Monday 22 December 2014

Anime REVIEW: Android Kikaider: The Animation

Android Kikaider: The Animation

While the Android Kikaider tokusatsu series wowed audiences onscreen in the early 70s, on paper creator Shotaro Ishinomori took the series in a darker direction with the accompanying manga published in a variety of children's magazines. In 2001 the manga was brought to life as a 13-episode anime series, straightforwardly titled Android Kikaider: The Animation. Animated by Studio OX and the now defunct studio Radix, the Kikaider anime even received an English dub and aired as part of Cartoon Network's Adult Swim programming block. So for many American fans, this is perhaps the Kikaider that they are most familiar with.

Jiro's life sucks

Just as the renowned scientist and robotics expert Doctor Kohmyoji completes his greatest creation yet, there is an explosion at his lab and he is kidnapped by the evil organisation DARK and their leader - Professor Gill. As Kohmyoji's children Mitsuko and Masaru explore the rubble for clues to their father's whereabouts, they discover a confused man carrying a red acoustic guitar. When the three are attacked by another of DARK's robots, the boy transforms into a red and blue machine to defeat the monster.

The Kohmyoji children learn that the man is Jiro, Doctor Kohmyoji's latest creation - a robot with an incomplete conscience circuit and the ability to become the two-toned Kikaider. As Jiro begins to learn the pain and suffering that comes with having a conscience, he must battle against his brothers in the forces of DARK to protect his new family and find the missing Doctor Kohmyoji.

Anyone familiar with the rich origins of anime and manga will instantly recognise that the characters of Kikaider bear a close resemblance to the style of Osamu Tezuka (perhaps best known for the creation of Astro Boy), which is no surprise given that Shotaro Ishinomori was mentored by the godfather of manga himself. The anime does a superb job of bringing Ishinomori's character designs to life onscreen, with the blend of the brilliantly retro designs and early-00s animation quality making for quite a unique viewing experience. The look and feel of Kikaider: The Animation can take a little bit of getting used to in some circumstances (being used to the live-action show it was suddenly strange to see characters look so radically different), but as you slowly get used to the look and feel of the show it soon becomes apparent that this is just how a Kikaider anime should look. 

Professor Gill
The evil Professor Gill

While the live-action tokusatsu series had some underlying themes about robotics and what it meant to be human, a lot of the harder messages it had were diluted its lengthy duration and (relatively) episodic nature. The manga (and by proxy, the anime) on the other hand fully embraced a more ongoing narrative, rich in references to the things that helped inspire Ishinomori to create Kikaider - Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and more notably Carlo Collodi's Pinocchio. One of the cleverest of these is that Kikaider's conscience circuit is named 'Gemini', which when pronounced in Japanese actually sounds more along the lines of 'Jiminy'. So not only does the spelling somewhat reference the two different coloured sides of Kikaider, but then the pronunciation acts as a double reference to the cricket that acted as Pinocchio's conscience. Sadly it's something that's lost on the English dub of the series, but one of the little nuances that makes Kikaider so much more than just a story about a robot superhero.

In turn, the characters all also feel like more than their live-action counterparts. Live-action Jiro had some inner turmoil, but was largely treated like a superhero by the people around him. Anime Jiro on the other hand is treated like a monster - the public are terrified by him and his relationship with Mitsuko gets off to a rather rocky start. This isn't helped by the effects of Professor Gill's flute staff, which he can use to take control of Kohmyoji's robots to make them fully obedient. In the live action series this would only really cause Jiro pain until he could block it out via some imaginative means, but here he truly loses control and on more than one occasion is a danger to all those around him. Rather than be recognised as a hero, Jiro experiences all the pain and suffering that comes with experiencing life the way humans do.

Hanpei, Mitsuko & Masaru
Hattori Hanpei, Mitsuko and Masaru search for Jiro

It isn't just Jiro's life that's pain either, with the Kohmyoji family also getting their fair share of pain and suffering as the story progresses. If having their father go missing wasn't enough trauma, their reunion with their estranged mother (something that isn't covered at all by the live-action series) shows just how dark Kikaider: The Animation can get. Mitsuko's growing relationship with Jiro also comes across a lot stronger as her feelings evolve from confusion and animosity to love, featuring a rather unconventional "sex" scene which would sound ridiculous on paper but actually manages to come across rather appropriate visually.

The villains also benefit greatly from this much deeper storytelling. Professor Gill is still very much a cliche shadowy super villain with a simple goal of world domination, but the extent of how far he has his claws into the Kohmyoji family make him feel all the more threatening. Meanwhile the episodic DARK robots that appear in the early episodes are less for the purpose of high-octane fight sequences (despite looking far more imposing than their costumed counterparts) and more for illustrating the differences between the free-willed Kikaider and his obedient brothers. Finally there's Saburo/Hakaider - the last of Kohmyoji's robots whose sole purpose in life is to destroy Jiro. Not only is he the only opponent that is a match for Kikaider, but in some ways his methods to find purpose in the only thing he knows to do proves to be just as tragic as Jiro's plight.

The ever badass Saburo

The only notable misstep this series has is the frankly bizarre inclusion of a recap episode two thirds of the way in (episode eight to be precise), which serves no purpose whatsoever as the series isn't long enough to require any specific reminding of previous events. That said, in no way does it feel like that this clip show is coming at the expense of something else, with the remaining 12 episodes all feeling like they've been suitably expanded with nothing left unexplained. So rather than look at Kikaider as a 13-episode show that's had one piece of it inexplicably squandered, it feels like a 12-episode series that features an extra oddity that the viewer can take or leave without feeling like they've missed something.  

Hakaider: awesome in both 2D and 3D

I would still argue that the live-action iteration is the definitive Kikaider viewing experience as it's the basis of the whole franchise, but Android Kikaider: The Animation is certainly the one that offers far more. Despite being a fraction the length, the anime is fantastic series that favours symbolism and character development over impressive action sequences - creating a rich experience that has far more to it than a simple "good vs. evil" storyline. This isn't just a much-see for tokusatsu fanatics that want to see Shotaro Ishinomori's Kikaider manga brought to life, it comes highly recommended for anime fans in general.


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