Robots to the Rescue

Monday, August 19th, 2013

So, why is Japan obsessed with giant robots?

From War of the Worlds and The Day the Earth Stood Still to Independence Day and Battlestar Galactica, high-tech alien invaders have been a constant theme in American entertainment. But Japan actually grappled with such existential threats firsthand. Putting it another way, you could say Japan has been living in a science-fiction world since the day Perry first appeared.

The humiliation of realizing how far they’d fallen behind fueled a race to modernize. Within less than a century, Japan would manage to defeat a Western power at sea in the 1904–05 Russo-Japanese War and be defeated itself in 1945 by an unfathomably powerful new weapon in World War II. Success and failure, life and death, all of it riding on whoever possessed the better scientists and engineers.

Robots came to the literal rescue when Japan began rebuilding its shattered infrastructure in the late 1940s and early ’50s. Retooling what had been weapons factories into toy factories turned out to be a quick way to jump-start the economy. Tin robot toys, the earliest made out of cans discarded by the Occupation forces, represented some of Japan’s first exports abroad after the end of the war.

In fact, the toys are the real key to understanding Japan’s robot obsession. The great majority of classic robot characters from the 1970s and ’80s were the brainchildren of toy companies. Toy companies paid anime studios to create television shows, then paid TV stations for the airtime and the right to air advertisements during the shows. The first and most influential, “Mazinger Z,” debuted in 1972 to instant success.

This marketing gambit proved so profitable that dozens of companies leapt into the fray. (It’s actually illegal in the U.S., where the Federal Communications Commission specifically prohibits advertisers from airing ads for a show’s merchandise during the show itself.) By 1977, no fewer than 12 different giant-robot shows aired on Japanese TV every single week, glorious robot-on-robot action matched only by the glorious ads for the toys the shows were created to hawk in the first place. So far, more than 100 series featuring giant robots have been produced.

Leave a Reply