Gorengers (known as Star Rangers locally) were the original inspiration for today's more popularly known Power Rangers. Photograph by Jar Concengco
Culture Spotlight

How the Japanese super robots of our youth have become highly collectible

Japanese super robots first took popular culture by storm in the early 70s. These days, those too young among us to afford them during that period are making sure they get their hands on the figures
Iñigo S. Roces | Apr 20 2019

The memory of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki prompted Japanese cinema to create Godzilla, the kaiju (“strange creature”) to rule them all. Trampling city after city became par for the course for the massive beast, which soon found itself battling other supersized monsters like Mothra and King Kong. As Godzilla entered a paradigm shift from destructive monster to hero, movie and TV producers would eventually find a new kaiju to tickle the viewing public’s fancy—the super robot.

Jumbo Machinder edition Voltes V stands 24 inches tall.

 

From big screen to small

Gaining popularity in Japan in the early 70s, the super robot trend featured animated giant robots piloted from inside the machine. Much like the Godzilla movies, TV series featuring robots tended to use a “monster of the week” format, with the monster being defeated in the end. Many credit Iron Man 28 or Tetsujin 28-gõ (dubbed and released in the US as Gigantor) with the many imitations that followed, which included Mazinger Z, Getter Robo, and Combattler V.

 

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Merchandising magic

Yet, more than the ratings, what would launch the super robot trend to ubiquity were the toys and merchandise they spawned. Leading the charge was Japanese toymaker Popy, which, in 1972, released a die-cast metal version of Mazinger Z. The heavy figure was only four inches tall but launched spring-loaded fists like the robot “rocket punch” in the series.

The success of the tie-in toy launched the super robot trend and rekindled Japan’s production and export hopes first sparked by its tin toy industry of the 1930s and 40s. Not surprisingly, Popy’s toy gave rise to many imitators—revolutionizing the industry and, in some cases, even influencing the creation of TV series simply to market a toy. Companies like Takara and Bullmark followed suit, fueling the mecha fire that would eventually become one of Japanese pop culture’s trademarks.

Despite the thinly veiled marketing ploy, it was the art of Japanese storytelling that kept the magic alive for well over a decade in Japan and several other countries. Much is owed to the “Robot Romance Trilogy” of super robots series created by Toei Company. That trilogy encompassed the Chõdenji Robo Combattler V, Chõdenji Machine Voltes V, and Tõshõ Daimos (simplified to Combattler, Voltes V, and Daimos in foreign syndication).

Aside from the “monster of the week” format, the writers also introduced a main underlying struggle between the chief protagonist and the major villain, which allowed producers to stretch the season to 52 episodes and relate past series to the upcoming one through larger story arcs.

Collector Kim Castro demonstrates the proper care and maintenance of antique super robot toys.

Outside of Japan, the super robot trend also gained traction with Gigantor’s popularity,  followed by the Shogun Warriors and Force Five TV blocks composed of other super robot hits like Gaiking, Danguard Ace, Getter Robo G, Grendizer, and Spaceketeers.

In the Philippines, the shows were aired in the late 70s (dubbed in English by Filipino talents) and then banned following complaints that the cartoons portrayed “excessive violence.” They would be re-aired decades later owing to public demand.

With soaring profits and hopes of sustaining the trend, Japanese networks attempted to return to live-action filming, the format in which Godzilla first gained popularity. This attempt spawned the tokusatsu genre, the most notable of which was the Super Sentai Series (“super” referring to the use of mecha and sentai for “task force” or “fighting squadron”). The shows made use of characters and colorful special effects aimed mainly at children. The Go Rangers (Star Rangers) was the first incarnation, eventually giving rise to shows like Bioman, Kamen Rider, Shaider, and their American counterpart, Power Rangers.

By the 80s, the super robot trend continued to transform. Greater care was given to explaining the fighting machine’s abilities and operation, which were heavily grounded in real-world physics and future technological advances. The traditional good-versus-evil story arc was plumped up by back stories. Pioneering space opera shows like Space Battleship Yamato (1974), Mobile Suit Gundam (1979), and Super Dimension Fortress Macross (1982, named Robotech abroad) would form the basis of what viewers would later call “real robot animé.”

 

Toy tie-in trade

As the shows continued to evolve, so did the trade of associated merchandise. With goods actively changing hands in toy stores, conventions, and online auctions, toy companies began reviving discontinued models. Some even created separate, more detailed lines to function simply as display units for adult collectors.

In the Philippines, Kim Castro from San Fernando, Pampanga is one such collector. Kim grew up glued to super robot shows, turning his childhood fascination into a veritable business.

“In the 80s, most cartoons (on) TV were of Japanese robots. Every child would watch these after school,” Kim recounts. “As a child, I did not really have any robot toys for myself. My mother would buy my older brother Paul some robots during her trip to Hong Kong in 1980. I had to ask his permission to play with his robots.”

The toys were irresistible. Popy’s die-cast metal Voltes V was available with the five Volt Machines sold separately or in a gift set known as the “Volt In Box.” Aside from the Volt Machines combining to form Voltes V, the toy also transformed into Voltank mode (an alternate vehicle mode that turned the robot horizontal with the wheels on the ground). The Jumbo Machinder 24-inch edition allowed small children to ride on it.

“The Japanese manufacturers obviously put so much imagination into designing them,” Kim explains. “Every robot toy they made I think would win any child’s heart.”

Voltes V Volt machines were capable of interconnecting to form the Voltes V robot like in the TV show.

Though the die-cast construction made for better quality and detail, the weight of these models figured in import duties and costs—making them prohibitive and perceptively delicate.

“Even in those days, the Japanese robots were so expensive. My mother thought I was too young to play with these toys. That drives me today to get all the toys I never had as a child.”

It’s a familiar feeling shared by many collectors, but Kim tempers his by focusing on the toy’s condition.

“As a collector, I am very particular with the condition of the toy and box. If the toy is in an ‘un-played’ condition—the paint is still shiny, the joints are tight, it’s complete with accessories, and manuals have the complete number of pages, the box is without crease, wear, tear, and still in vibrant colors—it will be a highly collectible toy.”

Despite such standards, Kim’s collection is extensive, spanning toys dating to the very first of the super robot shows to paraphernalia released during their 1999 re-broadcast in the Philippines. Some of Kim’s pristine mint-in-box examples have been valued by as much as PHP 680,000. Kim is not alone in his passion either, as collectors from all around the world continue to patronize his website kimcastro.com in the hopes of stumbling on rare finds or just to indulge their nostalgia.

Though super robot shows have now faded from the public eye, relegated to reruns on cable channels, it’s likely that the fascination for mecha and super robots in particular, will endure. 

 

Photographs by Jar Concengco

This story originally appeared on Vault Magazine Issue 13 No 1 2014.