Robot Detective 1.2 – Zero Witnesses

The miniature work in Robot Detective is woeful, but otherwise our son and I enjoyed the heck out of this. He likes Daitetsujin 17 considerably more, it must be said, but this series still has a nice amount of crazy suit fighting and bizarre enemies. I was disappointed that we didn’t learn anything more about Detective K’s bizarre “mother,” a strange celestial statue thing that we glimpsed last time. The main human villain in this episode never quite understands just how deep in the soup he is. In episode one, he was picked up outside prison by a representative of a murder-for-hire gang called BAD, and he decides to double-cross them this time. Bold fellow; he’s got no resources or assistance and they’ve got super-robots that can disassemble at will or stretch pincer-like claws across long distances like a robot Plastic Man.

Unfortunately, Toei’s only made the first two episodes available on their YouTube page so far. More unfortunately still, it seems like they are hoping for fansubbers to provide a little unpaid labor in translating more shows into other languages. Based on the comments, there are several fans in Brazil hoping for Portuguese subtitles. I’ll check back on their channel over the next few weeks; apart from more episodes of this, there’s another Toei sci-fi program that I hope will be available in May. In the meantime, I’ll probably point out Kikaider to our son. He might enjoy that…

Robot Detective 1.1 – The Murderous Salesman of BAD

A few weeks ago, just as casual as can be, the Toei studio announced that they were launching a YouTube channel called Toei Tokusatsu, so that all their fans worldwide can enjoy official subtitled copies of forty-some years of science fiction programs. Now, because your old pal Grant has become a stick in the mud in middle age, I’ve resisted the siren call of Robot Detective for a really long time. The series was designed by comic artist Shotaro Ishinomori and ran for 26 weeks back in 1973, and there have been fansubs available on this site and that for a while. I’ve only seen pictures, but the pictures sold me. I hoped I’d get the chance to see this show through a legitimate source one day.

I’m not entirely sure what I was expecting, but this absolutely delightful show just pleased the daylights out of us. I watched the half-hour with a stupid grin on my face. It’s a little nutty, as you’d expect a show about a robot dude with a flying car and bazookas in his chest would be, but it’s a played-straight cop show! Feeling that the days of “legwork and hunches” are over, the metro police chief pairs a grouchy veteran, “Pops” Shiba, with a rookie who can immediately identify fingerprints and was programmed to solve locked room mysteries, which is handy because a murder-for-hire organization is sending inhuman assassins through the air vents. So sure, there are men in oddball costumes punching each other, but there’s also a really entertaining human element. “Pops” doesn’t like Detective K and he certainly doesn’t want the flashy-dressed robot coming around to pick him up for work. He has unmarried daughters and what will the neighbors think?

American television has made programs with similar premises a couple of times. There was Future Cop with Ernest Borgnine a few years after this, and Mann and Machine with Yancy Butler in the early 1990s, and possibly some others, and the first episode of Robot Detective is a billion times more entertaining than any of them. Even without the costumed wrestling, this show would be a charmer. It ends on a very strange cliffhanger – Detective K has a mother, of sorts! – and I can’t wait to find out what happens next.

Quality-wise, it’s a program that shows its age and is screaming for a nice remastering. Shooting at night with 16mm color film isn’t going to look good no matter what country the series is made in, so a Blu-ray release of this would need a lot of cleaning, but it’s acceptable for YouTube. Although, I have to tell you, Toei, clean this up and you can take my money. I’d love to give this a home on my shelf.

Although, as much as our son enjoyed this, I learned afterward that we might have picked the wrong show. Dave from Let’s Anime has had a Daitetsujin 17 toy since we were in high school, so I pulled the first episode of that up next to show him the title sequence and it completely blew his mind. One monster is like a huge eye and the giant robot has vehicles in its feet and the kid’s supercar turns into a helicopter and he just loved that. If you have an eight year-old in your house, you need to subscribe to this channel.

Message From Space (1978)

It’s largely forgotten today, but if you want to sit down with a kid and enjoy a downright insanely entertaining movie, Message From Space will certainly do. After those last two turkeys we watched for this blog, this was both a relief and a pleasure. This is a fun, fun movie, almost tailor-made for slow Sunday mornings for kids to watch on a UHF channel while Mom and Dad are still asleep.

You know how Star Wars is really inspired by Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress? This is a movie that doesn’t pretend. It’s The Hidden Fortress in space, gleefully pilfering its look and set pieces from Wars and running at breakneck speed with explosions and sword fights every five minutes. Anybody who’d get bored watching this film didn’t have an attention span in the first place.

The plot goes like this: evil space villains have conquered a peace-loving planet, and the defeated people’s ageing leader sends eight seed pods into space to recruit help. The baddies follow the trail from their region of space into ours, and while the seeds collect a rag-tag group of misfits to fulfill their destiny, the villains learn about the beautiful planet Earth and decide to conquer it next. Among its international cast, it’s got Sonny Chiba and Vic Morrow, and a young American actress named Peggy Lee Brennan in a role that looks like it was written for Suzy Quatro.

Our son adored this film, of course. I mean, if you like Star Wars, here it is again, only with old-fashioned miniature effects instead of computer-controlled one, and with a climactic sword fight that is roughly a billion times better than the one Dave Prowse and Alec Guinness had. It’s got both a Vader Villain and his creepy old silver-skinned mother in a wheelchair, beat-up and dirty little one-man spaceships, cocky hotshot pilots, a musical score that sounds a whole lot like John Williams, and a Death Star trench climax that’s pilfered straight from the original, only using about a quarter of the screen time and including giant doors in the tunnels that threaten to close right in front of the quasi-X-wings.

Bizarrely, my son took exception to one little bit of design. The whole affair is ridiculously sumptuous for what could have been a cheap knock-off. According to a book by Stuart Galbraith IV, Japanese Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films, it was actually the most expensive film ever made in Japan up to that time, and you can see it all onscreen. The costumes, sets, spaceships, and effects are all completely over the top and outlandish and I think they all look splendid, but for some reason he grumbled that the villains’ gigantic flying fortress – their Star Destroyer, basically – was “a hunk of junk,” and kept calling it that whenever he wasn’t whooping, laughing, or shouting “Oh my goodness, they’re killing everybody!”

So when the flying fortress meets its destructive end, he jumped off the couch in ecstasy, and bellowed “I TOLD you it was a hunk of junk!” He was happier about that than the downright amazing end for the chief Vader Villain, weirdly.

Message From Space sports a co-writing credit for Shotaro Ishinomori, a comic book artist who spent the seventies being consulted by lots of TV and movie producers in Japan, and collaborating on all sorts of shows that look incredibly fun and/or silly. This is absolutely a fun movie, one I was happy to revisit. It’s not high art, but neither’s Star Wars, and every six year-old in the galaxy should see it.