Judge Bill Gibron once had a flying robot. It was grounded for having a weak cockpit.
Home video does it again…
We TV geeks like to think that Japan's bizarre fascination with all things monster and robot began when cable came along and provided an outlet for such outrageous content. Of course, those in the know (or who remember when U2 were just starting out) will recall a time when local broadcast stations were filled with all manner of oddball imports. No, not like the Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers, but real Eastern exports "doctored" to be more USA/A-OK friendly. Such memorable titles as Speed Racer, Gigantor, and Johnny Socko and His Flying Robot kept many an American brat angling their aerial for the best UHF image they could find. Other treasures like England's The Goodies (the delightfully dumbed down version of Monty Python's Flying Circus) and Canada's SCTV might have played to an older crowd, but something like Johnny Socko did a fine job of providing pre-pay channel joys to the easily impressed (or pharmacologically impaired).
Now Shout! Factory is bringing back a few of these forgotten gems, with all 26 episodes of Socko's late '60s showcase present and accounted for. Naturally, we are dealing with a wholly dubbed enterprise where two American producers—Salvatore Billiteri and Manuel San Fernando—make up the sole credits offered. What we learn along the way is that our title hero, played by Mitsunobu Kaneko with the voice of someone called Catherine Byers, is one of those lucky fictional kids who lack any kind of parental supervision and yet manage to stumble upon to world altering events with Kenny/Gamera like consistency. And adults listen to him! In this case, Johnny and his older male friend Jerry end up shipwrecked on a seemingly deserted island when a giant monster, controlled by the evil Emperor Guillotine and his Gargoyle Gang, destroy the ferry they are on. Once safe, they meet Dr. Lucius Guardian who is building a large automaton that looks like a skyscraper sized Gollum. Once Johnny gets his hands on the wristwatch control mechanism, he uses his robot to defeat Dr. Guillotine's beasties…that is, until another one shows up the following week.
That's about it. That's Johnny Socko and His Flying Robot for you. Ridiculously fun for all the wrong reasons and loaded with nutty misplaced nostalgia, this is old school silliness at its most sublime. Like Supercar and other non-cartoon oddities, there's a desire to play things seriously here that belies the lack of production value. Indeed, those used to Godzilla taking down meticulously manufactured miniatures of famous Japanese landmarks will laugh at the balsa wood and Elmer's Glue like effects here. Sure, the man in suit material is marvelous (some of Dr. Guillotine's minions are incredibly imaginative) and some of the powers offered by these villains (tube rockets, sand manipulation, acid breath) are fun as well. Sure, the action is a bit dated and definitely aimed at the underlings, but once you've sat through an entire season of this surrealism, you'll be sold.
Of course, there are a couple of caveats. One, Johnny and his eventual female sidekick Mari shoot—and we don't mean the breeze. If "Have Gun Will Travel" is a meaningful mantra, these elementary schoolers are true international jetsetters. They are frequently seen packing heat and blasting away at the enemy, something a 2013 parent or guardian is bound to go apoplectic over. Similarly, it's hard to say if these episodes are "complete" or not. When they were sent off into syndication, stations frequently edited the content for time constraints (read: more commercials). It's a practice that's even done today. Still, for purists, or people who just want all the Johnny Socko they can get, this may be an issue. Finally, this is not for the cynical of heart. Today's tech savvy wee ones might balk at the sight of obvious costumed actors battling on top of cardboard cutouts. There's no CG, no believable green screen, and process shots have a cobbled together look. If Godzilla is the gold standard, this is borderline bronze. Or below.
As for the DVD specs, the show looks surprisingly good, given its age and rarity. The standard definition 1.33:1 full screen image is colorful, clean, and readily watchable. Don't expect polished or pristine versions of the show and you'll be set. Also, don't expect a Japanese language track. This is the American version through and through, from the credits to the conclusion. The Dolby 2.0 Mono audio track is crisp and rarely overmodulated, through the musical score sometimes seems a bit antithetical to what is going on storywise (there are rumors that some of the background orchestrations were changed in the '70s). As for added content, we get a 24 page booklet about the series, and that's it. While informative, it lacks the necessary contemporary context to help newbies discover Johnny Socko's unique charms.
So whether you're an old school TV nerd (like yours truly) or someone whose turned their love of anime into an obsession with all things kaiju, there is a lot to like about Johnny Socko and His Flying Robot. It may not be a true Japanese classic, but it definitely succeeds in the bizarro-world bliss department.
Not guilty! Too much fun to be faulted.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Shout! Factory
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