Nine Giants of Steel

By David Ramirez

Posted on December 9, 2014 in Hodderscape Advent with tags David Ramirez, Robots

I was a geek from pretty early on. I read a lot of books, watched a lot of cartoons, and when I hung out with friends, we played the old Star Wars rpg (back when one did not have to specify that it was the pen and paper rpg) instead of playing basketball or football.

As a kid, there really was little that was as cool as giant robots. Not even dinosaurs. They also got me thinking about aliens and space travel. They were probably my gateway into SF before I got older and started reading things like Asimov’s Robot and Foundation stories.

robotGiant robots are just inherently awesome. They are, by definition, larger than life, and the conflicts in which they appear instantly seem that much bigger than any other conflict in sheer scale.

Even now that I’m older, despite knowing that there are many major problems in the engineering of bipedal machines of this size, some of which may very well be insurmountable, my first reaction when I see a story with one of these titans of mecha is: “SO COOL. I WANT ONE.”

If it appears that there was a lot of old anime in my childhood, well—the Philippines got onto anime a lot earlier than the USA. I did not really get what the distinction with anime was until I was older because so much of what was shown on Philippines TV was anime, the translated originals from Japan, mostly uncut. The American cartoons shown that were not just translations or reworks of Japanese anime were outnumbered quite a bit before there was such a thing as Cartoon Network and before Nickelodeon.

So, this is a list of the top 9 shows from my childhood featuring superscale humanoid machines.

This is also a light reflection on the limits to creativity imposed by higher powers to meet cultural standards. We did not get any cartoons from the UK at all, I think, which is why the only perspectives here are about US and Japanese animation.

Any inaccuracies in the following list stem from problems of recollection vs the limits of time in doing research. In other words, I did not google that much about them. If you can find them, whether for your own nostalgia or to introduce some cool stuff to your children–coolness!

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  1. Macross/Robotech

This series was my third space opera, after Star Wars and Star Trek. A giant derelict spacecraft lands on Earth, changing the world. Humans learn its technologies and refurbish it just in time to face the arrival of the aliens who were searching for it.

I watched a local translation of Macross before Harmony Gold’s Robotech rework. To me, it’s pretty amazing that a show aimed at the young so long ago features culture shock and anthropological concepts and psychology.

A major part of the plot in Super Dimension Fortress Macross, or Robotech First Generation, was in how the aliens did not know how to respond in the face of music and human entertainment and clothes and living. One girl’s charm and ability to sing becomes a major contributing factor to a branch of the aliens defecting, despite the overwhelming military superiority of the aliens.

It seemed lame, when I was a kid, that the power of song and pretty girls had such an effect on the alien warriors. I believe many may have found Minmei, an ordinary girl who becomes a pop idol, irritating in the context of space war. But it’s actually a decently strong statement on the emptiness of war. The Zentradi see human culture and are overwhelmed by it, because they have nothing else—they are a species of total war. So there is a striking contrast in the aliens in that they are vicious and relentless warriors, but also child-like and innocent in terms of sex and maturity. They can barely understand why males would hang out with females, and freak out the first time they see a man and a woman kiss.

Fittingly, this show had the most deaths I had ever seen in a cartoon as a kid. Mass casualties during combat, the orbital bombardment of Earth…. And because the Zentradi are humanoid giants, there were some fights in which the human machines took them on up close and we saw the aliens, who look so much like us, die and bleed, on-screen.

This was simply not possible for a US-made cartoon at the time. This was particularly comical for shows like GI Joe: A Real American Hero, in which ordinary humans shoot each other with guns and cannons and missiles and somehow we never seemed to see anyone die. Even in the present, very few American TV cartoons deal with death.

As for the design of Macross’s machines, the giant robots are awesome. There are these visceral, gorgeous mechanical sound effects when they stride across the earth in humanoid form that I remember with perfect clarity today, that made them seem so solid. Also, those Valkyrie/veritech variable fighter jets—wow! The transformation sequences look believably engineered, especially compared to, say, the Generation 1 Transformers. The toys are great; they look like the show’s machines in both vehicle and humanoid form, which the next entry on this list is not as good at.

Though the first generation Robotech was very close to the original Macross series, there was a great divergence after. The US adaptation added second and third generations of Robotech based on Super Dimension Cavalry Southern Cross and Genesis Climber MOSPEADA, which have nothing to do with Macross.

Meanwhile the Macross universe, back in Japan, kept on going smoothly in its own timeline.

I find it incredible that Harmony Gold USA managed to smash together these different shows and produce a somewhat coherent story. That is an amazing feat of writing. Nonetheless, because of licensing issues, this is also preventing the US release of the later Macross material from Japan, some of which is really amazing.

