Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Hubrisween 2019 :: J is for Johnny Sokko and His Flying Robot in Voyage into Space (1970)

From the unplumbed depths of outer-space, a tear-shaped UFO rockets toward the Earth and then makes a beeline for Japan. And as that island country’s defense forces mobilize just in case these extraterrestrial visitors aren’t friendly, this proves prudent when an invasive broadcast breaks into all frequencies on the planet to announce the arrival of Emperor Guillotine from the Planet Gargoyle -- and his intentions are to conquer and enslave all sentient life on this primitive mudball.

Then, all hell breaks loose as Guillotine’s flagship easily destroys two whole squadrons of advanced fighter jets. But just when it looks like the Earthlings have no chance against these alien hostiles, the UFO breaks off the attack, dives into the Pacific, and disappears. And after several months pass with no sign or sighting, it’s presumed the UFO crashed and was destroyed, taking all occupants with it. But a top secret international peacekeeping organization known as Unicorn doesn’t buy this and have sent one of their top field agents to investigate a recent rash of unexplained maritime disasters occurring near the very spot where the UFO disappeared.

And that’s why Jerry Mano -- a/k/a Agent U3 (Itô / Rusoff), is on the deck of a cruise ship, ribbing an adolescent boy with tales of the many boats that have mysteriously gone missing in this area. But the boy, Johnny Sokko (Kaneko / Byers), doesn’t frighten easily, and Mano admires his courage so much he nearly blows his cover by admitting who he is, who he is working for, and why he’s there. 

Then, after contacting his boss, Chief Azuma (Date), Mano reports all is quiet. Well, at least it was until a giant tentacle breaks the surface and smashes into the ship. And as what that tentacle is attached to surfaces and tears the ship to pieces, Mano grabs the boy and bails over the side before the ship explodes.

The next morning, Johnny and Mano find themselves washed up on an uncharted desert isle. And with Mano’s soggy mini-communicator on the fritz it appears they may be stuck there indefinitely. But! Turns out they’re not alone as the island is crawling with agents of the Gargoyle Gang -- henchmen for the dreaded Emperor Guillotine, decked out in military gear bearing a skull insignia, matching berets, and spiffy designer sunglasses, who capture these two castaways.

But while being interrogated, Mano manages to engineer an escape, and as he and Johnny fight their way out of the compound they wind up on an elevator that heads down into the bowels of the base, which reveals a 100-foot tall humanoid robot, whose countenance and carapace resembles the Egyptian sphinx.

Still trapped, these fugitives find a temporary refuge when an older scientist pulls them into his lab. Introducing himself as Dr. Lucius Guardian, seems he and several other scientists have been kidnapped by the Gargoyle Gang to develop this giant robot to help them conquer the world. Seems it works by a remote control device, which resembles a wristwatch with a speaker hidden inside, and the robot will imprint on the first voice it hears once activated, and then it will only obey that one person. 

Saying the unstoppable machine is nearly complete and only needs an atomic power source to run it’s massive electronic brain, Dr. Guardian can’t let it fall into the enemies’ hands and has rigged a nuclear device that will destroy the robot and the compound ending the threat once and for all. And once the explosive charge is triggered, the scientist is gunned down while covering Mano and Johnny’s escape, who get far enough away before half the island goes up in smoke.

However, not only did the bomb fail to destroy the robot the radiation it released was enough to jumpstart the infernal thing. Luckily, Johnny had tried on the control device right before the crap hit the fan and still has it wrapped around his wrist. Activating it, Johnny starts ordering the Giant Robot around, and then commands it to scoop them up and fly them back to Tokyo. The robot complies.

Of course, Emperor Guillotine is pretty pissed off about losing his primary weapon of mass destruction. And from his underwater lair at the bottom of the ocean, he orders one of his top Gargoyle lieutenants by the name of Spider (Niwa) to take Dracolon -- the monster that sank the boat earlier, and attack Tokyo in retribution. And as the aquatic monster surfaces, lays siege, and his rampage begins in earnest, Chief Azuma is finally able to raise Mano on the communicator, fills him in on the monster attack, and wants to know if there’s anything he can do about it? Can he ever!

