The word “Japan” is inescapably associated with weird children’s toys, Top Ramen, and GIANT ANIME MECHS. One of the U.S. shows to feature the eye-grabbing robots was 1984’s Voltron: Defender of the Universe, a mash-up of two completely unrelated Japanese shows about giant mechs into one Americanized whole. The result was a triumphant show about giant killer robots that any kid could follow: a mechanized animal force taking on the evil, purple forces from the planet Doom (yes, seriously). Voltron: The Legend Begins, a compilation of the first few episodes of the series, was released on DVD on Aug. 16. Today, Voltron is a charmingly cheesy anime that is the origin of so many parodies: featuring the stereotypical hallmarks of shamelessly recycled footage, intense zooms and pans, and seizure-inducing visual effects. Voltron perseveres through its low-production values, though, to offer a glimpse at the roots of Japanese influence in America. Ok, that last sentence was melodramatic. But Voltron really does take risks that today’s grim-dark animes wouldn’t dare. One plot point early on is solved with the help of anthropomorphic dancing mice, and the jokes are so terrible that you can’t help but laugh (one of the leads taunts the mice by asking them for a cheese sandwich. You can’t make this stuff up). Voltron has many of the trademarks of early anime that forces guffaws at the lack of logic or budget. The hyper-eager English dubbing is punctuated by a sleazy synthesizer, basic plot information is constantly shouted in your ears, and there’s always a cliffhanger on the commercial break. But these flaws are what make Voltron so adorable. The fact that it’s so obviously a fledgling series compels you to sympathize with it. It’s impossible not to root for it like an underdog in an invisible race for anime supremacy. Watching Voltron is like watching your little brother in his school’s cross-country marathon, even though your lil’ bro is over 300 pounds: he may not be the quickest, but dammit, he’s got heart. The characters are silly, and the plot is drawn out– but that’s part of the fun! By the time the criminally-brief DVD is over, you’ll be begging for another cheesy cliffhanger. So, does Voltron look incredible old and relatively silly compared to its newer counterparts? Absolutely. But without Voltron, the mech shows of today wouldn’t have the hold in America and Japan. Voltron, flaws and all, paved the way for future mechs to come. It’s worth watching solely for its place in pop-culture history, and for the occasional moment of mecha brilliance. Voltron may not be the most popular mech in town, but he’s got something on all these youngsters.
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jloren·December 24, 2012