Retro-Musings: “Johnny Sokko and his Flying Robot” (1967) was a goofy staple of childhood…

Mecha Memories.

When I was a kid, VCRs weren’t really a thing yet (let alone DVDs, BluRays, DVRs or streaming), so you watched whatever was on TV at the time. Usually a favorite movie of yours would air once a year, if you were lucky, and you would make sure your butt was home and in front of the Zenith when it aired. So it was with family classics, like “Wizard of Oz,” as well as other movies we enjoyed, however guiltily… such as a 1970 Japanese keiju-eiga (giant monster) gem called “Voyage Into Space.” “Voyage Into Space” opens with a little boy named “Johnny Sokko” (Mistunobu Kaneko) and his adult “Unicorn” agent pal, Jerry Mano (Akio Ito), who meet on a cruise ship together–and yes, that’s arguably as creepy as it sounds, since preteen Johnny’s family (or legal guardian) is nowhere in sight…

When Jerry met Johnny.
Johnny Sokko is not supposed to be an orphan, yet he has an astonishing lack of parental supervision.

Johnny and Jerry (anglicized names, of course–we knew that even then, since the dubbing was so obvious, even to little kids) quickly rely on each other for survival after a monster sinks their ship, and they wash ashore on an unknown island. Johnny later becomes the unwitting control voice for a “Giant Robot” (Toshiyuki Tsuchiyama) they discover at an enemy “Gargoyle Gang” base. Giant Robot is a 100 ft. tall, flying, fully-weaponized automaton created for the Gargoyles that accidentally imprints on Johnny’s voice when the boy unthinkingly speaks into the robot’s control watch. Needless to say, the preteen boy is soon recruited as a Unicorn agent (“U-7”) and directs the robot to kick the scaly butts of various monsters throughout the movie.

Johnny’s control watch–eat it, Apple.

We used to watch this film just about every year it was broadcast, often mocking its poor English dubbing and rancid overacting, but–and I can’t lie–we also enjoyed the colorful menagerie of monsters, as well as the child-empowering sight of a kid roughly our age, commanding a huge robot to rain some hell down onto a few deserving adults. “Voyage Into Space” was dumb fun, what can I tell you..like kids running around in circles until they get dizzy–yes, it’s pointless, but they do it, anyway.

The title of the movie always struck my kid brain as an afterthought, since the movie didn’t feature a titular ‘voyage into space’ until the very last seconds of the movie. It was a few years later that we realized the choppily-edited movie was cobbled together from several episodes of a 26 episode TV series from 1967 called “Johnny Sokko and his Flying Robot” (the Japanese title was “Giant Robo”). “Voyage Into Space” was a generic name given for overseas and American TV distribution. The practice of editing together TV shows into feature-length movies for foreign distribution (and box office) is a practice still seen today, in fact.

The captured Giant Robot undergoes a bit of torture to make sure all is in order…

We later learned that a local TV station was running the entire 26 episode series (along with “Ultraman”–another, very similar show) on weekday afternoons around 4 o’ clock, just as we got home from school. We would rush through our homework (incentive) and then take turns holding the knob of our clunky old Zenith TV tuner, since that particular station was a bit tricky to receive (the struggle was real, folks). For our troubles, we got to enjoy a fresh batch of stories concerning our favorite ‘giant robot’ and his pint-sized overlord, Johnny Sokko (Deisaku Kusama is his name in the original Japanese language version, as well as the manga/anime).

*****KEIJU-EIGA SIZED SPOILERS!!*****

I won’t go into the plots of all 26 half-hour episodes (they were more or less the same story every week, save for the monsters, of course–and even those were sometimes recycled), but I’d just like to go over a few personal favorites that I enjoyed as a kid. One must understood that “Giant Robo” is not a show that survives well into adulthood, unless one is mercilessly mocking it with friends, or deeply inebriated–or both.

Giant Robot always starts his morning with a healthy calisthenics routine…

While I’ve never seen the series in its original Japanese language (not that it would help), I will list the episodes by their English and translated Japanese titles for clarity.

“Dracolon, the Great Sea Monster” (“Dakorah, the Giant Sea Beast”).

Jerry Mano (Akio Ito) puts on his best angry chipmunk face when taking down a squad of Gargoyles.

The first episode of the series, which sees young Johnny Sokko recruited into the global peacekeeping Unicorn agency by Jerry Mano and gruff Chief Azuma (Shozaburo Date), which acts as a the vanguard force against the dreaded “Gargoyle Gang”; a loosely defined crew of misfit extraterrestrials and beatnik soldiers (complete with berets, sunglasses & Van Dyke beards), ruled by squid-faced Emperor Guillotine. The Emperor’s plan for Earth’s conquest involves unleashing new and wild monsters every week (seems legit…).

