American International is primarily remembered as one of the key indie studios of the drive-in era but they did more than just film distribution. They also had a television arm: AIP-TV started in 1964 and produced the occasional pilot or show while packaging lots of movies for the television market. In addition to A.I.P. movies, they also released a lot of international films – and the occasional foreign t.v. show, too. Their most memorable t.v.-size import was Johnny Sokko And His Flying Robot, a Japanese live action show that delivered a stream of robots, aliens and monsters in a way that left countless warped kiddie minds in its wake.
Titled Giant Robo in Japan, this show was adapted from a manga and focuses on the struggle between two organizations battling for the fate of planet Earth. Unicorn are the good guys, a homegrown international defense force that uses science and spies to protect the planet from interstellar threats. They are put the test when the Gargoyle Gang lands its ship at the bottom of the ocean. Led by the vicious Emperor Guillotine (Hirohiko Sato), they begin an endless series of monster-driven schemes to overtake the planet.
Thankfully, Unicorn is about to pick up an unlikely pair of allies. Johnny Sokko (Mitsunobu Kaneko) is a little boy who strikes up a friendship with Unicorn agent Jerry Mano (Akio Ito) during a sea cruise. They escape when the ship is destroyed by the Gargoyle Gang and end up on an island where the evil aliens are trying to power up a giant robot to destroy the planet. Johnny and Jerry beat them to the punch when Johnny is the first to speak to the robot via transmitter, thus making him the only person who can control it. They destroy the secret base and Johnny is made an agent of Unicorn. Emperor Guillotine vows revenge, starting a cycle of city-stomping battles royale between Unicorn, the Gargoyles and one well-armed giant robot.
“Breathless” doesn’t begin to describe the juggernaut attack of Johnny Sokko And His Flying Robot. Characterizations are stripped back to the a skeletal minimum and plots are kept simple to facilitate a maximum of model city-stomping action. There’s at least one major monster-vs.-robot battle per show plus a variety of monster attack scenes. When monsters and robots aren’t roaming about, the struggle between Unicorn and the Gargoyle Gang manifests itself in a surprising amount of fisticuffs and shootouts. The pacing of this onslaught could best be described as “GO! GO! GO!!!” and the only respite is provided by the occasional bit of goofball humor. It often feels like a movie edited down to a 25 minute reel of budget-price action and spectacle.
And there’s more to this show than just kaiju-styled action. Johnny Sokko And His Flying Robot is eccentric, even by the lysergic standards of Japanese kiddie programming: note how the Gargoyle Gang’s rank and file are styled like Nazis, complete with a hand-extended salute to their emperor, while others favor Che Guevara-esque beards and berets! There are also some memorably bizarre monster designs: highlights include an eye-shaped monster that walks on vein-like “feet” and another monster who creates sandstorms with its breath (an unforgettable scene has a remote, icy base in Antartica being suddenly buried by windblown sand that transforms the landscape from white to dark brown).
Finally, it must be pointed out that Johnny Sokko And His Flying Robot is insanely violent for something aimed at children. Building and planes full of people are frequently destroyed in explosions, both villains and innocents get melted into puddles by acid sprays or radioactive materials, one villain is revealed to be a “human bomb” when he blows himself up and there are frequent on-screen shootouts. Even little Johnny gets in on the gunplay action: it’s a surreal experience watching a pre-teen kid shooting down enemy agents with his own pistol. Even though such scenes are done without blood or gore, it’s a fascinatingly weird experience having such serious violence mixed up with monster/robot battles and silly comedy bits.
In short, Johnny Sokko And His Flying Robot is a Japanese kid’s t.v. artifact that lives up to the fan hype. It’s fast, colorful and eccentric in a beautifully unselfconscious way.
DVD Notes: Shout! Factory added another Japanese cult item to its repertoire by releasing the AIP-TV version of this show on DVD. It’s a nice little set that preserves all 26 episodes of the show on 4 dual-layer DVD’s. The transfers are interlaced and a bit soft on detail but the colors are vivid and the English dubs sound good. There are no extras on the discs themselves but a full-color booklet is included in the disc case featuring an extensive essay on the show’s history by Japanese pop culture expert August Ragone and an interview with Johnny Sokko himself, Mitsunobu Kaneko. If that’s not enough, synopses and show credits are provided – they even include the different character names and titles for the Japanese and English versions of the show. All in all, a good value for the tokusatsu fan.