Tekkaman Blade, an animated series which aired between 1992-3, is technically a reworking of the 1975 series Tekkaman the Space Knight; it shares a basic concept of humanity threatened by alien invaders, and the superhero Tekkaman who fights them with his sidekick Pegas. Yet beyond this resemblance, the later series is very much its own story and is the series which has ultimately proved to have endured. Much changed between the two iterations, including the origin of the protagonist’s powers, the nature of his support crew and most significantly his design; the 1970s iteration drew on early tokusatsu live-action superhero costumes with its bright colours while the 1990s version uses many visual hallmarks of Masami Obari’s style (Obari himself worked on the detailed opening sequences) and is generally more angular and mechanical.
This reimagining of a quirky and colourful 1970s anime which blurred the traditional superhero genre (1975 would see the debut of the super sentai franchise, localised overseas as Power Rangers, with Himitsu Sentai Goranger in April) with the emerging mecha genre (still in its tentative first steps following 1972’s Mazinger Z really opening the genre up) would prove to be tonally very different; with a few exceptions (most notably 1977 series Zambot 3), the early mecha anime tended to be quite light-hearted and episodic. Tekkaman Blade, however, was aimed at an older age group and as a result focused more on telling an overarching story; its character designs and humour are more mature, and the action is less based on gimmickry and single enemy monsters and more on hordes of creatures with named leaders. In short, it shows how the mecha genre had developed in the intervening years. The result is ultimately a series that looks better (the new, angular Tekkaman design with an iconic glowing eye is somewhat of an improvement on the original) and does its own thing with the source material, telling a cohesive story based around intrigue and character interactions as much as fighting the alien threat.
So thus Tekkaman Blade stands out from its predecessor. It also aims to differentiate itself from other mecha anime, a genre that in the 20 years since Mazinger Z had become crowded and diversified significantly from its original roots. Thematically, it does this by returning to the original series’ merging of superheroes and war robots and drawing on concepts like Guyver (first animated in 1986) and Detonator Orgun (1991); indeed, Orgun is visually exceptionally similar to Tekkaman Blade and shares many concepts with it. It sits within a kind of subgenre of dark and bleak superhero stories, where the hero’s powers are a burden rather than a respected duty entered into with gusto, drawing also on body-horror elements especially in its creature design. While enemies in many mecha anime in the 1970s and 1980s were either military machines loaded down with rifles and missiles, or mish-mashes of animals and weapons, the Radam – the aliens in Tekkaman Blade – are immense insect-like creatures which attack with tendrils, pincers and poisons. The named villains, superheroes like the protagonist, take design cues from the core Tekkaman design and combine them with more organic elements (stylistically reminiscent of something from Fight! Iczer-1, Hyper Combat Unit Dangaioh, or even Dancouga). This superhero aspect carries through to the fight choreography; none of the creatures save for the actual mechanical creations Pegas and the Sol Tekkaman suits fight like machines; Tekkaman Blade himself is, for all intents and purposes, a man in a suit, fighting like one.
Tekkaman Blade is as a result not a typical mecha series in design terms, either; it is much closer to superhero concepts. Furthermore, its plot goes some distance to stand out with a very capable execution of a two-arc structure. At the halfway point of the series, almost all of the recurring elements and initial plot arcs – the establishment of the Space Knights (a reference to the original series’ own), the corruption and insanity within the military and the efforts of protagonist Takaya’s sister Miyuki to reunite with him – are closed off for good as the heroes are defeated and forced into full retreat just as they begin to plan their main counter-attack. Previous episodes to this climax have laid down the groundwork for the second half of the series (the fact that Omega, the archvillain, is controlling the Radam and that they are preparing to contaminate the earth with spores, the location of Omega’s base, the nature of his lieutenants and so on) but much of the other side of the story – the conflicts within the human forces that divide them – are overwritten.
A defining part of the series is a crushing sense of pessimism; humanity begins the series on the back foot with the Radam invasion well underway, under siege by their own defences, their leaders self-serving and ignorant. The protagonist arrives, unable to remember who he is and as a result is seen first as an enemy and then as a tool to be pointed at the Radam. Limitations on the power of his alter-ego Tekkaman are developed as plot arcs – its operation time limit before he loses his mind, his reliance on the robot Pegas to transform and then his ultimate crisis of confidence. This makes the series much more interesting than many similar stories; while the moral questions and personal crises are standard ones that recur in superhero stories, the quite slow pacing and post-apocalyptic (more accurately mid-apocalyptic) setting both give these dramas time to be played out less frantically but also to impress upon the viewer how there is even so no time to be moping about or quarreling. Corrupt authorities are a stock-in-trade plot device in science-fiction but the characters of the insane general Corbett and his crony Balzac make if anything more effective villains than the lesser Tekkamen – Dagger and Evil – who are the Radam’s own leaders for this first arc. As so many episodes reiterate how hopeless humanity’s position is, but also that the protagonists (who could do something about it) are played for fools and messed around by power-mad villains trying to profit from the destruction, the bleakness of the series becomes enthrallingly frustrating.
It is overblown, for sure; the climax of the first arc, with Corbett planning to sacrifice most of humanity to ensure his own survival coinciding with the final reunion of Takaya and Miyuki and the revelation that Miyuki is terminally ill and Takaya probably is as well owing to their transformation into Tekkamen has so many crises going on at once it becomes a little ridiculous – but it also is effective. It makes the defeat which leads into the second plot arc seem believable; the buildup to the fight has suggested that the Space Knights are finally uniting against Corbett and Miyuki is helping them attack the true enemy Omega – and this is framed in the sorts of episode structures that would ordinarily lead into a final arc of another series. That a series of events which individually would perhaps be a single episode’s crisis all coincide at this point does create a tense and exciting resolution. It is not new, either; Blue Comet SPT Layzner did something very similar partway through its run with the alien invaders, the Grados, wiping out the last resistance against them and ruling over Earth. Comparisons with Layzner, in fact, come naturally when discussing Tekkaman Blade – both have as their protagonist someone who has come into contact with both sides of the conflict and uses this to their advantage – Eiji in Layzner is part Grados and uses one of their SPT fighting suits much as Takaya in Tekkaman Blade uses Radam technology to become Tekkaman.
To conclude, Tekkaman Blade is an intruiging series; it marries together a wide range of inspirations into something that works hard to be more than a simple “dark reimagining” of a more child-friendly property. It is undeniably melodramatic and bleak, and it wears its influences clearly on its sleeve – but these are its strengths in turn, for it is a series which almost works as a retrospective of the tropes of the mecha and SF anime genres.