I started rewatching Gun X Sword just after beginning to play Super Robot Wars T and was seriously wondering after two episodes if it was actually as good as I remembered. I would fully understand someone, after two episodes of the series, being just about done with it because the opening absolutely does not touch the show’s real strengths. You have two episodes of character humour that might be grating without the opportunity to get to know the characters, and of incidental combat against largely irritating villains. There are flashes of interest, for sure – the moments where the mask of slacker comedy breaks and Van shows his crazed side suggest there is something more going on here, made all the clearer by the fact the setting is called The Endless Illusion. But ultimately it is a kind of badness driven by simply being ordinary when you have probably, if you have been convinced to watch Gun X Sword, entered expecting something extraordinary.
It is not, by the grand scale of mediocre comedy anime, mediocre robot anime or even mediocre anime in general, stunningly, memorably bad. It is competent, there are a reasonable number of jokes that hit the mark and there is a lot to like about the ceremony of the robot fights (which might put viewers in mind of The Big O or a significantly more stupid Giant Robo). But the episode plots are not very interesting. Episode 1 features a town under siege from a gambling-obsessed villain with a spectacularly annoying catchphrase and an extended joke about the young child Wendy proposing marriage to the hero to try and get him to stay. Episode 2 is about a monocled robber baron with a prehensile moustache kidnapping women to form a harem on his floating free city. I could totally understand people thinking this is just another of those shows, the slacker man, spirited young girl, older sexy girl who is the subject of breast size jokes and a succession of stupid villains. It’s all quite beige, even if it is carried off with a lot of energy.
And then episode 3 is a complete pivot from this weak start to an impressively sincere and spirited episode, an almost total transformation in tone which reminded me that yes, this series can be extraordinary. The heroes turn up in a small South American-esque town and run into a group of old men who prop up the bar of a local pub, drinking heavily, being rowdy and going on about how they used to pilot robots. Nobody really likes them, they’re rowdy and uncouth and yell at young people, the young people think they’re giving the town a bad reputation and generally they seem washed-out. It transpires, along with a fifth, now dead, pilot, they were a team who did fight with a super robot against some long-defeated evil empire, and now enough time has passed that most of the town has forgotten it ever happened. Visually, they represent a whole range of eras of super robot team – the five-man unit and themed uniforms feel very Combattler/Voltes, the combination footage and the way the fifth unit combines is very Dancougar and the overall look has elements of the 1990s Brave robots – but this is a world where robots simply aren’t used for grand heroism any more.
The young bravo of the town says the old men should “act their age”, and ultimately this sets up the whole conflict of the episode. The men might once have been heroes, but how long should the town commemorate them? If there have been no foes that need super robots for years, and the world has moved past that era, is it natural for that legacy to fade away? When Van and his party arrive, they feel they have a kindred spirit in another robot pilot – even if their approaches are very different. The men embody the spirit of superheroes, using their power responsibly, when the situation needs it. They do not show off, even if it would help them look good in the eyes of others. This in its own right is already a counterpoint to how the series has presented its villains – both the Wild Bunch and the Baron were obsessed with appearing strong, showing off the invincibility of their weapons (even if that is only because they only ever punched down). A scene in the town jail is particularly touching – an old fan of the super robot, one of the few who keeps the faith, says while he can’t bear to see his childhood idols locked up and washed-out, “the time of heroes is over.”
And then, danger does come in the form of this episode’s incidental villain. Bucci, a mad scientist living on the outskirts of town, decides it is time to get revenge against people who did not take him seriously after an experiment failed, and of course the people need a robot to fight his robot. Here the series finally makes something of Van’s utter reticence to do anything good for its own sake; he dismisses the old men’s offer of friendship, won’t help them in a bar fight, and won’t even fight Bucci because it’s not his problem. But in the end he does help, and it is a thematically great moment of catharsis for the episode.
El Dora V, the old men’s robot, needs all its parts to fight at full strength. One of the pilots is dead, and the others are losing badly to the returning villain. A more cynical series would have this as the point where the hero comes round to realise that he is the younger, hopeful generation, step in, save the old men and let them have their last blaze of glory ultimately serve as proof they don’t need to fight any more. Gun X Sword does not do this. All Van does in the fight is provide the last component for El Dora V to fight at full strength, so the town’s heroes can have their fight on a fair footing.
Both the heroes and villains of the episode are people made into outcasts by a town that wants to move on from the past – Bucci has become obsessed with how he feels he is disrespected as a scientist, while the El Dora team take their knocks and insults with dignity. And both are redeemed, because in a series that has a slacker, cynical hero there are still good people. A team of old heroes go out to fight understrength, not fearing anything, to fight for a town that merely tolerates them because it is what they have always done and always will do and they win because they get the help they need. And when they win they forgive their opponent, and tell him to make things good.
The episode is a steady procession of good messages, a wholesome and sincere antidote to cynicism and deconstruction. Bucci claims the old men need to “evolve”, to adapt to new technology and abandon their obsolete methods. In the end he is wrong. The episode proves that, and it does it in a nicely paced, well-edited single episode of television. It doesn’t dwell on over-explaining backstory for anyone, it requires very little context, it is referential without expecting or needing understanding of what is being referenced.
It would be tempting, and wrong, to call the episode a parody of old super robot shows, because it applies a slightly ridiculous theme and aesthetic, and is set in the framework of a comedy series. It is not a parody; there is no intent to mock the El Dora team. I think in a lot of cases there is a natural association of the retro and nostalgic with parody, a sense of this is how things were and this is how things are. And so for a comedy series not to use the oldschool, the traditional – the past generation – as a punchline but instead as the protagonists of the episode shows a much more wholesome intent. It can be read as it doesn’t matter if you’re old, and your methods are out of date, what matters is you do the right thing. It is a celebration, in general, of people who will go out and take whatever is coming and stand up for what they believe in. Perhaps the best way to sum up the story of the El Dora Five is Stan Lee’s famous quote:
“Another definition of a hero is someone who is concerned about other people’s well-being, and will go out of his or her way to help them — even if there is no chance of a reward. That person who helps others simply because it should or must be done, and because it is the right thing to do, is indeed without a doubt, a real superhero.” – Stan Lee