Saturday, July 14, 2012

Ishinomori Week: Daitetsujin 17

At last, the time has come.

All week long, I've been dropping hints, leaving clues, making offhand remarks... okay I only did it on like the last two days, anyway, but you get the point.

It's time at last to take a look at Ishinomori's transforming giant robot, Daitetsujin 17.

In the years prior to Kamen Rider, Hirayama Tôru served as a producer on several 60's Toei Tokusatsu series, the three most famous being Kamen no Ninja Akakage, Giant Robo, and Captain Ultra, all in 1967 and all in glorious color (hey, it was still kind of a new thing.) Those first two shows are based on works by famed comic artist Yokoyama Mitsuteru, creator of the ever-popular Tetsujin 28-go, or Gigantor as fans outside Japan may know him. One of Ishinomori's contemporaries, he has his own vast library of popular characters and series, and there's probably an alternate universe where Genyouzai's Kamen no Ninja Akakage Page is taking a look at some of those as we speak.

Yokoyama's Giant Robo comic is very much in the mold of Tetsujin 28-go, featuring a giant robotic hero controlled by a young boy. Toei's Giant Robo series remains true to that premise, as do the subsequent Giant Robo anime incarnations of later years, though each one spins off in its own unique direction. In the case of the Tokusatsu, it's pretty awesome stuff, and gained some exposure outside Japan due to its dubbed incarnation, Johnny Sokko And His Flying Robot.

That's a whole different story in itself right there, worthy of a Hirayama Week some day, but here's where it becomes relevant: in the summer of 1976, Ishinomori, Hirayama and the crew convened to hash out plans for what would eventually become Uchû Tetsujin Kyodain's successor series. Ishinomori had expressed interest in doing a giant robot show, and originally conceived it as being animated. However, it was decided that doing it as a Tokusatsu would be more impressive, allowing the audience to truly feel the weight and impact as mammoth mechanical giants slammed their metal fists into each other. That would set it apart from the crowd, since by that point animated giant robots were old hat. And hey, they could use this opportunity to pay homage to Yokoyama's works, including dear old Giant Robo.

And so was today's entry created from the strongest of alloys. Originally titled M-17, it became...

Daitetsujin 17 (Great Ironman 17) is another work for which there is sadly no Ishinomori comic equivalent, though several of his understudies produced versions for the various children's magazines. So once again, we've only got the show to work with this time, and man... where do I even begin? At the beginning of course!

In the near-future of... um, 1977, the world's greatest supercomputer, Brain, decides that he's tired of boring tasks like working to stamp out disease, hunger and poverty (and performing really long calculations) and that he's had enough. Screw that noise! So Brain busts out of his facility, which is quite a feat in itself since Brain is made up of what appears to be a cycloptic blender and various atom-like modules. But escape he does, attacking security personal with heat beams and giant claws, vanishing into the night. Also appearing during the chaos, and going AWOL along with Brain, is one of his creators, the brilliant Professor Hassler (also translated as "Hustler"!)

The next day, the elite international peace-keeping organization known as the Red Muffler Corps (so-named because of the red scarves all its soldiers wear) search through the wreckage of the building they were supposed to be guarding. The also-brilliant Doctor Sahara (one of Brain's other creators and Red Mufflers' current commander-in-chief) and his daughter Chie arrive on the scene, and predict the worst: Hassler and Brain have gone rogue. The Red Mufflers launch a worldwide search for the super computer and its maker, but no leads turn up.

Suddenly, one year later, a mysterious giant steamroller-like robot appears, causing mass destruction wherever it goes. Among the victims are the family of 13-year-old Minami Saburô, who all get crushed to death by dirt following a landslide (on his sister's wedding day, no less.) A distraught Saburô races into the woods, cursing the monster, and inadvertently stumbles into the secret base of the Brain Party, Brain & Hassler's secret criminal organization that seeks to, of course, take over the world.

Pursued by the bad guys, Saburô accidentally awakens the massive robot known as 17 (spoken as "One-Seven".) This isn't a good thing for Hassler and his cronies, as 17 is every bit as intelligent as Brain, and capable of free will. So in a pretty neat twist, the machine created by the machine that turned against humanity turns against it in, er, turn, pretty much just because it can. 17 saves Saburô, and tries to communicate with him, but the scared boy just freaks out. 17 gives Saburô a clunky-looking helmet, but the young man just hoofs it outta there. Saburô hooks up with Sahara and the Red Muffler Corps, and when the Roller Robot attacks the city, he attempts to take revenge on it with a hand grenade! Despite that (and being attacked by a helicopter with the most powerful canon I've ever seen) the giant behemoth is unstoppable, until 17 shows up to trash it good! However, the massive hero seems unwilling to work with the Red Mufflers, and vanishes as quickly as he appeared.

