animefringe august 2003 / feature
Animefringe Coverage:
Kikaider - Retro Robotic Drama

The “ghost in the machine” scenario has certainly popped up frequently in anime. From Ghost in the Shell and Bubblegum Crisis all the way back to Astro Boy, it is no wonder that a culture so inundated with technology - much like our own - would begin to question whether machines are capable of sentience, emotion, or the intangible object we call a soul. Of the tales mentioned above, Kikaider is merely the newest. Yet it possesses a number of traits that set it apart from its predecessors.

It’s likely the most obvious quality viewers will note is its distinct visual style. This series is based upon a manga title originally published about three decades ago created by Shotaro Ishinomori, the creator of Skull Man, among many other influential manga. Many people directly cite Ishinomori for influencing masked hero shows such as the Power Rangers, though I won't hold that against him. Thanks to the age of the material this show is based upon, the characters look as if they've come straight from a Tezuka manga. If the series didn't rely so much upon modern production methods, it would be hard to distinguish Kikaider from shows from the earlier years of manga and anime. Facial features are often exaggerated, especially eyes and noses. Hands and feet seem larger than the average anime character, as well. The designers blend this older look with near-continuous CG-aided animation, which creates a sharp, smooth, vibrant show with artwork from another era.

While it may be a bit unsettling at first, it didn't take long for me to become accustomed to the style. Such a combination of older designs with new production standards has, of course, been done before. The thematically similar Metropolis is one of the most notable, but even the classic cartoon series Felix the Cat had a modern movie that remained true to the original shape of things. I actually feel that it's rather cool to have a lead android character that roams about wearing bell bottoms with a guitar strapped to his back.

In any case, after a while, you don't really think about the clash of two different time periods. Eventually, it's the story that keeps a viewer's interest in Kikaider.

As we discover in the first episode, the visuals aren't the only aspect of the show influenced by a story from the past. The first few scenes of the series tell the story of Pinocchio as they show the parallel creation of Jiro, the android star of the show. Built in a lab by an eccentric old scientist, Jiro is activated as his birthplace burns down around him. There remains no trace of his creator, so he wanders down to his maker's house, where he encounters Mitsuko and Matsaru - the daughter and son of his maker, respectively. He soon begins to think of them as his siblings.

Mitsuko is used to her father's creations, for he was a leading scientist in the field of robotics. However, Jiro is markedly different from any other machine she's ever encountered, uncannily possessing human mannerisms. His proclivity for human behavior is explained soon enough when Mitsuko examines her father's notes. As it turns out, he possesses something called the "Gemini Circuit." At least, that's how it would be romanized in English. That's also how they pronounce it in the English dub. However, if you listen to the Japanese, and recall the whole Pinocchio connection, then you'll realize it's actually the "Jiminy Circuit," not the "Gemini Circuit."

In any case, this special circuit is what endows Jiro with a conscience, and thus brings him one step closer to humanity. Unfortunately, not much time is given to Jiro and his newfound siblings, for the man who most likely was responsible for the destruction of Jiro's lab, Lord Gill, is now out for Jiro. The first disc of this series features various battles with a number of enemy robots going after Jiro, and while the fight scenes are well-animated, the most impressive part of this series is the story. Perhaps it's been told before, but that doesn't make it uninteresting. The question of what makes something human has always been one I've been fascinated with. After all, there are plenty of humans out there that have a conscience but still perform terrible acts of depravity. Can a machine be more humane than humans?

With that sentiment in mind, Jiro's quest to learn more about himself as well as the world around him has just begun. As a robot, he is likely to meet with fear and hatred because of his unique inhuman nature. Even Mitsuko will have trouble accepting him as someone she can trust. With Lord Gill sending his army of mechanized assassins after Jiro and Jiro's creator still missing, there's quite a lot for the young robot to handle right from the beginning. Somehow, I have a feeling he'll be up to the task.