Saturday, April 21, 2018

(Oh My) God Mazinger

God Mazinger (Aira Mu no Densetsu) vol. 4 was the first un-translated, un-adapted, non-footnoted Japanese-language manga I ever held in my non-Japanese-reading hands and tried like hell to figure out. Okay, so this is a Japanese comic. It's larger than a paperback, but smaller than a trade. There's a color dust jacket – a dust jacket on a paperback? - with two bug-eyed anime people and a giant airbrushed explosion and I guess that's God Mazinger up there growling. Otherwise it's in black and white and hey, that woman on page 1 isn't wearing any clothes. Best keep this away from the folks.

well, apart from that, how was your day?

It's what, late 1984, early 1985. I'm 15, I've read Schodt’s "Manga Manga" and wasted countless hours watching Japanese cartoons on TV, I have a fair idea of who Mazinger Z is; this thing here pretty obviously has something to do with Mazinger, right? But it's some kind of sword and sorcery story involving armies on horseback fighting legions of dinosaur robots. Bikini-clad snake-cult women are cut in half, giant robots crush and flame-broil and impale legions of horsemen, there are spaceships and cosmic ultra-dimensions and what appears to be time travel mixing up modern Japan and the Time Of Legends. 

In short, this didn't make a whole hell of a lot of sense to my teenage self. God Mazinger vol. 4 wound up in my confused hands courtesy some friends of my parents, who were involved in some sort of cultural exchange program and who visited Japan regularly and who likely paused at the bookstore at Narita and grabbed a stack of comics for their friends’ Japan-obsessed kids. This God Mazinger tankubon was one of those comics (another was the Murano Lensman manga).

you think YOUR boss is a monster? 

God Mazinger went way beyond the comics I was into at the time, which included a smattering of Marvel superhero titles and a heaping helping of what was then called 'groundlevel' or 'alternative' stuff like Bob Burden's Flaming Carrot, Ms. Tree, Cerebus The Aardvark, Scott McCloud's Zot, and Wendy Pini's Elfquest. Both Zot and Elfquest made no secret of their Japanese animation influence; anime and manga were seeping in through the cracks, Voltron and Robotech were on TV every day and nerds like me wanted more. A slew of licensed anime-property comics would be followed by actual translated manga, which would get its foot in America's mid 80s door and never take it out.

(heavy metal guitar wailing intensifies)

Speaking of comics, in Japan the God Mazinger manga would run in Shogakkukan's Shonen Sunday from May until December 1984, incongruously appearing alongside the less apocalyptic Urusei Yatsura, super chicken Gu Gu Ganmo, and Mitsuru Adachi's baseball romance Touch. To complete the media trifecta, God Mazinger was also a Kadokawa Bunko novel series written in part by Go Nagai’s brother that made its way into print prior to both its manga and TV cartoon iterations.

So what’s happening in this Mazinger Of The Gods? Yamato Hino, a young modern clean-living rugby-playing Japanese lad, finds himself blasted back 20,000 years through the portal of time at the request of Princess Aira of the Mu Empire – not the Mu Empire seen attempting world conquest in Atragon nor the Mu Empire attempting world conquest in Brave Raideen, but a completely different, more benevolent Mu, now under assault from the Dragonia Empire. The Dragonians and their dinosaur attack brigade have driven the Mu Empire back to one solitary redoubt, where their god, the giant stone statue Mazinger, waits for the prophecy to bring him to life.
Daiei's Daimajin

If Mazinger Z ever reminded you of those Daimajin movies that Daiei made in the 60s, you know, the movies about the giant stone-god statue that comes to life to punish evil, well, God Mazinger cuts out the middleman and gives us a Mazinger that is, for all intents and purposes, a Giant Majin. When Yamato shows up in 20,000 BC he finds literally every atom of his being mashed together with the supernatural force of God Mazinger, and the composite Yamato/God Mazinger, no longer stone but some kind of ultra-technological cyber-golem, is now able to wreak terrible vengeance on King Dorado, his Dragonians and their resurrected-dinosaur cavalry.

If you'll bear with 15 year old me, I'm still trying to dope out this God Mazinger manga. I understand Yamato merges with God Mazinger and uncorks a giant prehistoric urn's worth of prehistoric whup-ass on an army of sinister robot monsters. Heck, I even get that his name is Yamato, because when you grew up watching Star Blazers, Yamato is gonna be the first katakana you learn. The manga shows the awesome power of God Mazinger roaring out of his God Mazinger mouth, destroying robots and floating star destroyers and vaporizing the entire Lost Continent of Mu in a super-atomic explosion that causes earthquakes as far away as Japan 1984 AD, wiping out good guys, bad guys, everybody. And then Yamato vanishes into a sparkly Steve Ditko dimension where he hollers at God, or God Mazinger, for a while, and then Princess Aira shows up in her birthday suit and then, while the world is gettin’ destroyed, they start gettin' it on. Because, after all, this is a Go Nagai manga. And yes, it is all blowing my 15 year old mind. Years later I’d find out about the God Mazinger anime series, which would only raise more questions.

