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Summer 2008 | ArteZine

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My father was a giant robot

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The cover to volume seven of “Grendizer”, locally illustrated and colored.

Well, not really –but for the majority of us growing up in the eighties and early nineties in Lebanon, we were beamed an invincible father figure in the form of a Japanese giant robot, whose rousing adventures appeared on our screens whenever gaps in the news would allow. Consequently, the name “Grendizer” is very much household to a generation of Lebanese adults born in the 1970’s and early 80’s. The popularity of this Japanese animated science fiction series for boys is surprising, given that our culture as whole is usually not too attracted to science fiction. And yet we are very much attached to our metallic/celluloid surrogate father. I would like to explore the marked appeal of this particular vein of Japanese science fiction on the Lebanese collective psyche in relation to our ongoing frustrations and crises in patriarchy.

I grew up both in the US and Lebanon, and was surprised to find that the show wasn’t well known in America. Later I would discover that the show was just as popular in Europe as it was in the Middle East. I think this appeal may have something to do with the crestfallenness of patriarchy in all of the mentioned societies where Grendizer is so well-loved. The United States, emerging proud, victorious, and relatively unscathed from World War II as one of the two “superpowers” in the Cold War standoff, had little thirst for a science fiction expression of exaggerated empowerment-through-technology whose gigantic warrior-robotmen also spoke volumes of a sense of manhood in decline.

Mughamarat Al Fada’ (Space Adventures, predominantly known to its spectators as Grendizer, the name of its giant robot protagonist) began as a manga called UFO Robo Gurendaizaa in 1975, created and written by the prolific Japanese science fiction mangaka Go Nagai, with the collaboration of artists Ken Ishikawa and Gosaku Ohta. It debuted on TV as an anime in Japan that same year. At home, it was not nearly as much of a success as Nagai’s first and original giant robot manga and anime Mazinger Z (1973). However, Grendizer was the first giant robot series by the author to be exported, debuting on European television in 1976 as Goldorak, and claiming cult followings in France, Spain and Italy. A few years later, Goldorak’s adventures were re-adapted back into comics form, this time redrawn in Europe by European artists. At around the same time, and roughly six years into the civil war, Grendizer was dubbed into Arabic and brought to Lebanese screens. Unlike its European localizations, the Arabic version of Grendizer retained all of the original names of the characters and robots, and even the theme song was sung in Arabic to its original melody by the Lebanese crooner, Sammy Clark.

The rousing nature of the Lebanese actors’ dub performances no doubt enhanced the the appeal of the series significantly. It would appear that the local team responsible for translating Grendizer at least sounded like supporters of the Lebanese resistance to this author today, and though the dialogue originally abounded with battle cries, but the language used, that of an improvised classical Arabic, had many a rousing “al wailu lil mu’tadeen!!!” (“woe betide the violators!!!”), and many other such zealous calls to battle that didn’t seem to be part of the original dialogue. Indeed, when I got to watch the Japanese original years later, I found that much excitement and flavor was added in the Arabic dub, albeit unintentionally, since every episode was recorded in one long, unedited session.

Roughhewn translated adaptations of the European-Grendizer books were published in Lebanon following the success of the series. These adaptations are interesting in that their covers are titled “Grandizer” (sic), but within, the title pages are labeled “Goldorak”, and all the character names are those that appear in the French versions. The pages are lettered by hand, and mirror-imaged to suit the right-to-left Arabic reading order. Sometimes, the original French lettering can be seen beneath the often crudely hand-lettered Arabic text. However, the televised Arabic version of Grendizer was adapted in Lebanon from the original Japanese version, as mistakes in the dubbing process indicate. Examples of such mishaps would be that the original dialogue would still occasionally be audible beneath the Arabic voice cast. Also, the translation, while exceptionally performed, with jokes well-adapted to suit the local sense of humor, one with some knowledge of Japanese language can tell that much of the translation in the serious scenes is inaccurate and indicates the Japanese origin of the work. An example of this appears in the very first scene, where Mt. Fuji is referred to as a person in the Arabic dub, (“Al-Sayyid Fuji”).. In the Japanese language, mountains are referred to with the honorific –san, which seemed to confuse the translators into thinking the pilot of the plane in the scene had an appointment with Mr. Fuji, the error of which becomes obvious as soon as the character marvels at the mountain’s size and beauty through the window of his cockpit.

