Monday, March 30, 2015

Video Backlog: “Mazinger Z”

Publisher: Eastern Star (Discotek, USA)
Format: Region 1 DVD, NTSC, Japanese Dialogue with optional English Subtitles.
Length: 92 episodes x 25 minutes
Production Date: 1972 - 1974
Currently in Print (as of writing): Yes

Dr Kabuto and his assistant Professor Gennosuke Yumi of the Photon Light Institute announce to the world the discovery of the mineral Japanium which has been refined and manufactured into the practically indestructible Super Alloy Z. The alloy can also produce a power called photon energy which they also demonstrate to the astonished media. Afterwards in private, Dr Kabuto tells Professor Yumi of his retirement and hands over the reins to the Photon Light Institute to Professor Yumi. Meanwhile the evil Dr Hell who has ambitions to take over the world, sends his subordinate Baron Ashura (a literal half male/female, split down the middle humanoid) and is group of Iron Masked androids to kill Dr Kabuto and destroy the Super Alloy Z.

Many years prior, Dr Kabuto and Dr Hell were part of an archaeological expedition to Bardos Island in the Aegean Sea. There they find the remnants of the ancient Mycenae civilisation and their giant robots.  Dr Hell asks his fellow scientists to restore the robots, only to order the mechanised beats to kill them. Dr Kabuto was the only survivor and escaped the island via a boat. Ashura first heads to Tokyo where Dr Kabuto’s grandchildren, the teenager Koji (somewhat of a delinquent) and his younger brother Shiro, live. In the absence of the doctor or his grandchildren, Ashura interrogates the live in house keeper as to the whereabouts of Dr Kabuto, and then kills her. The boys arrive back to the house and horrified to find the housekeeper dead. They receive a phone call from their grandfather who urges them to come to his villa at the base of Mount Fuji as soon as possible.

However when the pair arrive the villa has been blown to pieces by Ashura and his henchmen. In a hidden basement below, they find their grandfather pinned under a steel beam, on the verge of death. Dr Kaboto tells Koji about the giant robot he has built in secret called Mazinger Z, made of Super Alloy Z in order to defeat Dr Hell’s ambitions. Tragically Dr Kabouto dies before he can tell him how to operate the robot. After some failed attempts, Koji manages to get the Hover Pilder craft onto the head of Mazinger Z in order to operate it. But as expected moving it isn’t easy. He soon meets Professor Yumi’s daughter, Sayaka, who has a robot of her own, Aphrodite A, which was developed by the Professior without any knowledge of the existence of Mazinger Z.

Seeing as the controls of Mazinger Z seem similar to Aphrodite A, Sayaka attempts to teach Koji how to operate it. However Dr Hell has sent two of his mechanical beasts to Japan to lay waste to everything. It’s up to Koji to fight them off, but he practically has no experience using the robot.

Finally, someone has decided to release Go Nagai’s original robot show to home video in English. Prior to this it was bootlegs and the 1985 English dubbed Tranzor Z which was broadcast on US TV for a short while and released surprisingly widely on VHS in just about every English speaking territory. So, how does the original show stack up? Yes, it may be the original robot show that included a pilot for the first time and spawned countless sequels and imitators right through the 1970’s and beyond, but it’s not too bad. However there a number of problems with the show and as you’d imagine it hasn’t aged gracefully. Early episodes in particular show off the era’s dreadfully limited animation. There’s a far bit of off model animation, the animators also seem to have trouble with perspective in early episodes and in one particular episode animation of fighter jets almost looks as if it was drawn by children. Compare with “Gatchaman” which was on air around the same time. Nagai even writes about this in one of his manga, stating he wanted to outdo “Gathcaman” (oddly enough, both have hermaphrodite villains). But it’s easy to tell which the better show is. There’s also some terrible stock music, possibly decades old from Toei’s archive, inserted into some of the earlier episodes.

Another thing which sticks out like nobody’s business is the abuse of Sayaka by Koji. Koji is a bit of testosterone filled dickhead most of the time, but on occasion the writers have him flat out beating Sayaka. She’s slapped, has food and drink thrown down her top and thrown against a glass cabinet which breaks. She does get in some slaps and other assorted violence against Koji, and at least this behaviour is rare and disappears altogether after the first half of the show. The secondary cast includes a teenage delinquent motorcycle gang who are in the same class in school as Koji; the leader known as Boss and his two sidekicks Nuke and Mucha. Boss and his gang initially don’t get on with Koji, they soon are always eager to help out Koji and Sayaka whenever Dr Hell sends out another robot to attack the institute. This is despite the fact they’re pretty ineffective. Around the second half of the series, Boss kidnaps three of the scientists working at the institute and forces to build him a robot out of junkyard scrap to he can join in the fighting. The robot, Borot, and the Boss’ gang provide most of the comic relief in the show as you can imagine.

Despite all of the silliness such as Mazinger Z skiing down Mount Fuji on a specially made set of skis, or Dr Hell’s female version of Mazinger Z falling in love with Mazinger Z and refusing to fight (or perhaps because of it), I found the show pretty fun to watch. Whenever things might be going a bit stale, the writers add in a new offsider for Dr Hell. For example Count Brocken, a strange monocle wearing severed head which floats around his headless body and has a battalion of Nazi SS –like Iron Cross troops. An even stranger foe, Archduke Gorgon, appears in the last third of the series. He’s essential a torso attached to the back of a tiger.

Discotek’s discs are pretty damn good. The original source can look a little beat up at times, but the encoding on the discs is good and the show looks great. The subs do have some typos in them, but mostly it’s pretty good translation and for the price of the set’s I’m not complaining. Believe it or not there are extras on the second set; three 8mm rental films from the 1970’s, which are just cut down versions of various episodes. Two are 10 minutes long, the third only 2 minutes. One seems to contain alternate animation for the episode; Koji seemingly being cut in half by a mechanical beast! I don’t recall this happening in any episode, but I might be wrong. The source material for the 8mm films is pretty scratchy and worn out to say the least.

Despite the age of the show, it’s quite fun to watch. There are enough variances in every episode so it doesn’t get too stale. It can be very silly at times and really un-PC. Perhaps it’s best to watch the show in small doses, rather than in big hits. “Mazinger Z” unfortunately has a bit of a disappointing ending. The final episode is an epilogue to “Great Mazinger”, a continuation of the series, which Discotek has not licenced. However in the episodes prior, pretty much all loose ends are tied up and there is a pretty spectacular finale. All in all, it’s a surprisingly good show, despite its age, terribly limited animation and the “monster of the week” plot in every episode. 7 out of 10.

Remaining Backlog: Two series, also waiting for second parts of a number of shows to be released before viewing them.

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