“You will become a Jedi, Johnny…I promise.”
The preteen Johnny (Mistunobu Kaneko) is recruited for the dangerous, life-threatening career as a Unicorn agent by Chief Azuma (Shozaburo Date) and Jerry Mano. Johnny is not the only young person we see in this organization…

Note: Actor Mistunobu Kaneko (1957-1997), who played Johnny Sokko/Deisaku Kasuma, passed away at age 39 in a car accident. Kaneko retired from acting at a very early age, shortly after his work on the series. Once ‘retired,’ Kaneko went onto university and into a fairly ordinary life until his tragic passing. Actor Akio Ito, who played Jerry Mano/Juro Minami, doesn’t have many acting credits to his name, but he also enjoyed a lengthy career as a production designer.

Dracolon, one of the more colorful creatures of the “Giant Robo” canon.

When Johnny’s voice is imprinted into the electronic brain of Giant Robot (Toshiyuki Tsuchiyama), he commands it to destroy Dracolon, a sucker-lined sea creature that’s been trashing ocean liners for the Gargoyles. No mention is made of how Johnny’s family might react to his joining a secret order, nor of the Unicorns’ odd practice of recruiting young children for live and death missions, but if you start asking any questions, this silly children’s fantasy falls apart.

“Monster Ligon-Tyrox, a Strange Monster” (“Ligon, the Supernatural Beast”).

Ligon-Tyrox, or as we used to call him, “Spaghetti-head.”
A jackal-like keiju that has some extremely nebulous connection to flying alien pyramids.

Emperor Guillotine sends his evil scientist Dr. Botanus/Dr. Over (Mitsuo Ando) to oversee a new pyramid weapon, which, when used in conjunction with the vaguely jackal-faced “Ligon” monster, will destroy the world’s oil fields. The plot and story are nothing new or special, but for some reason, I’ve always had a fondness for this oddball creature design, which reminded me of the more colorful monsters we’d see in the later Showa series of Godzilla movies (1954-1975). Another episode of “Giant Robo” would see Ligon swallow a train (!) just to kidnap a single valuable passenger for the Gargoyle Gang.

Dr. Botanus (Mitsuo Ando) and fellow Gargoyle Red Cobra (Koji Miemachi).
The colorful Gargoyle Gang members were sometimes more imaginative than the week’s highlighted giant monster.

Note: The episode’s chief villain, Dr. Botanus, aka Dr. Over (Mitsuo Ando), with his silver skin, malformed brow, and smug laugh, was one of the better Gargoyle Gang makeup jobs; he would be a recurring villain throughout the run of the series. Gargoyle Gang Member “Red Cobra” (Koji Miemachi) would return with really bad teeth prosthetics as “Fangar” later on in the show. The individual members of the colorful, wildly overrated Gargoyle Gang were often more colorful and interesting than the featured giant monsters of the week, even if their villainy was far too cartoonish to take anywhere near seriously, even in a children’s show.

“Torozon: An Enemy Robot” (“GR2, the Mysterious Robot”).

Torozon–get it? Toro? ’cause he’s got horns, see…?
Torozon was a spare Giant Robot costume with a ninja mask and detachable flying horns, but hey… it looked cool when I was 8.

The first of two appearances by the Gargoyles’ own ‘giant robot named “Torozon”; a darker-bodied version with a detachable exploding set of (apparently renewable) horns atop its head (get it? Toro? Horns? Is this thing on…?). Torozon is responsible for wiping out Unicorn installations all over the world; the latest being the outpost in Switzerland (which is still mainly staffed by Japanese citizens). Like Ligon, the episode is nothing terribly special, but the ‘darker’ version of Giant Robot is an interesting design; almost like a mirror universe version of Johnny Sokko’s beloved automaton. The body moldings were cast from the same ones used for Giant Robot, but along with the aforementioned exploding horns, the robot’s face had a ninja-like mask covering its nose and mouth (not that a robot needs a nose or mouth, but sure…whatever). Whenever my wife and I would go shopping in Los Angeles’ “Little Tokyo” district downtown, we’d hit a store called “Anime Jungle,” which used to sell action figures from the series, including many variations of this one.

“Clash of the Giant Robots” (“Calamity, the Homicidal Weapon”).

Meet another Giant Robot doppelgänger.
This one was named “Calamity” in the original Japanese version, but oddly renamed “Cleopat” for the dubbed American version.

