Justly Forgotten Double-Retro Robot Anime: Z-Mind
Back when I was a teen and the Internet was less reliable, I used to read Animerica magazine to find out what was going on in Japanese anime, both here and across the ocean in Japan.
I specifically recall the very long title at the top of the Japanese sales charts, Shishunki Bishoujo Gattai Robo Z-Mind: The Battling Days Of The “Shitamachi” Virgins. Sounded kinda dirty, honestly. It made a bit more sense to find out that Z-Mind was actually a super robot OVA (original video animation) from Sunrise. Fans shelled out for OVAs per episode (like, seriously, $50–100 an episode), so you could consider this high-end nerd-market stuff.
I remembered this name after all these years and decided to look up the now-forgotten Z-Mind. I certainly know now why people forgot it.
Z-Mind is a girls-in-robots anime, and as the format makes evident, it is aimed at adult genre fans rather than kids. Unfortunately, it’s generic to the bone, safely betting that so long as there are girls in skin-tight jumpsuits, nerds will buy it. To be fair, the producers were not wrong.
The only unique point is the setting, 1970s Asakusa. It’s not a bad idea! This is a nostalgic, traditionally Japanese backdrop, starring a down-home family that lives for festivals and flower viewings. The art and character designs steer away from the heavy stylization trending in 90s anime, and towards more mature, real-looking characters. It’s clear from the first few minutes that this show will be looking backwards fondly on anime, and on Japan.
90s anime did a lot of that. The 70s were 20 years gone! (So are the 90s today!) Evangelion shocked the anime world by drawing on the past and recombining familiar elements into something new and quite dark. Nadesico made a tongue-in-cheek meditation on otaku culture before that was played out, presenting a universe where some important people took a 70s robot cartoon a little bit too seriously. These series had something to say about where anime and the culture had been, but more importantly, they used the past as fuel to cover new ground in the present.
Z-Mind does no such thing, opting instead to draw lazily on its predecessors for material. Its conspicuous references to pioneering 70s titles — Brave Raideen playing on TV, Mazinger movie posters on the walls, a guy who calls himself Kouji and looks like Amuro from Gundam — are empty window dressing. The alien invasion plot unfurls as quickly as possible in a straight line, employing a basic procession of cliches that any remotely genre-savvy viewer will see through instantly. There is zero originality on display here, and no surprises waiting in the series’ mercifully brief six-episode run.
This isn’t yet a deal-breaker. Endearing characters can make a boilerplate story go down smoothly, and on a fundamental level you’d think that a “girls-in-robots” show would bank on the appeal of the girls. But Z-Mind features a cast of cardboard. Our heroines are four sisters from a big, close-knit, and apparently unnamed working-class family in downtown Asakusa. You would think that with that kind of setting, this would be a more character-focused series, but the cookie-cutter sci-fi story leaves no room for it from the moment that the robot shows up.
I couldn’t tell you much of anything about any of these characters. The plot happens to the passive protagonist Ayame, the oldest sister and a traditional Japanese beauty. The younger sisters are identical paper cutouts reading “SPUNKY GIRL”. Satsuki, the youngest, is an elementary-school-aged plot device. There’s hardly anything to know about any of them, much less anybody else in the family. Racist Dad gets more character time than the main heroines do.
If you’re a robot fan, you’re still probably wondering if Z-Mind is at least decent comfort food. Do we get cool combining, transforming robots, awesome battles, and earth-shaking special attacks? This is after all Sunrise, home of the Brave series. Well, I hate to say it, but that part’s not great either.
Mecha heads will be able to tell from looking at the robot scenes that folks involved with Sunrise’s Brave series must have had a hand in it. Though a bit typical of the Brave series’ designs, the Z-Mind robot is nevertheless pretty cool: it boasts bright colors with a boxy, sharp-edged, powerful design. Its face is a stoic judge of evil. The transformation sequence you’ll see every episode is a wonder, too, with loving mechanical detail, steam valves going off, the works. At least those parts are as they should be.
But the battles themselves are mediocre. Even once the heroines have fully committed to their roles, the show doesn’t really believe in them growing into their roles as fighters the way it would believe in male protagonists. The girls manage to throw a tomahawk or two, they get beat up, and then they’re always bailed out or rescued by a spirit guide, or the robot’s hidden power. Z-Mind doesn’t even have a cool finishing move: it just starts to glow and the opponent dies instantly. The final punch is pretty good, but a show like this at least knows not to screw that part up.
There are a lot of “what would they do in an anime?” and “stop acting like this is an anime!” lines throughout Z-Mind. They fall flat every time, because Z-Mind never convinces the viewer that it’s anything but an ordinary, bog-standard, generic robot anime.
Sometimes nostalgia and comfort aren’t enough by themselves. I was shocked that Z-Mind was produced after Sunrise’s superlative robot nostalgia vehicle King of Braves Gaogaigar, and yet learned nothing from observing it. There’s a big difference between reflecting on the past like Evangelion, and simply pointing at it and saying “Look! It’s the past!”, like Ready Player One. Go with the latter, and nobody will remember *you* in 20 years. Avoid.
I haven’t given away any of the plot developments, even though they’re totally predictable, but I am going to give away the ending. So if you don’t want to hear the ending of a lousy predictable robot anime that you shouldn’t watch anyway, turn back.
I respected the sheer cliche audacity of ending the series with both “It was all a dream” and “To Be Continued.” This series has already used every sci-fi cliche it knows from Terminator on down, so why not toss in the two hackiest devices in storytelling? The series concludes with a post-credits scene — in which it is hammered home that it was “just a dream”, and then a sequel pitch: dimly lit scenes of bigger robot battles to come flash before the viewer. It wasn’t to be, and I truly don’t think we lost anything of value. If the choice was between Gaogaigar Final and more of this, we were damn lucky.