In Praise of Formula – Mazinkaiser: Shitou! Ankoku Dai Shogun

Kabuto Koji angry and grieved from Mazinkaiser


One of the chief criticisms that western audiences have of super robot anime is that it is too repetitive, that it sticks too closely to its formula.  Every episode follows a similar structure:  villain hatches new plan to kill hero, orders lieutenants to execute it, hero summons robot, HENSHIN/GATTAI, appears to be against the ropes (hostages may be involved), lieutenant makes crucial error, hero owns/saves the day.

Well…sure.  Fair enough, West.  This sequence, or something approximate to it, usually plays out in most episodes of the typical super robot show.  However, I am going to argue that it is just this adherence to its formula that can be the genre’s great strength.  There are many reasons, I think, that this is the case, but in this post I will only discuss one.  Repetition of the formula is important because when it is well-established  the effect of breaking it is much greater.  I will refer to the sequel film Mazinkaiser: Shitou! Ankoku Dai Shogun (Deathmatch! The Great General of Darkness) as an exemplar.

Suggested Soundtrack for Reading – Powerman 5000 “Bombshell”

Professor Morimori's final action fro Mazinkaiser

So, shit goes down in this movie.  Cities are felled, robots are destroyed and people die.  People who matter die, making the ultimate sacrifice.  Places are razed which had become part of the viewer’s visual vocabulary as integral locations for the events of the show.  The “furniture” of the world of Mazinkaiser is reduced.  And, the viewer cannot help but be affected.

Ankoku Dai Shogun would not have worked as well as it does on an emotional level if it were a standalone piece about different characters, taking place in another universe.  The movie has the degree of impact it does because this is Mazinger, because the formula has stuck with the audience, because the expectations born from the mental grooves worn into viewers’ brains are summarily defied.  It’s not just the fact that these things come to pass either;  it is the manner in which they occur that truly gives the events their emotional heft.   Seeing a bloody Professor Morimori’s final moments, watching Lori and Loru get crushed to death, being confronted by the sight of the “hallowed ground” of Koushiryoku Lab in ruins …these moments are a shock to the system but only because the system has been conditioned.

An analogy comes to mind.  From 1918 to 2004 the Boston Red Sox did not win a World Series.  The degree to which 2004’s championship was awesome is largely proportionate to the length of time you had been a Red Sox fan.  The win would be pretty cool to someone who became a Sox fan a year or two before, pretty damn amazing to someone who had been a fan for ten years and FUCK-YEAH-FANTASTIC to someone who had been a lifelong fan, say, since 1928.  Similarly, the degree to which Ankoku Dai Shogun is shocking and awesome is proportionate to the duration of your Mazinger fan-hood, to how much of the Mazinger formula the viewer has experienced.  Someone whose first Maz-perience (portmanteau!) is Ankoku Dai Shogun, or even Mazinkaiser is not going to be as impacted by the movie.  This isn’t because of a lack of investment in the story or attachment to the characters, not totally anyway.  I would argue that the heightened degree of impact upon the long-time Mazinger fan has much more to do with the fact that the structure of the film is radically different than expected.

Koushiryoku Lab in ruins from Mazinkaiser

The mecha and magical girl genres seem to be in a unique position to regularly provide this kind of experience.  I’m not suggesting that they are the only genres that can or, in fact, do follow a formula; however, mecha and magical girl anime seem to be the only genres which actually do tightly structure their episodes around a repetitive formula.  Even shows like Evangelion and Madoka Magica owe something of their entertainment value to the idea I am talking about.  Though the shows themselves are not terribly formulaic, their respective staffs  are aware of established genre formulas and realize that the audience is similarly aware.  The staffs take advantage of this audience awareness by going against the expectations via tonal shifts, element twisting or trope inversion.

Now, I do not want t appear to claim that any show which follows a formula and then subsequently goes against it is therefore a quality production.  Not at all.  There are many, many factors which contribute to the “goodness” of an anime, many of which do not actually have much to do with plot structure.  Also, for the particular move I have been talking about to work, the formula which serves as the platform for the eventual swerve must be compelling in and of itself.  If the episodic structure and content is poor, then the audience will rightfully abandon the series before it breaks with its conventions.  Mazinkaiser is an extremely enjoyable OAV and would remain so if Ankoku Dai Shogun never existed.

