The 1990 TV anime Brave Exkaiser was the first entry in the Brave franchise, and while it is a highly generic super-robot series it is interesting to view it as laying the groundwork for ideas that the subsequent franchise entries would build on. Tracking the ways in which these ideas develop provides a way of looking at the franchise as a whole that in some way serves to explain its often interesting approach to a super-robot story. Central to almost all entries (the notable exception being Brave Command Dagwon) is a focus – often humorous – at the relationship between a young boy and some number of robot friends. In some cases this is heavily brought to the fore – Brave Police J-Decker runs with the idea by having a whole stable of robots all with human companions and even – in a tongue-in-cheek fashion – love interests. Often the intent is not to make a serious statement about the nature of machines and humans, but the shift from the child hero piloting a robot to a child surrounded by robots and aliens is an interesting angle which is often used for endearing comedy.
Exkaiser presents, in the plainest form, the roots of this child-and-alien relationship; protagonist Kouta meets the robot Exkaiser and his companions, who are space police chasing fugitive criminals (the police angle picked up most directly in Dagwon, which features alien prisoners escaped from a space prison, and J-Decker which features an AI police force on Earth). It is an uncomplicated setup compared to, say, Da Garn‘s network of rivalries and there is no quest to find allies as in Goldran. Instead, within three episodes, the main robots are introduced and the focus is on highly episodic adventures as the enemy Geisters try stealing various items. In many ways this “mystery-of-the-week” approach is evoked by J-Decker‘s most episodic sections and has something of Fighbird‘s utter weirdness (although, seven episodes in, not quite yet reaching the bizarre depths of some infamous plots in Fighbird involving kidnapped babies and an evil clone of Mother Theresa). Fighbird is actually a good point of comparison for Exkaiser; although the later series introduced a more direct comic companion in the socially inept alien Katori, rather than Exkaiser‘s awkward talking car and comedy dog, it has the same sort of constantly zany tone of relatively weird and low-key villain plans, incredibly inept villains and straightforward action.
It is interesting comparing these series to the other almost purely comedic Brave series, Brave of Gold Goldran. Goldran has a quest plot to its initial arc, with slapstick villain Walter pursuing the leading children as they seek the Power Stones to “awaken” sleeping robots. Here the tone of the whole world is silly; it is not weird enemy plans in an otherwise normal world, this is a setting where absurd national stereotypes exist and each quest takes the characters to some parody of a real-world nation or landmark. Goldran first aired in February 1995 (finishing in early 1996), the same year as a series it has something in common with in terms of comedy anime – The Slayers (April – September 1995). The comparison here may seem unusual – one series is an established entry in a super-robot franchise, the other is a fantasy comedy – but both series have a similar kind of humour in their use of stereotypical locations for comedy sketches. Exkaiser and Fighbird rely on straight-man figures faced with odd situations – Kouta’s father finding his car has driven off on its own, Katori’s love interest being exasperated at his weirdness, and oddball villain schemes from the Geisters and their analogues in Fighbird. Goldran has a whole cast of imbeciles and stereotypes bouncing around a world that accommodates them. Although it would be the sequel series to Slayers, NEXT and TRY, that would double down on the strange episodic sketch-like episodes (with things like the cross-dressing episode, the tennis episode and the fishmen episode), the first series certainly had something of this present.
Moving away from the comedy aspects – for Exkaiser is often simply odd over anything else, and very much a “normal” super-robot show in its archetypal gang of hangers-on and a “normal” comedy in its figures of fun such as the inept journalist and the dim rich kid – one can see certain patterns in the robot parts of the franchise. Exkaiser has six robots introduced in its first three episodes, plus an upgrade – all of which will be used later in the franchise.