And so, with Mano’s encouragement, Johnny sends the Giant Robot into battle with Dracolon, instructing him to use his atomic mega-punch to pummel the creature relentlessly. But the monster will not go quietly as they toss each other around for a bit as this all-out slobber-knocker racks up some more property damage. But then, after stunning his opponent with another mighty blow, the robot locks and loads a missile in each fingertip, and then launches them at Dracolon, who detonates on their fiery impact. 

And while Tokyo is saved, at least for the moment, there is no time to celebrate for Guillotine and the Gargoyle Gang will surely try again. In fact, the alien despot has already called in Nucleon from his home planet, which resembles a giant sea mine that thinks it’s a bowling ball, which makes earthfall by crashing into a mountainside, and then thunders down the slope, crushing everything in its path, while drawing a bead on an unsuspecting village...

As a child growing up in Japan amidst the background of World War II, Mitsuteru Yokoyama began to draw at an early age when his family was evacuated to the rural prefect of Tottori, where they remained until hostilities ceased. Upon reaching high school, Mitsuteru discovered Osamu Tezuka's manga Metropolis, an illustrated tale of secret agents, vile and kooky villains, and rampaging giant robots, which left a deep impression and essentially cemented Mitsuteru’s desire of becoming an illustrator.

To pay the bills in the meantime, he worked five months at a brokerage but quickly left that creatively stifling occupation behind and moved on to work in the publicity department of a Kobe based movie studio and continued to develop his manga ideas during his free time, which led to his first published work, Otonashi no Ken (Sword Without Sound) around 1954, which drew high praise from his inspirational hero, Tezuka.

Then, in 1956, Mitsuteru’s Tetsujin 28-go (Iron Man-28) made its debut, telling the tale of a Japanese doomsday weapon in the form of a gigantic robot, which, in theory, would help them defeat the Allies as the tide of World War II turned against them. But, Japan surrendered before the robot was completed. After the war, Dr. Kaneda, the creator of the robot, passed on the now finished project to his 10-year old crime-fighting son, Shotaro, who remotely controlled the robot to right wrongs and maintain world peace.

Inspired by his post-wartime experiences, where he saw what was left of the city of Kobe, which had been firebombed and flattened by B-29 bombers, Mitsuteru was “astonished at [the flying fortresses] terrifying, destructive power.” He was also fascinated by the notion of the Vergeltungswaffen -- Nazi Germany’s secret V-weapons that failed to reverse the course of the war as Hitler had hoped, and the film Frankenstein (1931), which shaped Mitsuteru’s belief that the monster itself was neither good or evil.

Tetsujin 28-go was credited as being the first occurrence of a giant humanoid robot being remotely controlled by a human protagonist and would prove hugely influential in the burgeoning Tokusatsu genre -- live action adaptations of science fiction, fantasy, and horror stories, ranging from kaiju (Godzilla), superheroes (Kamen Rider), and mechas (Super Robot Mach Baron). The serialized print adventures of Tetsujin 28-go ran for 97 chapters over its ten year run and was extremely popular, rivaling Tezuka's own smashing success, Astro Boy. The manga was also adapted as an 84-episode anime by TJC and was first broadcast in 1963, and was such a huge hit it soon drew the attention of Fred Ladd.

Ladd, an American producer who had been redubbing and repackaging foreign films and cartoons since 1937, had already successfully adapted the anime version of Astro Boy for western audiences. And after seeing Mitsuteru’s artwork of the remote-controlled giant robot, Ladd formed Delphi Associates with Al Singer to create an English-language version of Tetsujin 28-gō, which would make its American syndicated debut in 1968. 

