buy their F-104 instead of the DC-10 from rival McDonnell Douglas. And then a Soviet fighter pilot even landed his Mig-25 on Hokkaido and asked for asylum!
Even the sports page wasn't full of good news. Muhammad Ali fought Japanese wrestler Antonio Inoki in one of the first mixed martial arts battles. It was also a grueling slog that neither athlete won. Both were badly injured, and Ali never again quite floated like a butterfly.
So what do you in in your art when even the sports world looks super grim? When the real world is in flames, what do you make cartoons about? Sports, robots, and sports-robots!
And sometimes orphans.
Great Space Dragon Gaiking
Living within this chubby dinosaur are three smaller robot dinosaurs: a pterodactyl (Skylar), a triceratops (Bazoler), and some kind of brontosaurus-with-wings (Nessar, as in “Nessie The Loch Ness Monster”), piloted by the Getter Robo-esque trio of a Hong Kong kickboxer, a sumo-wrestling pickpocket vagrant, and Fat Guy. We round out cast with the Crusty Scientist, The-Girl-With-A-Tragic-Past, and the Little Boy Sidekick. An innovative addition is science officer Gen Sakon, who doesn't really fit into the standard super-robot roles; he is super-smart, kind and always comes up with plans to beat the bad guys or finding weaknesses in enemy robots when Sanshiro's raw violence and telekinetic powers aren't enough. He's basically Mr. Spock without the superiority complex.
Of course, Gaiking's creators know what's funny, so they increased the fat guy count to two. They even have a villain, Dark Horror Army leader Darius, whose unnatural upside down head (with a mustache that may also be eyebrows) fits well with the tortured anatomies of Dr. Hell's underlings, the twisted half-tiger, half-man Archduke Gorgon from Great Mazinger, and the Grendizer villain Gandal, whose face splits open to reveal the nagging pint-sized wife that lives in his face. The original Getter Robo show from 1974 had one pilot who was a soccer player, one who was a judo expert, and one who was a murderous lunatic. Hey, murdering people can be athletic, right? Anyway, Gaiking has a baseball player, a kickboxer, and a sumo wrestler. Of course, replacement fat guy Benkei from Getter Robo G was also a baseball player. Mazinger Z and Great Mazinger did not have athletes at all (unless you consider motorcycle riding athletic), but sports heroes as robot pilots was an ongoing theme in 1976.
While Grendizer, Getter Robo G, and Steel Jeeg were still running that year, Gaiking was the epitome of the Toei super robot show. After they lost the support of Dynamic, Toei went on to produce several mediocre shows (Barattack, Space Guardian Daikengo, Future Robo Daltanius). The only post-Gaiking Toei robot show of note is Danguard Ace, also directed by Tomoharu Katsumata, but with Leiji Matsumoto's love for spaceship and disdain for robots, the show has an uncomfortable tension that doesn't really work. It's true that after 1976 Toei found success with space operas (Galaxy Express 999, Captain Harlock, SF Saiyuki Starzinger), but the golden age was over. If Mobile Suit Gundam was the bullet that killed super robots, the break-up of Dynamic and Toei was the gun.
UFO Warrior Dai-Apolon
Speaking of giant robots piloted by athletes, let's move on to Studio Eiken's UFO Warrior Dai-Apolon. Getter Robo and Gaiking featured athletes as robot pilots; Dai-Apolon does the same with protagonist Takeshi, leader of a group of football-playing orphans. Of course, like Duke Fleed from Grendizer, Takeshi is actually a prince in exile from an alien planet. The only twist is that Takeshi doesn't even know he's an extraterrestrial with royal blood. You may have noticed that Grendizer features robots and UFOs, and Dai-Apolon does the same.
There are really only a couple of things to distinguish Dai-Apolon from Grendizer. First, instead of piloting the robot, through some ill-defined process Takeshi's body, his muscles and bone, stretch to mammoth proportions and fill up the inside of the robot. I guess you could argue that this is a power armor situation and not a true robot. Secondly, the machine itself, whether you consider it armor or robot, is designed to look like a football player, helmet and all. Yes, it is a very silly show, but the characters in the show take themselves super seriously, much more so than characters in Go Nagai shows.
