The Yuusha franchise of super-robot animé has something of a limited presence outside of Japan; comparatively little of it is subtitled and it remains largely unlocalised. The most well known entry is probably GaoGaiGar, the final series of the franchise and one which has significant popularity among genre fans for its development of classic plot formulas into far grander spectacle than most series. It has all the recognisable elements both of a Yuusha series and of a good super-robot story; a gang of young relatable protagonists, a mysterious hero and a team of fighting robots that challenge ever-greater threats. Yet being the last series in the franchise, it represents a culmination of ideas that were experimented with in prior entries, a kind of distillation of what might be the secret to a series’ popularity. In many ways, its most memorable aspects are those points where it differs from the franchise norms and returns more to wider genre traditions. For starters, the lead robot is piloted by a character who is not really the protagonist, as opposed to being a fully independent machine or one controlled by the character at the centre of the story. Many of the Yuusha series make the interactions between the machines and the humans a key story element – perhaps most clearly in J-Decker, a series whose main aesthetic conceit is robots acting like people in incongruous ways – yet GaoGaiGar relegates this to the sidekick machines, and even then downplays it compared to other series.
It may be fair to say that one of the defining features of Yuusha series is this interplay between the robots and the heroes – the machines are well-humanised and made strong characters in their own rights, rather than mechanical tools like many super robots are. In many ways, the humour this entails is the strongest aspect of the franchise; almost without exception, the Yuusha series are comedies featuring robot action and maintaining a balance between this and the more serious plot elements of the world being under threat is crucial. Previously I have written about the tense relationship between action and comedy – how humour risks lowering the stakes of, or cheapening, the threat under which a character is placed. An episodic framework, like most super-robot series, can largely avoid this by differentiating clearly between lighter-hearted episodes and more serious ones; series like Fighbird and J-Decker do this well with some absurd enemies mixed in with episodes which further the main story, more serious as it is. Here is perhaps where GaoGaiGar is lacking; it is a far more earnest story as a whole, trying to capture an older audience’s attention with much higher stakes while also writing itself into a corner trying to keep the stakes low enough to be a knockabout family series. Its enemies tend to be absurdly destructive, with high implied death counts from their rampages, yet at the same time there is an indestructibility about everything important most of the time. This is typical of super-robot series; the classic 1970s roots of the genre would relish in ridiculous property destruction, for example.
Yet as a Yuusha series it is comparatively atypical; even prior more “serious” entries like Da Garn never quite felt as mean-spirited in their enemy designs or plans. Much of this comes from the difference in depiction of the enemies; prior series had invading armies building madcap contraptions specifically designed to challenge the heroes’ robots or incidental enemy plans which the heroes had to respond to (the latter is well-demonstrated by J-Decker, which imagines a world where state-owned super-robots are the police force for dealing with robot-related crimes). GaoGaiGar‘s enemies are a defeated evil empire fighting a war from the shadows with the intent on terrorising and mutating Earth’s population into new subjects. As a result, their enemy designs are based on exploiting incidental civilians, and causing widespread carnage. This is very clearly shown in an early episode in which the villains create a steamroller-like machine and set it loose on rush hour traffic, or another where the enemy machine is an artillery-piece bombarding schools. At the end of each fight, the person transformed into the enemy is “healed” and rehabilitated to provide the sense of neat narrative closure an episodic series relies on most of the time yet on the whole the scale of the fights – and the way in which the action is framed with such widespread destruction – does not suit a Yuusha series.
The total opposite of this, and indeed a series equally experimental within the franchise in its total move away from seriousness, is Goldran; there, rather than any kind of evil empire being established as a credible threat, the lead enemy is a petulant, immature idiot about as competent as Wile E Coyote from Roadrunner or Dick Dastardly from Wacky Races. Goldran is unashamedly and indulgently a comedy cartoon; it does not, in its first 16 or so episodes, strive towards much more of an overarching story beyond Walter, the villain, trying to steal a number of magical items which will give him the power to take over the world and failing every time. A villain seeking world domination is a very stock super-robot plot, but here it is framed in such absurd fashion visually that everything has the comedic indestructibility that is reassuringly good-natured. Almost everyone is saved by the heroes, anyone injured will turn up with a comically oversized cast on their arm and bump on their head and Walter always flies off claiming to get them next time. It is not even comparable to J-Decker‘s overarching plot, which involved a mad scientist turning robots insane and setting them on a rampage, or any of the other villainous generals of other series; while there were comic-relief generals in other series such as Redlone and Butcho in Da Garn or Penchinon in GaoGaiGar, they were still a credible threat and built machines which could cause widespread destruction.
This is ultimately what makes Goldran so enjoyable; it is a super-robot series that is a straight comedy with, so far, no dark edge. Walter’s failure is telegraphed from the start of most episodes, generally via some amusing misunderstanding (a common one is him mishearing something as Power Stone, the relic he is looking for) or his machine having an obvious flaw. He is surrounded by equally amusing sidekicks – the long-suffering Colonel who always tries unsuccessfully to salvage the situation and the cloying Sharanla who ends up undoing any successes he does achieve. On the heroes’ side, the fact they are child protagonists is played up as a major source of comedy; they mess around, misunderstand and often succeed almost by accident. It represents a kind of distillation of the episodic super-robot story in a very different direction, and if anything a more credible one that acknowledges how ridiculous the genre can appear. Villains like Dr Hell in Mazinger Z, while presented more “seriously” in a pulp-y way, are really little different to the always-rebuffed antagonists in more lighthearted cartoons and so Walter, being presented completely as a ridiculous serial failure, is hugely entertaining to watch.
It is not unreasonable to say Goldran and GaoGaiGar represent the two “extremes” to which the Yuusha franchise diverged from its formula; on the one hand there is an entirely silly series of meddling kids and timeworn visual jokes such as running off a cliff and treading on air before falling, while on the other is a series which in its attempts to raise the stakes often makes its humour seem out of place and its carnage far too grim for the indestructibility of the protagonists. As GaoGaiGar continually escalates its stakes from one city to the entire world to the entire universe (in its OVA continuation GaoGaiGar Final) its shortcomings of tone become more apparent. It simultaneously runs stories of machines that indiscrimately kill civilians and attempt to subsume victims into mutant slaves of the enemy alongside cloying child characters and quaint resolutions in a way that does not always feel convincing. Nevertheless, the action is the focus, and is often very good – indeed, as a super-robot series within the wider genre, GaoGaiGar stands up well. By contrast Goldran‘s action is more perfunctory; it pokes fun at this itself with often the heroes only winning fights because of Walter’s stupidity or Sharanla interfering. The robots are just parts of an ensemble comedy cast in an ongoing caper story travelling to silly places, interacting with caricatures and ending with everything neatly wrapped up for the next adventure.