Case Study 72: Zoids: Chaotic Century, Episode 10–“The Mountain of Dreams”

Original Airdate: June 11th, 1999 on Tokyo Broadcasting System

It’s been almost a month! I took a break for the holidays, but I’ll tell you upfront that Zoids was terrible and the sooner I never have to think about it again the happier I’ll be. Nevertheless, I’ve been avoiding writing about it. You’ll soon understand why. The only fun thing about Zoids is saying the word “zoids.” I’ll now take a few questions from the audience.

Q: Wait, what? What is a zoid? Or zoids? I don’t even know whether or not I should be using the singular here.

A: Zoids got their start as model-kits that allow you to build plastic models of fearsome robots. They generally take the shape of quadruped animals.

Q: And this is a show of some kind?

A: Boy, is it ever! In fact, Chaotic Century is only the first installment. There are THREE OTHER SHOWS!

Q: So this is yet another media empire solely designed to give the appearance of depth to shiny toys, in the vein of Transformers, G.I. Joe, Lego Star Wars, or Max Steel?

A: Yes, but don’t hold that against Zoids, because there’s plenty of other reasons to hate it. Great things can come from questionable source material, and there’s at least one good movie based on a toy license.

Q: Didn’t you already talk about some show that had giant fighting robots?

A: Yes, but giant robots are all over the anime world, and they’re clearly not all created equal. They’re part of a genre known as “mecha,” and while sci-fi and manga about giant robots has been around basically forever, they made their first big impact on televised anime in the seventies on a show called Mazinger Z. Since then, it’s been a trope of anime in a deeply-rooted way that you don’t see much of in Western sci-fi.

Q: Why is this a thing, though?

A: This is something you might need an expert on Japanese culture to understand, because mecha-love isn’t exactly confined to the pulp margin, judging by the prevalence of giant robot statues as public art. And while thrilling robot-on-robot action in cartoons leaves me feeling pretty neutral, giant robot statues are awesome in the way only monumental architecture can be.

Q: Will you please pedantically acknowledge the distinction between robots and mecha?

A: Yeah, robots are autonomous machines but mecha have limbs and are controlled by human pilots from within. Can I start complaining now?

Strengths

You know, I was starting to think I’d never write a 0/10 review again, but we’re in luck today, folks.

Weaknesses

    • Bizarre, hideous Zoid animation. For the most part the animation here is bland and unremarkable, but whenever a Zoid does something—which happens kinda often—it calls attention to the fact that for some reason they made a decision to render them in this hideous quasi-3D style that has aged terribly and is more 90s than Smashmouth. See also: Steel, Max.
    • Terrible dubbing. Why do people do this!? It’s much easier to accept the character’s mouth movements not being in time with the dialogue than having to listen to terrible voice acting! I suppose I’m being charitable in assuming that dubbing is the problem here and that the actors are just rushing to fit the line in the three seconds that the characters’ mouths are open. It’s entirely possible they just hired wretched voice actors. See also: Mysterious Cities of Gold.
    • Not enough world-building, too much asinine, nakedly expository dialogue. There’s always a fine line to walk when it comes to making sure you’re on the same page as your audience. If people are disoriented because they don’t know what’s supposed to be happening, it means they can’t react in any kind of useful way. You can’t make a positive impression on a viewer if they can’t clear the entry barrier. You also don’t want to insult your viewer’s intelligence and ruin subtle moments by stating the obvious. No attempt is made to explain the nature of Zoids, or the fact that the show is set in a distant galaxy, or what happened in a recent war. The show isn’t particularly inclined to elaborate on its unusual setting, which is weird, because it’s doing all the work of establishing a new setting. The model-kits didn’t come with any kind of narrative, so it’s more or less a blank, mech-filled slate, and yet the setting makes zero impression because it gets no love from the writers. Instead we get moments like when our hero Van (Matthew Erickson, Sabrina: Secrets of a Teenage Witch) encounters a mad scientist named Dr. D (Dave Pettitt, Highway Thru Hell). D is frozen inside a giant person-sized ice crystal. Van announces, “He’s frozen!” Yep. He sure is. So glad we spent a line of dialogue establishing the infuriatingly obvious instead of doing or saying anything remotely interesting.
    • Missed opportunities for interesting action scenes. Presumably the only reason you’d watch this is because you want to watch exciting robot battles. For an action show about Zoids, this episode’s Zoid exposure level proves surprisingly scanty. The highlight is a set piece where Dr. D lures Van and charismatic bad boy Irvine (Mark Gatha, Mobile Fighter G Gundam) into a minefield full of a dormant scorpion army dedicated to protecting what was once a military supply post. This could be a great scene: our heroes are outnumbered and surrounded by medium-size enemies that could press their advantage by coming in fast and hard. Van and Irvine’s Zoids are powerful, but bulky and with no short-range protections. How would this fight go? We’ll never know, because it’s quickly set aside so we can hear more about the wacky old scientist. Normally I’d prefer prioritizing story over exciting robot battle action, but this is a particularly dumb story.
    • Forced sentimentality. Dr. D’s grand quest is to use mad science to make it snow in the otherwise warm climate where we lay our scene. He’s determined to recreate a treasured childhood memory. After some initial friction, everyone starts working together to help the weird old man control the weather. It looks like that’s impossible and kind of stupid, but WAIT! It snows after all! But here comes the surprise twist—D’s technology wasn’t responsible. The power of belief, or love, or community, or some other nonsense like that, is REALLY what made it snow. Sickeningly sweet and totally vacant. Zoids is absolutely brazen about the fact that this meaningless little interlude has nothing at all to do with the overarching plot—Van and Irvine think that D has information about the MacGuffin, but he only pretended to because he’s a manipulative dick. Hooray!
    • The premise of this show makes no sense. The emotional heart of the show is Van’s relationship with Zeke. Zeke is a very special kind of zoid called an “organoid.” Zeke looks like a person-sized T-Rex and acts more like a Pokemon than the other robots. Look, gluing giant robots to collectible monsters doesn’t actually constitute a new idea, much like duct-taping a dildo to a banana isn’t something you can patent. The most distinctive thing about the zoids is that they’re shaped like large mammals. Why? Who knows. Does this have any practical implications? Not really. So why watch Zoids instead of the millions of other mecha shows? Well…

Final Judgment: 0/10. What a colossal waste of time. If anything, it’s more evidence that animation tends to extremes: it encompasses some of the best shows on television and more than its fair share of the worst.

NEXT TIME: Another important lesson: I’ll never run out of weird cartoons. I review the cutesy South Korean animation hit Pucca!

Case Study 72: Zoids: Chaotic Century, Episode 10–“The Mountain of Dreams”