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In manga and anime, a Super Robot (スーパーロボット Sūpā Robotto?) is a gigantic robotic, mechanized, or golem-construct, with an arsenal of fantastic super-powered weapons, extreme resistance to damage unless the plot calls for it, sometimes transformable or combined from two or more robots or vehicles usually piloted by young, daring heroes, and often with mystical or legendary origins. This is distinct from a Real Robot, which is a mecha portrayed as a relatively common and plausible item, used by military organizations in the same manner as tanks or aircraft.
Beginnings: Tetsujin 28-go, Mazinger Z
The idea of a robot controlled by a young hero was first used in 1956 with Iron Man 28 or Tetsujin 28-go (dubbed and released in the US as Gigantor), by manga artist Mitsuteru Yokoyama, which featured a giant robot piloted by remote-control by a young boy named Shotaro Kaneda, who used it to fight against evil. However, the first anime to use the phrase Super Robot and the one that set the standards for the genre was Mazinger Z, created by Go Nagai and making its debut in manga publications and TV in 1972. The main difference between Mazinger Z and previous robots was that the hero, Koji Kabuto, would pilot the robot from the inside in the same manner as one would drive a car. This anime show was hugely popular, and spanned numerous sequels and imitations during the 1970s, as well as revival shows during the 80s and 90s.
The Super Robot anime shows are usually named after the title robot (Mazinger Z, Getter Robo, Combattler V, etc.), and tend to use a "monster of the week" format in that the villains introduce a single antagonist at the beginning of the episode that the heroes usually defeat by its end. They often introduce minor antagonists while slightly developing the main struggle between the chief protagonists and the major villains. In the 70s, with a common episode count around 50 to 52 episodes for many series, more if especially popular, a more minor chief conflict would be resolved at the end of the first 'season', around episode 26, with another developing directly afterwards and leading, in the final episodes of the series, to the ultimate confrontation with the chiefest of antagonists.
Antagonists tended to come from either outer space or ancient civilizations, with common elements being a monstrous appearance or an entirely strange, occasionally even beautiful, one. Many foes employed robot or cyborg henchmen, whom they often sent against the heroes in their robot. The goals of these antagonists varied, although many were megalomaniacal or outright genocidal in their ambitions.
In the 1980s the Real Robot genre spawned by the Gundam films and the popular Space Battleship Yamato-style space opera films enjoyed a comparatively brief dominance upon trends of the mecha anime in Japan, and new Super Robot shows were less frequent for a time as space opera and militaristic mecha became popular. However, in the 1990s a renaissance in the Super Robot genre occurred, due at least in part to the economic problems of Japan which led many TV stations to rerun numerous series popular in the 70s. Of course this included classic super robot series, which renewed the public's interest in them and spawned rejuvenation of the Yuusha series. All these may have had some influence upon subsequent anime series and OVAs like Giant Robo, which combined the basic concept of Super Robot shows with storylines rife with attempts at profundity and occasionally philosophical or political messages.
Many remakes and updates of old Super Robot shows, such as Getter Robo Armageddon, Tetsujin-28, Mazinkaiser and others were produced, with some using complex plots while others remained with simple "Good vs. Evil" stories. Super Robot shows were not the only ones to receive this attention however, as so many classic series enjoyed a resurgence in popularity due to the reruns, leading to a new generation of fans to be directly familiar with the material.
Inevitably, there are some types of mecha that are difficult to classify as either a Real Robot or a Super Robot. Some of these include the Aura Battlers from Aura Battler Dunbine or the Evangelion units from Neon Genesis Evangelion, which follow the general motif of real robots, but their origin and abilities are more like the typical super robot (though Evangelions are technically cyborgs). The Mortar Headds from Five Star Stories are unique artifacts, treated like individual works of art by the fictional society present in the story, and their power often borderlines on Super Robot. However, their intricate engineering and the motif of their weaponry is often scientifically explained by series creator Mamoru Nagano, which makes them very real robot-esque in other ways.
Super Robots may have more stylized curvy designs but some are more utilitarian, especially those from merchandise-franchises or series with combinable robots. Getter Robo is an exception, although it can combine in the show and practically invented the genre, wasn't intended to market combinable toys (though advances in engineering have resulted in Getter Robo toys that can combine), whereas the combining robots of Takara/Sunrise's Brave Series and the Bandai-sponsored Combattler V were from merchandise driven franchises, the robots had to combine in the show and real life so they had utilitarian designs.
