There is something very interesting about Gold Lightan; it is a series that has clear past precedent and many, many interesting future derivatives and yet at the same time feels very much its own thing and quite unlike the competition. It aired in 1981, by which point Super Sentai had already started using giant robots (with Battle Fever J in 1979 and Denjiman in 1980). This is worth noting because the episode to episode plotting of Gold Lightan is strongly reminiscent of super sentai – and in turn it feels equally like a predecessor to 1982’s Space Sheriff Gavan in how strange the villains’ methods are.
The setup of Gold Lightan feels very modern for a 1981 series; there are a group of children who have no real super powers but who are the ground-level heroes of the series, there is no real authority figure controlling or supervising their heroism, and the robot team are all sentient and largely independent of the children. The tone is generally quite reminiscent of the 1990s Brave series – there is not even the sense that adults are much involved in the fights for the first twenty episodes of the show, this is a series for children about children. Adults exist to be victims of the week when they do matter in an episode, but mostly the focus is on the energy and freedom of youth. So each episode features the villains coming up with some kind of impractical plan that either targets the children directly, or affects their lives in some way that has a suitable message to share about trusting each other or conservationism or anything else really, the kids fighting it however they can and then the robot turning up to fight the enemy robot.
It’s both an extremely unremarkable structure when looked at in such terms, and yet also feels much more energetic when there isn’t a super science lab or a team leading authority figure to bounce off each week. Simply removing that – making the main adult authority figure just a slightly inept but enthusiastic youth club organiser who gets caught up in the action but isn’t really a commander – shuts off a lot of the more tedious stock plots of super robot anime and fits what feels like the big theme of the series. This is that young people are generally enthusiastic, well-meaning, courageous and curious, which are all good traits to have. Go out during the day, have exciting adventures, befriend a giant robot, then come home to a good family dinner, do your homework and healthy socialising with your friends. Such an idealised vision of childhood makes the series feel a lot more homely and less epic, which is really a strength of it. There’s a similar sense of community and family in much later child-led super robot series – a good example is Raijin-Oh, although that’s about a piloted robot, or Gear Fighter Dendoh, which has a much more traditional secret base and scientific-military command structure. Not many super robot shows have quite the same romanticised “we went out on our bikes all day” love of childhood freedom as Gold Lightan, or at least they temper it with the action part being the imposition of structure and responsibility.
And as a result the series can go in all sorts of directions on episode plots, being lightly socially conscious, heartwarming, and perilous when needed. A good way to put it is it’s an archetypal family show – a little bit of a lot of things wrapped up in some genuinely wholesome characterisation. Children can bicker and fall out and might be annoying or narrow-minded but at the same time they’ll get their act together and do good – and they don’t necessarily need an adult to make them do it, and the best adults are the ones who are a listening ear and supportive senior figure.
With the amount of robot anime I’ve watched I’ve seen, it feels like, every stock episode possible in numerous permutations. This is both a tempering factor in talking about the genre as I’m less likely to say something is uniquely wacky or out there when probably it’s been done in half a dozen super sentai series and three or four super robot shows, but also something that focuses my criticism of the genre to thinking about why some series stand out and some are tedious. A good show can’t just have stupid impractical plans and silly situations, it can’t just have good action. It needs energy to it, a sense of something more than going through the motions, and that energy often comes from what the series does differently. In Gold Lightan’s case it’s the fact it’s a show about the good times the kids have with their friends (where sometimes a robot turns up).