Secret Santa Non-Review — Giant Robo OVA: The “-est” anime

Of all the various mounting traditions that anime bloggers have been saddling themselves with, the most well-organized and effort-intensive is probably the Secret Santa project, masterminded by the Reverse Thieves. This year it was the magnificent Giant Robo: The Day The Earth Stood Still OVA by the retro-robot master Yasuhiro Imagawa. It was the anime’s second appearance on my Santa List so I thought I’d go for it.

Yasuhiro Imagawa does not seem like a guy who’s interested in the small. Individual stories can be quite moving, and even the largest stories can be told through the mirror of a single character and the impact on his life. But that’s not the story Imagawa wants to tell. A large scale battle? Not so much. The fate of Japan? Getting closer. The modern master of the Super Robot revivalist genre only gets a tight feeling in his pants when the fate of the entire world hangs in the balance, and 90% of everyone is at risk of dying. And he tells this huge-scale story using only superlatives. The biggest robots, the scariest enemies, the hugest number of super-powered characters, even the longest legs.

I’ve written about this before on ghostlightning’s blog briefly, but I think Imagawa and the Gainax crew behind Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann are the creators in anime right now who have the most solid idea of not only what it was like to be a kid and watching Super Robot shows on TV, but how to translate that to their current overgrown-kid audience.

And the main way that they can pull that off is the scale. It’s hard to ramp up the scale when the original Giant Robo (or Johnny Sokko and His Flying Robot for you American tokusatsu fans) was always saving the world from Big Fire anyway. But you know, you tell a kid that’s what’s going on, and they love the excitement — but they can’t really grasp that. You make it work for adults by making them feel it. Show the world more, amp up the destruction caused by the villains, and don’t let the inability of kids’ TV to show violence get in your way. And while you’re at it, stay true to that core principle: violation of the laws of physics.

Ordinary people are few and far between; in fact, the only character without a superpower is Daisaku. And as the main character whose job it is to find his destiny and his own truth, it’s pretty important that he’s just like us, the kids who are watching. This might be the ultimate coup for large-scale immersion in the kid-like feeling. Imagawa transports us to ordinary young Daisaku’s life amidst all the chaos surrounded him. Even if his crisis of faith is more simplistic than Amuro Ray’s or Shinji Ikari’s, yet it’s more huge and fist-pumping when he resolves it.

There’s only one real problem for me in the way that Imagawa sculpted the huge rock that is Giant Robo‘s story: There’s a peak-and-valley structure, where each low gets progressively lower and each triumph gets more hugely fist-pumping to match. I think it’s the OVA’s biggest fault, though it’s inextricable and probably one of the story’s strengths as well. The constant pummeling alternation from SHIT IS JUST SO BAD RIGHT NOW to WE WILL RECOVER, I BELIEVE EVEN MORE NOW has a way of normalizing after a while. All these peaks and valleys try their best to get bigger and more dramatic each time, but they eventually level out into a straight line that actually lacks the impact of a more traditional narrative arc.

Does that mean I felt Giant Robo: The Day The Earth Stood Still was boring, or unenjoyable? Of course not. Every few seconds there’s a new and exciting wild hyper-foreshortened manga-esque angle, even in flashbacks or scenes that would normally be static in most anime. Fight scenes are powered by fluid motion that continues for minutes at a time, without resorting to speed lines or other shortcuts. It’s jaw-dropping, and even more so because of its retro style, an idealized version of grown fans’ memories of what this was like when they were kids.

So in the end, Imagawa and Giant Robo are pretty damn successful of reminding you why you love Super Robots, and really, anime as a whole. I couldn’t ask for a better anime from my Secret Santa, because that’s a great present.

Fuck these (5) Comments.

  1. ajthefourth says:

    Somehow I find it hard to believe that you hadn’t watched this yet.

    I have a deep affinity for this OVA, considering it was this that inspired me to seek out robot shows (which I had previously avoided). Everything about it from the animation to the over-the-top peaks and valleys that you mentioned, to the gorgeous soundtrack spoke to me. So I suppose my viewing was a bit opposite of yours. It introduced me to what could be amazing about Super Robots.

    Nice review. ^ ^

    • otou-san says:

      I also find it hard to believe I hadn’t watched it. Not only was it in my Secret Santa list last year, it’s been sitting on my DVD shelf for ages. I’m a latecomer to Imagawa though, and I think my first exposure to him, in Shin Mazinger, was where it really hit me.

      As this post reiterates, he’s great for getting you pumped about reminiscing on super robots, but I can see how this OVA could easily get you into them as well. Unfortunately, going back and watching one of these simplistic shows as an adult doesn’t quite have the same effect.

  2. When I was stuck queuing for a stupid government certificate for a whole day, I emptied my iPod battery by listening to all 7 Giant Robo OSTs. The hyperbolic nature of the whole thing you so accurately describe is successful because the thing is so well-scored. I don’t just mean, it has a bunch of good tunes, but rather every moment has an appropriate over-the-top piece of music scoring it.

    When my friends and I talk about past events (e.g. what we ate last week), we can’t help but do the Tenor part that scores the “Tragedy of Bashtarle.” Always good for a laugh.

    But this really is a point I want to make, that this show is the product of creators that didn’t worry about time and resources. They had little regard for both, and as such the product is as stunning to us.

    Now try to imagine trying to watch this back in the ’90s when each installment took a whole year to come out. I’d probably hate it in some way. Especially since we know how we really won’t see the BIGGEST BATTLE THE WORLD WILL EVER SEE, WHEN BIG FIRE ACTUALLY GETS SERIOUS.

    • otou-san says:

      I think it really hit me during one of the flashbacks — there’s this over-the-top score, everything is black and white with intense strobing effects, and the angles are insane. This is a flashback, and someone else would have just gone soft-focus, or told it straight, or whatever, but no one else bothers to make flashbacks so damned exciting.

      Now try to imagine trying to watch this back in the ’90s when each installment took a whole year to come out. I’d probably hate it in some way. Especially since we know how we really won’t see the BIGGEST BATTLE THE WORLD WILL EVER SEE, WHEN BIG FIRE ACTUALLY GETS SERIOUS.

      Dude certainly has a way with endings… you know, an infuriating way.

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