JOHNNY SOKKO AND HIS FLYING ROBOT
A Complete Guide to Toei's 1960s Sci/Fi Series
by
Keith Sewell

PART ONE

(Originally published in KAIJU-FAN Issue #3 August 1996)
Revised edition published in G-FAN # 52 August/September 2001


THE BACKGROUND

From the pen of Mitsuru Yokoyama and Toei Co., Ltd., a hero was born. Prior to 1968, the American public had very little knowledge, if any at all, of Japan's live action series. The west's only exposure to the fantastic world of giant heroes and monsters came in the late afternoon or evenings on television when Godzilla, Mothra, Gamera, Rodan, Great Majin, and on occasion, Starman (Supergiant) would appear. One day, the curtain was lifted on the arrival of Ultraman, the show that changed television viewing in 1968. Two years later, the Japanese presence expanded with the arrival of The Space Giants (Magma Taishi) series. Then came Johnny Sokko and his Flying Robot (Giant Robo) to the Philadelphia-South Jersey region and various UHF independent stations across the country through syndication. The series is just one of many examples of the classic 'boy and his robot' theme, so popular on both sides of the Pacific.
In Japanese TV shows, young boys seem to develop a fascination for non-human companions, whether they be dogs, turtles (yes, Gamera is a fine example) or robots. Mitsuru Yokoyama could have been the progenitor of the trend years ago when he introduced Japan (and countries beyond) to his manga creations, Tetsujin 28 and Giant Robo. The characters share many similarities with one another: they are both operated by youths of high IQ (prodigy class), are able to fly by means of dual thruster rockets behind them, and aside from one expressive phrase ("Gao" and "Mash! " respectively), are completely mute. Their heads are also patterned after ancient warriors. In Tetsujin (Iron Man) #28's case, his head crest seems to resemble that of either a Greek, Trojan or Roman gladiator. Robo himself resembles a walking metallic, bipedal Egyptian sphinx although he also looks a bit like a garden umbrella.
It could also be said that Robo and Iron Man #28 (better known in America as Gigantor) are 'brothers of power.' The boy and his robot theme also occurs throughout the Magma Taishi ("Ambassador Magma") series, and even appears in several American cinema and television efforts. During the '50s, young boys played a vital role in science fiction films such as The Colossus of New York, The Invisible Boy, and Tobor the Great. Hanna Barbera utilized the same storyline in their animated Frankenstein, Jr. series. The popular Lost in Space TV show (1965 to '68) often focusecr on the youthful Will Robinson and his trusty environmental control robot, and the theme has continued to the present with the animated Warner Bros. movie, The Iron Giant. In addition to Tetsujin #28 and Giant Robo, Mr. Yokoyama is credited with the live action show Aka Kage ("Red Shado -the Masked Ninja") and anime's Babel 2 and God Mars series.
Prior to Giant Robo, Toei studios produced earlier superhero-type shows such as Spectrum Mask (also called "Rainbow Mask"), Messengerof Allah, National Kid, Aka Kage and the celebrated Captain Ultra (not to mention Spycatcher 13 and Akuma Kun). Later, Toei would become better known for their "Sentai" and "Kamen Rider" series. Naturally, the studio wanted a part of the monster boom, manifested in Godzilla's ongoing adventures and the giant hero phenomenon spawned by Ultraman. Toei's response, Giant Robo hit Japanese television airwaves on October 11, 1967 and ran through April 1, 1968.
Though the special effects were not on par with Tsuburaya's Ultraman, the series was well received by both Japanese and American audiences. The writing team for Giant Robo consisted of Masaru Igami, Hisashi Abe, Teio Matsuda and Jo Hichi. Minoru Yamada, Itaro Orita, Koichi Takemoto, Michio Konishi and Katsuhiko Taguchi directed. Takeo Yamashita composed the music for the series. Nobuo Yajima, Masao Ichikura and Yasuo Ogawa handled the special effects. Last but not least, Mr. Toshiyuki Tsuchiyama played the title role of the hero, Giant Robo.

