April 9, 2009



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:


1 comment:

  1. Greetings, I'm Leftyjoe, a Latino San Gabriel valley artist transplanted to the Wilshire district of LA hoping to continue working in animation and pop art.

    I'm co-curating a great pop art show in Downtown LA this July, on the 18th.
    It will be held at "the church" building (address 606 6th street. LA CA- downtown on 6th.st and Crocker) near the "brewery".

    It's a group show containing tons of artists, famous and undiscovered. The show's theme may catch your eye, "Mawnstirrs (monsters) and Rowboughts (robots)"

    The artists will show just how those two icons of human culture touched each of their lives and influenced their creativity.
    This will be a fun pop art show that will continue to be shopped around to galleries all year long, check us out and please, forward this to anyone you know that is a fan of either subject.

    (feel free to contact me or peruse my pages)

    Below are links to places where we've posted stuff about our show to start the buzz, please help us promote this show so that the artwork can reach the hands of Fans, or connoisseurs of Monsters and or Robots. Hopefully the works of art will touch someone's life as art and the subject matter has touched the artists themselves. And, hopefully what the artists are conveying in there art will have the same affect.

    Here's a thread I started for our show on Drawingboard.org, join the site, comment on the thread and post pics or vids to get people excited about the show.


    Oh, once again, here's the blog I started to post our pics and vids for our art show.


    and on satellite soda.


    and on Frederator,