Interior title page. The logo: “SPECIAL” then beneath it: GOLDORAK. The caption reads: “The fever-pitched battle between Goldorak and Vega’s monstrosity rages on.”

 

The plot of Grendizer is a typical tale of good versus evil, pitting a group of noble protectors of the Earth versus an army of covetous outer-space conquistadors. The alien empire of Lord Vega the Great threatens to invade Earth with his battalions of giant monster/flying saucer hybrids. Vega and his commanders’ efforts to colonize Earth are met with resistance from the Duke of the planet Fleed, and his own giant robot warrior/flying saucer, Grendizer. The Duke had previously escaped his home planet with Grendizer from the Vegan (as in, subjects of Lord Vega, not proactive, moralist, dairy-avoidant Vegetarians) invasion and crash lands on Earth. He is there found and saved by the Japanese outer-space researcher, Doctor Umon, who adopts the Duke as his newfound son and confers the name Daisuke upon him in order to hide his true identity. The Duke vows to protect his new home, Earth, with Grendizer and his friends at his side. A vow which lasts for 74 episodes on television, until the forces of Vega the Great are finally expelled.

It is something of an anomaly that Grendizer, a science fiction TV show, became as popular as it is in Lebanon (and the Arab world in general). As a fan of science fiction, I find myself surprised by this (albeit pleasantly) since science fiction does not have as firm a foothold on the Arab collective consciousness as I would like to admit it does. Grendizer, a work that has been created with Japanese boys as its chief audience, has achieved widespread popularity among both the sexes of my generation in Lebanon. It is not the only Japanese animation to be dubbed into Arabic and achieve popular status, but other gender-specific cartoons such as the boys’ soccer epic, Captain Tsubasa (known as Captain Majid in the Arab world), and the fittingly saccharine girls’ animated drama, Candy Candy, struck their respective gender demographic more narrowly.

I suppose most of us Arabs aren’t really fascinated all that much by technology and science as much as the West or Japan are, as we haven’t really made much of a contribution to said fields over the last two centuries, and our technologies have by and large been handed down to us or imported, like much of the “Third/Developing World” countries. We don’t really spend much time mulling about their far-reaching possibilities, be they for the prospective advancement or doom or humankind, etc. For this reason, methinks there is something essentially symbolic involved in the appeal of Grendizer on me and my Arab brothers and sisters…

In Japan, where the Giant Robot fantasy first emerged, the image of the giant robot has come to be (often offhandedly) attributed to its obsession with technology, apprehension of the nuclear age, and desire to compensate its national manhood, collectively considered lost following its defeat in World War II. The strong father figure of the divine Emperor weakened, its imperial armed forces dismantled and its land occupied, Japan also sought to express its justified Cold War paranoia, all of which culminated in the fantasy of a supreme, massive, mechanical protector/father who would banish all barbarian space invaders that would from the onset of the seventies, invariably target Japan as the principal front for their earthly colonization/mass-destruction ambitions.

However, I would like to hinge upon the theme of the frustration of male agency, not only following the Second World War, but notably during the war, before the atomic bombs were dropped on Japan, as fuel for the concept/image of the giant robot. The image of the giant robot appeared as early as the time when Japan was beginning to lose the Pacific War, and collectively feeling as through its military male mightiness was in decline. Frederik L. Schodt, in his classic text on manga, (Manga, Manga); unearths a fascinating image from the only wartime Japanese comics monthly publication, Manga, titled: “The Science Warrior Appears in New York” by Ryuichi Yokohama. Schodt incisively explains the inspiration behind this fantastic image: “Towards the end of 1943 the tide of war was turning against Japan. The idea of a giant robot that could stomp the enemy probably helped ease the frustration of the Japanese, who were already suffering bombing raids but were helpless to strike back” (p.56). As far as I know, this is the very first evidence of a giant mechanical man in graphic fiction.

