It seems that 'retro' has been as cool in Japan recently as it has been in the UK. Whilst here old series like The Magic Roundabout and Basil Brush have made comebacks, in Japan it has been the likes of Astro Boy, Cyborg 009 and Tetsujin 28.
The premise of Tetsujin 28 is, like many of those in
early anime, very interesting. The series starts by taking you back to the
dark days of World War 2, where Japan has sent some of its best scientists to a
pacific island where they develop powerful weapons in secret. Professor
Kaneda and his assistant Shikishima are scientists charged with the task of
creating an unbeatable super robot called Tetsujin, but the pacifist pair don't
really have their heart in it and no less than 27 attempts fail. However,
when Kaneda learns that his wife and baby son have been killed in an air raid he
throws everything into his work and succeeds in creating the mighty Tetsujin
28, which he names Shotaro after his son. With his masterwork complete
Kaneda is wracked with guilt over the havoc it will cause and leaks the location
of the base to the Americans, who immediately launch a devastating airstrike
which kills him and seals the deadly machine for ever. Or has it?
Kaneda's real son had actually survived, and in post-War Japan he has become
something of a celebrity as a boy detective with the support of Shikishima and
Police Chief Otsuka. Excavations on a pacific island uncovers the secret
resting place of Tetsujin 28 and a mechanism is triggered which sends it
to mainland Japan and right into the path of the young Shotaro. How will
Shotaro handle his father's legacy? And will he unravel the tangled web
that surrounds it's creation?
If older viewers may find the above a little bit
familiar, then they have probably watched Gigantor, the Western
translation of the original Tetsujin 28 anime which was shown on
UK TV back in the 1960's. Fans of the original will no doubt be
interested in this modern remake, but it has a lot more going for it
than just nostalgia. The problem with some recent retro remakes is
that they are often aimed at young children, so skirt around the more
interesting and darker elements that would appeal to adults. The
remake of Astro Boy which was shown on BBC1 was flashy
compared to the original, so I was not approaching Tetsujin 28 vol 1 with much hope. This meant that I was very surprised when I found it to be mature, intriguing and highly enjoyable.
The creators of Tetsujin 28
have realised that a lot of the fans of the previous incarnations
will obviously be older and will want something a bit more
sophisticated than a kid using his remote controlled robot to fight
the bad guys. With this in mind they have really drawn on the
darker aspects of the story, building the intrigue through
flashbacks to the strife of the war years and the subsequent
attempts to keep the past buried. It focuses on the emotions
of the characters, particularly the petty criminal Ryusaku Murasame
who suffers considerably after the resurrection of Tetsujin 28,
and delves into the tortured past of the typically square-jawed
scientist Shikishima. The story is intelligent and well
delivered, and crucially it manages to bring a level of maturity and
thought-provoking pathos to proceedings without turning the series
into something it's not. Everything fans remember is here, but
enhanced with a slick modern edge.
This is the main strength of the episodes on this volume, it sticks to the original style but puts some modern muscle behind it. The animation is a case in point, the characters designs are suitably retro, as is that of the robots, but the creators have used modern animation techniques to produce awesome effects. The visuals are as clear, detailed and bright as you would expect from modern computer animation, something that really shines through in the action scenes. These scenes are impressive, particularly when Tetsujin fights the mighty Black Ox robot in the fog, and the tension is really ramped up by setting most of the major action scenes at
night. Although this sounds like laziness on the part of the creative team, it does help to disguise the fact that although the robots may be authentic to the original, they do look a bit crap in these post-Gundam times. It is also a little bit of a stretch that Shotaro is able - and allowed - to hunt criminals, drive cars and control an awesomely powerful robot when he's only only about 12 years old.
It's nit-picking I know. The simple designs belie the depth the creators have given to both the characters and the story, and the series doesn't expect you to be familiar with the original, which can be a flaw of these remakes. It's accessible, interesting and far better than I ever expected it to be, with the retro designs lending it a sense of authenticity that overcomes the clunky look of the robots. There is action, intrigue and some well handled emotional scenes in the episodes on this disc, which for me makes Tetsujin 28 vol 1 the biggest surprise of the year so far. Well worth checking out.
Manga Entertainment cram five episodes onto the disc so you don't expect a lot of extras to be squeezed on too. There is a Tetsujin 28 trailer and a clean opening sequence, plus a host of trailers for other Manga releases, but that's it. Something like this would really benefit from a Jonathan Clements commentary, and it's a shame there is no comparison to the original series included.