However, not wanting any legal hassles with Marvel Comics, who owned the trademark on Iron Man, Ladd changed the name of the series to Gigantor -- complete with a hideously infectious theme song concocted by Louis Singer and Eugene Raskin that I’ve been humming since starting this tangent.

Meantime, flush with success, Mitsuteru moved to Tokyo in 1964 and established his own company, Hikari Productions, where he kept churning out hit after hit no matter the medium -- manga, anime or tokusatsu. And one of these follow-ups came at the request of Toei Studios, who were anxious to create a new tokusatsu TV series based on a Mitsuteru creation. And so, he cooked up Giant Robo, which was clearly inspired by Tetsujin 28-gō as another young boy, Daisaku Kusama, gains control of a giant robot through dubious means, joins an international peacekeeping force, and does battle with an alien despot and his horde of monsters. But unlike with Tetsujin 28/Gigantor, which could be controlled by whoever held his remote, the Giant Robot would imprint on the boy and would only obey his orders. Toei would produce 26 episodes of Giant Robo, which aired from October, 1967, through April, 1968, and it wouldn’t take long before it would be picked-up and adapted for American audiences, too. Only this time, it would come from an odd source.

In 1964, American International Pictures was one of the last film studios to start its own branch specifically geared to make product for television. However, in order to assure theater owners that their first run product wouldn’t reach TV screens via AIP-TV too soon, James Nicholson and Samuel Arkoff guaranteed no film from American International Pictures would be released to TV for five years after its debut. But aside from a series of odious color remakes made in Texas by Larry Buchanan -- Attack of The Eye Creatures (1965), Zontar, the Thing from Venus (1966), and producing two failed TV spin-off pilots for Beach Party (1963) and Sergeant Deadhead (1965), AIP-TV seemed content to package dubbed-over European, Japanese and Mexican films and live-action and animated TV series, including Giant Robo.

The American version of the series was developed by Reuben Guberman for AIP-TV, who came up with the gloriously demented alternate title for the series -- Johnny Sokko and His Flying Robot. The series itself is just completely bonkers from concept and pure bedlam in its execution, and the wildcat dubbing makes it all even more so. 

Targeting preadolescents, the adaptation also appears to have been written by a six-year old as all involved readily accept some quantum leaps in plot logic -- as Johnny seems to automatically know everything the robot can do from the jump; and he gets to be a spy, fly around with his jet-pack, and shoot and kill the bad guys with his bestest bud, Jerry Mano (-- though the dub sure makes it sound like his name is Jerry Mono. And then there’s the thousand times Johnny and Mano are captured and the bad guys refer to him as U3 and there’s a mental pause to ask, wait, there’s only two of them). Is it any wonder the series was such a huge hit?

Then, in 1970, as it’s popularity was peaking, AIP-TV chopped-up five episodes of Johnny Sokko and His Flying Robot, and then haphazardly taped chunks of them together for a “new” 98-minute telefilm, which was released under the title Voyage into Space (1970). And while the first episode and origin remain fairly intact, things get a bit nonsensical and jarring from there on out as things abruptly end with one menace’s defeat and then immediately cuts to the next one as Draculon is barely defeated before Nucleon makes mincemeat out of the Japanese Defense Forces.

Meanwhile, Unicorn is having Johnny run through a battery of tests with the Giant Robot to document its full strength and durability while scoping out its offensive and defensive capabilities, which on top of the rocket-thrusters, atomic mega-punch, and finger missiles, also includes destructive eye-beams and a flame thrower secreted inside the mouth cavity.

And since Johnny is the only one who can control the robot, he is officially sworn in as a Unicorn operative. Designated as Agent U7, Chief Azuma tells Johnny he must keep this all a secret, even from his parents, as he presents the kid with his own spiffy uniform and sidearm. (Greatest. Kid’s show. EVER!) Oh, and also the secret Unicorn salute, which is nothing more than a snap of the fingers over-dubbed with the sound of someone slipping on a banana peel. (I SAID, EVER!)

