Mazinger Z: Infinity
Mazinger Z’s legacy as the progenitor of piloeted super robot shows can’t be understated; after all, the term “super robot” literally comes from its iconic opening theme. In contrast to previous mecha series like Gigantor and Giant Robo, Mazinger Z was the first robot mecha series where someone actually piloted the robot from inside of it, one of several creative choices it made that is now standard practice for any modern mech show, from monolithic franchises like Gundam to the currently-running Darling in the Franxx. Yet, despite its influence and international success in European and Spanish territories, your average Gurren Lagann fan in the west has probably never seen it. While Mazinger Z has been brought over to the west in many forms over the years, mostly notably in 1985 under the title Tranzor Z, it’s never been a widely known and beloved mainstay of western anime fandom the same way Gundam or Macross has. But times are changing, and Mazinger Z may soon rise out of obscurity. Go Nagai has seen a resurgence in the past year, with several of his classic manga and their spinoffs reaching finally reaching North American shores and shelves, and several new anime adaptations popping up to stir buzz in international anime fandom. Just last month, Devilman Crybaby debuted on Netflix to widespread critical acclaim, and turned what had been an obscure franchise into a penetrating hit that has captured the attention of folks even outside the anime bubble. Crybaby shows that the works of Nagai have staying power, and in the age of simulcasts and speedy international distribution there’s a potentially infinite audience ready to discover them. With that in mind, Mazinger Z: Infinity’s North American theatrical distribution is opportune, because there’s never been a year where this franchise’s revival has had as much potential to connect with global audiences as the titular robot is able to do in the film itself.
Mazinger Z: Infinity follows the recent trend of direct sequels to classic anime franchises, evoking nostalgia for the original while developing its characters in new directions. The film holds nothing back in its references and reverence of the franchise. There’s a new rendition of the iconic opening theme, complete with ample drum swells before bursting into its triumphant trumpets, set to a montage celebrating classic moments from the original series. Most of the memorable Kikaiju make appearances in the film alongside Dr. Hell, and his villainous henchmen Count Brocken and Baron Ashura, inexplicably revived from the dead. The film doesn’t waste any time getting to the action: within the first minute the Great Mazinger launches into battle and does every single one of its iconic attacks. When Mazinger Z finally enters the fight later on in the film, it similarly gets a long extended sequence showing off everything it’s ever been capable of too. Even the Boss Robot gets in on the action in a hilarious comedic sequence where it fights Kikaiju using sports balls. There’s no room for disappointment at anything missing because, in both big ways and small, they leave almost anything they could use untouched.
While nostalgia is all well and good, what really makes Infinity fun is how it excellent its presentation is. The character designs find a middle ground between classic and modern artistic sensibilities, looking retro but possessing the aesthetic qualities of modern productions through their use of color. The Kikaiju have incredibly varied and unique designs, and while several have been repurposed from the show there are also many fun new creations tossed in, including a Santa Claus-themed monster. The robots get to really show off how cool they are in awesomely animated fight sequences that sell their spectacle. The film mixes traditional and cel-shaded CG animation to incredible effect, to the point it’s barely noticeable that anything is rendered in CG at all. Using CG models makes it possible for Toei to animate dozens of Kikaiju on screen at the time same time as well as play around with dynamic camera angles and sweeping continuous shots that make the action feel dynamic and lets the tension ramp up the longer a scene goes on. Mazinger Z’s battle with Count Brocken and Baron Ashura is the best showcase of this: a sweeping aerial action sequences in which the three robots bounce around the scene at crazy angles of depth, as the camera rotates around and zooms in and out to punctuate the most impressive displays of power. That said, Boss Robot’s battle is probably my favorite bit of animation in the film for its cartooniness. The Boss Robot is animated almost like a Looney Tunes character in how expressive its facial expressions and body contortions are as it engages in all manner of slapstick and physical gags, like its head jumping off from its body when it’s excited. The Boss Robot is rendered as a 3-D model, which makes how seamlessly it moves between one exaggerated pose to the next even more impressive. Whether you’re looking for dynamic action sequences or hilarious bits of comedy or just an effectively composited dramatic scene, the presentation of Infinity consistently impresses.
Though the action is its greatest strength, Infinity also has a genuinely good story to ground it in something meaningful. Infinity acts as an epilogue to the original series, providing one last hurrah for Koji Kabuto to pilot Mazinger and move on with his life. A point is made of how the characters have matured from their teenage years, and how that has affected their perspectives on war and the politics behind it. While the film embraces nostalgia and the franchise’s past, Koji’s character arc is about taking the initiative to create a happy future. Though Tetsuya and Jun have already married and are expecting a child, Koji has let his relationship with Sayaka stand still, hesitant of committing to a family and changing his current lifestyle. He realizes that to live a fulfilling life he must be willing to take the next step towards an uncertain future. Eventually, he’s given the opportunity to see the possibilities that could be if he embraced that decision, and the happiness he’d miss out on if he didn’t take that step. Dr. Hell questions if Koji missed piloting Mazinger, and while there’s clearly some truth to that, the film’s message and his character arc is about being content to leave the past behind and constantly work towards bettering yourself and creating the best possible future you can make. A poignant scene shows Koji witness a child drop his Mazinger Z toy in the street and leave it behind, still walking forward happily. It’s an understated reflection of his struggle to leave his current life and his past as Mazinger’s pilot behind, and reinforces that it isn’t necessary to cling on to it, and it isn’t necessary for him to be happy. There’s still value in Mazinger Z as a heroic figure that inspires people, as a statue in a museum for people to admire. But for Koji Kabuto, it’s finally time to leave it behind.
