Many of these columns in the past have covered “mecha” anime – anime which feature bipedal tank-like machines piloted by a human. We have covered various kinds of mecha anime, ranging from the serious, the comedic, alternative history, series set in space, post-apocalyptic and so on. However, a little while ago in the USA a DVD release of one very important mecha series came out. It is important because it is considered the very first mecha anime of them all.
Originally a manga created by the highly influential Go Nagai, Mazinger Z ran in both its manga and anime versions from 1972-74. A total of 92 episodes were made. Several sequels followed, but the original Mazinger Z is considered the original foundation stone of mecha. It created several of the recurring elements that appear in mecha anime to this day.
The “Mazinger Z” in the title is the name of the mecha used. It is powered by recently discovered “Photon Energy” and is made out of a metal called “Super-Alloy Z”, which itself comes from the newly discovered element “Japanium”. It was built by brilliant, peace-loving Prof. Juzo Kabuto, in order to stop the plans of his former friend, now evil genius Dr. Hell, who lives on an island that once the home of an ancient Greek-like civilization. Dr. Hell is constantly sending out robotic (unpiloted) “Mechanical Beasts” in order to achieve his plans for world domination.
Just as Prof. Kabuto completes Mazinger Z, he is assassinated by Dr. Hell’s henchperson Baron Ashura, whose body is split directly down the middle, one half male, the other half female. As he dies, he is able to tell his grandson, Kouji, about Mazinger Z and how to operate it. Kouji therefore pilots Mazinger Z and defeats Dr. Hell and Ashura.
Most of the episodes follow the same typical plot: Dr. Hell creates a new Mechanical Beast, which is normally commanded by Ashura or some other deputy of his. It is up to Kouji and his friends to use Mazinger Z and what else they have to hand to stop their plans. Kouji’s main allies are his younger brother Shiro; Dr. Yumi, the head of Photon Power Laboratory where Mazinger Z is based; the Doctor’s daughter Sayaka, who also pilots her own female mecha, “Aphrodite A”; and biker Boss, originally a bully towards Kouji at school but whom the later forms a friendly rivalry, and later makes his own mecha out of junk.
In terms of influence, it is clear to see how many mecha has been influence by it. It features so many recurring tropes. For example, the central protagonist who is forced to pilot the mecha, who is often a teenager. Not only that, but this mecha is the only way to save the world. It was also one of (but not the first) anime in which the character shouts out the attack they are performing while doing it. You now see this happen in any anime which features characters battling, mecha or otherwise.
It was also important for creating many things that were new to anime. This was the first in which the mecha had a human pilot. Before this the mecha were either entirely robotic or were remote controlled. Now the pilot was inside, arguably part of the machine. Also, Kouji enters the mecha by piloting a small machine which combines with Mazinger Z. This combining of mecha appears in lots of other mecha that followed.
It should also be mentioned that there are things that indicate that this series was made in the 1970s: the quality of animation, the camp taste in fashion and Dr. Yumi’s moustache amongst them. There are also some elements which could be argued to be a little bit sexist these days, namely towards Sayaka. Some of the things the male characters say to Sayaka could be argued to be patronising. The main thing that sticks in my mind is the fact that originally her mecha, Aphrodite A, had no weapons. But then they do build some weapons. To be exact, Aphrodite A’s mechanical breasts are turned into two gigantic missiles. There is also one episode in which Kouji persuades the scientists at the lab to make the missiles/breasts larger, without Sayaka’s permission and to her annoyance.
Overall, Mazinger Z is influential series. While it displays some hallmarks from its era, its main influences can be seen on every mecha afterwards: Mobile Suit Gundam, Gunbuster, Neon Genesis Evangelion, Code Geass, Gurren Lagann – the list of mecha afterwards is too long to put here.
The first collection of episodes from Mazinger Z is available on Region 1 DVD from Eastern Star. A release date for the second collect has yet to be announced.