In a sense, of course, the classic mecha of Japanese manga/anime/film aren’t robots in the sense that they function as autonomous, self-motivated mechanisms. They are, like cars, piloted by ordinary flesh-and-bone humans — and as such are merely vehicles or exoskeletal enhancements. Yet subjectively, in the fictional world, the mechanisms themselves tend to acquire personalities, and many tales from the mecha subgenre introduce an ambiguity into the relationship between mechanism and pilot that blends them into a single, undifferentiated unit — the whole greater than the sum of the parts, as it were.

So the mecha subgenre definitely has an important place here in our ongoing exploration of artificial lifeforms, which is why I continue to discuss existing and upcoming examples of such tales.

This is Gaiking (or as he is known in his home country Demon Dragon of the Heavens Gaiking (大空魔竜ガイキング, Daikū Maryū Gaikingu). Super Robot Gaiking, invented by a Dr. Daimonji, forms part of the crew of the carrier Daikū Maryū — a huge ship that can partially transform, sections of it detaching in order to form Gaiking (specifically his skull-like chest and horns). The crew of Daikū Maryū battle against a race of aliens, the Dark Horror Army, whose home planet is being consumed by a black hole — which in turn is causing them to mutate. Daiking is piloted by an ex-baseball star, Sanshiro Tsuwabuki, whose latent psychic powers form the basis of his ability to control the huge robot.

Premiering in 1971 Gaiking was the first Super Robot mecha anime TV series produced by Toei Animation that was not based on an existing manga. Toei were responsible for such classic and formative mecha series as Mazinger Z and Getter Robo, which were based on existing work. In the US and the West generally the mecha robot Gaiking was best known as part of Mattel’s Shogun Warriors toy line (and as such appeared in comic form in the Marvel Universe, below fighting alongside the Fantastic Four):

Though the anime was Americanised for US television, it was aired as part of another series and never became as widely known as series such as Tetsujin 28-go (known in the US as Gigantor). [corrected, see Comments]

Just announced is a live-action Gaiking, to be produced by an American crew. According to Slashfilm:

The Gaiking project was originally supposed to be a 7-minute short attached to Fincher’s Heavy Metal, but after that project moved to another studio, Jules Urbach took it and ran with it, and now it looks on track to be a full-blown feature film with Matthew Gratzne directing. (source)

As this picture shows, Gaiking’s new design is darker and even more mechanistic, in true 21st century fashion. Urbach commented, however, that this CG version (taken from the trailer below) is only a concept image:

We are building the robots life size. Matt is one of the last great practical effects guys in the business who can pull this off. … The teaser we have now is CG for the robot. It is to give the fans a taste of the design we are going with, but it is not a true reveal given what we are going to be doing when we build the thing. The real deal is going to be mind blowing, of course. (Ain’t It Cool News)

At the moment the film is in pre-production with a very tentative release date of 2012. If successful, who knows where this may lead?


Sources and Further Reading:

Robo Music

“The Robots” by Kraftwerk (1977)

“The Humans Are Dead” by The Flight of the Conchords:

“Harder Better Faster Stronger” by Daft Punk:

“I Am The Robot” by My Robot Friend:

“My Friend Robot” by Regurgitator:

“Robot High School” by My Robot Friend:

“S.E.X.Y. R.O.B.O.T.” by The Pinker Tones:

“I, Robot” by the Alan Parsons Project:

Toyota’s Violin-Playing Robot:

The Blonde’ll Get the Robot Every Time

Sex Kittens Go to College [aka The Beauty and the Robot] (US-1960; dir. Albert Zugsmith) was a piece of fairly harmless comedic sexploitation starring Mamie Van Doren, Tuesday Weld and Bridget’s sister Mijanou, dressed out in classic 1950s pointy bras and tight sweaters. Mamie Van Doren plays a brilliant science professor who is promoted to head of the science faculty by THINKO the campus robot, and gets to share at least one poignant and life-changing moment with him.

It turns out that THINKO was played by a real robot (of sorts) — Elektro, a robot built by Westinghouse Electric Corporation as a publicity “frontman”.

In 1937, Pittsburgh-based Westinghouse Electric Corporation started construction on a robot designed to mimic many basic human actions. Within one year, Elektro was created — a giant steel and aluminum contraption adept at blowing up balloons, and smoking cigarettes and able to move its head, arms and legs. Some of Elektro’s more impressive feats included the ability to use a camera to distinguish between red and green lights and a motor skeleton to walk on command. Less impressive were the bad jokes broadcast over its speakers via microphone. (Popular Mechanics)

Apparently his smoking was a great attraction for visitors to the Westinghouse Building (see below), though he clearly had a high opinion of himself as he was known to say things like “I-am-Elektro…. my-brain-is-big-ger-than-yours”.

Elektro, who was created by Barney Barnett, remained the face of Westinghouse for many years, making appearances at places like the 1939 New York World’s Fair, where he wowed some 3.7 million visitors. But fame is fickle. Elektro’s fortunes declined over time, and he was finally reduced to accepting a small but pivotal role in Sex Kittens Go to College. Soon after the filming, however, Elektro was bought by a small, privately owned sideshow-type museum and later sold for scrap — though apparently his head survived. In 2009, the son of a Westinghouse engineer built a nonworking replica of Elektra, which is now on display at the Heinz History Center.

The whereabouts of his robot dog companion Sparko (designed by Don Lee Hadley) is, however, unknown.

For the curious, here is a schematic of Elektro’s workings:

And here’s Sparko’s inner workings:

Above: Barney Barnett with Sparko and his own creations, including daughter Mary Lou

Robot Scientists

The creation of machines that can “think” independently (as least as independently as grad students) and do their own scientific research and development would be a major step toward the creation of the sort of artificial intelligence that we frequently see in SF films and stories, right?

Welcome to the New World! Note that the robot scientist in this report isn’t humanoid in design — a fact that adds a certain interesting frisson to its achievement.