Written by Richard Brown
How to introduce this series? Perhaps as the cheesiest and corniest thing since blue stilton corndogs? Or as another in the long running super robot genre? No. Instead let me put it like this: Before there was Gurren Lagann, there was Gaogaigar. But is it worth your time? Read on to found out.
The Basic Plot
In a snowfield one night, a childless couple have a life changing experience. A large mechanical lion, Galeon, lands and leaves them a baby boy, who they name Mamoru, and adopt him as their own. Several years later, young astronaut Gai Shishioh is on a shuttle mission and is attacked by an alien spacecraft, only to be rescued by the same lion. Gai is critically injured, only to be rebuilt as a cyborg, thanks to the technology found within the now dormant Galeon. To defend against the mysterious alien threat, the Gutsy Geoid Guard is formed, and at its heart the ultimate fighting mecha, the King of the Braves, Gaogaigar. Fate will soon put them in contact with Mamoru, and the first Zonder robot. But who are these aliens, and what is Mamoru?
The Negatives: or a History Lesson
Whenever I write a review about a mecha series, especially an older one, I feel compelled to add a little bit of history to it. Things are better understood in context, and its fairly important in this case. In Japan, the Transformers franchise was maintained by Takara (who later merged with Tomy). During the 90’s this was deemed less than profitable, and this led to the “Brave” toy lines, a number of often unrelated Super Robot titles, supported by an anime by Sunrise, who are best known for producing the Gundam cultural phenomenon. It wasn’t hugely popular, and relations between Sunrise and Takara had soured to the point where an extra-dimensional toymaker and mastermind was named as the big bad in the train-themed Might Gaine series. (If that doesn’t qualify as a writer revolt, what does?) With Evangelion dominating the anime world like a fat man in a phonebooth, and with trouble behind the scenes, no-one would have been surprised if the last Brave instalment, Gaogaigar, followed its lead. Fortunately, somebody realised that a cerebral exercise in loneliness topped with giant cyborgs and biblical references would not sell to actual children, and the only way Gaogaigar acknowledges this trend is in a few significant names. In short, everything that Evangelion subverted and dismantled is played completely straight. Gaogaigar is entirely about simple heroism, optimism, giant robots, black/white morality, naming your attacks and frequent references to courage. At first, this doesn’t seem to work, as the result can be compared to, err, it really pains me to say this, Power Rangers.
Given the nature of the initial episodes, you would be quite reasonable in thinking this reconstruction of an out-dated genre was a bad idea. Part and parcel of this is the use of stock animation, which is something of a genre tradition, but not all traditions should be followed. Something that a lot of fans tend to forget is that all animes are profit driven, although some are more blatant about it than others. A single episode costs a serious amount of money, hundreds of thousands of pounds, so proper planning is essential. Failure to do so often results in declining visual quality and clips shows (such as what tends to happen in Gainax productions). With this in mind many older animes use the stock animation technique, creating scenes which are intended to be used more or less every episode, which equates to a fairly big cost saving in the long run. Stock animation is therefore a bad sign, as it means that the creative staff is trying to save money by tying themselves to a particular series of movements and events, and its usually only tolerated in children’s anime. Gaogaigar has huge amounts of stock animation, from the combination sequences, to the bombastic cries of the Main Order Room. While these are always nicely done, the overuse of stock animation will put many people off.
The Positives: or how to be surprisingly good
Nevertheless, something made me continue with this anime, the little touches that give character. There are the commercial bumpers that give engrish technical specifications for all of Kunio Okawara’s daft, but detailed, mecha. Then there are the signs of the series ancestry, as the series treats most of its mecha as individuals. In contrast to 99.9999% of all mecha animes, this series has an explicit focus on avoiding collateral damage, to the point where two robots are explicitly built to fulfil this role. Mamoru is just a child, and not an angst pile, and Gai is very well-balanced for a man with only 10% of his original body parts. The Gutsy Geoid Guard’s leader, Chief Taiga, has a hugely hot-blooded approach to deploying weapons, which is simply unforgettable. In fact, everyone is hot-blooded and passionate about their jobs; saving lives with goofy, but charming robots and vehicles. The anime is very much a guilty pleasure, something which can be enjoyed in spite, or perhaps because of, its flaws. While there are flashes of genius, such as when the ninja robot Volfogg is introduced and when the series plays with its stock animation, the anime catches fire only when the stakes are high. This happens sporadically in the first half of the series, but there is a breakthrough in episode 26, after which the random Zonder battles are replaced with an ongoing struggle against a far more ruthless foe.
Gaogaigar is slow to hit its stride, but when it all starts to come together, its really enjoyable. What starts as kiddie fodder, moves into “so-bad-its-good” territory, then actually good, and ultimately, genre classic. It doesn’t do anything groundbreaking, but it extracts every last piece of awesome from a tired format. Everything gets epic; a giant squeaky mallet of doom comes in, fights start to last more than one episode, the villains play things smart, the heroes gains some allies from unexpected places and the battle moves to space. The on-going plot, which was very subtle early on, starts to bear some surprising fruit, such as what really killed the Dinosaurs. The stock animation remains, but the actions sequences get far more creative and intense. It’s as if someone decided that if they had to make a cheesy toy advert, it should be the best possible cheesy toy advert. The result is an anime which oozes character from every pore, with an infectious enthusiasm, a roar on its lips, and an unforgettable theme tune.
Formulaic, but a good formula, exciting, and addictive, the anime is well worth investigating if you like your mecha a little bit daft. However, the series takes a long time to get good, and its still an acquired taste. Patience and an open mind are advised, but few animes have this much personality. Or this much shouting.