By Jerry Chandler
“From the minds of mortal men, the mightiest of machines- TRANZOR Z!”
It was 1985, and a handful of former Sunbow Productions employees who were involved with the very successful Star Blazers television series unleashed the first production from their own brand new company, 3-B Productions. This was an adaptation of Mazinger Z- not even the first one –for American television that would go by the name Tranzor Z.
If you were already in your early to mid-teens and had been familiar with the various giant robots that had made their way to American toy shelves or television airwaves from Japan, you did kind of wonder about the name. It wasn’t a deal breaker on giving the show a chance- especially for kids who had become hooked on giant Japanese robots –but it was for a while a little like watching a cartoon featuring Superman where they kept referring to him as Stupendousdude.
The setup for the story was fairly basic. Tommy Davis would pilot the Tranzor Z robot in order to fight whatever evil machines were being unleashed upon the world by the terrible Dr. Demon. He would later be assisted in this fight by Jessica Davis, the young woman who would pilot the warrior robot known as Aphrodite A. Aphrodite A would later be upgraded. For those of you who are longtime fans of Mazinger Z and are now calling me an idiot; I’m not. I’ll get around to explaining that in a bit.
Tranzor Z and Aphrodite A were both made from a nearly indestructible alloy that made them far stronger than most of Dr. Demon’s robots. This allowed Tranzor Z to do things like fire his rocket fist through his enemies- utterly destroying them at that point –and reattaching his hand with often little or no noticeable damage.
The stories were in a way fairly paint by number, following a basic show to show formula that was also seen in far more popular shows of that era like Voltron: Defenders of the Universe. Our happy crew of heroes would be found at the start of the show just doing their thing and minding their own business in the pursuit of having a nice day. Elsewhere, the vile bad guy was launching his latest doomed to fail world domination scheme. This would involve bragging about his latest crowning achievement in evil, world beating robot advancements before sending the robot out to kick over cars, knock down buildings, swat away military jets, throw boulders at tanks, and scare the lollipops out of small children. Our heroes would become aware of these actions and pilot their far superior robots into the fray to do (often rather quick) battle with the far inferior but much scarier looking machines of evil. A few cool moves and a soaring bit of theme music later, our heroes are standing tall over the smoldering heaps of soon to be recycled into soda cans remains of the best the villain had to offer.
For kids who were used to largely only seeing American produced and created cartoons, Tranzor Z was an action packed, fun bit of robots smashing the motor oil out of each other. For the purists of the time, it was an abomination. For the record, while I was more familiar with Japanese animation and these robots in particular than most of my friends at that time, I was still in my early teens and thought the show was just fine as it was at the time I was watching it.
Tranzor Z was a heavily edited and altered version of the Mazinger Z series. Some alterations were understandable based on the stateside target audience for the show. All of the main character names were changed from Japanese to American as was far more common back in the day. However, some names were changed because of American standards and practices. Dr. Demon for example had an American sounding name in the original anime, but Dr. Hell was just not going to fly on children’s television programming in the 1980s.
These were minor changes though. Other changes were a wee bit more noticeable.
Anyone familiar with the Japanese robot cartoons that Mazinger Z helped to popularize and turn into a boom period of animation and toys knows that many of the robots of that type from the era of Mazinger’s actual creation had some sort of chest weapon. Some fired a specialized energy beam from their chests. Many more of them fired missiles from their chests. This was never an issue with 99.9% of the Japanese robot animation that was imported for American consumption, but Tranzor Z was one of the ones that presented a slight problem. Mazinger Z gave the genre in Aphrodite A the first giant battle robot that looked like a woman in its basic form. This became an issue with standards and practices when it was discovered that Aphrodite A’s chest weapon of choice was not of the energy beam variety of chest weapons.
Yes, that’s right. Aphrodite A fired missiles from her chest, and the nosecones on the missiles were placed exactly where a women’s upper torso feminine curves would be located. In the Japanese series, this missile system was called the Oppai Missile System. Oppai was (and may still be) a Japanese slang term for women’s breasts. This was too much for American standards and practices for children’s programming of the 1980s to handle, and they simply would not allow it. This presented an interesting problem for the series as Jessica Davis quite frequently used this particular weapon in Aphrodite A’s arsenal. The eventual solution looked a little bit odd on TV. Jessica would depress the firing button on the controller in Aphrodite A and the scene would stop on a freeze frame of her thumb. The scene wouldn’t pick back up again until the point in the original animation where the missiles were flying through the air, well away from Aphrodite A’s chest and about to strike their target.