A fictional ally nation of Japan wants to build its own Giant Robot, using the schematics of the prototype. Chief Azuma initially objects, citing security reasons, but eventually relents because Nation X is such a trustworthy ally, blah, blah, blah. Well, the new robot–identical to the original, except with a few changes in its paint job–also features one signifiant upgrade; it can return any incoming enemy fire in exactly the same measure (how it returns solid armament so exactly is never explained, of course–hey, this is kid’s show, okay?). Naturally, the Gargoyle Gang get their mitts on it, as well as the monster Tentaclon, to knock Giant Robot on his iron keister. This is one of the rare times when Giant Robot takes on actual damage–it is blinded when his laser weapons are directed right back into his own eyes, incapacitating it for a few minutes of the episode. Of course, Johnny is there to play Mickey to the blind Robot’s Rocky, and all is well when the Robot tosses the dead Tentaclon into the stalled Cleopat, wiping out both in a huge explosion.

Note: The Robot was named “Calamity” in the original Japanese version (foreshadowing much?) but renamed Cleopat (an odd masculine form of Cleopatra…?), which actually fits, given Giant Robot’s Egyptian-inspired headdress and other flourishes (never mind that Cleopatra was Greek/Persian, not Egyptian…).

“Dr. Eingali: Master of Evil” (“Dr. Germa, the Supernatural Space Creature”).

Dr. Eingali (Kyome Takemura) gives Johnny Sokko a birthday present; a robotic doppelgänger with Sharpie-enhanced eyebrows.

This one is one of the rare episodes which hints that Johnny has a family somewhere else. It’s Johnny’s birthday and his fellow Unicorn agents, Jerry, Azuma, Mari (Tomomi Kutwabara) and a few others. During the celebration, a delivery arrives with a large birthday gift, which Johnny assumes is from his dad in Hokkaido. Well, it’s not; it’s a life-size model kit of Johnny that, when activated, becomes magically lifelike (though its eyebrows need a bit of trimming later on…) and steals the real-Johnny’s control watch for Giant Robot. Doppelgänger Johnny is the work of the evil “fourth dimension” Gargoyle ally named Dr. Eingali (Kyome Takemura); a green skinned, weird-as-hell creature who looks like a bad 1970s “Doctor Who” reject. Together they gain control of Giant Robot and force it to wreak havoc throughout Tokyo, smashing bridges and threatening to chuck cars–until a teary-eyed plea from the real Johnny gets through to its programming and it destroys the Gargoyles instead.

Unicorn agents U-7 (Johnny) and U-3 (Jerry) find that fitting Giant Robo for new shoes could take all night.

Note: Towards the end of the series, the plots and characters became increasingly sillier (not that this show was ever meant to be taken seriously–again, kids’ programming, folks), and this episode truly typifies the more colorful entries of the show’s final few episodes. Doppelgänger-Johnny, with his Sharpie-enhanced eyebrows to let us know he’s the soulless robot version, also delivers his (admittedly dubbed) lines with a flat, robotic monotone. For accuracy’s sake, I should say ‘her’ lines, since the English-dubbed version I grew up watching featured a woman’s voice for Johnny–actress Bobbie Byers (who sounds like a young Brenda Vaccaro, of “Midnight Cowboy”).

“Drakulon: Creature of Doom” (“The Space Vampire”).

Wait till you hear the faux Bela Lugosi accent they stuck on this fellow!

In addition to giant monsters, the series dabbled in more human-scaled horror as well, but not in any convincing or disturbing ways. Earlier in the series, we saw an evil “Space Mummy” who tried to taint Tokyo’s water supply, which would turn its residents into desiccated ‘mummies’ as well. Now, the show moves onto vampires; specifically, a space vampire named “Drakulon” (Kouen Okumura, who, coincidentally, also played the similarly-named “Dracolon” in the first episode). Drakulon, for the American version, is dubbed with an absolutely hysterical faux-Bela Lugosi accent. In this story, he converts a small town of people into vampires, with the aid of his chopstick-toothed ‘bride.’ Jerry Mano easily (even playfully) outruns the utterly unthreatening zombified vamps, until Giant Robot arrives to bust up their hood. This is when we learn that Drakulon can super-size himself for combat with Giant Robot. The robot displays previously unseen abilities, specifically an ability to generate instant flaming crosses (not even kidding), which it hurls at Drakulon, ultimately killing the too-big-for-his-britches space vampire.