The upshot of this post is that the existence of a strict formula within an anime should not entail that it is a bad show;; on the contrary, formula actually has something going for it.  On part two ANNCast’s Best of the 80s podcast, Tim Eldred says that “The enjoyment you [get out of anime is] directly reciprocal to the effort you put into it.”  Ankoku Dai Shogun is proof that this statement is true.

In Praise of Formula – Mazinkaiser: Shitou! Ankoku Dai Shogun

10 thoughts on “In Praise of Formula – Mazinkaiser: Shitou! Ankoku Dai Shogun

  1. A good argument – I’ve always argued simply being “formulaic” in structural terms is not a bad thing. Failing to make that recognisable formula your own is the problem.

    My latest episode post on Rahxephon considers similar ground (about the virtues of the super robot formula) and it ultimately boils down to the idea that a recognisable narrative structure – which is where being formulaic is more apparent perhaps than in narrative details – draws attention to how the detail moves away from the structural formula.

    You watch a robot anime expecting certain things, and find the real meat of it in how the creators take those expected elements and make them in some way a bit unexpected. Similarly within a franchise, as this is, the narrative details become well ingrained in the narrative structure (you know the characters and setting and the unique mechanical bits that define a Mazinger show among super robot shows) and so there’s a lot more potential to take the audience’s expectations in interesting places.

    1. When you have shows that adhere strictly to their formulas, episode after episode, the creators’ minds are somewhat freed up to, as you said, make the execution of the formulaic elements their own. If the skeleton of the structure is already provided, writers and directors can focus on making the meat on those bones interesting!

      1. What I think gives the formula part of its reputation is with hindsight of 30-40 years of evolution from Mazinger Z to something like Valvrave in 2013, we can see the failures and the successes all at once; looking at the mid-70s mess of forgotten series like Gakeen, Balatack et al the bad attempts stand out all the more clearly (since so much of anything is not “the best”)

  2. Hey, Magne Robo Gakeen is not forgotten! =)

    I also think that western audiences are at a bit of a disadvantage when it comes to viewing older super robot shows. Most of us that are checking them out need to realize that these shows (a) weren’t made for our demographic and (b) weren’t made for bulk consumption and (c) were made to sell a product. I think that many newer anime fans (back in my day, anyway) are introduced to this crazy stuff via groundbreaking, original or highbrow titles like Cowboy Bebop, Macross Plus, Memories or the works of Studio Ghibli. There is a degree of preparation that needs to occur, a slow leading down the path, before someone expecting anime to be Ghost in the Shell will find Gaogaigar palatable.

    1. I completely agree with this.

      I find although I enjoy a good number of “classic” super robot shows (GGG, J-Decker, GEAR Fighter Dendoh &c &c) it’s an enjoyment somewhat founded in an understanding – as you say – of the circumstances of their creation and their target demographic. As with any medium, an understanding of what the intent behind something’s creation is supposed to be is a vital first step. Although I don’t hold much for authorial intent as a concept, understanding the context in which something exists is a subtly different thing that can’t be ignored.

      1. GGG is kind of a strange case, as far as target demographics go. It feels like that target changed midway through airing. Like, at a certain point they looked at the data, knew that the Yuusha franchise was ending, and said, “Let’s just make a show for people who are watching it” (aka robot otaku, grown men).

        Also, I love Dendoh with an irrational love and enjoy it straight up, no qualifiers or provisos.

        1. As I understand it the aim from the start with GGG was to make a kids’ show that teens could watch and enjoy – chasing the audience of people who had grown up with the later Braves shows (and trying to account for people who might remember nostalgically the earliest ones).

          1. I had always heard (and I suppose this is just speculation) that the reason for the shift in tone and storytelling midway through GGG was that the creative staff wanted to do something -they- wanted to do, since this would be the final Yuusha show. To me, the last half of the series felt like it was being made for an older audience than the first half. GGG Final, of course, took this several steps further.

            But, if they planned everything out at the beginning, then all the better. I am inclined to believe that, actually, since Ryosuke Takahashi was writing the scripts.

            1. I don’t believe GGG was made knowing it was the last given what’s known about Baan Gaan (ideas from which would become Dendoh) and GGG Project Z (which sounds terrible).

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