Undeterred by the defection of his creation, Brain moves ahead with his plans to take over the world. He verbally turns on Hassler and takes control, though keeps him around because, believe me, you would too. Plus he needs somebody to talk to; it gets lonely in that huge control room. Brain then sets about recruiting an army of villains by staging the most radical worldwide prison break ever, using the massive Hurricane Robot to literally spirit away every criminal it can find. Nakai, the Red Muffler Commanding Officer, comes up with a daring plan to infiltrate by the Brain Party by posing as a crook. Despite this hum-dinger of a doozy plan, his cover is blown, and he is killed, left crucified (!) as a warning to the rest of the team, but with his dying breath confirms that Hassler and Brain are behind the evil giant robots. 17 battles the Hurricane Robot, and afterwards finally allies himself with the Red Muffler Corps, as Saburô discovers he can use the helmet to communicate with 17 (sort of.)

So begins the battle between Saburô (Daisaku), 17 (Giant Robo) and the Red Mufflers (Unicorn) against Brain (Emperor Guillotine) and the Brain Party (Big Fire)! Okay, okay. I joke, as Giant Robo and Daitetsujin 17 really do differ considerably, though there's no mistaking the latter as a tribute to the former. Like in the 60's series, there's a great mix of giant robot action, coupled with human drama (and action) as Brain recruits more wild, murderous fiends to his cause, and the Red Mufflers gain some new allies as the 35-episode series continues. I think Daitetsujin 17 really has its own unique style though, for a number of reasons, the chief one being the titular giant robot.

Giant Robo basically obeyed the commands of his controller Daisaku to a T, only showing independence at certain dramatic moments. If Daisaku said "use the rockets", you better believe Robo used his rockets. Daitetsujin 17 on the other hand... I think he relies more on Saburô to give him advice, but he really is in the driver's seat when you get down to it. His aloof, lonesome nature makes him an unusual robot hero; this is no simple mecha to be piloted (most of the time) but a very independent character with his own motivations and methods. As the series continues he and Saburô grow closer, but especially in those early episodes, there's a real sense that 17 will just do whatever he pleases, and he only gave Saburô that big helmet because it makes him look funny.

17 though, he looks awesome, with a colorful design that appears bulky and boxy, but is actually fairly agile in motion. He has multi-faceted eyes that change color to show his mood, and a face that makes him look like an early ancestor of Optimus Prime. Being a giant robot he has a couple neat powers, the most famous of which immediately sets him apart from his primary influences: his ability to transform!

Yes, everybody knows about how Spider-Man's Leopardon eventually led to the mecha in Super Sentai, but 17 predates even that, making him the first or at least one of the first live-action transforming giant robots. 17 has four "modes" (fortress mode, flying mode, combat-flying mode and the default standing battle mode) and a variety of smaller vehicles that can be launched while in any of the 3 modes where he's in his transformed state. The transformation sequence is pretty simple, with 17 basically just crouching down or standing up, but it's a cool innovation that made for some great toys. Not surprisingly, this is one of the earliest series where Ishinomori had direct input from Popy (future Bandai) when designing the title hero.

While most of 17's combat tends to involve punching the crap out of things with his big metal fists, he also has one of the coolest killing moves I've ever seen. It's a power that is virtually unstoppable, a power able to render any machine to scrap metal in an instant. A power so strong, characters watching the fight even from a distance usually have to duck. A power known as... Gravitron.

Gravitron is awesome. It causes the enemy robots to implode and explode at the same time! Alright, so the actual effect is that they turn into tin foil, shrink down then explode, reform, and explode again. But man, it looks cool. The whole sequence. where 17's eyes light up, he does this disco dance and then the panels on his stomach open to fire the beam, is really rockin'. It is also accompanied by 17 speaking the attack's name, though it comes out sounding more like "GRRRRAAAHHHHHIIIIIIIDDDOOOOOOOOOONNNNNNNN!"

Yes, 17 can speak, another difference from Giant Robo, though at first it's a booming, muffled, slowed-down voice. The neat thing is that he speaks in English though, so you can almost make out what he's supposed to be saying sometimes (although "I don't know" sounds more like "AAAAAIIIMOOOHHHMOOOOHHH".) By episode 19 he's able to do a little self-upgrading, and gains the ability to speak normal Japanese, although I have to admit there's a certain charm to his original voice. Going back to the Optimus Prime comparison, if Daitetsujin 17 were ever dubbed into English, I can totally picture his later, clearer voice sounding like Peter Cullen. Well okay, there IS an English dub, but I'll get to that.

As you can probably tell, I love this show. It's mad as all hell, but in the best kind of way. The first 15 episodes in particular are amazing stuff, when the show is played totally straight. Unfortunately, the ratings weren't very good, so the show was lightened considerably for the remaining 20 episodes with goofier adversaries and more comic relief in an attempt to appeal more to kids (remember, this directly followed on from Kyôdain.) It's still pretty good, but those early episodes in particular are where it's at its best. The show had a great mix of writers on it, including my man Igami and Uehara.