Koji’s need to change also ties into in the themes addressed by Dr. Hell’s criticism of humanity’s diversity of perspectives. Hell’s frustrated by the inability of people to come into an agreement because of their differences in opinion, letting personal interests interfere when choosing what’s best for the majority of humanity. World leaders are shown being unable to agree on how to contend with Dr. Hell’s forces, and public opinion on the best course of action is shown split between multiple points of view, the most popular of which being “I don’t know.” Having effectively achieved world domination with his universe-ending threat, Dr. Hell’s true goal is to test humanity’s worth, seeing whether they’ll be able to put aside their differences and stop him or if they’ll fail and let him create a world shaped by his own unilateral vision. The interference of divergent factions in social and political progress is a prescient and complex topic, but Infinity’s argument is more about idealism. Infinity makes the case that indecision is antithetical to progress, but big things can be accomplished when many people are willing to unite together to enact change. Koji might be the hero, but he’s only able to save the day because everyone donates their power to help him. The energy created by all of humanity coming together literally overpowers a physical representation of infinite possibility, loudly declaring that humanity’s capacity for self-improvement is truly limitless. Even if mistakes are made, people are always changing and improving themselves. As Sayaka confidently declares to a group of reporters agitated over her company’s response to the Infinity crisis, “we’ll do better next time.” It’s a little cheesy, but Infinity’s optimistic message about humanity’s capacity for cooperation and progress is perhaps as necessary for older audiences as it is for younger ones to remind ourselves for all the bad in the world, and for all the problems in our lives, we’re always capable of being better.
That said, while Infinity’s narrative ideas are ambitious they aren’t completely effective. Part of the thematic through-line involves the characters answering whether they believe humanity is worth saving. This is never once doubted by the protagonists and thus never has any dramatic weight. It doesn’t really mean much when a pivotal emotional scene relies on Koji declaring that he believes that humanity is worth it when he never seriously grapples with that question or ever loses faith in it. It’s a slightly more meaningful sentiment coming from the biomechanical Lisa, since her arc in the film is about understanding her emotions and living life to the fullest at every moment. However, she also never seriously doubts humanity’s good qualities, which makes her more of a straightforward angelic character than one experiencing a genuine existential crisis. While she’s still a likable character, the importance of her role in the story is also sometimes too convenient, and it wouldn’t be unfair to call her actions in the climax a dues ex machina. Perhaps the most problematic aspect of her character is her relationship with Koji, who she insists on calling her master. This generally played off as a benign joke, albeit an awkward one, but it suddenly becomes much creepier when her relationship with Koji is recontextualized towards the end of the film.
Lisa isn’t the only mishandled female character; Jun Hono is unable to pilot her Venus Ace because her pregnant belly apparently prevented her from pressing on the pedal. While this explanation might’ve been meant to be figurative rather than literal, it still feels like her pregnancy is just being used as an excuse to keep her out of the action. Her treatment is worsened in her flashback remembering key moments in her relationship with Tetsuya, one of which involving him slapping her. I’m unfamiliar with the context of the original scene, but it feels inappropriate to include a moment of physical assault in a sequence of romantic moments, and it was certainly jarring and uncomfortable to the audience I saw this film with. Jun’s pregnancy does tie into the film’s theme of humanity progressing and embracing new phases in life, but it’s unfortunate how she spends most of the film’s runtime in tears, not allowed to do anything to help her imprisoned husband. Thankfully, the film’s treatment of women isn’t uniformly disappointing. Sayaka and is actively involved in the story and while she never pilots a mech her actions are just as critical to saving the day as Koji’s. In addition, there’s surprisingly scant fanservice for a Go Nagai joint. The only real cheesecake scenes involve a new group of characters called the Mazin Girls, whose idol-themed shtick is clearly played for laughs moreso than titillation. They also get to pilot their own mechs and take out a bunch of Kikaiju, so at least there are some female combatants featured in the film. It’s just unfortunate that the treatment of Jun suffers from unintentionally sexist pitfalls since there are only three prominent female leads in the film including her, Sayaka, and Lisa, and the later has her own problems.
Despite some kinks, I found plenty to take away from Infinity as a newcomer to the Mazinger franchise. Despite not having any history with the characters I still quickly got invested in its action, story, and overall craziness. It’s a simple film at heart, and that simplicity makes it just as accessible to newcomers as it is rewarding to longtime fans who can fully appreciate all of its references and homages to previous installments in the franchise. At the same time, it’s an ambitious story designed as a last hurrah for these characters, incorporating timely themes, closing off incomplete character arcs, celebrating the past and looking forward to the future. But at its core it’s just a really fun film, and thanks to its theatrical screening, it might just spread the word about this classic franchise in a new generation of anime fans. There were certainly a lot of families with young children at my screening, and so here’s hoping it captured their imagination and has inspired them to seek out the rest of the franchise. I know I will. Mazin Go!