The tepid collector response to the "gag robot" phenomenon
by Matt Alt
(Photos courtesy of Roy Ng)
In reality, "Gag reflex" is somewhat strong of a term to describe the reaction of most cho-go-kin collectors to the cute, comedic, "gag robot" (aka "cute robot") pheneomenon. Outside of the Robocon character toys, which certainly enjoy something of a cachet among dedicated diecast fetishists, collector reaction to comedic robot show toys is lukewarm at best. Robocon pieces are among the most discussed and desirable pieces - from both an investment and a design standpoint - in all of the Japanese toy kingdom. Not to mention expensive. But whither the poor non-Robocon cute-robot diecast toys? American collectors stay away in droves. Robot 110, Robot 8-Chan, Batten Robo-Maru, you name it - these rank as among the most unknown and under-appreciated toys among Western collectors, mostly due to the fact that none of these shows has ever been aired outside of Asia (and perhaps Hawaii.)
But where the hell did all of these cute "gag robots" come from, anyway? What's it all about? Who thought this stuff up? It's all due to one man, and the name may come as something of a surprise to those who are used to hearing of him in relation to more "serious" works. It's none other than the prolific Ishinomori Shotaro.
In the early 1970s, Ishinomori, whose previous creations included the world-famous Kamen Rider, Kikader, and the entire Sentai show genre, took a somewhat different tack with his work: rather than creating a special-effects laden action show with a serious focus, he decided to put together a comedic "SFX soap opera" of sorts. The result was the 1974 TV series Ganbare! Robocon.
Rather than depicting the epic struggle of good versus evil, Ganbare! Robocon focused on life in a future world where robots go to school to learn how to best perform their duties. The enormous and unprecedented success of Ganbare! Robocon virtually guaranteed that Toei, Robocon's production company, would be hungering for more. Ishinomori was more than able to deliver, and a succession of similar whimsical, comical robot shows followed. Batten Robo Maru and Robot 8-Chan are two of the more well-known examples of these. For better or for worse, this "comical robot" genre has all but disappeared now (probably to resurface in some form at a later date). OK, history lesson over. I can see your eyes glazing over. Let's go to the toys.
The 1981 series Robot 8-chan was one of the final direct successors to the gag-robot legacy; from a production standpoint, it's a much slicker show than Ganbare! Robocon, and this refined quality shows up in the toys as well. Popy produced five cho-go-kin figures for the show: the egg-shaped protagonist "8-chan"; "Eva-Police," a sinister-looking police robot; "Yaki-Sola," an ambulatory oven; "Postoller," a roller-skating, humanoid mailbox; and "Telekomi," a telephone booth with arms and legs. Although a female robot character who's a complete knock-off of Robocon's "Robin-chan" is pictured on the backs of the boxes, she was never produced.
Speaking of boxes, here's the back of Postoller's box; you can see the group shot at the bottom. The copy reads, "No matter how boring the work, just ask and he'll happily take on the task! That's right - you'd do well to follow his example!" Perhaps this Orwellian sentiment served as some sort of cold comfort for Japanese children trudging off to six hours of cram school...
All of these pieces featured cute (if somewhat predictable) little gimmicks. In an almost direct swipe from Robocon, 8-chan's legs fold apart and a steering wheel pops from his stomach, transforming him into a little car. (And for God's sake, be careful when you flip down that steering wheel! 8-chan's paint job is about the most chip-prone Popy ever made.) He also comes with a propeller-festooned hat that is actually a separate character unto itself in the show. Yakisola's stomach/oven opens; Telekomi's telephone booth door opens to reveal a videophone with a smiling face on it's screen; Postoller's mailbox opens with a key. The most complex of these gimmicks is contained in the Eva-Police piece. The figure splits in the middle and the upper body can be placed in a small go-kart-like police car.
If there's anything negative about these pieces, it's that, with the exception of 8-chan, all use plastic as their main component rather than diecast. This was kind of a dark foreboding about what the future of the Japanese toy industry had in store. Whatever the case, these five figures make up what has to be one of the last frontiers in under-appreciated toy pieces. It's a shame that so many collectors spurn these figures; in spite of their obvious derivative-ness, they've got an excellent "pedigree" and are well-designed toys to boot (especially 8-chan himself, who's a solid little chunk of diecast.) Hey, there are stupider toys selling for much more out there, that's for sure. And what with the price differential, the Robot 8-Chan series can truly be called a "poor man's Robocon." It's only a matter of time before Western collectors warm to the not-insignificant charms of these pieces as well.
The 8-chan pieces are truly underrated pieces, and for collectors who can't afford to feed their Robocon habit, are a good way to get a quicker and cheaper fix. They're prime relics of the almost-decade-long reign of the gag robot as well. That's about it for this installment of "Annals of the Unrespected." Rest assured, I'll dig around for more unloved pieces to bring into the light of day!
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