When a pioneering artist in their field comes to town to give a few words about their career, it is a good idea to be there early for a seat in the front and center. Even better is to be a fan, shaking with the nervous excitement of being granted an audience with someone who through their work is as familiar as your own childhood.
Go Nagai, visiting as part of a tour that includes Kuwait and Jordan, is best known through his phenomenally popular anime series “Mazinger Z and “Grendizer which filled television screens with their bright colors, notions of honor and bravery, violence and groundbreaking mythical characters in the late 1980s and 1990s.
He wasn’t, however, aware that his work had a massive following among Arabs and Egyptians until he was told so by a journalist at last year’s Japan Expo in France.
Nagai’s career began in 1967 when he made his debut as a Mangaka (manga artist) with “Meakashi Polikichi (Polikichi the Detective), a short story published in the magazine Bokura. It did not long after this breakthrough to make a name for himself, not just among manga fans, but also throughout Japanese society. The road from obscurity to success and infamy was paved for Nagai by his first long running manga series (all his works had so far been one shot stories), “Harenchi Gakuen.
“Harenchi Gakuen introduced manga readers for the first time to eroticism by including risqué images of nipples and schoolgirls’ panties. For an art-form that had until then been viewed as one for children, “Harenchi Gakuen brought upon Nagai scathing condemnation. But this was also the first of what was to be a long line of revolutionary innovation Nagai introduced to the manga format.
The inspiration for “Mazinger Z was a traffic jam in Tokyo. Sitting still one day, Nagai thought how cool it would be to have a car with legs that could walk over traffic. And so was born the first giant robot for a human character to climb into and control. This creation has now become an established feature of manga and anime (motion animation) series since the first episode was broadcast in 1972.
For Nagai, the appeal of the idea of a human piloted giant robot to children is simple and lies in the character’s (usually a boy) ability to suddenly grow and become strong enough to take on and defeat adult adversaries by climbing into the cockpit of the robot. This is something consuming children everywhere: the wish to grow out of their small frames and walk as equals in a world of adults.
For audiences growing up with “Mazinger Z in Egypt, the appeal was more multifaceted than childish dreams.
Graphic designer and pop-cultural commentator Mo Fa explains, “On a general cultural level, Mazinger – although with repeated crappy storylines (each episode, an evil robot attacks Tokyo, and Mazinger comes to the rescue, beaten up the entire episode until finally using his special UV chest laser thing to defeat evil robot) – did introduce some revolutionary concepts to Egyptians. Egypt never gave us big flying robots with rust-breath and chest lasers. And he was always accompanied by a female robot, whose chests were missiles that she would launch onto evil robots. This had to be the only time ever we got to see something absolutely feminine treated in an absolutely nonsexual way.
The influence of Nagai’s work also found its way into animation and illustration being produced at around the same time. Mo Fa adds, “You could see the aesthetic influence for sure, like notice Bakkar’s big eyes and the few strands of straight hair falling on his forehead from the flock of curls on his head.
“Some characters in ‘Mazinger’ (professors, lab technicians) didn’t have the standard Japanese big eye look but have a… what I can only describe as… an Egyptian pulp fiction Illustrator look. All Egyptian pulp fiction characters throughout the 80s and 90s – like famous series ‘Ragol Mustaheel’ (The Man of the Impossible) – had the same look as the ‘Mazinger’ lab people, which is very interesting; why would Egyptian illustrators choose that look specifically for their Egyptian characters. Perhaps it is because the lab people are the only ones with mustaches in ‘Mazinger’?
Beyond the technical flair on view, the characters themselves represent noble traits that reflect the concerns of Japanese society. From notions of family and friendship, patriotism and courage in fighting invaders – from earth and outer space -comes “Grendizer, a more developed continuation of the giant robot idea.
“Grendizer was more ambitious than “Mazinger, presenting an intricate “Star Wars -like epic drama replete with back stories based on ancient myths. The show was a huge success in central Europe and Canada, establishing Nagai as one of Japan’s cultural icons of the 80s.
I went to see Nagai not knowing much about the man, and quite honestly came away not knowing that much more. It’s difficult to fully grasp the essence of an artist just by hearing them talk through an interpreter or through checking scrapbook clippings of their career. So while finding out more about him, one quote jumped out.
Talking about another of his pioneering characters, “Devilman, notable for being the first anti-hero, Nagai explained, “The theme of ‘Devilman’ is antiwar. When humans transform into devils and demons, what they are really doing is taking up murder weapons and embarking on war.
“The indiscriminate melding of demons with humans that we see in Devilman refers to the draft system. There is no justice in war, any war, nor is there any justification for human beings killing one another. Devilman carries a message of warning, as we step toward a bright future.
Under the violence is a warning and inside his characters beats a heart. That, more than their size, is probably what appeals to audiences around the world.