Perhaps part of the problem is that the staff does not have a lot of experience with robot shows. Writers Noboru Shiroyama (Candy Candy, God Mars) and Seiji Matsuoka (Lupin III, Space Carrier Blue Noah) went on to do other robot shows, but at this point they did not have the robot chops of the Gaiking writing crew. It is kind of funny that Shiroyama wrote about orphans in both Dai-Apolon and Candy Candy. I'm noticing a theme.
Speaking of (and just to step away from robots for the moment), Candy Candy, another Toei production, jerks back and forth between a grim coming of age story and a slapstick comedy full of flower petals floating on the wind. Tomboy orphan Candy is found by a nun and her partner in crime abandoned in the snow near an orphanage, not far from another unwanted baby from a different family. We follow Candy's life as she grows up in the early 1900s in the chilly Great Lakes region, learns to lasso boys (I mean that literally), and eventually goes off to World War I as a nurse. We see her make friends, lose friends, and fall in love, only to lose every last lover to death and other women. Candy gets kicked in the gut by life over and over and comes up smiling every time.
If this is the soul of shôjo, maybe I don't want to be shôjo.
The other robot shows
You remember how I said Toei super robot shows without Dynamic kind of suck? Meet Magnerobo Gakeen. It's kind of the exact same concept as Jeeg, except they don't have to share the profits with Dynamic. While the hero of Jeeg was a race car driver, Gakeen's protagonist Takeru is a karate badass, obviously patterned after Sonny Chiba in the way he karate-chops a bull like Chiba does in 1975's Karate Bullfighter. The female lead, Mai, has none of the loud-mouthed spunk of Sayaka from Mazinger, nor the cool competence of Jun from Great Mazinger. Takeru and Mai both fly really inelegant, blocky robots into the air, then leap out of the cockpits and while they rocket alarmingly towards the earth, they sort of cross wrists, spin around and somehow become the magnetic core of a separate, totally uninspired robot. The only thing I have good to say about Gakeen is that one of the monsters they fight is a parrot mixed with a dinosaur.
Blocker Army 4 Machine Blaster is a “me too” show from Ashi Productions and Nippon Animation about four super robots that hold hands and spin really fast until their enemies die. I'm not kidding. Toei would later steal this gimmick for Transformers: The Headmasters, because you should always try a really bad idea at least twice.
How to watch these (and other) shows:
Gaiking: First 26 episodes dubbed into English as part of Force Five in the early 1980s by Jim Terry Productions, Force Five compilation movie dubbed in English by Jim Terry Productions, three compilation movies dubbed into English by Winckler-Oya/Toei in 2009. The 2009 version is available from Shout! Factory now on Amazon streaming or on DVD shortly. Some of the toys were released in the west as part of Mattel's Shogun Warriors line.
Dai-Apolon: Dubbed into English by 3B Productions as Shadow World in 1986. Available on VHS.
Magnerobo Gakeen: Dubbed into English as Magnos the Robot a.k.a. Renegade Force by Century Video/International Media Group in 1983. Available on VHS or DVD.
Combattler V: Fans have translated the entire series, but watch Voltes V instead. Voltes V was even dubbed into English in the Philippines, and you can watch that or English fan-created subtitles. Some of the toys were released in the west as part of Mattel's Shogun Warriors line as Combattra, plus the robot itself appeared in Marvel's Shogun Warriors comic (even if the story and characters had nothing to do with the original series).
Dokaben: A baseball comedy. Not available in English, but it's also nearly impossible to find unless you plan on importing the ¥126,000 DVD box set, so good luck. There's also a live action film that might be easier to fake your way through.
Piccolino no Bôken (The Adventures of Pinocchio): Not available in English, but if you are familiar with the story, you might be to get by... if you can find it. There's two DVD box sets, ¥27,930 and ¥23,940 respectively.
Huckleberry no Bôken (The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn): Another one where you could probably fake your way through with knowledge of the book or you could watch it in Italian!
I guess what I am saying is watch Gaiking, because it was the best new anime of 1976 and I don't care if Studio Ghibli fans think otherwise. It has a giant robot dinosaur spaceship whose golden skull becomes the chest of a combining robot piloted by a disgruntled pitcher who uses his telekinetic power to make his Hydro Blazer fireball attack into a curveball. <Drops mic>
Next Time: We're back on track in the Awesome 80's! It's 1982!