WARNING: THIS POST CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR MAZINKAISER: SHITOU! ANKOKU DAI SHOGUN
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”
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.
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.