With that, Azuma sends Johnny and Mano to scope out the Nucleon situation even though their offer to help is initially rebuffed by the JDF. Flying to the scene with their jet-packs, they watch as Nucleon mops up an armored battalion of tanks and then makes quick work of a squadron of jets. Realizing this is a job for the Giant Robot, Johnny calls him to the scene with the control device.

Unaware they were under observation the whole time by the Gargoyle Gang, Spider twigs to the idea that if you neutralize Johnny you’ve also neutralized the robot. But instead of eliminating him, Spider decides to try and capture the boy, brainwash him onto their side with something called a Hypnotron, and then vicariously use the robot to destroy Unicorn -- stress on the try, as his scheme goes up in smoke when Nucleon is defeated by the Giant Robot; and then Spider and all of his men are killed when the robot uses the carcass of Nucleon as a bat to smash his getaway car flat.

Immediately cut to a reservoir, where two more of Guillotine’s lieutenants, the silver-skinned Doctor Botanus and Dangor the Executioner (Andô, Miemachi -- again, with the terrible dub it sure sounded like Dr. Buttless to me), unleash the Gargoyle Vine, another giant monster, who uses his plant like appendages to suck-up all the water. And if the Earth does not surrender in 24-hours, according to a transmitting assassin’s bullet pulled out of Chief Azuma's arm, the monster will suck the planet dry.

Turns out this creature was the creation of yet another Earth scientist, who is rescued by Johnny and Mano, who informs Azuma they can’t destroy the Gargoyle Vine by conventional means because it would only make things exponentially worse as each scattered piece would only grow into another monster. Never fear, as Johnny comes up with the solution by having the Giant Robot destroy a dam, which drowns the monster and neutralizes the threat.

Cut to a speeding train, which is gobbled up whole by the monster Gargoylia -- all part of Guillotine’s efforts to capture an agent of Unicorn named Suzuki to uncover some confidential documents pertaining to a super-secret conference the man was supposed to attend.

Brainwashed and transmodulated with the Hypnotron, Suzuki is sent on to the conference as a spy but his odd behavior has his daughter seeking out help from Johnny and Mano, who quickly unravel the Gargoyle plot and prevent a bomb going off at the conference while the Giant Robot makes quick work of Gargoylia.

After this latest defeat at the hands of Johnny Sokko and the Giant Robot, Emperor Guillotine decides to stop screwing around and orders his latest chief henchman to just assassinate the boy. And while at first this appears to have succeeded when Johnny is lured into a trap and shot, and confirmed later when the assassin makes sure he’s dead by putting three more bullets into his target at the hospital, turns out this was all an elaborate ruse by Unicorn so the killer could lead them to Guillotine’s secret base.

Thus, the stage is set for a final confrontation between Unicorn and the Gargoyle Gang, as Guillotine gathers his forces and summons the Opticon, a giant eyeball with legs, who is quickly turned into an atomic mega-punch pinata by the Giant Robot.

Alas, no one bothered to keep track of the robot's battery life as he disposes of several other monsters while Unicorn tries to flush the enemy out of their stronghold, destroying Guillotine’s ship in the process.

Thus, the battle turns when Giant Robo runs out of gas and stalls out. Seizing the moment, a kaiju-sized Guillotine tromps onto the scene and bellows victoriously! However! Just when all seemed lost, the Giant Robot taps into his back-up batteries and reboots.

But as he moves to confront Guillotine, the alien despot warns his current size is the result of a massive dose of atomic energy. And he is so unstable, any blast or blow would cause an extinction level explosion. Thus, surrender is Unicorn’s only option. With that, the Giant Robot seizes Guillotine, ignites his rocket pack, and blasts off. 

And as Johnny and the others watch him fly away, the robot leaves Earth’s atmosphere and heads toward deep space, sacrificing himself to stop Guillotine once and for all by plowing into a passing meteor, which detonates his passenger, destroying them both. Back on earth, as the flickering light of the explosion fades above, a tearful Johnny and the others give his noble friend one final salute.