The image itself is a conveniently telling one in understanding the transnational, semi-universal appeal of giant robots that I am trying to explore here. At the center of this piece is a massive, apparently steam-powered, mechanical man with a Japanese flag emblazoned on its belly–wrecking havoc on the ramshackle urban surroundings that are being crushed diminutively under its spiked foot. The artist’s emphasis of classic male phallic imagery couldn’t be more arrestingly obvious either; note the cannon-fire and the angle at which it “erupts”. The draw (no pun intended, I implore you, precious reader) of this retributive image, of a huge male figure destroying, violating, and ejaculating fire over the cities of one’s enemies whom one is powerless to retaliate against–could not be more appealing to the crushed sentiments of people experiencing the baffling horrors of modern warfare all over the planet.

The appeal of Grendizer to Lebanese children and teenagers of the 80’s and early 90’s can be attributed to both the presence of a conflict they could almost immediately relate to, that of a foreign invasion, and the presence of a powerful male heroic figure, here made to resemble a larger than life, technological extension of maleness, protection, and patriarchy. The conflict in Grendizer was a simple one between the good defenders of the earth versus the evil alien invaders. The complexity of the conflicts surrounding the young Lebanese audience of these struggles was as dizzying as the premise of Grendizer is simple. The Israeli invasion and subsequent occupation of the south of Lebanon pit the Lebanese versus the IDF, which was enough of a clear-cut distinction to many Lebanese, but the seemingly endless and senseless civil war, pitting the Lebanese against the Lebanese, most likely left very little certainty or clear morality in the minds of the Lebanese people, much less its youth, who were often tragically drawn into the fight as participants and victims. The spacebound struggle to save the earth gave young audiences a clear, attractively presented narrative of good versus evil, protector and aggressor, with a mechanically enhanced father figure at its center. To the often very powerless Lebanese civilian population, frustrated at being mired in conflict, surviving under heavy shelling and street fighting, this image of a single, invincible robot father fantasy who saves the day time and time again no doubt found emotional resonance.

Doctor Umon

It would be an especially difficult task to imagine Grendizer with the real father-characters as heroes, the real fathers are often upstaged at best, or made to appear totally ridiculous by their robotic counterparts. Doctor Umon, our hero’s adoptive father, although a skilled weapons scientist and astronomer, often seems more like a son to Duke Fleed than a father to him, as he and his research lab are constantly in need of being protected from alien aggression throughout the series. The fine Doctor is often to be found pleading with his adoptive son to “la tadzhab” (“not to go out”) on his dangerous sorties with the invaders, a request which is almost always defied, only to have Grendizer save the day. Danbei Makiba, the “other father” in the show, is an absurd supporting character who appears as comic relief in almost every episode. He is the father to Hikaru, the Duke’s Earthling love interest, and inexplicably both the proud owner of an American Wild West-style ranch next door to Doctor Umon’s space research lab, and a misshapen head resembling a most unfortunate potato with eyebrows and a mustache resembling knitting needles. His head is quite impressive, and is roughly equivalent to the size of his entire body. I am still pretty amused by it even twenty years later. Anyway, Danbei is so clueless that at first, he thinks the space invaders are to be befriended and welcomed, and spends much of the series yelling at Grendizer for fighting them from behind his telescope, located behind his barn. He, much later, “sees the light” and stops thinking that the Duke (as Daisuke) is a lazy bum and appreciates his efforts to save earth. He spends the rest of his spare time crying over the fate of his family, whom he himself is helpless to protect. So it goes.

Danbei Makiba

Giant robot manga and anime are very intimately tied to the toy industry in Japan; unfortunately product tie-ins in Lebanon were not nearly as widespread. All I recall from the Lebanese Grendizer merchandizing campaign is a branded chewing gum, which was pink and inedible, which we bought for the stickers that were packaged in them, not for the hellish gum, anyway. I also have a vague recollection of and a hollow cast of Grendizer, which I remember could have either contained shampoo, or blew bubbles with. I flippantly suppose we weren’t as lucky as our Japanese counterparts in the 80’s in many a way, robotic fatherly ties notwithstanding. Upon jogging my memory to write this piece, I somehow feel the urge to expand my research beyond the limited confines of wistful reminiscing and musing on the topic of the inter-Asian cultural exchange. I feel as though it would be a worthwhile avenue of inquiry to document the occurrence of this unique moment of interaction on the fringes of world popular culture.

Bio:

John Nasr was born in California not so long ago. He is a Japanese cultural enthusiast, bass player, and dormant political scholar living in Beirut, where he makes hip-hop music and helps with his Ma’s family business.

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