So, I started writing this post, decided I hated everything I wrote, and am now starting it entirely from scratch. Zambot 3! It’s been on my to-watch list for quite literally years (at least eight!), but its only now that I’ve actually managed to pick it up, entirely due to a recent burning desire to watch mech shows, mech shows, and more mech shows… and, hey, where better to go next than back to the Tomino well? And especially after I’ve tarnished my own reputation by enjoying re-watching Gundam Wing (not quite done with that, by the way, although I’ve only got four episodes to go), that damnable entry into the Gundam pantheon! Time for a freshening Tomino spritzer.
It probably has taken me so long to finally hit up Zambot 3 because of how unrelentingly horrible Victory Gundam was – hell, Victory kept me from touching the Gundam franchise at all for about five years (with the brief exception of Gundam F91). However, I did still want to try it at some point, I just needed enough time to flush the learned cringe response to the notion of Tomino out of my system entirely.
Zambot 3 is a show I’ve seen described more than once as having a similar predilection for despair as Victory does, but distinguished from Victory by the fact that it isn’t awful. Victory in particular seems to embody the “Kill ‘Em All Tomino” approach with its almost gleeful introduction of characters fated to be killed horribly even before the episode has turned, while people frequently point out that in Zambot 3 individual character deaths generally have a larger purpose than to just kick the death toll ever higher. Honestly, when I think on Victory and its deaths I just get this image of people lining up to jump into a volcano – there’s increasingly less sense to any of the deaths as the show progresses and it all starts to feel a little gross as new characters are introduced so that Tomino can kill them almost immediately while smacking us and screaming, “Isn’t war horrible?!?!”… except, dude, you keep making these shows about cool giant robots punching and shooting each other so, uh, having your cake and eating it, too, much? But, hey, that’s really almost the entire Gundam franchise’s tension – peace is pissah, but aren’t these robots cool? Don’t you want to go buy some models now? (The irony is that G Gundam probably handles this tension the best as the Gundam Fight was specifically made to prevent wars by more or less using a single fighter from each nation as the proxy for an entire military.)
Ahem. Anyway, Zambot 3.
In Zambot 3, the enemies are murderous aliens, the Gaizok, lead by the subtley-named Master Butcher, and they’ve come to earth for the sole purpose of killing and destroying. Standing in opposition is the Jin family, who themselves are apparently descended from aliens who once fled the Gaizok in “ancient” times – in this case we learn that “ancient” apparently means one hundred year ago. The Jin family for some reason decides that the best way to fight off murderous aliens is to indoctrinate your adolescent children into piloting robots, so it is that we end up with twelve year old Kappei as our protagonist, with the slightly older Uchuta and Keiko, his cousins, as the supporting pilots. Each child has a mech of their own, but combined they form the titular Zambot, which they use to fight the Mecha-Boost that are the Gaizok’s war weapon of choice.
From the outset, there are some hints that there’s something a bit more sinister to the show than initially would appear to be the case from the premise. In this first scene Kappei ends up getting chased by the police due to a street fight involving motorcycles – as the Gaizok first attack, the bridge the police are pursuing Kappei across breaks apart, and the police car goes flying off and slams into a support beam, bursting into flame before plunging into the water. I figured we’d see the cops climbing out of the water or that we’d see them later in the police station in wet uniforms but, no, that’s it, they’re dead. These were named characters, and the implication was that they were accustomed to dealing with Kappei’s stupid antics, so it wasn’t a case like watching grunts in mechs get blown up in the first episode.
We also learn that Kappei knows how to pilot his mech, the Zambird, because his grandfather has been playing tapes for him while he’s asleep instructing him on how to pilot. So grandpa knew that this was all going to happen but decided that the best way to prep his grandson was not to train him openly but to “teach” him secretly – so secretly even Kappei didn’t know about it. And the episode ends with this:
Welp, that’s a bit creepy.
As the show progresses (I’ve watched about a third of it thus far, as I’m done with eight episodes of twenty three), Kappei’s hometown gets destroyed completely, and the civilians start to loathe the Jin family, blaming them for the fact that the Gaizok showed up at all. The Jin family does insist that the Gaizok would’ve come to Earth anyway, but the show itself is pretty ambiguous on this point; maybe the Gaizok did only take notice because of the Jin family and would’ve ignored the place otherwise. It doesn’t help that the pilots seem pretty careless about where they fight, contributing almost as much to the damage of the towns in the show as do the Gaizok.
If Evangelion is what happens when you give mentally disturbed fourteen year olds mechs and tell them to fight, Zambot 3 is what happens when you give a cocky twelve year old a mech and tell him not only to fight, but that he is the only one who can pilot that mech AND he already knows how to. Kappei is a little shit, full-stop. He’s full of himself, he refuses to take advice, and he’s constantly nasty to those around him. In one episode he initially won’t combine his mech with those of his cousin’s to form the Zambot because he wants all the glory – and he’s been told to combine because his cousin’s mechs are on fire and they’re both going to burn to death if he doesn’t. He blithely listens to their screams and just keeps on going with his own plan, only finally giving in when his own mech catches on fire.
Uchuta and Keiko aren’t that bad by a long shot, but they share the attitude that the civilians are just jerks for not being grateful to them after they’ve destroyed their homes and caused untold number of injuries an maybe deaths through a carelessness about their surroundings. On the one hand, its a bit understandable given their ages – Uchuta is thirteen and Keiko is fourteen – but on the other hand it doesn’t do anything to endear the audience to their plight. In fact, the Jin family as a whole is a bit hard to sympathize with, honestly – after all, there remains the question of whether they did attract the Gaizok to Eath, and a lot of them seem to suffer from an inability to empathize with the civilians.
If this aired now, it’d probably would get called a deconstruction. But it aired in 1977 and it was aimed at the same audience that watched all the other giant robot shows, so this was intended for an elementary and middle school-aged audience which most certainly does distinguish it from later shows that took familiar genre and said, “Hey, let’s make this darker, let’s try to be more realistic what it would be like if we asked children to fight off evil in war machines or in frills!” And it plays it all pretty straight-forwardly – don’t try digging around for symbolism here since it doesn’t really exist.
I’m looking forward to watching the rest of this show, admittedly in large part because I know its supposed to get a whole lot grimmer. A large part of this stems from the fact that this was meant for such a young audience – I’m genuinely curious to see how far they go with it. I wonder how my ten year old self would’ve taken to this? I remember as a nine year old throwing a fit because my parents were going to see Hamlet and I wanted to go with them but was told there were too many dead bodies by the end for me to go… Zambot 3 isn’t Shakespeare in terms of complexity of the show, honestly, but there is a potential body count involved that surely would rival Hamlet’s.
TL;DR Kappei is a little shit.