Macross Frontier is a fantastic piece of science fiction. I mean it’s one of the best SF stories out there, regardless of format, including movies, comics and books. I usually have many minor SF writerly complaints about most anime scifi; I have almost zero complaints about Frontier. It also has, perhaps, the most dignified revisit to the core concepts introduced in Ender’s Game.

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2. Astro Boy

Though its main machine was a child-sized robot, Astro Boy (Tetsuwan Atom) fought a lot of giant robots. A lot of them!

Some of them were hundreds of times as large as Astro, and perhaps that had a lot to do with the appeal of Astro Boy—he was a powerful machine that could fly, was almost indestructible, and regularly fought with titans, but he was also a boy, with a guardian who cared for him like a child, and schoolmates and homework to deal with outside of crises and fighting.

There is a lot of drama in Astro Boy. Created to be a replacement for a man’s dead son, rejected in almost Frankenstein’s-monster-like fashion, Astro could have turned out the villain of another show. I mean, selling Astro to the circus!!! But he was taken in by another scientist who treated him as human, developed human emotions, and is probably more like a real kid than the child characters in most American cartoons of that time.

I always found the kids in shows like ThunderCats totally annoying—no kids I knew were like that! They were just plot devices for doing foolish things or for comic relief. But the times when Astro interacts with his classmates and he feels doubt in being accepted or he feels left out—that felt genuine and true.

Astro Boy is a lot of things. It’s about artificial intelligence, it’s about the sometimes conflicted integration of humanity and technology, it’s about alienation (in the robots who come to hate humans) and it’s about a kid. And about giant robot combat.

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3. Transformers

The cool factor of this show was the toys. Transforming stuff! This show introduced the word “transform” to me.

The story, about a race of alien machines conducting a clandestine war on Earth, did not age well for me. Too much of the show happens on Earth, when these machine species are actually interstellar. Even later, after the animated movie, too much of the show happens on Earth. There is also nothing shown of the culture of the Autobots and Decepticons, beyond: “this side is good and that side is bad.”

Still, this, together with Astroboy, is probably my first exposure to the concept of artificial intelligence, as it probably was for quite a lot of kids back then.

The contrast of Astroboy and Transformers says something about the contrast of the production between US shows at the time and Japanese ones. The US counterparts were heavily hampered by the need to sell associated merchandise and meet the demands of network execs for child-friendly stories, while in Japan, there was a lot more freedom to explore what would be considered uncomfortable or excessive in the US.

Of course, in the US, cartoons are supposed to be for children, while in Japan, animation as an art form covers a variety of genres that focuses on a range of audiences, from children, to young boys and girls, to adults. That cultural difference greatly affects the limits of acceptable stories by format.

For example, nobody died in Transformers for the longest time, until the movie release. Despite using weapons of awesome power. Despite it being, ostensibly, a war.

Whereas the robots that Astro fights, who often showed far more emotion than the characters of Western cartoons, were often destroyed. I remember one episode arc in which there was a challenge to settle who was the most powerful robot of all, and in that series of fights, some of those machine characters were really quite human, and their deaths pretty moving.

So, I do not have quite as much of an attachment to Transformers as a lot of the core fans who enjoy pouring the hate on Michael Bay’s Transformers movies.

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4. Gobots

The stepbrother of Transformers. The Gobots line had mostly cheaper-looking toys based on machines that looked cheaper in animated form too, but the cheaper toys also meant kids could have more access to them than the comparatively expensive Transformers toys. So, while I do not remember much about the story, I do have a lot of memories playing with the toys and making my own stories with them.

In plot, Gobots suffers from the same limitations of vision as Transformers, though there is this stuff that they were not originally a machine race, but aliens who became machines. This backstory is actually really interesting, but is not referenced nearly enough in the show (that I can remember).

The story issues for both Transformers and Gobots probably stem from them both being made to sell toys, rather than the toys being merchandise that came after the story.

What I remember most about this show was the name and the voice of the main villain: Cy-Kill.

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5. Voltes V

Super Electromagnetic Machine Voltes V!

A seemingly simple story about a super robot defending humanity from vicious alien invaders actually has a lot of heart to it. A number of the episodes deal with family and friendship. There was hardship and sacrifice. Slavery is a thing for the Boazanians. And the show ends with revolution!

Heavy stuff for kids to be watching! I don’t think most parents paid attention when we were watching cartoons, because if they had, I think they would have found the story fascinating.

This plot could have been quite excellent even with the giant robots and alien stuff taken out. This could have been set in an alternate earth history and it would have still been a sweeping and grand thing.

