By >RENO J. TIBKE
Pacific Rim and the Legacy of Giant Japanese Robots
A Slice of Giant Japanese Robot Lineage:
With a marketing campaign aimed at pretty much any human being with electricity, high levels of robo-geekery aren’t at all required for one to be aware of this summer’s giant robot & monster movie, Pacific Rim. However, awareness of the nearly 60-year legacy of giant Japanese robot fiction could use some press. Thankfully, you don’t have to be an anime fanboy to get hip; working forward from the 1950s, and mercifully avoiding discussion of the convoluted and often bizarre plot lines, check this out:
Oldest: Tetsujin 28-go (1956 – Approx. 34ft/10m; pictured above-left)
Directly translatable as “iron human,” Tetsujin is probably the oldest example of specifically Japanese giant robot fiction. While no humans piloted Tetsujin from within, it was human-controlled. What was the influence, and was Tetsujin brought to the English-speaking world, one might wonder? Why yes, in 1964 Tetsujin came to America and changed his name to “Gigantor.”
Older: Giant Robo (1967 – Probably 100ft/30m; not pictured)
This manga and anime series was created by Mitsuteru Yokoyama, the same guy who made Mr. Tetsujin up there. The human-controlled “Giant Robo,” which is Japanified English that could only appeal in that (lack of) linguistic context, came to America shortly after it’s J-release as “Johnny Sokko And His Flying Robot.”
Old: Mobile Suit Gundam (1979 – Approx. 60ft/18m; above-center)
These giant Japanese robots got a person inside at the wheel. Gundam is one of the better known yet mostly Japan-only giant robot franchises, and is one of the few properties on this list to actually grow in popularity since its initial release. Global coverage of a 1:1-scale Gundam statue in Tokyo definitely helped that along.
New-ish: Microman and Diaclone Robots (1974 & 1980, respectively – various largeness; not pictured)
While not human-driven nor necessarily human-controlled, we best not go without mentioning what are perhaps the most famous giant robots in all of modern fiction: the American Hasbro & Japanese Takara Tomy co-produced Transformers franchise, launched in 1984. The concepts for which were co-opted and incorporated from the latter Japanese company’s Microman and Diaclone toys.
Newer: Beast King GoLion (1981 – inconsistently huge but always huge; above-right)
Actually a team of five human-driven giant robot lions who combine their powers to form an even larger giant robot. Beast King GoLion far and away has the most awkward in-English-yet-Japanese-sounding translation of the original title (what the hell’s a “GoLion,” right?). As such, when it made its way to rest of the world, it became the very well-known “Voltron: Defender of the Universe.”
Other notable giant Japanese robot series include the human-controlled Mazinger Z (1973) and the more recent human-driven Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995). And there are more. Actually, several more. And someone needing a master’s or PhD in Japanese studies should probably dig into why nearly all of the giant robot pilots are children.
But okay, okay – point made, yes?
So, Are We Sure Pacific Rim isn’t a Giant Japanese Robot Movie?
Guillermo del Toro, Pacific’s Rim’s well-respected director, has indicated that while the whole legacy of Japanese giant robot fiction has a presence in the film, it’s not a specifically Japanese-style giant robot & monster movie. But look – it’s got huge monsters coming out of the ocean [uh... CHECK!], and giant, human-controlled robots have to fight them and save the world [CHECK!].
Given the obvious monster movie influence of Godzilla, Ishiro Honda’s 1954 allegorical classic, and the above detailed genre-spawning giant Japanese robot factoid expo, the logic of precedent dictates that Pacific Rim essentially cannot avoid being by default, de-facto, and by-proxy, specifically Japanese. Kinda like any McDonald’s, anywhere on earth, just can’t help but be American.
Absent whatever makes Japanese artists and writers so keen on the concept, would humans have come up with giant driveable robots anyway? Yeah – totally. But in this universe, Japan did – so viewers of Pacific Rim, know that the film is standing on some big, beefy, giant Japanesey robotic shoulders.
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The Just for Fun Pacific Rim & Robot Jox Addendum:
Now, we’re not the first to point this out, but Pacific Rim is obviously, ummm… also influenced by the so-bad-it’s-awesome, barely seen even by robo-dorks, confusing and intellectually assaulting live-action cartoon that is 1990’s Robot Jox. To be fair, “influenced” probably isn’t the right word; some of the parallels are just conceptually and anatomically unavoidable.
Given that Guillermo del Toro’s driving Pacific Rim, comparisons probably aren’t really that fair. But, if you wanna ferociously lower your expectations and see what a bad giant robot movie looks like, go ahead and YouTube Robot Jox. It’s out there.
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Reno J. Tibke is the founder and operator of Anthrobotic.com and a contributor at the non-profit Robohub.org.
Images: Gundam: DARWINFISH105 (definitely visit this guy’s blog); Tetsujin 28-go: Kobe, Japan Tetsujin Project; Beast King GoLion Studio S.A; Robot Jox: Probably Owned by Sony; Pacific Rim: Warner Bros. Pictures