Giant Robot gives Johnny, Jerry and their fellow Unicorn agent Miksuko (Yumiko Katayama) a ride home…

Note: Interestingly enough, the 1979 US TV series “Buck Rogers in the 25th Century” also featured a “space vampire” in a same-named episode, which was almost (but not quite) as silly as this one. Nice to see Unicorn agent U-5, aka Miksuko (Yumiko Katayama), getting a little more to do than operate a switchboard for a change; she is (initially) instrumental in infiltrating a nun’s abbey (which only allows entry for women). But, of course, she’s immediately captured, as are her male colleagues.

“The Last of Emperor Guillotine” (“The Last Day of Guillotine”).

Emperor Guillotine (Hanhito Sato) was the main villain of the show, though he often sent his minions to do his dirty work–until the final episode…

The final episode of the series (which also bookended “Voyage Into Space” as well) pulls out all the stops, as Emperor Guillotine (Hanhito Sato), the big bad throughout the run of the series, decides to launch an all-out assault on Unicorn, directing several of the Gargoyle Gang’s colorful cadre of monsters to overpower the solo robot. During the course of the episode, Johnny briefly fakes his own death as a diversion to sneak aboard a Gargoyle patrol car (have no idea why extraterrestrials with flying saucers would drive around in black Plymouths, so don’t ask…).

Note: Before there was Emperor Palpatine, there was Emperor Guillotine…the other galactic big bad.

Opticon (hehe, get it, optics? Eyballs?) returns for a final tango with Giant Robo in “The Last of Emperor Guillotine.”

Johnny Sokko’s plan nearly goes to hell when the car is intercepted by the giant hypnotic eye-monster called Opticon (hehe…optic…hehe). Opticon is essentially a big radiating eyeball with a long grass skirt (not one of the more effective monsters, though it is mildly creepy for 5 year olds). Giant Robo gives the creature a serious case of redeye before rescuing Johnny and moving on.

Note: Opticon is one of the monsters who’ve made more than one appearance on the show. Other two-timer alumni monsters for the show include Torozon/GR2, Ligon, Nucleon (a giant iron ball that destroys villages by rolling over them), Tentaclon (a multi-limbed monster) and the Giant Claw (which doesn’t reach into a plexiglass bin full of small stuffed animals, sad to say…).

Giant Robo finally faces his nemesis; the super-sized Emperor Guillotine.

Giant Robot dispatches a few more creatures before Emperor Guillotine’s flying saucer is finally revealed–and the Robot destroys it. However, the Emperor himself wasn’t killed in the fireball; he survived, and (like Drakulon and a few other big bads on the show) has super-sized himself to Giant Robot scale. Before Johnny can order the Robot to take Guillotine into custody, the robot’s power finally peters out. A taunting Guillotine mocks the Robot and the Unicorn agents below–until the robot’s eyes being to glow, and that favorite deus ex machina comes into play… the magical ‘auxiliary power source’ (see: “Terminator 2: Judgment Day”). Before the Robot can blow the Emperor into gold lamé smithereens, Guillotine warns the Unicorns that his now-atomically charged body is super unstable (he casually tosses an exploding fingernail to demonstrate). Johnny orders Robo to stand down, but—Robo decides (on its own) to take matters into its iron mitts, as it grabs the Emperor and flies the two of them on a “voyage into space” to collide with an incoming meteor. Kaboom! No more Emperor. No more Giant Robo. The Earth is safe, but a tearful Johnny cries out for his lost metal friend…

The End.

Note: The final scene of the various Unicorn agents all saying their goodbyes to their beloved automaton is surprisingly well-played for a kiddie show, despite their clunky dubbed dialogue (again; I really don’t think hearing this silly show in the original language would make a difference). The scene is vaguely similar to the final moments of the 1999 feature film, “Iron Giant,” where that movie’s huge alien robot sacrifices itself rather than serve as a weapon; Iron Giant’s final words “I am Superman,” as delivered by actor Vin Diesel, bring tears to my eyes every time…

Upgade.

The far more sophisticated 1992-1998 anime miniseries was considerably darker than it’s sillier live-action counterpart, though it was arguably closer to the original manga books, despite an extreme redesign of Giant Robo.

Given that the first live action series from 1967 had its origins in a 1963 Japanese manga (graphic novel), it’s not surprising was a later attempt to update the original story. From 1992 to 1998, there was a Japanese anime of “Giant Robo” that was closer to the original 1963 manga, boosted by high-end 1990s animation and with a very timely ecological message about energy consumption as well. I watched a few of these (though I’m not much of an anime fan, to be honest), and they were quite good–but they weren’t the wildly over-the-top cheese-fests that I enjoyed in the mid-1970s.