The Lead Unit and Upgrade Vehicle(s) – Exkaiser combines with King Loader to become King Exkaiser, much like Deckerd combines with a support vehicle to become J-Decker, and GaiGar upgrades to GaoGaiGar (among other examples). It is a fairly common trope of the Brave series for the main robot to have an weaker initial form and need to gain additional parts to fight at full power – another such example is Goldran, which acquires a number of upgrades. Indeed, J-Decker is particularly close with its support vehicle including a lorry and a very similar catchphrase in Brave Up compared to Form Up.
Two More Robots, and then Three More Robots – This trope is played with a little more throughout the various series, but it is fairly easy to trace it; Exkaiser has the Rakers, two train robots which combine into a two-coloured unit (something which would be expounded upon by GaoGaiGar‘s Symmetrical Docking) and the Max team, which form most of the rest of the stock Brave robot parts (a drill, a jet and a sports car). Notably absent are steam trains (featuring in Might Gaine, Dagwon and Goldran) and emergency vehicles like fire-engines, police cars and ambulances (which turn up in J-Decker, Fighbird and Goldran again, among others) but there are definitely some standards being set. The exact size of the two support robot teams may vary, too – Goldran has a second single unit in Advenger, and then a three-part combiner upgraded to a four-part unit with the Silver team – but even GaoGaiGar gets in on the two teams with its second -Ryujin robot in the second half.
Lone Wolves – Most often ninja robots, like Shadowmaru (J-Decker), Volfogg (GaoGaiGar) and the most interesting example, Seven Changer (Da Garn) but this category also includes single units that combine with the lead to add weapons – like Lian and Gunkid (Dagwon), Goldymarg (GaoGaiGar) and Gunmax (J-Decker). Seven Changer is most interesting here because it is initially an enemy, piloted by another alien, and changes sides to help fight the real villain – picked up in King J-Der in GaoGaiGar.
As it is clear, there are a lot of design strands running throughout the franchise, giving it a consistent visual look (a robot is often easily identifiable as a Brave thanks to its general design and moveset) but still adding some entertaining variation to fights. In this light it is interesting seeing Exkaiser in context – and remembering Thunder Flash, its sword finisher (and its upgraded versions) were arguably the origins of what tends to be called the “Obari sword pose” or “Sunrise pose”. Interestingly, it is GaoGaiGar, in many ways the “best-of” the franchise (with Galeon picking up the lion robot motif used in Da Garn and Dagwon, the Symmetrical Docking brothers a reference to Ultra Rakers’ Brotherly Combination, Gai being a less inept Katori in his relationship with Mikoto and Mamoru etcetera), that diverts most from the sword or cannon-based fighting style of most of its predecessors. GaoGaiGar’s moveset comprises Broken Magnum (a rocket punch attack), Dividing Driver (a utility weapon used to punch through barriers and open up terrain for fighting), Hell and Heaven (a two-handed punch to rip out an enemy’s core a little like the Shining Finger from G Gundam) and its replacement Goldion Hammer (a giant hammer formed by combination with Goldymarg). The robot itself is also quite a visual departure from the quite Gundam-like look of earlier Braves – even in a series that would serve as a swansong and summation of the franchise, it was doing things differently.
So where does this leave Exkaiser? Is it worth watching, outside of as a curiosity? This is a difficult question; it is not the best Brave series (although arguably not the worst, since Fighbird‘s most stupid episodes are either highly amusing to you or intolerable, and Goldran‘s humour does require a high tolerance for mid-90s anime stereotype comedy), but at the same time it was the first and so it is hard to really expect true innovation. As a super-robot series, it is wholly functional and adequate – quite significantly more watchable thanks to its easygoing 90s comedy than something as bland as Dai-Apollon or Godsigma, animated in a pleasantly stylised fashion with some highly pleasing turns from Masami Obari in its action (and especially in the opening sequence) and generally a non-essential, but enjoyable piece of 90s anime history. Those not already robot afficionados looking for a fix of Obari (among others) will not find anything to convert them to it – on the other hand, those who may have enjoyed other Brave series will find Exkaiser of particular interest in how it lays down the groundwork for the rest of the franchise.