Ah, Johnny Sokko and His Flying Robot! Back when this 1967-68 Japanese tokusatsu (live-action but special effects-heavy) television series hit American shores in 1969, airing on UHF stations across the country throughout the '70s, bemused but entertained youngsters like myself marveled at its goofy menagerie of giant monsters, outlandish villains, and obvious but colorful miniature effects. We'd joke that where the buildings in a Godzilla picture would crumble somewhat realistically, and those on Ultra Man would usually look at least okay, everything on Johnny Sokko appeared to be made out of cardboard and construction paper. Unlike the sleekly designed Ultra Man, Johnny Sokko's Flying Robot looked like something one would find in an elementary school pageant.
The series all but vanished by the early-1980s, though bootleg videos of Voyage Into Space (1970), a dizzyingly bizarre and action-packed but definitely faux Johnny Sokko "movie" edited together from several episodes, attained a minor cult status. U.S. rights to the series were held by American International Pictures Television (AIP-TV), which also supervised the creation of the English-dubbed version. MGM eventually acquired the AIP library and for a time considered releasing the series as a manufactured-on-demand DVD. However, MGM's distributor, 20th Century-Fox, rejected MGM's old video transfers thus putting the kibosh on that release.
However, Shout! Factory stepped into the fray, sub-licensing home video rights to a number of MGM-owned titles, including this one. There was a lot of concern that since these same video masters would be sourced, the series might look truly terrible on DVD. Happily, the show fare better than most were expecting. While AIP's English title elements do indeed look terrible, the show - itself photographed in 16mm - looks just fine.
The series originated as Jyaiantorobo, or "Giant Robo," the creation of manga artist Mitsuteru Yokoyama, whose animated television series Tetsujin 28-go preceded Johnny Sokko in the American market under the title Gigantor.
Toei Co., Ltd. produced the series; neither Toho nor Tsuburaya Productions, the companies behind Godzilla and Ultra Man, had anything to do with it, though they were obvious influences. (Ultra Man finished its run in the spring of 1967, Johnny Sokko premiered that fall.) Salvatore Billiteri and Manuel San Fernando, who ungraciously hog all the credit during both the opening and closing titles, adapted the American version. The Japanese casts and crews go entirely unmentioned.
The earth - well, Japan at any rate - is under attack from an evil alien known as Emperor Guillotine, who holes up in a spaceship resting at the bottom of the Pacific. From there he orders his dreaded but singularly ineffectual Gargoyle Gang, conspicuously dressed in vaguely Wehrmachtian or Cuban revolutionary (berets and beards) attire. As the Gargoyle Gang never seems to get the job done, in each episode Emperor Guillotine orders a second front, an attack by a remote controlled giant monster.
Elsewhere, Johnny Sokko (called Daisuke Kusama in the original series and played by Mitsunobu Kaneko; he's dubbed here by Catherine Byers), apparently a wandering orphan with no adult supervision, meets Jerry Mano (Jiro Minami, played by Akio Ito and voiced by Ted Rusoff) aboard a ferry attacked by one such monster. Shipwrecked, they find themselves on a South Seas island where (apparently) American scientist Dr. Lucius Guardian (Jack Ongun) is building a King Kong-sized, Pharaoh-like Robot. Dr. Guardian matter-of-factly tells the boys he plans to blow up the island with an atomic bomb rather than have the Robot fall into enemy hands, but not before Johnny is given the fantastic machine's control device, built into a wristwatch-transmitter.
Jerry, as it turns out, is actually U3, a member of the Science Patrol-esque UNICORN, the United Nations Investigative Criminal Organization Response Network. With Johnny now in complete control of the unnamed Robot, UNICORN invites Johnny to enlist as Agent U7. (This aspect of the show always bothered me. Clearly Johnny wouldn't have been so honored were he not in complete control of the giant Robot. What message does that teach kids? Make sure you own cool stuff or the other kids won't want to play with you?)
After the first episode, the series lapses into a fairly rigid formula show with the Gargoyle Gang and the giant monsters failing again and again to defeat Johnny Sokko and his fantastic flying robot. Nevertheless, the monsters dispatched against Johnny & Co. are a fascinatingly bizarre array of often-indescribable whatsits, creatures far more surreal than what Toho and Tsuburaya Productions were coming up with during this same period. Indeed, Johnny Sokko was much more the trend-setter in this regard: subsequent superhero and tokusatsu series offered similarly outlandish monsters, completely moving away from the dinosaur- and animal world-influenced creatures emanating from SPFX Director Eiji Tsuburaya and his team.
Moreover, the special effects, typically directed by Nobuo Yajima (Invasion of the Neptune Men, Message from Space) have a kinetic quality usually absent from Tsuburaya's more stately presentations. Neither is what you call realistic, yet both have distinctive qualities that are surprisingly effective for audiences willing to suspend disbelief.
As for the series, 45 years on it still has the stuff to entertain younger viewers. I ran several episodes for my five-year-old and several of her friends and they were utterly captivated, even those who spoke no English. Of course, they had no idea they were watching a series as old or older than their parents, and if they did it wouldn't have mattered anyway.
Video & Audio
The 26-episode series is presented in its original full-frame format across four single-sided discs, with a total running time of 11 ¼ hours. As noted above, when one takes into consideration that the program was shot in 16- rather than 35mm film, and that these are apparently the same old video masters previously rejected by Fox, Johnny Sokko - The Complete Series is in remarkably good shape, and in some respects video-wise even superior to Shout!'s Ultra Man and Ultra Seven DVD releases, which are problematic for other reasons. The series is available in English only: there are no Japanese audio options though, again considering, the Dolby Digital mono is better than you'd expect.
The only supplement is a 24-page booklet that includes an historical overview by August Ragone; an interview with actor Mitsunobu Kaneko (who, sadly, died at 39 in a 1997 car accident); and, best of all, a detailed episode guide with Japanese cast and crew credits, production order and airdates, and plot synopses.
Goofy fun for kids of all ages, Johnny Sokko and His Flying Robot is Highly Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.