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Commissioned essay for Bennet Jackson. Thanks for backing my Patreon!
The middle three of the seven Giant Robo episodes, whose release broadly coincides with the second season of Batman: The Animated Series, are largely where the show’s core concerns arise. The concerns about Robo’s nuclear power supply persist into the third episode, leading to it being temporarily benched, but are largely dropped thereafter in favor of exploration of the relationship between Robo and Daisaku.
The precipitating event for this exploration is the cliffhanger at the end of the third episode. The giant power-nullifying sphere which emerged from Paris has now taken a meandering westward path, wreaking havoc in London, New York, Washington, and San Francisco, and is closing in on Shanghai, location of the world’s last oil field still in operation. Big Fire’s goal is to take possession of the field and shut down all Shizuma drives with the Vogler sphere, thus giving them control of the world’s energy supply.
The Experts of Justice try to stop them, and into the middle of the chaotic action sequence that occurs, Giant Robo and Daisaku arrive despite orders to stay away from combat. (Quite understandable orders, given that one is a nuclear reactor and the other is a 12-year-old boy, neither things you really want to have in a combat zone.) Giant Robo attempts to punch the sphere, and in one of the most gloriously bonkers moments in a gloriously bonkers series, Robo smashes its own arm to pieces against the apparently impervious armor of the sphere, and then cries, a veritable waterfall pouring from its eyes and over its chest.
This is but one of several apparent deaths in these episodes. Enshiku, the deadliest of the Big Fire agents seen so far, seems to die at least three times over the course of these episodes, only to appear later none the worse for wear. On the heroes’ side, Taisho, Youshi, and Testugyu all die in attempts to save Daisaku and Ginrei, which because of the crisis-escape structure of the serial only serves to put them into position for the next threat on their lives.
Mostly, however, these three episodes are concerned with origins, giving us such reveals as that Tetsugyu and Daisaku share in common that their fathers worked for Big Fire, that Tetsugyu unknowingly killed his own father, and (the big one) Ginrei’s father was Professor Vogler himself, and the man piloting the sphere is her brother Emmanuel.
Twin flashbacks in Episode 5 give us the two most important origin stories, namely the hero and the villain. The latter shows us that the “tragedy of Bashtarle,” the apocalyptic event for which Vogler was blamed, was actually precipitated by Shizuma’s over-eagerness to bring the Shizuma drive online, while Vogler was a voice of caution trying to stop them. Now his son seeks to bring about a second tragedy of Bashtarle, to punish the world for unfairly blaming his father.
Less important for the overall plot, but perhaps more important for characterization as Daisaku honestly receives very little in the series, is the origin of Giant Robo, as Daisaku’s father, Dr. Kusama, hands him the controls and tells him to activate the robot, to determine whether “happiness can be gained without sacrifice.” (We’ll come back to that question in a later essay). Between the fact that Robo seems to activate for the first time when Dr. Kusama dies–the feed from its eyes appears in Daisaku’s watch at that moment–and the way Daisaku sees his father’s face repeating his dying words, superimposed over the victorious Robo at the end of the sequence, the implication appears to be that the reason Robo comes across as so much more alive than the other mecha in the series is that Robo contains Dr. Kusama’s soul or life force.
In Giant Robo we thus have a large, artificial person possessed of an animating life force. Despite being unable to speak, it has clear feelings and sensations, and is both a fierce protector and an expression of power for those it protects. In this, it closely resembles the golem of Ashkenazi Jewish folklore, arguably the origin of all fictional robots–and superheroes.
There are many variants on the golem legend, as with any folktale, but the most common runs like this: In 16th-century Prague, Rabbi Loew created a man of clay brought to life by a word carved into its forehead. This clay man served as a protector and servant of the ghetto, keeping them safe from pogroms–anti-Semitic riots–as well as sweeping the streets and performing other menial labor. However, one week Loew forgot to order it to stop working before sunset Friday. Even a golem must be permitted to rest on the Sabbath, and so it went berserk and had to be “killed” by altering the word on its forehead.
That this story helped inspire R.U.R., a story in which artificial laborers go berserk because they’re not allowed to rest, should be fairly obvious. (Note that Capek’s mother was a folklorist and Prague the largest city in his native Czech Republic.) Frankenstein’s monster and Asimov’s Three-Law robots alike descend from the Golem of Prague, the former in its berserk response to mistreatment and the latter in its role as a servant and protector of humans. The story of the golem also likely influenced the nature and origin stories of many superheroes, from Superman’s strength and resistance to harm, to Wonder Woman’s revamped origin as a clay sculpture brought to life, to Captain America’s creation by a Jewish scholar to fight the oppressor of the Jews of Europe, to the Thing’s appearance as a large, crude figure of a man made of earth.
After all, what is the golem but a protector fantasy and a power fantasy in one? It is a protector against the violence of the oppressor, but at the same time it is a fantasy of having the power to create such a protector, a fantasy that even if we cannot push back the oppressor ourselves, we can make something that will. Perhaps we cannot destroy robots with a punch, but we can ride on Giant Robo’s shoulder and give him orders to do it for us.
Of course, this isn’t the only Jewish tale in which we are protected by a power that overthrows our oppressor. It’s a fairly common theme. For instance, it is at the core of another story–indeed, an entire genre of stories–which may interest us, being closely related to both the core themes of this project and the final two episodes of Giant Robo. This genre, which exploded in popularity for a couple of centuries about two thousand years ago, produced countless stories of which dozens have survived, some of which are still commonly read to this very day. It is a form of satire, in which coded versions of modern-day oppressors are projected into the distant past or far future, and then destroyed by some overwhelming power, allowing the emergence of a new world of freedom and peace.
We call it the apocalypse.
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