THE AMERIANIZATION

Two years after its premiere run in Japan, Giant Robo reached the United States. Typically for a TV or movie import from Japan, the show underwent some changes. Prior to the Mighty Molphin' Power Rangers, VR Troopers, and Masked Rider series, Giant Robo was the only Toei show to reach U.S. shores, (excluding the six drastically-altered episodes of Dynaman that were broadcast on the USA Network and Nickelodeon cable channels back in the mid 80s). The series established its home at American International Pictures (American International Television), the chief distributor of sci/fi fantasy movies from Mexico, Italy, Russia and Denmark, as well as Godzilla, Gamera, Gappa, Guilala and Great Majin from Japan's Toho, Daiei, Nikkatsu, Shochiku and studios. The Americanization process was handled by Titan Productions. In the Toei version, the show opens with a long, vertical panning shot of Giant Robo from feet to head. Then, there is a close-up head shot of the glowing eyes as the kanji opening title appears on the screen. Giant Robo's famous flying take-off stance follows, as the roof panel slides open and Robo launches into the air and assumes his flying pose as the credits continue. Next, battle scenes involving the monster of each story are shown, backed by the credits and opening lyrics to the Giant Robo theme. Each episode had the Giant Robo sequence but different action scenes.
Episodes shown in America open with Robo's "Maashi" cry as he gets into his take-off pose. Once in the air, stock footage of his defense arsenal is shown (i.e. his fingerrockets, laser beams, flame breath and finishing with his Megaton Punch). Toei began the story with white kanji characters against a red background and brief music. A.I.T .used standard white lettering against a black card and no music. The stories are virtually intact, with some minor omissions. Although the series was broadcast nationwide in 1969, it didn't reach many areas until around 1971 or '72. Thus, Johnny Sokko and his Flying Robot was born. The thirty-minute episodes had two quarters of the story, just as the Toei version did. When the second quarter began (following commercials), at least ninety seconds to two minutes of footage was missing. The "next attraction" scenes were removed as well. Initially, the series ran daily, Monday through Friday, as a summer replacement for Ultraman. Later, Johnny Sokko aired at 5:00 PM in rotation with Ultraman (Johnny Sokko on Tuesday and Thursday, Ultraman on Monday, Wednesday and Friday). After a two to three year run, Johnny Sokko was yanked and has not returned to this day.
The episodes were not shown in the sequence of their Japanese release. On occasion, a "Johnny Sokko" movie is aired.
Nowadays, bootleg tapes of' Johnny Sokko episodes can be found by an alternate title, "Giant Robot," which was likely used in some cities. The original Giant Robo series has been released by T oei on videotape and more recently on laser disc. Most of the alterations in Americanization occur in the audio. A.I.T .annoyingly removed portions of Takeo Yamashita's original scores, reshuffled others, and intermixed them or replaced pieces with their OWN versions. For example, Mr. Yamashita's piece, "Tobe Giant Robo" ("Fly Giant Robo") was replaced with a different variation. In the U.S. version, the composition is first heard when Johnny gives Robo his initial command and the robot responds by advancing towards Johnny and Jerry Mano. His huge hands clasp together, enabling them to climb aboard. A.I.T.'s rendition gives the music a soft, jazzy quality often heard at nightclubs, quite in contrast to the original version, which sounds more like an intense military march.
In most cases, the background music heard in Johnny Sokko is not in synch with the Giant Robo version. Also noted in the American version: the sound effects were remixed and in some cases, not appropriate to the action. For example, a shot from a standard hand gun was replaced with rapid fire rifle shots, and vice versa. Also, during the sequence where Robo evades the hot oil attack by Double Head (Dublion) in Episode #8 (#10 in the U.S.), the scene is accompanied by Robo's rocket cannon sound effect, though Robo isn't firing his 'fingers.' Such errors do not occur in the original version.
The voice actors (less than mediocre in quality) selected to dub the Japanese characters are no strangers to the world of vocal acting, their voices having been heard in prior series as far back as the old "8 Man" (known in the U.S. as Fantastic 8th Man) and A.I.P.'s earlier anime effort, Yusei Shonen Poppy ("Planet Boy Poppy"), better known ith the west as the rarely seen Prince Planet. In fact, the voice actor portraying the narrator in Johnny Sokko was the voice of 8th Man in that series, as well as several character's voices in the Prince Planet series. The voice actor (or rather, actress) for Johnny Sokko (U7) was no doubt dubbing Mari (U6) and Mitsuko (US) as well. That duo voice was also used for Prince Planet and his companion and friend, Diana Worthy. In addition to the two animes cited, the same uncredited voice actors have also been heard in Mexican horror/sci-fi movies featuring vampires, superheroes, women and masked wrestlers (Santo/Samson), the ones supervised by K. Gordon Murray in the U.S.