The other big difference between this show and the original- and even the earlier, more faithful adaptation –was the level of violence allowed on screen. As anyone who has ever seen the original versions of the shows American kids came to know as Star Blazers, Voltron: Defenders of the Universe, Robotech, Sailor Moon, Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, and countless others, the levels of violence and suggestive sexual situations is wildly different in the originals. Mazinger Z may not have been as violent or as sexually suggestive as some other shows like it had been and would later be, but what levels it did have were frowned upon by the American censors who would try to have us all asking, “But what about the children?”
A part of the original version’s origin story was edited out with other parts rewritten to reflect a story that didn’t have the level of violence and good guy death that was found in it. The levels of death and violence created by Dr. Hell’s robots got seriously edited out and scaled back in both actual scenes and in dialogue references when it came to Dr. Demon’s robots. Even the basic levels of plain old property damage styled destruction in towns and cities got partially excised to cut down on the totality of such things shown in each of the show’s 65 episodes. The same kids watching shows like this were more than likely tuning in to the weekend creature features and watching Godzilla and friends trash large sections of Japan in live action, but the TV powers that be of the time were unwavering in their belief that any and all cartoon violence the kids might see had to be as minimized and sterilized as possible.
Then there was the Aphrodite A upgrades issue I referenced earlier. In Tranzor Z, Aphrodite A was out of the show for an episode or two to receive heavy upgrades that changed her general appearance. In Mazinger Z, the before and after versions of Aphrodite A were never the same robot.
In Mazinger Z, Aphrodite A was damaged so severely in battle that a new robot had to be built to replace it. This replacement was Diana A. That’s not how things played out in the American rewrite of the show.
Because Aphrodite A looked so much like a woman in basic form, the powers that be balked at allowing an episode of Tranzor Z to air where the Aphrodite A robot had that much damage violently inflicted upon it. Despite the facts that Jessica was not going die and the kids watching at home were seeing robots blown apart episode after episode, the show’s storyline was rewritten so as to never have Aphrodite A destroyed. Episodes were dropped and scenes not used that existed in the original Japanese series. When Diana A is introduced into the American series, the robot is simply referred to as having been upgraded and improved, and the original robot’s name is retained rather than the show using the name Diana A from that point forward.
Tranzor Z was an interesting curiosity in the genre of such anime being translated or converted into American entertainment. The 65 episodes ran daily, and in some markets the show didn’t last long enough to make it through all 65 episodes. To the best of my knowledge, few if any markets that chose to carry it in 1985 carried it beyond a full year. 3-B would attempt other such projects, including hacking the 44 episode Toushou Daimos series down into a 72 minute movie called Starbirds: The Movie, but their products would have very little long-term impact.
There had been better versions of such old school robot shows introduced into the American basic syndication and cable television markets before and during this time, and still other shows like Voltron: Defender of the Universe, as edited and censored as they ultimately were, were making better and far more popular use of shows like Beast King Golion and Armored Fleet DaiRugger XV. Plus, this was the dawning age of widespread VHS and the Laser Disc home entertainment systems as well as the age when comic book and specialty hobby shops were opening up in far more locations than they previously had been. In some areas, fans who were turning into hardcore Japanese anime and manga fans were seeking out ways to track down the original versions like Mazinger Z, and what for some of them seemed like insultingly poor adaptations like Tranzor Z held little of their long-term interest. There were more than a few little comic conventions in Virginia during that period of time where bringing up Tranzor Z would be met with derisive dismissals of the show and recommendations to check out shows or films like X, Y, or Z instead.
But for a lot of us who weren’t in the right market to see some of the better stuff or just didn’t have the access or finances to go get the better stuff, Tranzor Z was a great little slice of something we loved and couldn’t get any other way. It was for a very short time a great little fix for those of us who had already started falling in love with the Japanese anime and manga tradition of such giant robots, and it was absolutely an introduction for some who would go on in later years to become much more rabid fans of the genre.
Jerry Chandler follows geek stuff. When not found writing here he can be found writing for Gruesome Magazine and his own blog. He has a Twitter. He can also occasionally be heard talking pro wrestling with the amazingly talented crew at of the Earth Station One Network’s The Pro-Wrestling Roundtable podcast.