This series has a comparatively massive cast to the last few we've looked at, with Saburô's own friends as well as the Red Muffler Corps and various villains. Fortunately, all the really important characters are all right here on this album cover!

Just look at that bunch of badasses. The plainest one is the evil monk with the sunglasses who has a kung fu death grip, and he's still cool. For the good guys in the corner, we have Doctor Sahara, played by prolific actor Nakamaru Tadao, who you may also know as Doctor Shibata in Chôdenshi Bioman. He also has roles in numerous Toho films and even Shakespearean credits to his name. And, to a select group out there, he is Shepherd Wong from Woody Allen's What's Up, Tiger Lily?. Joining him is Kenmochi, the Red Mufflers' replacement Commanding Officer, who joins up in episode 3. Formerly of the JSDF Rangers, he is a tough-as-nails leader who demands absolute discipline from his troops, but he's also a courageous and inspiring figure. Plus, he's the swine they call "The Razor"!

That last comment can be attributed to the two SS-looking guys, the Brain Party's ruthless top generals and terrorist masterminds Captain Gomes (pronounced "Go-mez") and Chief Kidd. These dudes are seriously bad news. Gomes is played by veteran actor Hirata Akihiko, best known in Tokusatsu circles as the tormented Doctor Serizawa in the original Godzilla film. He knows Kenmochi from their past as Green Berets (!) and they have a particularly strong hatred of each other. Kidd is none other than Yamaguchi Akira (Riderman!) and has a penchant for throwing knives. Both these guys are main villains for the first half of the series, with Gomes going down in episode 15 and Kidd sticking around until 21. There's some especially great stuff with them in 14~15, where treachery's at an all-time high in the Brain Party. Seeing lovable 'ol Yamaguchi play a psychopathic murderer is something else.

The aforementioned monk guy is Black Tiger, who joins the show in episode 16, replacing Gomes as the Brain Party's de facto strategist. A Tibetan monk that decided crime did in fact pay, he became a heavy-hitter in the Southeast Asian underworld before joining up with Brain. He commands the Pink & Blue Jaguars, a pair of femme fatale spies, and lasts until episode 33. Finally we have Hassler himself.

See, I told you Ulf would be back! This is one of his lengthiest Tokusatsu roles and he really goes to town, chewing scenery like there's no tomorrow. Ulf has a penchant for playing quirky, eccentric characters, and reportedly ad-libbed a great deal, such to the point that the directors often needed to do multiple takes with him since he could very easily wander off script, much to the amusement/confusion of his fellow actors. Hassler's great, and despite his initial bitterness at having his own supercomputer order him around (and demand to be called "Mister Brain" by everyone) he quickly settles into the role of resident wiseguy, always ready with a put-down for anyone he's feeling grumpy at that day.

I also need to talk about Saburô's actor, Kamiya Masahiro. Yep, it's Masaru from Jinzô Ningen Kikaider! And although it's only been about four or five years, he's sure grown up, taller than ever and his voice having dropped a few octaves. I guess he spent the intervening years driving around on a motorcycle, smoking a pack a day and surviving on nothing but whiskey and raw red meat. Or he's just an early bloomer. Despite often having to wear the clunky helmet, he's very good in this show, making Saburô's fear feel real and his determination to help 17 and the Red Mufflers save the world very genuine. As much as I like Daisaku in Giant Robo, I sorta dig how they went for an older (or at least, seemingly-older) protagonist here, making it a little more complex than just another "little kid with a giant robot" story.

Episodes 21~26 feature 17's most famous foe, his rival and "brother" robot Daitetsujin 18 (One-Eight.) 18 is actually based on the original Ishinomori designs for 17, which is pretty cool (check out the picture.) This probably accounts for why he looks a bit more old-fashioned. Coupled with the all-metal color scheme, he actually has the feel of something more antiquated. Like 17 he has the capacity for free will, but comes installed with a "Satan Circuit" that makes him evil! However, Sahara is able to remove the Satan Circuit, but Brain of course has other plans... the whole 18 story arc is a lot of fun, and while he's not quite on the level of say, Hakaider, 18 is still a pretty memorable character and a neat reusage of an earlier design. It'd be like if Kamen Rider had fought Cross Fire!

I mentioned earlier how after episode 15, the show gets a little goofier, particularly in the monster designs. We go from disaster-causing robots and flying battleship robots to a giant robot based on the Shinkansen (Bullet Train) AND one based on the Concorde Jet, so I think even the staff decided it was time to start wrapping things up. The final few episodes introduce the Nessie Robot, as in, yes, the Loch Ness Monster. It's actually pretty cool, and tag-teams with Hassler's own Hassler Fortress, a mobile weapons platform with a really big canon. Not quite up there in firepower with that helicopter's much smaller canon, but close. Meanwhile, our heroes develop the supercomputer Big Angel to take on Brain, and we learn more about why 17 hasn't just gone back to smash Brain's circuits, given that he's known where to find him the whole time.