Giant robots just makes it accessible to kids! And the toys were fantastic. Well, depending on what one could afford. The Voltes V robot came in different sizes, with different amounts of metal components and weight and heft. But they looked like the actual machines in the show, whether in separate vehicle forms or in the combined humanoid form.

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6. Daimos

Daimos, produced by the same company as Voltes V, has a lot of the same themes. Plus Romeo and Juliet writ large with aliens and giant machines destroying stuff!

Aside from the humans vs alien invasion theme common to the Romantic Trilogy produced by Sunrise, a major part of the plot had to do with the romance between heroic pilot Kazuya (Richard to my fellow Filipinos) and Erika, princess of the aliens.

As with the romance between another human and alien in Macross, this touches on something that seemed to be ignored in a lot of American cartoons of that era—the humanity of its characters. He Man, ThunderCats, the Super Friends… cartoon characters never seemed to explore much of their lives beyond being whatever they had to be for the action component of the plot. It’s quite strange, given how US comics had been exploring complicated themes for decades. I guess there was a disconnect between TV network perceptions of kids vs the comic industry?

Probably, the coolest part of the Daimos robot was its control system. Every other human-piloted machine that appears on this list is controlled by so many levers and switches and control yokes and pedals, but Daimos is controlled by a biofeedback system that matches the robot’s movements to the pilot’s. It’s the control system of the mobile armor from Heinlein’s Starship Troopers!

And yes, it too had a cool toy.

Voltron

7. Voltron

Adapted from Beast King GoLion, Voltron has many of the common themes of Toei’s super robot cartoons. I’ve never seen the GoLion version, which is a shame, as it seems to have been more complex by quite a bit.

Once again, it’s another example of US companies heavily borrowing from anime without showing the originals, and then sanitizing a lot of the material to make it ‘acceptable children’s programming’ by removing a lot of the references to death, violence, etc.

Still a good show with a very cool robot. Prince Lotor was a great villain. He should have won some of the time!

I’m not sure about the depiction of Princess Allura. In my faulty memories, it seems to me that there was some sexism in her being just a replacement pilot, needing to be protected quite a lot for the pilot of a giant death machine, and that she was not thought of as being all that competent despite ruling a planet. But taking a glance at the Wikipedia page, it seems like this was not so? Maybe this was my biases as a boy affecting my perceptions.

I’m curious about GoLion. Given the dramatic endings to Voltes V and Daimos, in which the alien species are shown to have their own dignity and there is an outcome of peace, and that GoLion was also made by Toei, I can’t quite believe that all there is to the ‘bad guys’ of Voltron’s original story is their transparent and childish ‘evilness’

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8. Mazinger Z

I remember a lot less about the last two entries on my list beyond being the basic good vs evil + giant machines that filled a lot of my childhood imagination.

Looking at the Wikipedia page of Mazinger Z, I’m rather astonished that I’ve forgotten about this fantastic background material involving the bad guys’ robots being based on a mad scientist’s discovery of an ancient civilization’s technology! Ancient civilizations, fighting with giant robots. Very cool.

I have mixed feelings about the robot designs in this show, primarily because of Aphrodite A.

This was one of the first ‘female’ mecha in a show, ever. So… on the one hand, why a female robot when it’s just a machine? On the other hand—other robots are distinctly masculine in proportion. Why have gendered robots at all? Well, given that we’re human, when we make bipedal robots, we identify with them more if they’re human in proportion, so there is a purpose, entertainment-wise, in both having the human forms, and giving them gender-identifying traits. So having a female-looking robot is good, because girls should also have heroic figures, even if the shows are supposed to be ‘boy’s shows’ (entertainment in Japan has a very strong gender-based focus).

But then. Breast missiles. Flying explosive devices that are breasts. Um.

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9. UFO Robot Grendizer

Finally, I end on UFO Robot Grendizer, which, like Mazinger Z, was created by Go Nagai.

Once more: aliens vs humans. And themes of war. Really, what I remember most about Grendizer was the classic aesthetic with the flying saucers, and the really odd shape when the humanoid robot was integrated with a saucer-shaped flying device.

I feel as if I ought to have Gundam on this list and drop Grendizer, but I did not see much of any Gundam series until I was a lot older, so it doesn’t qualify, and I remember even less of the other giant robot shows from then like Danguard Ace and Mekanda Robo.

So that was my list of 9 shows with giant robots that got me into science fiction as a child, ordered mostly from most significant and memorable to the least, along with my thoughts on US vs Japanese animation of that era. Gobots should really be further down on that list, but it’s so similar to Transformers I had to put them together.

Happy holidays! The world’s imagination needs more robots =)

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