Thursday, April 25, 2019

The Good, the Bad, and the Giant Robot ~ A Review of Xabungle

Giant robots are synonymous with two things these days. It was once more, but the genre has really flat-lined as of late.

The first thing the genre is known for is the military science fiction story where those monstrosities replace tanks and another where they are glorified superheroes or ripped straight from the pages of some pulp magazine and gussied up to look pretty. In Japan they even have terms such as Real Robot to indicate the former and Super Robot to represent the latter. Those in the west, as far as I've seen, are completely incapable of the second form. That said, I'm not going to be talking about it today either. The anime I'm taking a look at today is a very loose entry in the "Real Robot" subgenre to the point that it blurs the lines.

Xabungle is a bit of an anomaly for mecha and giant robot series for many reasons, and I'd like to talk about why.

First, it should be noted that the series was spearheaded by the man who more or less invented the subgenre in Japan, Yoshiyuki Tomino, the creator of Mobile Suit Gundam. He started in the industry like so many others of the time did under Osamu Tezuka's Musha Productions. As a storyboard artist and screenplay writer for Astro Boy in 1963 he then moved to Sunrise where he started his long career of first putting interesting twists on Super Robot series and eventually helping to change the medium. However, unlike say Hideaki Anno (creator of Neon Genesis Evangelion) Tomino never stopped even after creating the series that influenced so much of his genre. In fact he is still creating today.

After creating Mobile Suit Gundam in 1979, he made the existential Space Runaway Ideon (over a decade before Evangelion), science fantasy Aura Battler Dunbine, and the overlooked Heavy Metal L-Gaim. This doesn't go into the plentiful Gundam sequels and unrelated series he made. It is a long career. But nothing he made is as weird as Xabungle from back in 1982.

Xabungle stars a young man named Jiron Amos wandering the desert planet of Zora alone. His parents have been killed and he's trying to find their murderer. However on this planet, Civilians: those who live in the desert, are forgiven their crimes after three days and cannot be prosecuted. So says those who live in domes and rule over Zora known as the Innocent. This means Jiron is the one breaking the law and is in the wrong. He comes across a bandit group named the Sand Rats and through their help ends up a pilot of a mecha called Xabungle and tied up with the trading merchant fleet that owns it. Hijinks soon ensue, but what does it all have to do with the killer Jiron is seeking? Well, more than you might think.

Despite this set up, which is different enough for mecha from the time (and even earlier, honestly) there are a few things that put Xabungle apart from the others. For one, most mecha series are named after the lead giant robot the main character pilots which is unique and adapted especially for the lead. This is true for both the Real Robot and Super Robot subgenres. In Xabungle, the titular mecha is not the only robot Jiron pilots and is only one piece of the Iron Gear's (the giant transforming merchant flagship) fleet. The title more matches the tone of the series ("The Bungle") that of which is an action comedy. That's right, this isn't a serious drama. But it isn't a farce, either.

The art style in reaction is more cartoony and expressive than Gundam or even Super Robot shows. Just as Matt Groening called The Simpsons "rubber-band reality" where the universe bends for a joke before snapping back for serious moments, Xabungle did it nearly a decade before he did. This isn't the typical modern weeb humor of perverted harem shenanigans, either, but full on pratfalls, slapstick, and character humor brought about through action. It's a lighter story for this, but not a goof. On top of this, Xabungle has the lowest death count of any Yoshiyuki Tomino series. For a man known for character death, this is saying a lot.

For why this is so bizarre you would have to understand the tone of mecha at the time. It was then about the horrors of war and how senseless it can be where it was once about heroes fighting villains. Tomino changed a lot of what mecha was known for even before he made Gundam with shows such as Zambot 3. Super Robots were no longer cool.

Xabungle is a throwback, not to Super Robots but to old adventure anime. Jiron is the manly hotblooded wandering gunslinger (there are gun battles in the series) protagonist after the sinister assassin of his parents. The series starts as a revenge story, but unlike a story such as GunXSword which forsakes all character development along the way just to kill the villain, Jiron's goal changes as he does throughout events into a loyal member of the traders who will do anything to correct injustices along the way to his goal. It's an adventure series where the mechs are merely a part of the arsenal and world. Not even like in a real robot show, in Xabungle most of the action might take place on foot. It might be a fistfight or a gun battle. The mecha are not the focus of the series, even though that was undoubtedly what Sunrise would have preferred.

There are good and bad guys in Xabungle, and Tomino is nothing if not skilled at portraying confrontations between rivals. There is one in particular around episode 20 that ramps up through mecha fights and shootouts as a giant base blows up around them. You want hotblooded fights? Well, you get them here.

And while this is a comedy at many times the core story isn't played for laughs. As said earlier the comedy comes from jokes and characters in goofy situations they sometimes get in. There are a handful of fourth wall breaks, but nothing as obnoxious or lazy as you would get today. The main plot, Jiron's quest for revenge, and the overall world are taken seriously. There's no winking in those aspects. Characters still die, despite what some people might tell you about this series, and the violence has consequences. But it is not as hard and gritty as the usual Tomino romp. It is more like the western adventure it models itself after.

