Ryousuke and the real robots

Takahashi and one of his creations
Back in the 1970s, mecha shows were spinning their wheels. Essentially extended toy ads, they would follow the typical “monster of the week” formula with perhaps the odd four or six person team of heroes battling an alien invasion, mad scientist or long-slumbering band of demons resurrected from the depths of the earth. Apart from some stand out shows such as Mazinger Z, Combattler V or Voltes, the mecha genre was largely stuck in a rut.

Things began to change in 1979 however, with the premiere of Mobile Suit Gundam. With it’s character-driven stories, blurred lines between villians and heroes and robots that had at least some kind of “science” behind them. Despite being a commercial flop, it made a massive impression on the genre, much like Neon Genesis Evangelion would two decades later. Gundam would go on to become a juggernaut-like franchise, but what came in it’s wake was far more interesting. Specifically one creator, Ryousuke Takahashi and the genre he pioneered, real robot. And no, I’m not talking about this guy.

It’s quite easy to distinguish a real robot show from one of the earlier, super robot type shows. If the mechs are clunky, prone to breaking down and are mass produced like tanks for use in some kind of military context, chances are you’ve got yourself a real robot show. On the other hand, if the pilot is fond of screaming out every attack in a manner that makes their throat bleed, then you’re probably watching a super robot show.

Like so many creators who made big impacts on anime and manga, Takahashi cut his teeth working in Mushi Pro under that towering figure, Osamu Tezuka. After Mushi imploded in the mid 1970s, several of it’s ex-employees formed Sunrise Inc. – Takahashi soon joined his former co-workers. The massive bank of talent that Sunrise had at its disposal would go on to produce most of the shows that would define the next two decades of anime, including the Gundam saga. But the quality was really kicked up a notch when Takahashi was brought on board to produce some follow up series that were intended to ride the wave of Gundam’s popularity in the early 1980s.

Whilst he did work on various mecha shows that certainly aren’t in the real robot genre, such as the brilliant Panzer World Galient and the equally badass SPT LayZner – which I must talk about at some point – Takahashi is known for pioneering the real robot genre with two shows; Fang of the Sun Dougram and Armoured Trooper Votoms.

I just finished watching Dougram recently, thanks to the sterling work of X-Nebula. It’s quite a ride, Dougram is really unlike any mech show I’ve ever seen before and I’m surprised that it’s gotten basically zero exposure in the english speaking world, apart from some toys and model kits that briefly surfaced in the 1980s.

Die-cast Dougram

The setup of Dougram concerns one Crinn Cashim, scion of a very wealthy family who’s father is the head of one of the main political power blocks on Earth. In the future, Earth has some pretty serious overpopulation and resource problems and has become extremely dependent on one of it’s colony planets, Deloyer, for the majority of it’s raw materials. All the various Earth factions and corporate interests are playing some shady political games in order to control the lions share of Deloyer’s wealth and not surprisingly, the citizens of Deloyer would rather run their own affairs so various rebel groups have sprung up. Crinn, a very idealistic youth somewhat reminiscent of Che Guevara, encounters some young Deloyerans on Earth and is sympathetic to their cause, so much so that when he joins the Earth army and is posted to Deloyer, he hooks up with the rebels and steals a prototype mecha, Dougram, in the process.

Man, that’s only the first 3 episodes or so, before we even get into the various bits of drama that befall the Cashim family and the sheer amount of backstabbing that goes on between the rebels and the Earth governments. It’s not quite LoGH territory, but story wise it blows nearly every other mech show out of the water.

I’d hesitate to even call Dougram a robot show. Sure, Dougram itself is a central part of the plot but the show could nearly be described as a political or family drama that happens to have giant robots in it.

After completing Dougram, Sunrise commissioned Takahashi to produce another real robot show, Armoured Trooper Votoms. This really cemented the genre, gaining a loyal fanbase in the process. It also did away with most of the heavy military plot points that were present in Dougram, which probably made Votoms accessible to a much wider audience.

Towards the end of a centuries-long war, our main character, Chirico Cuvie – what is it with protagonists with the initials C.C.? – gets screwed over and left for dead by his army unit, a particularly nasty bunch who are out to steal as much stuff as they can in the aftermath of the war. He escapes and makes his way to a “wretched hive of scum and villainy” called Woodoo city – complete with its own band of roving biker thugs. There, he hooks up with bunch of people with questionable morals, fabulous afros and parachute pants, in order to take on his former commanders, some of whom are now in charge of Woodoo City, and find the answers to some strange things he saw right before he was betrayed and left to drift in space.

When you are used to the usual robot show protagonist, Chirico is a complete departure. Votoms continued and expanded upon, the political themes established in Dougram, being more focused and adding an element of a character driven by revenge but also the niggling feeling that there’s something not quite right about his existence.

The Votom robots themselves are interesting in that we normally see only one design throughout the entire series, perhaps one may appear with a different colour scheme, but they are largely uniform. There’s no “RX-ZZ-2000-Hyper-Votom”, success or failure is entirely up to the skill and wits of the pilot. Also, they’re prone to breaking down like a 1980s Alfa Romeo. Indeed, Chirico spends the majority of the first few episodes repairing one he found lying on a scrapheap.

After the original 52 episode run, Votoms ended up being a bigger hit than Dougram and continues to be popular to this day, with several movies, series and OVAs being produced including a spinoff show, Armor Hunter Mellowlink – the protagonist in this one is so badass he doesn’t even need a robot, going head to head with Votom suits armed only with an improbably-sized gun. A Korean animation company thought Votoms was so good in fact, that they lifted the suit designs for the eh, unique, Micro Commando Diatron V!

Takahashi would go on to direct a string of mech shows throughout the 80s and on into the 90s, right up until the present day. Some of these were a complete departure from the real robot genre, such as the aforementioned Panzer World Galient. He also worked on plenty non-mecha projects with a military theme, such as the OVA adaption of the submarine drama, Silent Service and an episode of the fantastic WWII OVA, The Cockpit. In 1998, he would revisit the real robot genre with Gasaraki, which is something I actually haven’t seen yet.

So what’s he been up to recently? Well apart from lecturing students on the business of making a successful anime series and directing lots more Votoms, he also worked on a 13 episode adaption of his old mentor Osamu Tezuka’s classic work, Phoenix, and most recently a collaboration with Space Battleship Yamato co-creator Leiji Matsumoto; Ozuma.

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