Yoshiyuki Tomino the creator of Mobile Suit Gundam is synonymous with bringing the real robot revolution in anime. But before that series was made Tomino created the revolutionary Invincible Super Man Zambot 3. While Zambot 3 is nowhere near as well-known as many of Tomino’s other works, its influence on his later shows is undeniably. Like many of Tomino’s shows Zambot 3 is a flawed and somewhat troubled show but one that sticks with the viewer after they experience it. This is not a review but more of an examination of the value of Zambot 3 to a modern audience.
Tomino is known not only for his own body of work that stretches back to episodes of the original Astro Boy TV series but also for how his ideas go on to influence plenty of other shows thereafter. Zambot 3 is important to Tomino’s history and mecha shows overall spanning even into the 2000’s. Like many a show that was ahead of its time things don’t always go smoothly and believe me Zambot 3 is far from a masterpiece, but it’s important to appreciate its going out and doing something exploratory.
The story seems like the standard fair 1970’s giant robot show outline. The Gaizok are invading the earth with robotic monsters called Mecha Boosts who are commanded by the ruthless Butcher the Killer. The Mecha Boosts can only be defeated by Zambot 3 piloted by Kappei Jin and his two cousins using technology from the planet Beal that was wiped out by the Gaizok. But the main twist is that instead of being welcomed as heroes the people of Earth condemn the pilots of the Zambot 3 and blame them for anything and everything related to the Gaizok invasion.
The families of each pilot also play major roles in the series which seems rather uncommon in robot shows. People both civilian and otherwise are central to the themes and the series very rarely takes the happy ending approach. I have to wonder why Zambot 3 is only 23 episodes long, it is such a strange number! But thankfully it is a complete story. Though quite a few of the episodes can be chalked up to monster of the week, there is usually some hints of matters to come. It is also too easy to dismiss episodes because of the many themes and issues that are popular or tropes nowadays forgetting Zambot’s time period.
Zambot 3 influence can be seen on all of Tomino’s more famous works. Here we see Tomino start his “Kill ‘Em All Tomino” legacy with Zambot 3. While the body count is not as brutal as Space Runaway Ideon or Aura Battler Dunbine there is still a good deal of the cast dead by the end of the series and it is not that simple to predict who will live and die. All later iterations of Gundam would explore the effect that mecha battles have on the civilian population and their resentment to those who would protect them. The idea of the owners of the only weapon that can protect humanity but also doom it is fully explored in Ideon. In fact, Zambot 3 could easily been seen as a prototype for Ideon where Tomino took all the themes and situations then turned the dial up to 11. Considering how influential many people see Ideon being to the creation of Neon Genesis Evangelion we can therefore also attribute Zambot 3 to its development as well.
Tomino and the mecha genre (like all genres) when looking back you can see layers upon layers that have been built upon to get to the present. Zambot 3’s protagonist is somewhere between a brat and an angsty teen, which are sometimes hard to distinguish from each other anyway. Kappei is reluctant but can also be hot-blooded usually both at the wrong times. You can see Tomino trying to negotiate this range knowing how fond he (and many other series) would become of that brooding teen hero. The effects that battles, war, invasion and the like have on the civilians of a series are still not an overused theme. And the acts of open hostility that the populace has for the Jin family is probably the most surprising and well-done part of the series. These ideas are even seen in mega-hit Gurren Lagann as is the similarities between the robots’ moon-shaped decoration on their heads.
Zambot 3 has major flaws. Biggest of which may be Butcher the Killer who is such a bizarre villain. He breaks the flow of the anime completely with his scenes of really weird comedy. Zambot 3 will go from a scene of civilians being slaughtered to a scene of hijinks with Butcher in the tub. All the comedy scenes a always left us scratching our heads instead of laughing. Most importantly while Kappei gets a good deal of development he starts off as a pretty unlikable and insensitive brat but matures into a tolerable human being. His rival Shingo is actually a more developed and deep character. Everyone else in the cast tends to be rather flat. For the amount of time they were on the screen the other two pilot of the Zambot 3 are horribly underdeveloped despite getting episodes to try and correct this fact.
Zambot 3 is an obvious product of its time and if you don’t look closely enough you can miss what is so important about it given its release date. The biggest and most detrimental to this is its animation quality. Even by 70’s standards it is easy to see the budget was almost non-existent for Zambot 3 especially considering its short 23-episode count. This then extends to the monster designs, sometimes the show even reuses some just changing the color, but they are unsurprisingly laughable. The humor however is less so, I have to agree with Hisui I just didn’t know what to make of it many a time. Besides Butch there was also the addition of a dog side kick to Kappei who looked much like a purple Scooby-Doo.
The question is Zambot 3 worth watching? My answer is maybe. This is a horrible introduction to mecha or the works of Tomino for countless reasons. It can very easily irrevocably turn someone off to the genre. But it is a crucial work for anyone trying to study the mecha genre or more specifically the career of Tomino. Zambot 3 may not have been as revolutionary a step as Gundam but very few anime can claim to be so. Zambot 3’s innovative themes plus its shocking and unforgettable ending paved the way for Gundam three years later and forever change the direction of mecha. It would also change Tomino into the director we know him to be today.
If you are interested in the history of anime, Zambot 3 is worth watching, and since I like to pretend everyone is interested in that, everyone should watch it. This is also easy to say with the short length, especially for a giant robot show. I have been enjoying Tomino’s work more each viewing of a title and Zambot 3 just enhances the path he has taken as a director.