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Old Skool Anime: Giant Robo - The Day the Earth Stood Still

In a future not so far removed from our own, the world is on the brink of disaster. This same world, currently embracing a new energy age thanks to the Shizuma Drive; clean energy source batteries that now provide the world’s power, are kept in the dark on the secrets surrounding its creation. And now, these secrets are threatened to be exposed and exploited, and a battle for the world’s survival is coming. This is the day the earth stood still.   

Giant Robo: The Day the Earth Stood Still is a seven-part OVA series originally released over a six-year period between 1992 and 1998. Less of a remake of the original "Giant Robo" manga and late-1960’s TV show, writer/director Yasuhiro Imagawa’s iteration serves as more of a tribute to Yokoyama Mitsuteru's entire body of work, with all characters taken from the likes of Babel II, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Tetsujin 28 ("Gigantor"), and many more. Relentlessly dramatic and melodramatic in equally pleasing measure, Imagawa‘s creation is a masterful tale of good and evil.

On one side stands Big Fire and the Magnificent Ten, seemingly hell-bent on controlling the fate of planet Earth, with a rogues’ gallery complete with unique yet equally dangerous abilities (such as slicing through anything with a simple clicking of fingers) that could make the X-Men sweat. On the other side are the equally powerful Experts of Justice, part of the International Police Organisation, all with their own unique powers and endearing tragic backstories. Ten years on from the tragic event that ultimately birthed the Shizuma Drive, the seismic catastrophe shows signs of happening again from the most unlikely of sources. Both sides wrestle for control of a world declared saved by scientists, scientists whose own ambitions and obsession with progress above all else will change not only a perceived history, but humanity’s future.

But what of the title? None of this alludes to any kind of robot. But fear not, as the titular character is of as big an importance/plot device/catalyst as you’d expect. Both figuratively and literally. Giant Robo is the International Police Organisation’s trump card against Big Fire’s minions, a nuclear-powered, multi-arsenal-wielding giant robot that appears almost ancient Egyptian in appearance. Robo follows remote commands from only one person: Daisaku Kusama, a pre-teen boy who was handed the responsibility by Robo’s creator, Daisaku’s father. Daisaku is a boy who appears ahead of his years in terms of his responsibilities to both Robo and the IPO but is also a boy who has an almighty power at his beck and call. A power that is met with adulation, jealousy, and most dangerous of all, consequence.

Giant Robo’s cast of characters deliver a rich, unique roster that wouldn’t look out of place within a typical 1990s Street Fighter-style video game. Much like Rumiko’s Takahashi’s beloved Ramna ½ cast would in several instances at the height of its fame. And while Giant Robo has its fair share of epic 1v1 battles, few are without major consequence, and many of which reveal a rivalry/backstory with enough ambiguity to keep the interest piqued throughout. Aesthetically and narratively, Giant Robo frames itself with contrasts between light and shadow. Dark and light. Progression and sacrifice. Enemies arrive as looming, massive shadows, heroes make grand, bright entrances, often with fanfare, whereas other protagonists can be found pacing barely lit corridors, with only a faint, glimmering light in sight in the distance, evoking a symbol of hope in the distance.

What begins as a typical “heroes save the day, bad guys will pay” serves merely as a band aid you can’t resist peeling back, knowing full well it will reveal much more underneath. This is not your typical good vs evil affair, despite its overtones. Daisaku will forever live in the shadow of his father, given the burden of handling such a (literally) huge responsibility. As the series progresses, one of its layers of storytelling is how people move on from such burdens, and the family that cast them upon us, much like Evangelion would go on to depict also.    

The score, written and conducted by Battle Royale composer Masamichi Amano, is an absolute masterpiece. Performed by the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra, it is an operatic combination of classic adventure themes to real-life historically influenced classic brilliance. The “Tragedy of Barshtarlle” theme is actually a performance of “Una furtiva lagrima” from the Italian opera “L’elisir d’amore”, captivatingly capturing the mood of both sadness and tragedy. Equally powerful but much more fun is the ‘next episode’ theme, a dramatic yet wonderous composition of choir, contemporary percussion and orchestra that will leave anyone wanting to jump straight into the next episode. The soundtrack was eventually released over seven volumes, and I wholeheartedly recommend adding them to your collection. 

Originally intended as a 30-minute episodic adventure, Giant Robo would become an OVA lasting almost six hours across seven OVA’s. Despite its lavish production, legendary source material and being, quite frankly, a fantastic and gorgeous product, Giant Robo was not a commercial success in its native Japan. The project also faced the prospect of being unfinished, with its final episode coming after a near three-year delay. It would become part of UK’s Manga Video catalogue from 1996 to 1999, with a similar delay in release also. Coming at the tail end of the VHS format as Manga Video began transitioning to the DVD format, Giant Robo, like most serialised products, would never receive a UK DVD release, as Manga decided on focusing on movie properties instead. To this day there has been no further UK release of Giant Robo in any format, although Discotek Media released the complete series on Blu-Ray in 2019 in the US, containing both the original Animaze dub used by Manga Video and the 2004 dub from NYAV. The latter is more professionally delivered with a more intricate script, but the original dub simply has way more character. Steve Blum as Tetsugyu simply has much more energy when played against Sean Schemmel’s version. 

Revisiting Giant Robo is always a source of constant joy. It is an epic event of such magnitude to experience it is incredible that it isn’t talked about more often. Giant Robo is bold, brave yet far from complex. Its beauty comes from its simplicity. Imagawa’s depiction of tragedy, joy, adventure and brilliant action is as much a wondrous Yokoyama Mitsuteru tribute piece as it is just a wonderful story to behold.