skyrockets in flight, apocalypse delight
aaa, aaa, aaaa-pocalypse delight

Bearing little resemblance to the 70s Toei-branded super robot parade or Go Nagai's 80s works involving psychic teens, space puppets, and Violence Jacks, the Tokyo Movie Shinsha God Mazinger anime aired April to September 1984 on Nippon Television. Sure, it kept the bones of Go Nagai's manga – Yamato goes forward into the past, fades into God Mazinger, and so on and so forth. But the TMS show sands down the rough edges of Nagai's manga, dials back the mayhem, takes some of the oomph out of Princess Aira's figure, and ditches the universe-destroying climax entirely in favor of a vastly less cataclysmic finale in which Yamato and God Mazinger re-enact the end of the 1980 Flash Gordon movie and stop the evil-yet-handsome Prince Eldon from marrying Princess Aira.

Manga Princess Aira vs Anime Princess Aira

As the TV show ends, we see Yamato and Aira surrounded by their friends in a non-destroyed Mu and freeze-framing with- I'm not making this up – actual cartoon hearts floating in the air. A less Go Nagai ending is hard to contemplate. Heck, Yamato’s little sister even makes a time travel trip just to make everything a little more kid-friendly. Hey Mu, if you’re so threatened, why not bring some JSDF forces through that time portal and get GATE started a few decades early?

Audiences demanded more subtlety in their anime entertainments and TMS Entertainment, what with their Lupins, their Cobras and their Cat’s Eyes, was the go-to outfit for the go-go 80s. TMS took a cautious approach to the scary Go Nagai world, beginning with an opening credit sequence definitely not the wailing blood & thunder we might associate with giant stone vengeance gods versus screaming barbarian dinosaur armies. God Mazinger’s serene, lyrical Shouko Suda-sung OP may have confused millions of Japanese kids, who might have been tantalized by the prospect of experiencing their own Mazinger anime, but instead got two toga teens and a digital clock with nary a Rocket Punch or a Thunder Break in sight.

God (anime) Mazinger’s style lacks the broad strokes and in-your-face heavy metal attitude of the manga. The colors are quieter, the Satoshi "Glass Mask" Hirayama character designs are softer, the soundtrack isn't all blasting brass and belted-out lyrics. Is this a good thing? I dunno. There's definitely a place for classy updates of Go Nagai properties – we only had to wait a few years for Devilman: Evil New Birth for proof – but when splitting the difference between the sacred and the profane, God Mazinger may have landed in the uncanny valley rather than the sweet spot.

Yamato, hasshin!

That’s not to say the show’s not without its charms; the clean, colorful animation style TMS used to good effect in God Mars and Tetsujin-28 is in full effect. Yamato is understandably not at all interested in fusing with a god-warrior at first and the show gives us a chance to see him mature and rise to meet challenges. The knights sworn to protect Aira aren’t sold on Yamato at first, either. And if you enjoy the kind of swordfighting TMS brought us in Rose Of Versailles, well, God Mazinger's fantasy setting gives us plenty of that.

Today the Western anime intelligentsia is/are finally waking up to the psychic world of Go Nagai, what with your Cutey Honey Universes and your Devilman Crybabies (there's a trivia team name for you). The old schoolers salute Mazinger Z and Getter Robo, the exponents of hyper-masculine blood frenzy tout Violence Jack, and everybody else side-eyes Kekko Kamen. But whenever Go Nagaiheads gather to talk Dynamic (get it?) anime, God Mazinger is left out of the picture. Why is that?

Well, first off, barely anybody saw the thing. The show only lasted 23 episodes. One episode was ditched entirely in favor of the 1984 Summer Olympics TV broadcast. The episodes of God Mazinger that did air were ignored by viewers in favor of Fist Of The North Star. 1984 simply had better things to watch. Perhaps some toys would have helped to attract viewers, but God Mazinger was barely merchandised; only a few toys by bargain-bin toymaker Mark, some LP records, and a few storybooks were licensed.

also starring the Next-To-Last Unicorn

TMS has a great track record with international sales of its anime series... if you don’t count God Mazinger. 23 episodes weren’t enough for American syndication, and any cartoon featuring women in tiny bikinis being knifed through the sternum was definitely too much for American syndication. Perhaps European or South American markets might have been a better bet, but evidence of this is nonexistent; maybe a show called “God Mazinger” was perhaps a little too close to impiety for the former domains of the Roman Catholic Church. TMS's localized English-language title, 'The Deity," isn't much better - are we supposed to watch this, or worship it?

kiss those American syndication dollars- and your sternum- goodbye

God Mazinger hasn’t been entirely forgotten. In Japan the show was released on VHS, LD and DVD twice, the manga’s been released in e-book format, and the old stone face even makes an appearance in the Super Robots Taisen video game, while Princess Aira pops up in the all-girl Mazinger Angels manga from 2004. As the subsequent iterations of Go Nagai’s Mazinger become more powerful, more earth-shaking, and more apocalyptic, the then-extreme destructive power of God Mazinger seems less and less impressive. Will the complex forces of science, the supernatural, intellectual property licenses, and time itself ever align to bring God Mazinger roaring back to life? Only Princess Aira knows!

-Dave Merrill

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