There once existed a planet named Beal, until it was wiped out by the mysterious entity known as Gaizok. The few remaining survivors escaped to Earth and split into three families, named Jin, Kamie, and Kamikita respectively. While attempting to start a new life, the collectively known "Jin Family" prepared for the inevitable Gaizok invasion on Earth and its giant mechanical beasts known as "Mecha Boosts". In order to defend their new home, they have built three vehicles which when combined form the mighty Zambot 3. The Jin Family must not only defend against Gaizok attacks, but also harsh criticisms from the very people they protect, who blame the Jin Family for the invasion in the first place.
It's very rare to watch an animated series and be genuinely horrified or shocked by what you're seeing. The other shows I can think of that really achieved this were Legend of the Galactic Heroes, FLAG and Dougram, but that's more because they starkly depict war crimes and political corruption that can hit very close to home in the current political climate.
Zanbot is very different. It sets itself up with a perky theme tune and plucky kids as the main characters and you expect a traditional super robot show.
Then it doesn't come. What you get is something hard to watch at times simply because it
takes a look at what happens if a genuinely evil force, one who don't care about anything except winning, try their hand at attacking Earth. There's not so much "wait for them to form their robot so it's a fair fight," or "send one enemy with an obvious weakness" in this show. At 23 episodes the pace is breakneck, going from the first unsteady steps of Kappei and his friends at the controls to a series of ever-more sickening atrocities on the part of the enemies through to a deadly confrontation in space and one final, shocking twist.
The main villain for most of the show is Killer the Butcher, a grossly fat and decadent alien who is essentially the archetype on which all psychotic villains in mecha shows try to live up to. And to be honest, with the exception of perhaps Gates from Full Metal Panic: The Second Raid, none come close. While humanity is fighting for its life, he's shown singing karaoke, playing pool, smoking what looks like an opium pipe and grotesquely eating vast amounts.
He abuses his generals, toys with his prisoners and is unafraid to use terrorism instead of a super robot to fight humans. His mission is the genocide of the human race - not conquest, only murder.
So from this alone, you can see how the show is very different from an average show ala Mazinger or Voltes. There's a telling quote from the show's most unpleasant arc, the human bomb arc, where he says suicide bomb attacks are more effective than any kind of robot.
The death toll is shocking, not letting up even in the final episode. And unlike Victory Gundam's absurd impalements, explosions and death by wheel, Zanbot's main character deaths are quite chilling and effective.
As if the show couldn't be any bleaker, there's another plotline that's particularly interesting. Humanity is shown to resent the idea of super robots, and placing all their hope in one team who they never knew very well, and understood only to be untrustworthy and eccentric foreigners. Simple racism and paranoia is as powerful an enemy in some episodes as the alien invaders, and that's quite interesting.
The animation is quite dated, and the sound design isn't half as innovative or appealing as later shows. But it's worth putting up with this to watch a show that challenges the super robot genre in a most effective way.
There are also some wonderful visual cues in it that fans of Tomino's other works will recognise as being used in later shows - much like Nadia had a ton of stuff that would turn up in later Gainax shows, Zanbot brings to the table an early version of the Ideon Gun (Space Runaway Ideon would air in 1980, almost three years after Zanbot) and a particularly climactic scene which would be reused in Victory Gundam almost exactly.
A little background on how i found this old school gem, there was a magazine that talked about all of Tomino's work before gundam, this was one of those anime's. I was reminded of this little article by watching Gurren Lagann (GL takes some themes and mecha designs from this) So after some searching i finally found this. And was it worth it. The story starts out as your basic monster of the week sort of super robot anime, but each episode explores how these fights effect the population and how they react to the pilots themselves, the show gets more intense with each episode
with what i would call a perfect ending. For its time the animation is very good too. So if your looking for a great old school anime that really isn't well known, give this show a try.
If folks wonder where famous Gundam director Yoshiyuki Tomino got his infamous moniker of "Kill Em All", Zambot 3 is an obscure, yet notable, mecha title that first showcased Tomino's habit of creating high kill counts with mecha titles he would direct. A fairly standard entry in the "super robot" mecha genre at a glance, Zambot 3 focuses on the efforts of the Jin family who learn they are descendants of an alien race whose home planet was wiped out by the Gaizok race. Seeking to protect Earth from destruction, the Jins utilize the alien technology left behind by their ancestors to combat the Gaizok.
the surface, Zambot 3 would seem to have some of the typical tropes of the "super robot" mecha genre. You have a giant mech and a couple battle vehicles that can combine together to form a more powerful mecha which are all piloted by talented teenage pilots. All the episodes follow a "monster of the day" story style where the Gaizok unleash a new Mecha-Boost mecha to wreck havoc on Earth until Zambot 3 and the Jin family step in to combat them.
However if you look deeper, Zambot 3 does have a number of story elements that made it stick out from other mecha anime during its time period and have become standard elements factored into creating later mecha titles. While past anime would have their titular mecha and its pilots accepted by the masses at the start of their title, the Jin family are not immediately accepted by humanity in combating the Gaizok threat as they are seen as being the main reason by many for the Gaizok invading Earth. The battles between Zambot 3 and Mecha-Boosts leave a good deal of collateral damage that still lingers as the series progresses and the aftermath of this is highlighted with civilians left homeless thanks to their homes being wiped out from the Jin Family and Gaizok conflict. There are also a few points where human civilians or military personnel attempt to sabotage the Jin family's efforts against the Gaizok because of the negative perceptions they have on them.
The show subverts the depiction of its main hero being seemingly flawless and level-headed in his actions. While main lead Kappei is a capable mecha pilot, the immaturity of his age is believably highlighted in this series as he often jumps into things without thinking his actions through, behaves recklessly in piloting the Zambo Ace and Zambot 3 during early episodes of the series, and his cockiness in being a mecha pilot often will rub the human populace the wrong way. This, combined with the mentioned collateral damage from his fights with Mecha-Boosts, complicate public perception to the Jin family's efforts of heroism against the Gaizok.
And finally, the series has a high kill count resulting from the conflict between the Jin family and Gaizok. While at first coming as the result of collateral damage or Mecha-Boost attacks, the conflict gradually gets more intense in later episodes when the Gaizok make human bombs out of their captives, Gaizok leader Killer the Butcher thinking of killing humans as a sort of game, and the Jin family find themselves having to make sacrifices in later episodes in dealing with the Gaizok threat.
Setting aside the praises, Zambot 3 still does carry a number of weaknesses that effect its quality somewhat. Many characters in the series lack much in the way of fleshing out as they either get tacked on with a character type or exist only to compliment some element of the series proper such as being a family member or controller of one of the pieces of alien technology used by the Jin family. The explanation that the series provides as to how Kappei and his two young cousins become capable of controlling the advanced alien technology used for their mechas is a bit of a stretch and reeks of lazy convenience. Also as this series came out in the 1970s, the animation is quite dated and was obviously made on a limited budget with the number of reused frames, occasional drawing errors, and other shortcuts employed during the time period that may turn off fans of more recent anime from checking this series out.
Still in spite of these flaws, I would at least recommend checking out Zambot 3 at least once due to how ahead of its time it was for introducing new story elements of the mecha genre that have become standard for more modern entries of it and being the earliest title where Yoshiyuki Tomino earned his "Kill Em All" moniker from his overall direction of the series.