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Spotlight: Voltron & Its Japanese Counterpart, Beast King GoLion

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Voltron is one of those childhood cartoons that I hold sacred to me (arm in arm with Transformers and Thundercats).  Premiering the same year that I was born in 1984, I’m not even sure how I was able to watch it. Chalk it up to having an older brother and re-runs I guess, but I adored it. The 80’s was a glorious time for cartoons with a weird influx of Japanese culture that introduced us to transforming robots. You know what’s even cooler than transforming robots? Robots that could transform together into a bigger robot. Transfomers did it occasionally, but it was the entire premise which Voltron was founded on.

To a young boy, it was wonderful. The bright prime colors of the lions, the weird matching pilot uniforms, the idea that each of the lions were stashed away in different locations on the planet (deep within the castle’s moat, the desert, the forest etc), space explorers, royalty, different planets, robots, demonic dark forces, magic, tyrants, witches and a big ass robot that forms a blazing sword. It was sci-fi and adventure all wrapped into one. Not to mention the animation! I have such a soft spot for 80’s Japanese animation; I just can’t help but love it.

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Growing up my local video rental location had a copy of the first 4 or 5 episodes that I would rent endlessly along with Transformers: The Movie (ahem, the ANIMATED movie, thank you very much). In 1997, Cartoon Network announced they would be running the Voltron and Thundercats series in full. In a prehistoric internet world this was the first time I’d be able to relive some episodes and watch others that I had never seen before. You better believe I began recording both shows on VHS tapes to have for prosperity. Who knew when I would be able to watch this show ever again, plus the episodes were in order! I enjoyed watching it but fell off a couple weeks in, all the robeast of the week episodes began to take its toll on me and without much characterization it couldn’t hold my interest as much as I would have wanted.

Later in the early 2000’s equipped with my high school’s high speed cable internet (something we didn’t have at home yet) I spent countless free hours researching the show. Practically melting my mind when I found out that it was based a Japanese show called Beast King GoLion that was heavily edited for the American audience, with many plot points changed. There wasn’t a lot of information back then and few had seen the actual Japanese show and if they did it wasn’t subtitled, but it was fun to put together the pieces. I had never seen nor heard of Vehicle Voltron either or the aborted third series in the American planned tv trilogy. Not to mention that finding out the American Voltron had a whole season of 20 episodes that was made exclusively for that market after the original Japanese version had ended. This made it easier for them to create stories in that world rather than piece together what could be used from the original.

The DVDs of the entire Voltron series had begun to be released by 2006 and I eagerly bought the first collection to sink my teeth into. I ended up being disappointed to say the least as I dug into the first episodes. It was painful to watch, some kids tv shows from your past hold up, some you can get through on based on nostalgia alone and some are just plain awful. Voltron ended up being a chore to watch. The bad voice acting, the recycled animation; the same plot over and over again, the weird disjointed feeling of it all. Those type of things you could overlook as a child but were hard to ignore as an adult with (for better or worse) keener insight.

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After reading the recent painfully medicore Robotech/Voltron crossover miniseries it gave me the itch. I had remembered that the original Japanese version of Voltron aka GoLion had been released a few years back to American audiences. I figured I’d give it a shot and at least watch one episode (at the time of writing the entire series is on YouTube). I was stunned almost from the outset. They keep the introduction that plagued every Voltron episode, 2 minutes of backstory for something that’s not that complex. However, changes were already abound. It appears in this original incarnation Voltron was sentient and was battling his away across the galaxy killing everything in sight until he challenged “the god of the universe” who split Voltron into 5 lions because of its arrogance.

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Our 5 space explorer heroes who all have Japanese names are often referred to by their nick names. The Keith character is called Chief, Sven is Quiet, Lance is Moody, Hunk of course is Hothead and Pidge is referred to as Shorty. For the ease of this article I will be referring to all characters, locations etc. by their American names. We also find out that while the guys were on a mission in space, Earth faced some kind of nuclear holocaust as a result of WWIII (and they show it!) so there is nothing to go back to.

What was the most shocking was while the explorers were captured on Planet Doom seeing Zarkon’s forces beat the absolute shit out of their slaves. That’s just something you didn’t see in 80’s American cartoons and they subsequently scrubbed that from the U.S. release. But his troops (who might I add) are shown here to be living beings and not robots mercilessly whip and demean their captives and regularly hold gladiator style games where you watch them massacred. Zarkon here is not an inept ruler; he is a sadistic mad man. In Episode 3, there’s a flashback where you see Zarkon decapitate Princess Allura’s father, King Alfor. It cuts away before it actually occurs, but you know it happens.

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The big one I think most people know about is that Sven actually dies in this series and much later on his brother (who looks identical) avenges him. In the U.S. counterpart version Sven is whisked away to another planet to be healed and the lookalike is explained as him returning. Another huge plot point completely written out involves Prince Lotor’s parentage. His mother was from Arus and resembled Princess Allura but she was cruelly killed by Zarkon. This helps explains Lotor’s absolute obsession with Allura. Hagar is later also revealed to be Zarkon’s mother. The lady who voices her in GoLion has one of the creepiest voices I’ve ever heard, it blows the English actress out of the water. These are massive changes and go a long way to establishing GoLion as being richer and more complex story.

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Not as important as the rest, but any scene in GoLion that involves remotely religious imagery, bowing and praying at King Alfor’s tomb or when a comrade dies was completely removed. In one way I can see where American TV executives would want to nix this, but honestly would some fleeting religious references really have turned kids away? Not very likely.

GoLion does have some minor flaws, there’s a narrator that chimes in occasionally in different episodes but it can be a bit confusing since it’s subtitled especially if people are speaking directly before or after. While it’s typical for Japanese anime the music in the beginning and end credits just doesn’t compare to the English versions. Weirdly, GoLion shows the entire Voltron transformation sequence within the opening credits. As a kid that’s all I cared about seeing on the show and waited eagerly until it happened. It seems strange to flaunt that up front. Other than those few minor quibbles the show it’s basically superior in every way. More importantly though, it allowed me to revisit Voltron in a new and interesting way. One that didn’t make me embarrassed by watching as an adult. It took something I loved as a kid and allowed me to enjoy it even more as an adult.

If you’re a fan of Voltron and haven’t seen GoLion do yourself a favor and check it out, you won’t be disappointed.

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About Biff Tannen

Film Noir, Pulp, Comic Books and Hitchcock.

Posted on October 15, 2014, in Cartoons, Geekology, TV and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. Thanks! I really can’t recommend GoLion enough. Watching it turned Voltron from a corny kid’s cartoon into a badass anime that the American version always had the potential of being. The elements were already there…

  2. This was an awesome post and now I need to watch Go-Lion now.

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