The opening even screams old school, and most likely did so even at the time.

The Opening Theme

So why am I reviewing Xabungle? It's not the most well known mecha. It's not Tomino's most famous series, heck it is probably not in the top 5 for most. I'm not even certain modern anime watchers even know it exists.

Probably because this, like Zillion which I previously reviewed, is not a series that could get made now. Jiron is a hero Japan doesn't do so much these days: an unapologetic red-blooded male that uses his fists to seize justice from the closing jaws of villainy, who will not stay down, who is a great bro, who loves women and children, and who isn't afraid of anything that threatens the lives of others. The comedy is not so much "anime" comedy that you would know of today. It's much closer to old black and white slapstick that uses its animation to amplify the effect. The story features a large cast of characters that each play their part and are never forgotten or tossed to the side for convenience's sake. And despite this being partially a comedy they are far less trope-ish than what you would see in a modern anime today.

It is a bit strange that no one tried to bring it over here back in the day, though I suppose the 65 episode syndication rule might have been a factor. There's nothing heavy that the usual censorship job wouldn't do to allow it to air. At the same time I'm not sure how well it would have gone over had it been released here at the time. Xabungle is not Macross, Gundam, or even Voltron. Fans of those properties would have been stupefied by its existence.

There are a few problems with the show one could bring up. This isn't surprising, but the animation on a 50 episode weekly show from 1982 isn't exactly the strongest. At the same time 50 episodes, while it doesn't mean as much padding as you would think, do feature some repetitive plot moments that are tolerable because as a director Tomino knows how to keep it engaging and because he wrings out more comedic moments from the story. Finally, if you like your giant robot series 100% stoic and stone-faced you probably will not appreciate what the series does here.

For anyone else who doesn't mind their anime a few decades old with visible wrinkles you will find a series that is unlike most anything else out there. Even today it is wholly unique.

I watched Xabungle via Maiden Japan's recent SD-Blu Ray release of the series. It is DVD quality so you will see dirt and other artifacts on the picture. Not as if it matters much. Xabungle's animation is not the most fluid as it is and the dirty western feel is not hampered by it. The set includes all 50 episodes on two Blu-Ray discs and the compilation movie (that changes some things for the ending) put on the second thereby giving you everything in one package. For the price and ease of availability this set is undoubtedly worth it. Just don't expect Blu-Ray quality as the series has not been upgraded for it even in Japan.

In the end, Xabungle is one of my favorite mecha series. It is in my top 3 Tomino series. The non-stop action and adventure punctuated with comedy and unexpected character drama is a unique blend one will not find in many other series, even at the time of anime's golden age. If you don't mind a good laugh in between the over the top action then you will enjoy it just as much. Japan might not make them like this anymore, but that doesn't mean we still can't watch them.

If you want a pure old school pulp tale of revenge, loyalty, and justice, you can't go wrong with Xabungle. It is one of the mecha genre's hidden gems. Don't pass it by!

The Ending Theme

In addition to this review, friend of the blog Rawle Nyanzi has recently written the first volume in a new mecha novel series of his own. I reviewed his earlier novella Sword and Flower awhile back, which is an action packed romp that wouldn't feel out of place from an '80s anime OVA. But now he graces us with his first novel in this storied genre.

The description:
Irma wishes to be the perfect girl: chaste, feminine, and generous. But when a giant monster stomps through her hometown, her plans crumbled right along with the stores and apartments. 
In the chaos of acrid smoke and panicked civilians, the private military company Shadow Heart snatched her friend out of the crowd and took her captive. 
Now Irma must pilot the Grand Valkyur, a mechanical titan of steel more powerful than any weapon made by human hands. With a brilliant sword that could cut any matter and gleaming armor that could withstand any weapon, the Valkyur challenges all who dare to fight it. 
But piloting the Valkyur means using violence -- and to Irma, violence is men's work. How can she rescue her friend without betraying the feminine elegance she prides herself on?
You can find it here.

It goes without saying that I already have my copy. If you enjoy mecha I suggest checking it out for yourself. You certainly won't find another story like this whether in the sterile military sf world or in modern anime. But if Japan won't cut the mustard anymore then the rest of us will have to pull up the slack. That's just how it is. The pulp revolution continues unabated.

Giant robots aren't going anywhere, and thank God for that!


  1. Found this extended ending theme for Xabungle:

    (It's pretty funny how in the credits Jiron trips and falls. It reminds me of the occasional moments of hilarity, sometimes almost out of place, in Star Blazers, and especially the far lower-quality but occasionally surprisingly good 8th Man.)

  2. There are a lot of Xabungle soundtrack pieces on YouTube.

    Did you know that "Xabungle Dancing" was a thing?
    The cover on this looks like it perfectly captures the slightly comedic, feel: