Like many of the seminal anime of our youth, Beast King GoLion is something of an international curiosity. In Glorious Nippon, it arrived to no fanfare and has more or less faded into total obscurity — but as Voltron in the realms of the filthy roundeyes, it is truly iconic, no less than the foundation of many of our childhoods. From the basest basement-dweller to the master swordsmen of the Wu-Tang Clan, everybody of a certain age in America remembers Voltron. This historical fact wouldn’t be nearly so remarkable were it not for the powerful irony attached to it. The thoroughly bowdlerized Voltron is iconic and well-remembered, and yet the eyebrow-raising excess of GoLion is still familiar only to a handful. Not an insignificant consideration when the otaku tendency is to relentlessly seek, publicize, and tirelessly exalt the original, unadulterated Product over its syndicated rape and mutilation by craven gaijin butchers.
For those who have never encountered the uncut GoLion, you have, in fact, been missing something. But you’re not missing all that much.
Thanks to Voltron‘s pop-culture ubiquity, most of us are well aware of the basic premise of GoLion without ever having seen either version of the show: five toyetic robotic lions snap together to form a toyetic humanoid robot with a big-ass sword and kick the shit out of the monster of the week. At the controls are Our Intrepid Heroes, five color-coded Japanese space pilots who escape enslavement by alien assholes to become the retainers and defenders of the besieged planet Altea and its hot blonde princess. The princess is especially worth mentioning, less for her hotness or blondeness than the fact that she was apparently so much more interesting to the GoLion writers than the original taciturn Blue Guy (actually the Black Guy, but he pilots the Blue Lion… more on this later) that they chose to unceremoniously kill him off six episodes in to give the princess his spot on the team. (One can only imagine the staff meetings and perplexed phone calls and letters that might have accompanied this abrupt “casting change”.)
The principal villains are a senile old fool of an emperor, a lustful young fool of a crown prince (one of Akira Kamiya’s earliest and weakest roles), and a surprisingly capable mystic old hag who really ought to be in charge. The three oversee horrible atrocities on other planets and obsessively attack Altea with monsters in space coffins and occasional fisticuffs for fifty-two episodes before GoLion finally rolls their dumbass empire. And that’s really as nuanced as the show ever gets. The only truly remarkable thing about the show is its perplexing level of violence for a kids’ show (even by anime standards). The novelty of the violence makes it less tedious for adult viewing than the sugary Super Sentai pap that inspired it, but no more intellectual. If you find the show enjoyable, it will be because it is lovably dumb rather than unfairly underrated.
And make no mistake, the violence is worth mentioning. To express this opinion is nothing less than heresy in the otaku realm, but when you watch enough of GoLion, it’s easy to understand why it was censored so heavily to create Voltron. In many cases, I actually felt sympathy for the poor schmucks charged with repurposing the show, because while GoLion isn’t exactly Violence Jack, it does seem inexplicably excessive for the young audience it was supposedly courting. Dismemberment is bloodless but ever-present, as is death by bombardment, poison and laser beams, for combatants and civilians alike. Cannibalism, bloodsport and slavery are recurring themes. It literally rains blood in episode eleven! All of this is in stark contrast to the bubbly Ichiro Mizuki themes that punctuate the show (each lion even has its own contractually obligated theme song detailing its attacks. How’s that for equality?), singing jubilantly of courage and friendship. To the Voltron editors as much as any other viewer, the show no doubt appeared perfectly harmless… until the whippings and bloodsport started. And then the cold, staggering weight of the thankless work ahead of them settled onto their shoulders. Even by chopping half an episode’s footage and sending half the galaxy to space hospitals, it’s hard to dance around how grim GoLion is.
In the end, GoLion‘s violent fury didn’t seem to avail much for its longevity. Putting aside factors like scheduling and advertisement (let’s be fair, I have no idea what time and network(s) this show originally aired on), the show seems to have a lot of elements that delight snarky adults like myself, but would honestly confuse and repel the children charged with buying its toys. Take the color-coding, for example — the Red Guy (he has a name, but does anyone really care?) is the leader, as is the sentai standard, but he pilots the Black Lion. The Black Guy piloted the Blue Lion, until he was killed and the princess took over in her Barbie-pink jumpsuit. Kai Shiden — I mean, the Blue Guy pilots the Red Lion, which means he is not actually the leader, but merely the second-in-command. This all sounds like needless nit-picking to our adult ears, but we all know that were we eight years old watching this show, we would not be able to let this shit go. The sheer illogical force of it would twist us in our beds at night.
And let’s face it, even kids would find the general episode formula pretty boring when it’s not punctuated by random bits of human suffering. The villains bumble and the heroes cavort in standard Power Rangers fashion throughout whatever barely-there subplots are provided until the monster finally touches down. The separate lions accomplish nothing until they combine into GoLion, who in turn accomplishes more nothing until he pulls out the King’s Sword (accompanied by Red Guy’s deafening Thundarr-esque cry of “JYUUUUUUUUUUUUU-OOOOOHKEN”) and finally cuts the son-of-a-bitch down.
Final tally: Historical significance, check. Spacenoid-friendly camp value, check. Akira Kamiya as off-model space prince rehearsing for Urusei Yatsura‘s Mendou, check. Cannibalism in first episode, check. Disturbingly long rodent can-can musical interlude, check. Intellectual substance… indefinite absence. Fun with nerdy friends and/or inebriating substances? Absolutely. See you guys next time!