Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Johnny Sokko And His Flying Robot

One of the biggest surprise gifts I recieved this past Christmas was a 2 DVD-R set containing the complete run of Johnny Sokko And His Flying Robot: a 1967 Japanese T.V. series that was imported (and substantially re-tooled) for U.S. syndication two years later.

Similar to the previously-discussed Ultraman T.V. series (which was shown back to back with this show on WXON Channel 20 in Detroit during my youth), Johnny Sokko was all about hilariously fake-looking giant monsters attacking Tokyo on a daily basis and getting their rubbery asses kicked in short order by a 100-foot tall Egyptian-looking robot equipped with eye lasers, a flamethrower for a mouth, and rocket-launching fingers. Said robot can also fly at Mach 17 and is controlled by the series' namesake: a pudgy 12-year old kid with a radio-control wristwatch.

Adding an element of secret-agent cool to the proceedings is the "secret war" that represents the story arc of the entire series. You see, these unending monster attacks weren't just random beasts sludging ashore from the depths of the Pacific out of sheer boredom, but instead these were deliberate attacks by the evil Emperor Guillotine from the planet Gargoyle, whose planned takeover of the Earth by way of "Giant Robot" was short-circuited by Johnny Sokko being the first voice heard by the automaton following its accidental activation by an (apparently very low-yield) nuclear explosion at a Gargoyle-run construction facility.

Since Johnny is now the sole controller of the robot, he is quickly persuaded by his new best buddy (and suave secret agent) Jerry Mano to join U.N.I.C.O.R.N., a kind of worldwide police force charged with the security of the Earth against all foes, most notably Guillotine's hired muscle, The Gargoyle Gang (the footsoldiers of whom all resemble Japanese Nazis in Ray-Bans, particularly their initial boss, Spider).

I suppose being a kid and seeing these 26 episodes scattered over a month or so of afternoon T.V. viewing failed to telegraph just how incredibly stupid most of the plots for this series really were, but watching all 26 in a 3-4 day period really drove the point home. Your average Johnny Sokko episode (you can view synopses of all the shows here) pretty much goes like this:

1. A monster attacks something somewhere.

2. Johnny and Jerry are sent to investigate, alone.

3. In a matter of minutes, Johnny and Jerry are captured and summarily threatened a lot by the Gargoyles and their current leader (any one of a mixed bag of cool / extremely annoying characters). Of course, the two are never killed outright (which would be the most immediate way to take Giant Robot out of the equation once for all), but constantly placed in a room with a time bomb ticking away in the corner. The enemies, of course, all chuckle evilly and walk off to another room in order to await the big ka-boom.

4. Johnny and Jerry escape, of course, and the day's monster is unleashed upon Tokyo.

5. Johnny calls in Giant Robot and the final battle is waged (and generally won in very short order).

One key factor to this show being as, well, laughable as it is most of the time has to be due to the near identical nature of the plots from episode to episode, as described above. While I realize a certain amount of fallibility in both organizations is necessary for there to be any kind of tension in the battle between good and evil, the incredible, absolute incompetence of both organizations is just staggering to behold. Funnier still, in light of their apparent complete inabilty to keep a secret or guard any given location with any number of soliders, both sides also display a convenient omniscence in being able to infiltrate the deepest reaches of their enemies' organization at the drop of a hat. If, say, U.N.I.C.O.R.N. hatches a top secret plan to move a new, indestructible metal from Point A to Point B, you can guarantee at least one agent will reveal himself as a Gargoyle member and steal said formula. Bet the house on it. You'll never lose.

Dr. Botanus: the spritual father of Destro, I'm sureDespite these often hare-brained plots, a few of the later episodes in the series managed to reach some startling (and occasionally very creepy) creative heights for a kid-aimed T.V. show, which is rather disappointing since you must wade through so much dreck to get there. The same was true of the characters employed by Guillotine to command his foot soldiers. Spider was dealt with early in the series (in a rather bloodless, yet graphic fashion), leaving the command of the Gargoyle forces to a host of replacements. Yet, for every interesting leader such as the silver-skulled Doctor Botanus, the truly ghoulish Space Mummy or the Gargoyle-controlled robot Torozon (perhaps the only truly worthy opponent faced by Giant Robot during the whole damn series), you have such incredibly inane creations such as Fangor (imagine a cross between William Hung and The Phantom Of The Opera), the unbelievably irritating green gigglemuppet Dr. Engali, or the monster Double-Head (the most hilariously fake monster of them all: Giant Robot very nearly knocks the headpiece off of the costume a few times during their climactic battle).

All that said, it was a hoot to watch this series again through older eyes. I don't know if I could ever watch all of these again in sequence (some were that bad), but there are definitely a handful of standouts that should stand up well to repeat viewings. Here's hoping my friend Dave (who gave me this collection) can come up with the whole run of Ultraman on DVD for this Christmas ...

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Christmas In March!

March 7, 2006 ... which is also the same day as Morph The Cat: the first new Donald Fagen solo album since 1993.