Johnny Sokko and his Flying Robot Series Retrospective
In light of the recent interest in the film Voyage into Space, the time seemed appropriate for a brief trip down memory lane to revisit the giant robot that so many of us wished we had as a kid and still love today.
Johnny Sokko and his Flying Robot was a 26-episode Japanese television series that was syndicated in US in 1969 by American International Television, the TV branch of AIP. The series was produced in Japan by Toei studios and reworked for US consumption by Rueben Guberman and Salvatore Billitteri, the team who had already scored a hit with the animated series Prince Planet. The show was essentially a live-action version of the popular Japanese cartoon Gigantor (a.k.a. Iron Man #28) which told the simple and heart-warming story of the adventures of a boy and his giant robot. The series proved so popular that five episodes were edited into the television feature Voyage into Space and syndicated as part of AIP’s Japanese Monsters television package. The show was also reincarnated years later as a Japanese Anime and revamped in America as the 1999 feature film, The Iron Giant.
As our story begins, we are introduced to Johnny Sokko, who has to be the ultimate latchkey child! He is aboard a cruise ship unescorted when he meets incognito Unicorn Agent U3 in his alias of Jerry Mano. From this point forward there is no mention of Johnny’s family or past, just his adventures with Unicorn. Unfortunately our heroes’ vacations are about to be cut short by the arrival of Emperor Guillotine who lands his flying saucer in the ocean nearby and releases his giant creature Draculon to destroy the ship. In the nick of time, Johnny and Jerry jump overboard and swim to a nearby island that just happens to be the headquarters of Guillotine’s Gargoyle Gang!
The evil Emperor has captured an Earth scientist, Dr. Lucious Guardian, and is forcing him to build the ultimate weapon, a giant robot complete with an arsenal of weapons and a rocket pack. Johnny and Jerry meet up with Dr. Guardian just in time to learn all these important plot details and to help him with his plan to detonate an atomic bomb to destroy his creation before the Gargoyles can use it to conquer the world.
Just prior to setting off the bomb, the kindly professor gives young Johnny the control watch to the giant robot and tells him that, had the robot been activated, it would only respond to the commands of the first person to speak into the watch. Johnny and Jerry run for cover as Dr. Guardian is shot by Gargoyle guards and he dies pressing the bombs detonator. Fortunately our heroes manage to get a few hundred yards away by the time the atomic bomb goes off so they are completely safe from the blast!
The giant robot is also unharmed by the explosion and it seems the atomic bomb has had the exact opposite effect Dr. Guardian had hoped for. The robot’s batteries are fully charged and he is now active. Johnny quickly speaks into the watch and instantly becomes the master of Giant Robot and the envy of every young boy in America. Apparently the bi-laws of the Unicorn Agency state that anyone with a giant robot at their command is automatically eligible for membership because Johnny is instantly inducted as Agent U7.
After the fast paced and exciting pilot, the remainder of the series became fairly formulistic. Each week Emperor Guillotine releases a new monster to hassle Unicorn and Giant Robot inevitably sends it packing. Some of the creatures, like Draculon and Ligon, were pretty cool but others, like Nucleon (a sort of giant bumble ball), Optikon (a giant eyeball), and the giant flying jawbone (I’m not making this stuff up folks), were pretty goofy. Even the ultimate menace, Emperor Guillotine, looks a lot like a guy in a gold lame jumpsuit with a squid for a head!
The series was surprisingly violent for its time with almost weekly gun battles between the Unicorn and Gargoyle agents. The fights between Giant Robot and the creature of the week almost always ended with the monster’s death, often by being blown apart by the robot’s missiles. There were also scenes of the bad guys being routinely killed for failing their missions or ending up on the wrong end of the monster they were trying to control.
Perhaps most memorable of all though was the final episode where the series is actually allowed to end and on an uncharacteristically sad note. In “The Last of Emperor Guillotine”, Mr. Squid Head opens up a can of robot whoop butt and goes in for the kill personally. Through the use of stock footage from the previous episodes, Guillotine revives most of his creatures and sends them in a constant battle against Giant Robot. While they are still no match for Johnny’s metal champion, they do succeed in draining his power cells dry. At this point Emperor Guillotine orders the immediate surrender of the Unicorn Agents and the return of the control watch. Just as things look their darkest, Giant Robot suddenly activates a hidden power reserve and attacks the now giant-sized Emperor, head on. At this point we finally learn how Guillotine got to be Emperor, his entire body is one explosive mass and killing him will destroy the Earth! Undaunted, the valiant robot flies Guillotine out into space and smashes him into a meteor, sacrificing himself in the process.
Some of the monsters may have looked silly and the acting was exaggerated, but this ending was pretty deep for a kid’s show and made a lasting impression on more than one viewer. It is also the main reason Voyage into Space works so well as a feature. The five episodes used to create the film include the first and last ones of the series which make perfect bookends for some of the more action oriented shows chosen to fill in the middle. Of course we also get the downbeat ending carried over from the series as well. Ken Films released Voyage into Space in a twelve-minute abridged format on Super-8mm film. This is a very rare item and hard to find, especially the color and sound version, but the box artwork is awesome!
It is hard to zero in on what made this series stand out from its live-action competitors like Ultraman, Spectreman, or Space Giants. Perhaps it was the youthful protagonist that children could identify with and live out their own fantasies of commanding a giant robot. Maybe it was the robot design with its unique Sphinx-like head and seemingly endless arsenal of high tech weaponry. I believe a large part of the attraction was the finality in the last episode that concluded the series on a dark and powerful note that most others would not dare touch. I am sure more than a few tears were shed when Giant Robot willingly sacrificed himself to save his young master and the entire planet from destruction. Whatever the appeal, it is obvious that this one season series and companion feature are still a part of fond television memories for ’70’s viewers. I leave you with the announcer’s final words “And so the saga comes to an end. Giant Robot sacrificed himself to save the Earth from the terrible Guillotine. But who knows, when Johnny desperately needs him again, perhaps like a miracle, he will come back out of the sky”. Attack Giant Robot, attack!