DVD Review: Johnny Sokko and His Flying Robot: The Complete Series
Released By: Shout Factory
Release Date: March 26, 2013
Number of Discs: 4
Approximate Running Time: 675 Minutes
Special Features: 24 page color booklet
Suggested Price: $39.97
The Source: Young Johnny Sokko finds himself in command of Giant Robot, one of the most powerful forces on Earth. He becomes a member of the world peacekeeping organization Unicorn and uses the robot to help combat the ever present threat of extraterrestrial invader Emperor Guillotine, his Gargoyle Gang, and army of giant monsters.
The Fanboy Factor: What child hasn’t dreamed of having his or her own giant robot to command? In 1967, Toei Company Ltd. used this common fantasy as a premise for one of the most endearing series of its kind when a young boy named Johnny Sokko finds himself not only living out this fantasy but also becoming a valuable member of a top secret organization as well. Johnny Sokko and His Flying Robot bore a strong resemblance to the earlier animated series Gigantor (Iron Man No. 28) and was designed to provide competition to the popular Ultraman television show from rival company Tsuburaya Productions.
In the first of twenty-six episodes, the series, known simply as Giant Robot in Japan, is kicked off with a succinct but dynamic start. Johnny Sokko meets Jerry Mano, an undercover agent of Unicorn, while on a cruise ship. The two barely have time to exchange introductions before something resembling a cross between a giant flying squirrel and a fish pops out of the water and destroys the ship. Jerry and Johnny manage to jump overboard just before the ocean liner bursts into flames.
The next morning the duo wake up to find they have washed up on an island and Jerry’s pen transmitter (an obvious steal from UNCLE) can no longer communicate with Unicorn HQ. Even worse, the island is a base for the Gargoyle Gang, a group of fascist uniformed thugs who serve the squid headed Emperor Guillotine in his quest for interplanetary conquest. The pair are captured and taken in for interrogation.
Once at the base the duo make a hasty bid at escape but are forced to take an elevator down to the lower levels. In route they see a massive robot under construction and once at the bottom they meet its creator, the suspiciously occidental looking Dr. Lucius Guardian. Guardian reveals that he was kidnapped and forced to build the robot but he has decided to blow up the base and kill himself in the process rather than have it be used for evil. Just before activating an “atomic” bomb he has planted, Dr. Guardian gives Johnny a watch that would have served as a control device for the robot once his computer brain locked in on the first voice that commanded him after activation.
Johnny and Jerry make a run for the beach just as the Gargoyle base blows up and they are astonished to see the robot, which now responds to Johnny’s commands, step from the burning wreckage. The energy released by the explosion has charged Giant Robot and brought him to life. After the robot flies them back to Tokyo and pulverizes the monster that sunk their ship, Johnny is offered membership in Unicorn and the scene is set for many robot / giant monster battles to come!
For the next twenty-five episodes, the show fell into a pattern of Guillotine releasing a monster of the week that eventually fights a losing battle against Giant Robot. These foes were unique even by Japanese standards and included such bizarre creatures as a giant eye, hand, jawbone, and something resembling a sea mine! Unlike US children’s shows, Johnny Sokko’s status as a child did not spare him from danger. Over the course of the series he was assaulted, kidnapped, shot, and almost executed! He also killed his fair share of Gargoyle goons with the Unicorn side arm he was issued or any handy machine gun he could appropriate. Compared to modern films like the Spy Kids series, Johnny Sokko was a genuine bad ass!
As the series progressed, Giant Robot became more autonomous and a genuine bond seemed to develop between him and his young master. The final episode not only gave the show a rare sense of closure but also ensured there wouldn’t be a dry eye in the house. After Unicorn finally tracks down Emperor Guillotine and his command base, he throws so much monster stock footage at the robot that his batteries run down. Just when it seems all is lost, a convenient back up power supply kicks in and Giant Robot goes toe to toe with a now giant sized Guillotine. Since every cell in the Emperor’s body is highly explosive, Unicorn is forced to surrender but Giant Robot saves the day and sacrifices himself by flying the villain into deep space and smashing him into an asteroid!
Johnny Sokko and his Flying Robot saw limited syndication in US in the early to mid 1970’s through American International Pictures television division. AIP also cut several episodes together into a surprisingly coherent feature with the misleading title of Voyage into Space which brought the show to a wider audience. There was even a ten minute super 8 sound color home movie adaptation released through Ken Films. The one thing this series has never received before now though is a proper home video release.
The Product: Johnny Sokko and His Flying Robot was released on VHS tape through Orion Pictures in the late 80’s but this aborted run only contained four volumes for a total of eight episodes. These videos included a very grainy version of the original AIP opening and closing credits appended to episodes that appeared to be sourced from the Japanese laserdisc releases. Apparently Orion had the entire series ready for release because the episodes in this set are all similarly formatted including the Orion logo at the beginning of each show. While the opening and closing credits are rough, the shows themselves are vibrant and clean with only a small amount of surface damage visible.
For a DVD set from Shout Factory, this is a surprisingly no frills release. The episodes are presented uncut but only in their English dubbed format. While this is the preferred viewing method for anyone who grew up watching the series in the US, it would have been nice to have an optional original dialogue track and the Japanese credits for comparison. Voyage into Space would have also made a nice supplemental for those fans who only remember the series from its feature version. The one extra included is a full color booklet that contains a great overview article on the series, a detailed episode guide, and a short interview with, Mitsunobu Kaneko, the actor who played Johnny.
The Bottom Line: After a long journey full of false starts and broken promises, the complete series of Johnny Sokko and His Flying Robot has finally arrived on US home video. This is one of the few shows that I can easily sit down and watch from beginning to end and while it may be for slightly different reasons, the show holds my interest just as well as an adult as it did when I was a child. While some bonus material would certainly be appreciated, I am grateful that this entertaining piece of children’s programming has returned in any form. Hopefully Shout Factory is planning a separate release of Voyage into Space including some extras of its own. In the meantime, this set is highly recommended.