For the first entry in “The Complete Mecha Works of Yoshiyuki Tomino”, I’m reviewing the first 13 episodes of Tomino’s first mecha show: Brave Raideen.
In 1972, Go Nagai created Mazinger Z, a show widely considered to be the first Super Robot series, and introduced the concept of the pilot-able mecha to anime and Japan at large. It exploded onto the public scene, and like most surprisingly popular trends, it took a couple of years for studios to catch up to what Nagai had created.
Three years later, Sunrise would enter the arena with Brave Raideen and Tomino would direct the first 26 episodes of the series. Tomino would not do this alone, as he had a decent amount of talent behind him, including Character Designer Yoshikazu Yasuhiko (Gundam: The Origin), episode director, the late Takayuki Kanda (Vifam, Dragonar & the first six episodes of Mobile Suit Gundam: The 08th MS Team), and writers Fuyunori Gobu (the head writer of G Gundam), and Masaru Igami (a Tokusatsu veteran, who wrote for the first two Kamen Rider series).
As the series is episodically driven and doesn’t have a continuity based story, this review will be split into reviewing the individual episodes.
Episodes 1 Through 13
Let’s start off with the basic plot synopsis. We open the show with Akira Hibiki, your typical high-school student who just happens to be the captain of the high school’s soccer team, practicing with the rest of his team. Suddenly, earthquakes, floods, and other natural disasters occur all around the world. Surprisingly, he and his team survive, yet he hears a voice in his head telling him he needs to head to a giant pyramid, which just magically appeared. The voice tells him the evil Demon Empire has awoken and wants to take over the world through their giant monsters and a flying hand fortress (I’m not joking, it’s a giant floating hand). How is he going to stop them? By piloting a mystical giant mech named Raideen. Luckily, he is not alone, because he has a couple of scientists, his girlfriend (the daughter of one of the scientists) Mari, and his soccer team behind him.
This is the core setup. If it sounds generic I would inherently agree with you. The first three episodes sells the show short and isn’t good. I remember thinking these episodes felt like a combination of the 1960s Batman TV series crossed with Kikaider or Kamen Rider and Mazinger Z. It was setup like a Saturday morning cartoon, and I took it just as seriously. The core problems in the first three episodes involved a schizophrenic tone. Serious scenes would happen, (like Akira’s father dying because Akira failed to rescue him) and then cut to the annoying comic relief characters (the entire soccer team minus Akira) illustrating a tone which consistently shot itself in the foot. The only saving bright spot was the introduction of the leader of the Demon Empire, Prince Sharkin. He is the precursor to Char Aznable, in the best way possible. Similar posing, intelligent in battle plans, huge fanbase (he has nameless followers praise him), it’s Char’s distant ancestor.
Fortunately, a couple of things happened to turn the show around in episode 4. The episode takes place mostly in Tokyo, the plot kicks off when a nun tells Mari she’s in grave danger, because of a stone they found. She is ignored and what happens, Mari is in grave danger, as the stone turns out to a beacon for the monsters. Eventually the nun reveals herself to be (brace yourself) Rei Asuka, who has a psychic connection with Raideen, she even has red hair. Somehow, I feel Hideaki Anno’s lying about where he got the names for Rei and Asuka in Evangelion, because this is clearly where the inspiration lies. So, afterwards, we learn of this mysterious stranger who had appeared in Episode 3 (who looks like Gihren Zabi from Gundam) but is an ally named Riki Jinjuki. Both Rei and Jinjuki pilot a support vehicle to helps Raideen at important times. They also now have a control center which looks like a clam.
You would think these occurrences in episode 4 would make the series better. It does but not immediately. Episodes 5, 6 & 7, were slogs to sit through and by focusing on the kids, the schizophrenic tone came back. If “Kill ‘em all” Tomino was directing episode 7, the comic relief (the kids, who had been held hostage) would have died as they are grating to endure. Yet the series wouldn’t be down for long as Episode 8 made a return to form. The plot involves a crashed airplane and a scientist’s daughter captured for ransom. Episodes 9 & 10 continued this trend with Episode 9 involving Sharkin transforming into a human and giving Akira a concussion. This episode was notable for one other thing: it made me jump out of my seat with joy when it happened. So, Akira is moping around on the soccer field as one of the comic relief’s health is directly connected to Raideen winning (Yes, it really is stupid). As he is whining over it, the elder scientist comes to Akira and gives him the “Bright Slap” (before the term was coined). Grandpa scientist tells him to train with Raideen and basically insists Akira be a man. When I saw this, I screamed for joy as if I had won the Super Bowl. Yet there is another note, I need to mention. This is the first time the “Bright Slap” occurred on a Tomino giant robot show which could have also been the reason I was so excited.
Episode 10 features Rei’s old flame, a motorcycle riding delinquent named Jagger. There’s this drama, involving Jagger and Rei. Jagger hates Akira, because he’s respectable, and Jagger’s just a street fighting man. So, the Demon Empire gives him shelter in the form of the half-man/half-monster of the week. A battle ensues at a theme park, under the cover of night, and Jagger holds the support vehicle and Rei hostage. Rei talks him out of it by telling him he’s a man of wealth and taste, and he wouldn’t do such things. He lets them go and fights with Raideen. Eventually, our delinquent realizes you can’t always get what you want, decides not to dodge Raideen’s final attack, and he dies a noble death. The episode ended with Rei missing him as she tore off three flower petals, to reveal she a fool to cry at his death. I’m out of Rolling Stones puns.
Episode 11 is where things seemingly start to get interesting, with the townspeople not happy about Raideen, because of the damage it caused. This was part of Prince Sharkin’s plan for the episode thinking the best way to defeat them was with negative publicity and an imitation of Raideen. You can see Tomino toying the edge of deconstruction, unfortunately it went right out the window in the next episode with another standard kidnapping plot, involving the bratty kids.
Our final episode, #13 is a bizarre outing. Akira discovers someone who looks likes his dead mom, who is a spy for the demon empire (another Prince Sharkin plan), and the Demon Empire loses again.
The first 13 episodes of Brave Raideen, are fun, yet inconsistent. What do I mean by inconsistent? Well, inconsistent in tone as it strives to be this serious show, yet when the comedic relief shows up, it drags down the feel immensely. Despite this, the show is still fun. When I mentioned it was a cross between the 60s Batman TV series, with Kikaider or Kamen Rider and Mazinger Z, near the top, it wasn’t in jest. It does feel like the silly series from the period, but you can see building blocks of future Tomino series in here, and this is what frustrates me. This is a show with two completely different visions of itself and they couldn’t decide on which one to pick.