Brain is able to control any machine within a set perimeter around himself, known as the "Brain Area", so 17 can't just go waltzing in, or he'll fall under Brain control. When Nessie (rebuilt as "Gold Nessie") drags him into it, he forcefully shuts himself down. Brain can't control him, but he's dead weight. The only way to get out of this mess is for Saburô to climb aboard and pilot 17 manually, under the guidance of his internal maintenance droid, Roboter. So at least by the end of the series, we have somebody piloting a giant robot themselves! The final episode's pretty cool, and if you've seen Giant Robo, you probably know how it ends. Although Daitetsujin 17's version is a little less graceful, involving our hero spinning around while on fire. It does result in a spectacular final explosion that gave Toei some stock footage mileage for the next few years though!

Daitetsujin 17 is a really fun show. Once again, it doesn't go as deep as some of the other Ishinomori properties, which even on TV often had more layers to them than this, but it's a very easy show to like, one that really appeals to the inner child in us all. You have giant robots rumbling with each other while armies of green shirts and enemy soldiers duke it out on the ground, plus loads of weird, wacky characters and a funky soundtrack from composer Watanabe Chûmei of Kikaider and Goranger fame (plus many, many more.) The theme songs rock and the ending credits sequence in particular stands out; for most other shows, it's usually a cool-down phase, with something more mellow or maybe stock shots of fighting. In this show, it's a full-scale war! Definitely check it out if you get a chance.

I mentioned a dub. The series came over to America, sort-of, in the 1982 dubbed compilation movie BRAIN 17. It's hard to accurately describe this film; it simply must be experienced (and yes, this is one of those movies you don't simply watch.) It combines scenes from various episodes (including the first two and final couple) making a somewhat-coherent plot out of them. Although that may be overstating it, since characters come in and out of the movie with no explanation! Captain Gomes (here called "Captain Roper") and Chief Kidd somehow become one character, then vanish from the film entirely! Saburô's comedy sidekick from later in the series first appears in the movie wielding a bazooka during the battle with Gold Nessie, with no further explanation or even a name! So I always think of him as Bazooka Joe.

And the dubbing, despite being reasonably straight and surprisingly true to the original dialogue, is simply bizarre. Particular lines just stick with you, and it's one of the movies I quote from the most (including in this very article.) There's some name changes (Saburô becomes "Stevie", the Red Mufflers are now "The Defenders") and I particularly enjoy the odd amount of sighing, grunting and "hmmmms" between lines, the culmination of which is a scene where Sahara just silently walks through his living room, but there's still constant...hmmmm....noise!

It's an absolute blast though and I recommend it, but be aware that it does give away the ending, and if you're unfamiliar with the series, it's borderline-incomprehensible at times. Still, it got me interested in checking out the entire original show, so that's gotta count for something!

Daitetsujin 17 also had two movies in Japan, though they're just "blown-up" panned & scanned versions of episodes for the Manga Matsuri. The first one is a combination of episodes 1 & 2, while the second is episode 15. The cropped picture doesn't do them any favors, as half the time the movies are just a couple giant eyes and noses.

17 will be making a return of sorts as "X-VII" (clever!) in the upcoming Kamen Rider Fourze movie, along with the new Kyôdain duo. So far we've only seen him in his spaceship flying more, where he sports a darker color scheme and additional satellite wings, but it's unmistakably him. Will he transform at the movie's climax? I dunno, but if so I just hope he's on Fourze's side by that point, because you don't want to get on the wrong end of a Gravitron!

So that wraps it up for Ishinomori's giant-sized hero. But you know... something doesn't feel right. This is Ishinomori week, and the last two days haven't had any Ishinomori comics to talk about! As I said, pickings start getting slimmer from here on when it comes to comic versions of his TV superhero characters. He's still involved in the shows, doing designs... but we need to look at some manga, man! There's still a whole plethora of other works by Ishinomori out there to check out...

So stay tuned for the conclusion to Ishinomori Week 2012, where we take a look at something completely different!

"Big Angel might find out about all this, but I don't really care."

1 comment:

  1. Yokoyama is probably my second favorite mangaka ever, I really dig his stuff. Ever wondered what Ishinomori thought of his work, as both share many common themes like espers and robots. Babel II has some similarities from Ishinomori's Mutant Sabu, but Ishinomori has an earlier work called King Alladin, with a boy detective (who looks like Shotaro Kaneda with a cap) that controls a giant with a magic lamp.

    Did you ever read Green Glass, Igadevil? It's a Ishinomori manga from the 80s that features a tokusatsu-based superhero.