Kent Reviews “Johnny Sokko and his Flying Robot”
Giant Robo (Japanese title)
11. 25 hours
Despite having been a kaiju fan for 22 years, as of this review, the Tokusatsu genre had been very elusive for me until December 2012 when I got my hands on the original Ultraman TV series. That show opened up a different door into Japanese pop culture science fiction and the kaiju genre.
Since my initial viewing of Ultraman, Tokusatsu has been a genre I’ve enthusiastically delved further into. Much of the media I’ve consumed for Tokusatsu has been in the form of TV shows; many of which I’ve thoroughly enjoyed.
Johnny Sokko and his Flying Robot (which will simply be shortened to JSFR for the remainder of this review until the end) is the latest Tokusatsu TV series I viewed. Like most of the kids Tokusatsu shows of the late 1960s, this show has its roots in the original Ultraman as that show was very successful. Ultra Seven was also released prior to JSFR and was tremendously successful.
The show’s premise is very straightforward: Johnny Sokko is stranded on an island but is quickly recruited by the Unicorn organization to fight off the Gargoyle Gang and Emperor Guillotine, who wants to take over the earth. Johnny is put in charge of Giant Robot using a wrist watch communicator. Guillotine and the Gargoyle Gang, over the course of the 26 episode series, send out various kaiju and robots to fight off, if not take control of, Giant Robot and to destroy Unicorn.
It must be said, before proceeding any further, that this, like Ultraman, is a kids’ TV show. As such, there are numerous plot holes and logical issues that many mature audiences will scratch their heads at and find to be absolutely absurd. As someone who had never seen a full episode of JSFR up until this point, I must admit that I did find a lot of things in the show to be downright silly and ridiculous.
I attempted to keep in mind, as I continued watching the series, that kids’ shows are going to be different from that of adult shows. However, some of the criticisms I have of the show are a result of the lack of plot and absurdities within the show. These particular criticisms were ones I find to be extremely difficult to ignore and “go with it.”
With that said, that doesn’t mean I didn’t find the show to be enjoyable.
JSFR reminds me of Ultraman in the way that Toei (the studio that produced the show) really took an imaginative approach to the setup of the kaiju and robot foes as well as the humanoid villains. Emperor Guillotine is a finely robed figure with a head that looks like a purple octopus. Dr. Botanus, one of Guillotine’s second in command, is a bald, silvered magician of sorts. Fangar, another one of Guillotine’s second in command later in the series, possesses an over-sized cranium, protruding upper teeth, and a striped, mildly caped, out fit that has prison stripes on the front with a red back. I often felt that his outfit looked more like footie pajamas. Did I mention that Fangar has a peg leg that also is used as a machine gun?
Like Ultraman, the Unicorn agents’ uniforms resemble an awful lot like the uniforms the Scien Patrol wore.
There is no shortage of imagination with JSFR. This is one of the major elements of the show that I thoroughly enjoyed.
The Unicorn organization, besides having a silly name, is one that any child would daydream to be a part of. They have bases all over the world and use computers and other gadgetry to track and fight the Gargoyle Gang. Throughout many of the episodes, we see some of this gadgetry put to use when our heroes are pursuing the villains and when they are captured.
Jerry Mano is the Unicorn agent (his official Unicorn ID is U3 and Johnny’s is U7, an obvious copying of the James Bond films with Bond, of course, being identified as 007) who initially befriends Johnny and brings him to Unicorn. Jerry will accompany Johnny on their many adventures against Guillotine and the Gargoyle Gang.
Giant Robot has a unique appearance. While definitely human in overall design, its head resembles that of the Egyptian sphinx. Giant Robot has the ability to fly, shoot missiles from its fingers, fire an eye beam, shoot fire from its mouth, and to perform a mega-punch.
The story is ongoing, but the episodes are self-contained. The premise of each episode revolves, most of the time, around the Gargoyle Gang, aided by someone like Dr. Botanus or Fangar, attempting to destroy Unicorn while capturing/killing Johnny and capturing/destroying Giant Robot. Guillotine, then, will, usually, unleash some sort of beast to fight Giant Robot and to destroy Tokyo.
One of the things I enjoyed with the story is the occasional returning of some of the kaiju. At first, the show introduces new kaiju and robots for Giant Robot to fight and, about the halfway point in the series, begins to bring some of those kaiju and robots back while, occasionally, introducing some new kaiju/robots. It helps to make this world feel more contained instead of sending out a new kaiju or robot every episode.
Many of these kaiju and robots are interesting in design. You have Igganog, an quadrapedal kaiju that mildly resembles a cross between a hippopotamus and an elephant. This kaiju has the ability to freeze any enemy nearby. Torozon, a robot that has a bladed boomerang atop its head and is a very good grappler. Doublion is a humanoid rock creature that has faces on the front and back of its head. One head shoots a flammable liquid while the other head will rotate around and shoot fire, igniting the foe.