Excluding 8th Man, Johnny Sokko and the other aforementioned series and movies share something in common: they've all been released and distributed via American International. Therefore, the voice actors must have established some sort of contract with Titan Productions and A.I.P. in the '60's. Unfortunately, the lip synching was quite poor, nor did any of the voice dubbers give the Japanese characters Asian accents. Kanji subtitles were screened occasionally throughout the series in the original Toei version. A.I.T .eliminated them by either having them erased or by magnifying the upper screen image, cropping and scanning to the point where the subtitles became invisible to the viewers. Very little information is available about the staff of the American dubbed series, with the exception of three people. Salvatore Billitteri was the producer and supervisor of Titan Productions' recording studio. His credits include Frankenstein Conquers the World, Destroy All Monsters, Yog Monster From Space and Godzilla vs the Smog Monster, as well as the Prince Planet series. Reuben Guberman was the writer . His other credits include dialogue director for Prince Planet. The director was Manuel San Fernando, who is mostly associated with the "south-of-the- border" movies mentioned earlier . One of his credits is the film Samson and the Vampire Women. The trios' names are seen in the opening and closing credits of the Johnny Sokko series. The original Giant Robo, as well as any other live action series of that time, had no closing credits.
In 1970, one year after the series' importation, five of the episodes were compiled into a feature movie called Voyage into Space. The opening sequence is about the same as the series,' the only difference being the title. The names of the actors playing U7 and U3 are included (though improperly spelled), but two of the staffmember's names are omitted. At one time, "Voyage into Space " could be purchased at any discount store (at least the eight minute version). Back in pre-VCR days, the 8mm projector was the closest thing to in-home movie entertainment. One of the defunct film distributors, Ken Films, used to carry various Japanese kaiju Super 8 movies under the A.I.P. name, either in silent or sound format. Along with "Godzilla vs The Thing," "Destroy All Monsters," "Varan the Unbelievable," and others, there was "Voyage into Space." The box cover had an artist's rendition of Giant Robo preparing to duel the monster Lygon on some lifeless world, perhaps the moon. Unfortunately, A.I.P. ceased to exist in 1980, when it was purchased and renamed Filmways. Later, it became Orion Pictures.
Some time ago, its subsidiary, Orion Home Video, released four volumes of the Johnny Sokko series. They were commercially offered video tapes, each featuring two episodes of the show, the stories complete with the exception of the "previews." The color quality is almost on par with laserdisc, but the prints are a wee bit time-compressed, and the voices sound one level higher than normal. There is one slight difference from the television run: the various scenes involving kanji subtitles were neither erased, cropped nor scanned. Instead, a Romanized English title card is inserted at the bottom of the screen. Sadly, Orion Home Video discontinued the series after only for volumes. Eighteen episodes remain unreleased.
Giant Robo, Captain Magma (Goldar), and Ultraman have all been shown in both live action and anime format. Robo's Japanese birthplace, Hikari Productions, produced a new series of animated features about the gallant robot in 1992. They've been dubbed into English, and can be purchased at most video stores nationwide. As Orion Pictures has "gone under," it seems doubtful Giant Robo will ever reappear on television or in an "official" VHS/DVD video release. The Toei versions can be ordered from Japan, and bootleg copies are available if you know where to look.

My acknowledgments and gratitude to Mike Temple for supplying me with the material necessary for this research, to Ms. Nola Kiely, for additional input, and, of course to Lenell "Ultra" Bridges, Gertrude Smith, Annand Vaquer and Mark Nagata for helping me get this project off the ground.


Article © 1996, 2002 Keith Sewell/Daikaiju Publishing. Reprinted with permission of the author.

PART TWO

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