Kids & Robots.

As an adult, I recognize the appeal the show had on me as a young boy; it’s the ancient fantasy of an otherwise powerless child who suddenly commands an awesome force. There’s the time-honored (and Disney profiting) story of “Aladdin and the Magic Lamp,” where a boy discovers an omnipotent genie who can grant three wishes. The young child finding a genie’s lamp has been told and retold ad nauseam. Not a robot per se, but the idea’s the same.

A boy and his Terminator.
Arnold Schwarzenegger is a guardian ‘giant robot’ to Edward Furlong’s “John Connor.”

In my own childhood, there was Will Robinson (Billy Mumy) from the TV series “Lost In Space,” who bonded with his loyal family robot, B-9 (Boy May/voice of Dick Tufeld). “Lost In Space” was recently successfully remade for Netflix, and it deepened the almost psychic bond between Will (Maxwell Jenkins) and the less-loquacious, now alien robot. My wife also pointed out many Japanese anime examples that continue this ‘kid & bots’ trend, such as “Neon Genesis Evangelion.” There’s also teenager John Connor (Edward Furlong) and his guardian Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) in “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” (1991).

Hogarth (Eli Marienthal) befriends an almost steampunk alien version of Giant Robo in 1999’s “Iron Giant.”

We also have the 1950s-period piece animated feature “Iron Giant” (1999), where a huge alien robot (voice of Vin Diesel) bonds with a young boy, Hogarth (voice of Eli Marienthal) as government agents try to track the location of the giant fallen object, fearing it might be a “commie” weapon. The ending of “Iron Giant” is surprisingly similar to the ending of “Giant Robo” as both feature a robot sacrificing itself for a greater good against the tearful wishes of its young human friend. “Iron Giant” also bears more than a passing resemblance to “Gigantor” (1963), a Japanese anime series based on the manga “Tetsujin-28.”

Reverse LASIK is one of the robot’s many superpowers.

There is something deeply appealing to children about having a powerful ‘magic friend,’ especially to kids who might be disabled, bullied or who feel otherwise alienated by adults or their peers. Imagine having a huge, iron pet who can take care of your bullies and daily frustrations with a single “mega-punch” or simply by having your back 24/7. A child’s life is largely out of their control during most of their formative years, so it’s not surprising that the fantasy of a kid with a powerful, ‘magical’ friend/guardian is an almost universal story across so many cultures.

Summing It Up.

While 1967’s “Giant Robo” does not stack up well against similar stories, its utter lack of sophistication is part of its goofy charm. The stories, characters and production value are barely one step above playing make-believe at the local playground. Hell, kids today could easily create far slicker productions on their computers and smartphones using readily available animation software and editing apps.

In the last 10 minutes of every episode, you could always count on seeing stock footage of Giant Robot/Robo, flying to the rescue.

“Giant Robo” makes other Japanese keiju-eiga movies of the time (“Godzilla” “Mothra,” “Rodan”, etc) look like lost works of the Bard. In fact, the human-centered scenes of “Giant Robo” are often so boring and/or ineptly executed that they’re only worth watching for laughs. On the other hand, popping in the DVDs of this show (no more futzing with a troublesome Zenith TV, thank goodness) and skipping straight to the giant monster battles still makes for a wonderfully silly and engaging good time.

“Fangar” (Koji Miemachi).
It’s clear that the Gargoyle Gang have a frightfully bad dental plan for their employees.

If you can suspend all critical thinking, and take your mind back in time to a far simpler, more innocent place? You might actually find yourself unexpectedly amused and entertained by this laugh-aloud cheese fest. Watching it now, it’s pure ridiculousness makes it a Mystery Science Theater 3000 miniseries event waiting to happen.

At the very least, you’ll probably be whistling that damned theme music (courtesy of Takeo Yamashita) for hours. It’s the mother of all earworms, so help me…

Where To Watch.

The entire series of “Johnny Sokko and his Flying Robot” (1967-8) is available on DVD in a terrific collector’s set from ShoutFactory.com (the liner notes in the box set are very informative). The series can also be streamed/purchased digitally from PrimeVideo. To my readers, please remember that COVID-19, particularly its Delta variant, have already killed over 4.5 million people worldwide (and over 645,000 in the US alone), so please continue to wear a mask in crowded spaces, and get vaccinated as soon as possible. 

Be safe!

Images: MGM, ShoutFactory.com, Toei Studios, Warner Bros., Orion, Carolco.

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