Despite the narrator’s assurances that the Giant Robot might return one day when Johnny really needs him, the finality of the final episode of Johnny Sokko and His Flying Robot would traumatize a generation of kids. And his heroic action and noble sacrifice would be echoed again later in Brad Bird’s phenomenal first animated feature, The Iron Giant (1999).

And while kids loved the delightfully gruesome show some parents and watchdog groups were appalled by the constant child endangerment and the astronomical levels of violence metered out per episode. And in the era of emulative clauses it’s kind of amazing what Johnny Sokko and His Flying Robot was able to get away with as each episode contained mass casualties and running gunfights with young Johnny and his fellow juvenile agent, Marie Hanson (Tomomi Kuwabara), blasting away at the Gargoyle Gang -- whose mortality rates were downright appalling. And while this was business as usual in Japan, not so much in America, which, again, baffles me to no end over what AIP-TV was allowed to keep in.

And while the miniatures and kaiju action are nowhere near what Eiji Tsuburaya was producing for Toho at the time, the giant robot fights were still pretty stellar -- if plagued by recycled footage of the Giant Robot doing the same routine over and over to activate certain weapons systems from episode to episode, but prove satisfying in a tactile sense that only two people dressed in monster suits beating the snot out of each other can produce.

Masao Ichikura, Yasuo Ogawa, and Nobuo Yajima were in charge of the special-effects and Toshiyuki Tsuchiyama wore the mecha-suit. The monsters he battled were all colorful and unique and extremely charming in their logic, with bizarre power sets and a wide variety of Achilles' Heels to be unearthed to defeat them.

Now, I didn’t get my first taste of this lunacy until I was in college in the early 1990s as the AIP-TV syndication package never trickled down to my neck of the prairie. But even though late as ever, Johnny Sokko and His Flying Robot quickly became a favorite and I highly recommend this series to anyone who is a fan of this particular brand of unbridled mayhem.

And while Voyage into Space can serve as an introduction to the concept and characters of the series well enough, I fear those unfamiliar with the show will suffer a lot from a 'Who the Hell is This Now' Syndrome as Guillotine’s minions come and go without proper introduction. But in the end it doesn’t really matter. We are here for the atomic mega-punching of monsters, and on that front Johnny Sokko and His Flying Robot deliver the goods, and delivers them something fierce.

What is Hubrisween? This is Hubrisween! 26 Days! 26 Films! 26 Reviews! And now, Boils and Ghouls, be sure to follow this linkage as The Fiasco Brothers and I countdown from A to Z all October long! That's ten reviews down with 16 more to go! Up Next:  If the workout doesn't kill ya, then one of the instructors will. Let's get physical! And homicidal!

Johnny Sokko and His Flying Robot in ... Voyage into Space (1970) TV Tokyo :: Toei :: American International Television / P: Tôru Hirayama, Salvatore Billitteri / D: Minoru Yamada / W: Masaru Igami, Hirô Matsuda, Mon Shichijô, Mitsuteru Yokoyama / C: Toshirô Murakami, Osamu Seo, Noboru Takanashi / E: Shirô Ohashi / M: Takeo Yamashita / S: Mitsunobu Kaneko, Akio Itô, Toshiyuki Tsuchiyama, Shôzaburô Date, Tomomi Kuwabara, Hirohiko Satô, Yumiko Katayama, Matasaburô Niwa, Mitsuo Andô, Kôji Miemachi, Jerry Berke, Bobbie Byers, Ted Rusoff,


Ross said...

complete with a hideously infectious theme song concocted by Louis Singer and Eugene Raskin that I’ve been humming since starting this tangent.

Heck, I've been humming it since that first picture where you see the robot's eye through the window.

W.B. Kelso said...

I know, right!? Thanks for reading (and humming along).

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