SPIES, ROBOTS, and MONSTERS!
I led a fun week-long class last week that explored monsters and robots in Japanese culture and in contemporary design. They saw the original Godzilla film, the Japanese version that was censored by the US and remained unreleased here for 50 years due to its anti-nuclear sentiment and references to WWII. We looked at many films, cartoons, Tokusatsu (live-action/special effects shows), and had a special visit with manga scholar/translator, Frederik Schodt (Astro Boy). Two programs we watched had special interest for spy fans, and today I want to highlight the first episode of Giant Robot, known in the US as Johnny Sokko and His Flying Robot.
Johnny Sokko and His Flying Robot
1967-1968 Toei Production
The Earth is invaded by a terrorist group called Big Fire (Gargoyle in the US), led by Emperor Guillotine, who commands his minions of henchman and captured scientists (who make monsters- naturally) from his ship beneath the ocean. Enter Johnny Sokko (Daisuke Kusama in Japan), who meets up with a dashing young man, Jerry Mano (Juro Minami in Japan), on a cruise ship. Johnny discovers that Jerry is, in fact, Agent U3 for a top-secret peacekeeping organization called Unicorn. Jerry’s cover is blown when his pen starts ringing! Jerry extends an antenna and contacts his boss at HQ- a rather colorful version of U.N.C.L.E. headquarters.
The ship is attacked by a giant sea monster, and our two heroes find themselves castaways on a beach and quickly captured by the alien terrorists. The baddies in Johnny Sokko are designed with a wonderful mix of evil elements- black berets, sunglasses, Nazi salutes, and sci-fi makeup. Jerry and Johnny break free and an intense gunfight ensues that would never been seen in a US-produced kid’s show. Jerry uses a guard as a shield. The poor henchman doesn’t stand a chance and his pals riddle him with bullets. Even Johnny is armed with a pistol and looks super heroic despite his mini-shorts.
The action and camera work are fast-paced and fun. Jerry and Johnny race through corridors and down an elevator where they discover the Giant Robot and a scientist who has been held prisoner to do Guillotine’s bidding. The man gives Johnny the robot’s control-watch. In James Bond fashion, the heroes blow up the secret lair and shoot it out on the beach. When things get tough, Jerry reminds Johnny that he now possesses the watch that controls the robot. The boy flips open the top, makes his first commands, and a franchise is born! Johnny is brought into Unicorn as Agent U7, and joins the secret fight against the alien terrorists.
It was interesting to talk with Fred Schodt about the violence that we see in Japanese pop culture. There is an edge to the storytelling, seen even in live-action and animated shows from the early 1960s, which remains compelling for American viewers. Johnny Quest was pretty cool and dangerous for its time. But imagine if Johnny Quest, like Sokko, had been allowed to carry a pistol and command a giant robot! In Japan there is generally a greater distinction between fantasy and reality, which is one reason that creators in Japan have explained the graphic tone of their content. They didn’t have a Dr. Wertham, for example, leading a Congressional charge that comics were inciting youth to violence. Fred Schodt agreed, and added that Japan’s low crime rate, gun control, and overall group-sensitivity in the culture would help maintain a boundary between fantasy and what can be expected to happen in real life. But as Japan experiences more of the kind of violence that happens in the US, he added, maybe those lines will blur and the graphic tone will become an issue.
Now, back to that giant robot! While the secret agents are talking into their pen communicators and shooting it out with baddies, Johnny’s robot has quite an arsenal at his disposal: Finger Missiles, Back Missile, Bazooka Cannon (which fires out of the top of the robot's head), Eye Ray/Beams, Flamethrower (from his mouth) and Electrocution Wires. If you are a fan of Japanese monsters, heroes, and toys (and love spies!), Johnny Sokko and His Flying Robot (Giant Robot) is a campy and fun adventure! See the SpyVibe.com website for related video.
Here are a number of web addresses where you can find out more about Johnny Sokko and even see episodes of the show: