Viewing Journal: GaoGaiGar (complete)
Story = B+
Video = B
Audio = B
In the year 2005, a race of alien monsters called Zonders emerge from underground and launch a series of attacks on the city of Tokyo. The only defense against these creatures is the secret agency known as the Gutsy Geoid Guard (or 3G) and their ultimate weapon, the awesome giant robot GaoGaiGar. GaoGaiGar's pilot, Guy Shishio, is a former astronaut who was nearly killed two years before when the Zonders first crashed to earth. Guy's life was spared when a mysterious robot lion called Galeon pulled him from the burning shuttle and brought him to Earth. Guy's father, Leo, then used Galeon's technology to rebuild his shattered son as a cyborg, in the hopes that he could stop the aliens when they appear. Now, with Galeon as its core, GaoGaiGar fights to protect Earth. He is aided by a team of transforming robots and by a young boy named Mamoru, who has the power to purify the Zonders' cores, and seems to be connected to the mysterious Galeon. (Source: ANN)
After a string of shows that are confounding and weighty, it's a breath of fresh air to finally watch something with no pretensions about what it is: a strait-up action giant robot entertainment-fest. GaoGaiGar is an anime that unapologetically does its damnedest to imbue its audience with renewed faith that humanity can accomplish anything so long as it believes hard enough and shouts loud enough. And such faith is an appropriate theme for the show, because that is exactly what it takes to make it through the series: Faith that things, as mundane and redundant as they are in the beginning will get incredibly awesome eventually.
Giving a plot summary of GaoGaiGar would be redundant since calling it a "giant robot" show pretty much gives you all the information you need to know. It follows the same conventions of most giant robot anime in that there are aliens attacking the earth and only the giant robot—using the same technology as the aliens themselves, piloted by the son of the robot's developer, and under the control of a covert government agency—can stop it. In this case the giant robot is alternately Galeon, GaoGai, and GaoGaiGar depending on how it transforms and what other vehicles it combines with. The pilot is the cybernetic Gai (pronounced "guy") and the agency that controls it is GGG (pronounced "Three G") or Gutsy Geoid Guard.
This is the first anime I watched purely on recommendation from the Anime World Order podcast, and much of the information they provide is helpful in understanding why the show is the way it is. I'd recommend listening to the podcast episode to get the full story, but there are a couple of things worth mentioning here. First is that GaoGaiGar is part of a faction of giant robot anime called the "Super Robot" genre. In "Super Robot" anime, the robots capabilities defy the bounds of logic and reality, needing only a minimum of explanation—usually involving the strength of the pilot's will—to give the robot the power and abilities to defeat its foe as well often giving the robot a distinct personality or outright sentience. This is in contrast to "Real Robot" shows, which treat the robots simply as tools, limiting their abilities to those that have a logical, technical explanation. The second thing relates to the series' tone and story development. According to AWO (I haven't been able to find my this info through my own research) GaoGaiGar started out as a run-of-the-mill kid's show, but half-way through its run the producers discovered that it the majority of its audience was made up of nostalgic adults, not kids. In response, the creators changed the series' direction, breaking away from the limitations imposed by kids' entertainment. As a result the two halves are very distinct, with the first consisting of a formulaic monster-of-the-week format, and the second following a single continuity with more intense drama and action.
The first episode, despite its cookie-cutter premise (or maybe because of it), did get me initially excited about the series if for no other reason than because it sparked that sense of nostalgia. It's like when you go back and watch a show like Voltron as an adult, and you realize it's not as good as you remember it being when you watched it as a kid. Watching that first episode of GaoGaiGar brought back the feeling I had when watching Voltron or Transformers as a kid—that feeling of larger-than-life epic action involving good versus evil. But of course, then you get to the follow-up episodes and that excitement quickly fades into boredom.
The worst thing about the first half of the series isn't so much the all-too-familiar giant robot formula or the predictable characters or story lines; the worst thing is the mind-numbing redundancy. It's not just that each episode follows the exact same plot outline as that first episode only changing the characters and situations slightly; it's that the way that GaoGaiGar defeats the bad guy is the exact same in every episode. It uses the exact same transformation, the exact same final move, and the exact same "purification" even going so far as to recycle the exact same animation. Certainly, the show does do it's damnedest to push the excitement leading up the the final battle with a lot of declarations that we must believe in the hero, but since it's all so repetitive it ends up feeling like someone is monotonously screaming in your face for twenty-plus minutes. And because you know exactly what is going to happen at the end each episode, the climax is less exciting than the story that proceeds it, making every episode a let-down.
What keeps hope for the series alive are the hints that there will be cooler things to come. For instance, there are a lot of insinuations that the robots are just biding their time until they can remove the safeties and unleash their true power; and as cliche as that may be, it totally works for me. The show starts throwing out these clues around episode thirteen, which is about the time it starts to switch things up and introduce more robots and more powerful weapons, and episode 16 is the first one in which GaoGaiGar does not use its usual final move to take out the enemy. There is also more information about the characters' backgrounds and more development of the overarching plot with hints of a larger story to come; but even so, the plot for the individual episodes are still the same. In fact, the repetitiveness was so annoying that as I watched I questioned whether it was worth the tediousness of those early episodes to get to the later ones. As it turns out, it is.
Much like how the robots keep their capabilities in check until they can release their full power, the second half of GaoGaiGar feels like the creative juices of it creators have finally been set free to unleash their true intentions. It's like a transition from lollipops to hard whiskey as the characters are exposed to increasingly intense battles with a real suffering and death and greater opportunities for heroic glory. All of the anticipation and hints of something bigger from the first half of the series are paid off as the redundancy is replaced with episodes that build upon one another and drama and action that are dialed up to eleven.
It's that over-the-top awesomeness that makes this show so fun to watch. It seems to me that shows with this level of ridiculousness take one of two routes: either they call out their own goofiness with self-effacing comedy, or they say "screw it" and push the unbelievability even further. Shows like GaoGaiGar that take the second route are more engrossing, epic, and strait-out fun to watch because it allows the tension of the series to build up to such an awesome degree that you just don't care about inconsequential things like logic or continuity or exposition. The giant robot fights, the shouting of every line, and even the mundane actions like sliding a key card—they are all done with such zeal and sensationalism that you have to either completely accept it and get lost in the heights of awesomeness that it inspires, or completely reject it and walk away.
Even though these theatrics exist in both the first and second half, they come off very differently in each set of episodes. It's cheesy and insanely melodramatic in the first half where victory is a certainty, but it takes on greater weight and significance in the second half where failure is a real possibility. There are still a lot of declarations that we must believe in the hero, but because there is a real chance that the hero can be defeated, it has much greater weight and significance.
And despite the level of danger, the heroes always push themselves harder to pull out some kind of victory. It's that unrelenting positive attitude in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds that makes this show so refreshing. In each episode in the second half I was constantly thinking "Holy sh** how the hell are they get out of this? There's no fricking way!" And that's when the GGG would come up with some ludicrous plan and be like "Well, we've got less than 1% chance of surviving but f*** it. Let's do it anyway and believe that our hero can win and oh wait we have another extra powerful robot that just happened to arrive. BONUS!" They may all have special powers but its not the strength of their bodies that bring them victory, it's the strength of their will—the DESIRE to win mixed with the drive and mental fortitude to put that desire into action. Sure there's occasional wavering in their optimism, and that's fine as long as sooner or later they step up. It's the conviction that "you can achieve anything if you work hard enough" on the macro level that makes it fun to watch and—dare I say it—inspiring!
Both the animation and music were good, but there are a couple of things to warn you about the animation. The first is that whenever there is a discussion amongst the series' antagonists—the Machine Kings—there is a headache-inducing strobe effect. If there is any series that needs that "watch in a bright room and a safe distance away from the TV" warning, it's this one. The other thing is that it constantly uses recycled animation. Some people may love it, others may hate it; but it's there is pretty much every episode. As for the music, the one thing of particular note is the opening theme lyrics which actually talk about the title robot itself. It seems like most animated series these days use some cut of a song from a popular band where there lyrics are only thematically related to the plot, if at all. Having the opening song actually talk about the story, as much as anything else, really elicits that sense of nostalgia for the cartoons of my youth.
The unfortunate thing about this series is that few people will have the patience to watch 26-or-so episodes before they start to be entertained, which is understandable. But if you are like me and have a passion for over-the-top excitement, you will find it worth your while. And if you do watch and love it like I did, then spread the word; because no one is going to stumble on this series by accident and make it through. They will need someone there to tell them to stand strong, to fight hard, and to believe because in the end you will be rewarded with the highest level of mind-blowing giant robot action imaginable.