Sunday, February 18, 2007

Taekwon V: Korean version of Mazinger Z

Robot Taekwon V, Korean version of Go Nagai's Mazinger Z. Click on the picture above to see a youtube clip of the opening song posted by dodonga33

Mazinger Z . Click on the picture above to see a youtube clip of the opening song posed by dragonnar.

As I wrote in a previous post, the Japanese giant robot anime Mazinger Z, popular worldwide, was also a smash hit in South Korea. In fact, the main character in in the hit drama My Name is Kim Sam Soon (내 이름은 김삼순) even hums a few lines from the song in an episode. However, Mazinger Z came from the hated former colonial occupier, the Japanese, and so in 1976, Kim Cheong-gi directed South Korea's first home-grown animated robot, Robot Taekwon V. In this animation, we can see a lot of the complex South Korean love/hate attitude towards Japanese popular culture.

I found, on a Korean web site, this size comparison of Taekwon V (far left) with the Japanese anime robots Mazinger Z (2nd from left), Great Mazinger (2nd from right) and Grendizer (far right). C'mon, does size have to matter that much?

On the one hand, one wouldn't fault the Koreans for hating the Japanese, for during the 1930s, the Japanese government embarked upon a forced assimilation policy and attempted to eradicate Korean culture. Now colonists have often done this since the beginning of history: Americans attempted to destroy Native American and Native Hawaiian cultures under the guise of assimilation, and similar policies were seen by the British in Ireland and the Soviets in many of the lands they conquered. But while it puts these policies in perspective, it still doesn't excuse the Japanese colonial authorities.

During the 1920s, in response to mass uprisings in 1919 (known as the March 1st movement and put down by the Japanese authorities at the cost of several thousand Korean lives), the colonial government did give Koreans a few limited opportunities to express their own culture, such as in Korean-language newspapers or even radio broadcasts (as noted by Professor Michael Robinson). However, with Japan's military aggression into Asia in the 1930s, the Japanese decided upon a forced-assimilation policy making Koreans to pray at Shinto shrines, change their names to Japanese names, and during the war, millions labored in Japanese factories as conscripts or forced labor. Many unlucky women ended up as "comfort women," forced prostitutes for Japanese soldiers. Koreans were forbidden from using their native language in schools or in government documents. In fact, I met many elderly Koreans during my trip there who could speak Japanese fluently, no doubt having learned this language in school.

Taekwon V statue in South Korea

After the war ended in 1945, Korea gained its independence, but the scars remained. So strong was anti-Japanese feeling that Japanese-language television and radio broadcasts, publications, and pop music, were all prohibited, with the ban only being gradually lifted in 1998. However, despite this ban, Japanese popular culture did manage to make its way into Korea. Often, Japanese cartoons were dubbed into Korean, stripped of all Japanese references, and then broadcast in Korea, often without telling the audience of the true Japanese origin. Or else, as Jasper Sharp points out in an interesting article, it was common practice among the Korean film industry to use Japanese film scripts. Of course this made economic sense - if Japanese culture is banned and so your audience has no idea you are ripping off a Japanese film, then why not cut corners and use ready-made scripts from Japan?

Note the similarities and differences between Taekwon V (L) and Mazinger Z (R)

Anyway, back to Mazinger Z. This cartoon was broadcast in Korea and became a huge hit. In fact, as the Chosun Ilbo points out, "Mazinger Z was so popular here as to be treated as an honorary Korean." But alas, this was a Japanese cartoon, and what Korea needed was a giant Korean Robot for kids to look up to. So, much as how Hyundai cars first used an engine developed by the Mitsubishi Corporation of Japan, out came a Korean giant robot that looked suspiciously like it was based on Mazinger Z: Taekwon V! But there are differences, however subtle. The head was replaced with a helmet similar to that worn by Admiral Yi, who fought of Hideyoshi's 16th century invasions, and to make sure viewers understood this was a Korean-made cartoon, Taekwon V fought with Taekwondo! Other than that, Taekwon V looks a bit like a reverse-engineered Mazinger Z. Click here for a video of Taekwon V.

Poster for the 1976 film, "Robot Taekwon V"

The movie version of Taekwon V has just been restored and re-released. Now Japanese nationalists may call this a Korean ripoff of Mazinger, and Korean nationalists may try to deny the Mazinger-inspired origins of Taekwon V, but there may be a better way to interpret this anime: cultures have always borrowed from each other. Historically, the Japanese have historically borrowed kanji, Buddhism, and architecture from their Korean neighbors. And if we look at Korean manhwa comics today, they bear a striking similarity to Japanese manga. So culture travels back and forth in all directions. My hope is that rather than argue who imitated who, young Koreans and young Japanese can learn they share much in common, and that popular culture can help bring those two nations closer together. (BTW, the Japanese First Lady is a huge fan of the Korean drama Winter Sonata). Imagine - both Koreans and Japanese grew up watching giant robots! Maybe we should ask for a Japanese-Korean joint production, such as "Taekwon V and Mazinger Z versus Dr. Hell"

BTW, I found some open source movies of Mazinger Z in dubbed into Arabic. You can figure out what is happening even if you don't understand the language. In this episode, Kabuto Koji, under the guidance of Miss Yumi Sayaka (pilot of Aphrodite A), is clumsily learning how to control Mazinger Z.

UPDATE: Just found this video on youtube. It seems to be a Korean video of someone playing the Mazinger Z theme song on the piano. Wow! And what about this video of an Italian singing show with the theme to "Great Mazinger"?


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Filebook said...

I love this series.

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