Then you have some that may have some interesting aspects, but are bordering on the absurd/silly. There’s Globar, a mine-looking entity that shoots missiles, a laser, has magnetic grappling cables, and is capable of flight. Gangar is a robotic hand that is capable of flight and can shoot missiles from its fingers. Iron Jawbone…which speaks for itself. Perhaps one of my favorite of the obscure kaiju is Ganmons. This kaiju is, get this, a giant eye. It flies around, can sprout tentacles for legs, has an eyebeam, can levitate objects, can use its eye as a searchlight, and vacuum objects. It’s a really ridiculous foe, but a bit more imaginative than Iron Jawbone and Gangar.
One of the criticisms I have of the show is how inept Unicorn can occasionally be. In many of the episodes, Johnny and Jerry pursue the Gargoyle Gang and become entangled in a trap. Every Unicorn agent is equipped with an antenna radio to keep in touch with HQ including Johnny and Jerry. But there are even times, when they aren’t captured, that they are seemingly out of range for their communication devices to keep in touch with HQ. In nearly every episode, Chief Azuma attempts to establish contact with either Johnny or Jerry. Of course, neither one responds and Chief Azuma assumes they’re captured. However, there are quite a few episodes where he believes they have been killed. The consistency with which this happens throughout the show is absolutely ridiculous. Not only should Unicorn have fixed their devices if it is to be found that they do lose range beyond a certain point, but that Chief Azuma shouldn’t be so quick to assume Johnny and Jerry have been killed.
In other episodes, other Unicorn agents are easily fooled and killed by the Gargoyle Gang. The base appears to be easily penetrable and, for being an organization that’s supposedly highly skilled, has incompetent agents to protect and secure the base.
There are story elements, too, that are conveniently put into a specific episode to serve that episode’s purpose, but make no sense when taking the entire series as whole. The story element that most upset me was introduced in the final episode involving Guillotine:
Here, Guillotine grows to the size of Giant Robot. Just as we, the audience, are excited and are assuming a great battle is about to ensue between Guillotine and Giant Robot, Guillotine tells Unicorn that if they even shoot him, he and the entire world will blow up, because his body is made of a high amount of nuclear material. This aspect of Guillotine was never mentioned in any of the previous 25 episodes.
If so, it would completely altered the entire series, as it should have. Guillotine could’ve taken the earth hostage and everyone could’ve surrendered. Instead, he chooses to hide in his spacecraft under the ocean throughout 25 of the 26 episodes. It also makes the final “battle” between Giant Robot and Guillotine one of the most disappointing conclusions to any show or movie I’ve seen.
Just prior to Guillotine announcing his body is atomic, Giant Robot and Guillotine have a 5 second tussle. But after Guillotine reveals that his body could destroy the world with something like a bullet being shot at him, Giant Robot grapples him and flies out to space where they collide with a comet, blowing up and both having been destroyed.
I walked away from that final episode extremely disappointed and irritated that, after 25 episodes and all the build-up to a Giant Robot-Guillotine battle to the death, I was treated to a 5 second tussle that ended in Giant Robot flying itself and Guillotine into a comet. Disappointed, really, isn’t even a strong enough word to describe this pathetic conclusion to the show.
Getting beyond my major criticisms of the show, I did enjoy many things about it.
As mentioned earlier, the imagination involved in creating many of the human villains and the kaiju and robots is something to behold. Anyone who enjoys Ultraman or any other kaiju and Tokusatsu will love the many strange humanoids and creatures that appear throughout the series.
Going along similar lines, the practical effects are done really well including set design and makeup on the humanoid villains. Some of the set pieces, however, involve obvious matte paintings, but those paintings are elaborately detailed. The kaiju and robot suits are nearly seamless, but there are the occasional moments with a zipper and a string or two can be seen. While there isn’t a ton of miniature work done in the show, the rural areas are still wonderfully decorated and beautiful to look at. There is texture and foliage where necessary. A couple of the Igganog episodes made sure snow was present and placed along the landscape in a realistic fashion.
Most importantly, the thing I loved most about this series was how nostalgic it felt. While never having seen a full episode of JSFR as a child, I felt like a child while watching the show. The wonderful effects and imagination that went into the show reminded me so much of the Godzilla movies I watched and was in awe of as a child. Even though some plot points briefly took me out of the show on occasion, I was able to enjoy most of the episodes. The final episode was the exception.
To conclude, Johnny Sokko and his Flying Robot is a TV series that many hardcore kaiju and Tokusatsu fans will enjoy. There is a lot of imagination running throughout the series and an aura of nostalgia will wash over many who watch it. But the series has problems, too. Many plot points are left unexplored or conveniently inserted to serve a particular episode. Some of the kaiju and robots are absurd in concept and design. Unicorn and its Chief are incompetent. Nevertheless, a mature viewer needs to keep in mind this is kids’ show, hence many plot holes and contrivances. Some mature viewers, who never watched this as a kid, may have difficulties with the show because of some of the problems I’ve mentioned in this review.
I still highly recommend giving Johnny Sokko and his Flying Robot a try. If you love Ultraman, I think you’ll enjoy this show as well.
Great practical effects
Detailed set designs
Most kaiju and robots are unique and fun
Plot holes and story inconsistencies
Unicorn is pretty much incompetent except for Johnny and Jerry
Some of the kaiju and robots are absurd in concept and design
Final episode is one of the biggest let-downs you'll ever experience in a TV show or movie