Mecha which employ both Super Robot and Real Robot principles are referred to as Hybrid Robots; since the production of Evangelion, this approach has gained some popularity and developed into its own niche, as evidenced by shows such as Brain Powerd, RahXephon, Overman King Gainer and Zegapain. Nevertheless, several pure Super Robot series have been produced in modern times, such as Gear Fighter Dendoh, Gravion and Godannar. The 2007 anime Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann is notable for featuring 1970s-inspired Super Robot protagonists (Spirals) in conflict with Evangelion-inspired Hybrid Robot antagonists (Anti-Spirals) in the second half of the series.
Possibly the real success expected from a sci-fi giant robot show would be the toys and merchandise sales they can produce. In fact, the Super Robot genre spawned a new type of toys that became the defining items of the genre.
In late 1972, a Japanese toy company called Popy released a die-cast metal version of Mazinger Z, whose series was airing at that time. The figure was about 4 inches tall, it launched spring-loaded fists like the robot "Rocket Punch" on the series and was quite heavy, being made of metal.
This toy revolutionized the Japanese toy industry, spawning lots of toys for almost every Super Robot show that was aired on Japanese TV. Sometimes the case was the opposite: a giant robot anime TV series was created based on the toys produced. The Chogokin line of robots (the name given by Popy to the toyline), eventually lost its popularity in the early 80's after its rival company, Bandai, took the industry by storm with their Gundam franchise and their new plastic toy lines. The original die-cast Popy SR toys have become rare collector's items, with those in mint condition fetching thousands of dollars in the collector's market.
Ironically, it was Bandai itself that revived the Super Robot die-cast toys in recent times. Having acquired the Popy toys rights, and due to the renaissance in popularity of the giant robot of the past, Bandai began release a line of solid, highly detailed and quite expensive models made of die-cast metal. This line is called Soul of Chogokin, and is currently producing a fine line of toys that is aimed primarily at collectors. One of them, a super deluxe model of the Super Robot called Grendizer (complete with the die-cast robot, a flying saucer, four ships and other accessories), which currently is out of production, is known to reach over US$400 in specialized stores and auctions.
A good quantity of "Soul of Chogokin" toys from different Super Robot series of the past have been produced, like Mazinger (which has over 12 models based on different robots from the anime), Gaiking, Dancougar, Tetsujin 28-go, and a few others.
Currently, Bandai's Soul of Chogokin line is in its 61st release, GX-61 Ultimate Robot Daiohja, with number 62 being announced to be Planetary Robo Danguard Ace, another 70's mecha/robot which is due later this year.
Outside of Japan
Apart from Gigantor's cult-classic status in the United States, the only true impact Super Robot shows made in the States before the 1980s was in the form of the Force Five series, which was a compilation of different Japanese giant robot shows, and with the Mattel Shogun Warriors toyline. Super Robots are much more likely to be known in the United States by way of Voltron: Defender of the Universe (1984), a translated and edited compendium of two earlier Japanese series, King of the Beasts, GoLion (1981) and Kikou Kantai Dairugger XV (1982), which became a top-rated children's show on U.S. television and a 1980s pop-culture icon in America.
Largely due to Mazinger Z and redubbed versions of other Super Robot series, the Super Robot genre garnered much more visibility in other parts of the world, particularly in Europe, Latin America, and the Arab world. Mazinger Z also had a short-lived U.S. TV broadcast in the mid-1980s under the title TranZor Z, but was regarded by many viewers as a rip-off of Voltron, despite the fact that Mazinger preceded the first Voltron series, Golion, on television in Japan by almost a decade. However, the series proved much more popular abroad, especially in the Spanish-dubbed version in Mexico and other Latin American countries.
Another Super Robot show which was shown in America but had a more significant impact in Europe and the Middle East was another Go Nagai creation, UFO Robo Grendizer. In the United States, this series was part of the Force Five package. However, in France, Grendizer, retitled Goldorak, became a major hit in its initial broadcast there in 1978, three years after its Japanese premiere, and paved the way for other successful European dubs of the series (such as Goldrake in Italy); in fact, in 2005, Toei Animation and Go Nagai's Dynamic Planning won a substantial judgment against a French company selling pirated Goldorak DVDs. One European country where the Super Robot genre has been particularly successful is Italy, where a number of Super Robot series not shown in any other territory outside Japan (such as Zambot 3) have been screened on TV especially from the late 70s to the mid 80s giving rise to phrases like "The invasion of the animated Japanese robots". Grendizer has also gained a wide fanbase in the Arabic part of the Middle East during the 1980s and 1990s and still airs on several Arabic networks to this very day, where it is considered one of the anime titles responsible for the creating the Anime Invasion in that part of the world especially mecha anime and is considered one of the most popular Arabic dubbed cartoons of all time. Unlike the Italian and French dub, it kept the original Japanese names of the characters. In the Philippines, Voltes V was shown locally in the 1970s and again in the 1990s, and remains immensely popular among Filipinos.