NOTE: If you’ve seen Shin Mazinger Z, you noticed that there’s something I pretty blatantly handwaved over in my previous Mazinger posts. If you haven’t, I would heavily advise you to stop reading before the break unless you want the crap spoiled out of the best part of an already amazing series. I’d also advise you to just watch the show already, but if you’re comfortable with your poor taste, then that’s your own choice.
It’s been pretty obvious for most of the series now who Imagawa’s favorite character is. With significantly greater screen presence than anyone save Kouji Kabuto himself (and maybe Tsubasa, but I’m not as sure of that one), Dr. Hell’s right-hand wo/man has been given the lion’s share of directorial love. Baron Ashura gets all the best backstory. Baron Ashura gets all the best cinematography tricks. Baron Ashura gets all the best fanservice scenes. Baron Ashura is, quite simply, the best.
A New World Awaits
The first episode of the series started off with the Kouji’s memorable introductory speech – just the main character and a black background, laying out for us what the show we were watching was going to be about.
Episode 16 starts off much the same way. Only this time, it’s not Kouji who gives the introduction.
“Yes, you, who have read and watched Baron Ashura’s tale so many times.”
“We shall take part more than anyone else!”
Notice how all the manga panels are scenes centered around Baron Ashura.
Episode 16 was the big turning point in the series – the beginning of “a new world of Mazinger Z.” But it wasn’t just a “new world” because the focus was shifted from the original manga to the side-stories of the Mazinger universe, such as the mythologically-inspired Z Mazinger and Getter Robo creator Ken Ishikawa’s Kedora spin-off. It was a new world because it wasn’t Kouji Kabuto’s story anymore. He was still a major character, and he still got the most screentime, but it was no longer his story. The story that he introduced ended with episode 15. Shin Mazinger Z was now – as the new introduction put it – Baron Ashura’s tale.
The Lie of True Mazinger
As flashy and hotblooded as all the super robot stuff was, it was never the part I loved most about Shin Mazinger Z. While the Rocket Punches tended to be the biggest climactic moments of the series, and thus the most memorable, it was always more interesting to watch, say, the Kurogane Five go into battle. And the biggest Rocket Punch of all – the Big Bang Punch – isn’t even really a robot thing anyway; that’s all Zeus. That’s Greek Mythology – it’s basically historical fact. The Ancient Greece plotline was the best arc of the series – while the classic super robot stories of olde were still great fun, the Mycenae episodes were by far more exciting. And those were Ashura’s episodes. This was Ashura’s story.
The best part of Shin Mazinger Z, though, is one that cannot be restricted to a single plotline. More than that, it is the very foundation upon which the entirety of the show is built. It’s the part of the story that gives Ashura, along with Tsubasa and Dr. Hell, their place as Shin Mazinger Z’s most interesting characters. That foundation is a foundation of deceit. Shin Mazinger Z, the show with the balls to call itself “True” Mazinger, is a show built on lies.
At the center of this maze of smoke and mirrors stands Dr. Hell. The hilariously-appropriately-named megalomaniac scientist’s cartoonishly evil designs of world domination mask a more complex goal in his quest for limitless power: the gray area that calls into question the entire stated premise of the series. If Kouji strives to defeat Dr. Hell to halt his impending conquest, and Dr. Hell builds his army in preparation for the arrival of a much greater threat, then which of them can really be said to be saving the world? Both of them? Neither? Dr. Hell can’t simply ask for the photon power he needs – not only does he truly intend to use it for world domination along with his Mycenae defense force (nobody would believe that portion of the story anyway), but there is far too much bad blood running between him and the holders of this power for a simple request to even be an option. Surely his campaign must be thwarted lest it actually succeed, but what victory is there if with the death of this human conqueror comes a new, godly foe, on a scale far surpassing humanity?
This is the lie of Kouji’s tale – for the first fifteen episodes of the series, it is Dr. Hell who must be defeated, Dr. Hell who is ultimate enemy, the greatest threat. It’s the classic story that we all know: maniacal evil leader plots world domination, upstart young hero rises to task to stop him and save the world. It is in the first episode of Ashura’s tale, when the Kedora declare their true loyalty, display their true power, that the Mycenaean truth begins to rumble beneath the surface and threaten the lie upon which the foundation of the series had to that point been built. This classic, identifiable story is the lie that Kouji and company so strongly believed in that it allowed Ashura to pull off their final Grand Deception.
Conflict and Catharsis
The Ancient Greece arc is a time of conflict and catharsis for the Baron. Inside the Kedora’s Pillar, while Kouji and the Kurogane Five are busy engaging in some of the series’ greatest battles, Ashura is on a quest to find themselves, on their way towards Shin Mazinger’s most emotional, powerful revelation. The Tristan and Iseult in their grotesque reincarnation are rejected and betrayed by their old comrade Archduke Gorgon, and even by their own past selves – used as naught but a tool in the attack on Zeus. Betrayed by their own people, Ashura’s loyalty to Dr. Hell burns stronger than ever, and together with Tsubasa, they prepare to return that betrayal, to hunt down and kill the Last Kedora.
But something happens along the way. Perhaps the Kedora merely feared for its life. Perhaps it finally realized who Ashura really was. Whatever the case may be, as Ashura and Tsubasa approach the chamber in which the Kedora was hidden – the chamber in which Ashura slumbered for so many years – it begins to speak directly to the Baron. As the holder of the memory represented in the Pillar, the Kedora is free to portray it as it chooses. Its plea to Ashura comes perhaps in the same form as its realization of their identity – the memory of Tristan, the memory of Iseult, who had at first reviled their new form as an abomination, now accept it with open arms. A reminder of their true identity, their true purpose, Ashura is literally beside themselves as the Mycenaean priests cry out that “You are us! We are you!”
As they open the passage to the chamber to allow Tsubasa to destroy the Last Kedora, Ashura’s betrayal has gone from a duty in loyalty to Dr. Hell to a bittersweet uncertainty at bringing about the destruction of the countrymen they were meant to serve.
Ashura’s loyalty to Dr. Hell is a loyalty to a man who has twice brought them back from the dead, who saved their rotting corpses from decay and allowed them to live again. Ashura’s loyalty to Mycenae is a loyalty to a homeland and to comrades, sworn as a priest, that one day, they would awaken to bring about the return of the beautiful civilization for which they had originally given their lives. A war between the two now rages in Ashura’s head – as Dr. Hell stands at the center of the series’ greatest lie, Ashura stands at the center of its greatest conflict.
In this moment of distress, this moment of vulnerability, of torn loyalties, the Last Kedora in its death throes presents a final message to Ashura.
Baron Ashura the Two-Faced
The Kedora’s vision is nothing short of traumatizing. The truth of how Drs. Hell and Kabuto found Tristan and Iseult in their slumber – the doctors didn’t find them rotting and miraculously revive them as a single being, they melted the bodies with acid in a ploy to earn Ashura’s gratitude. The entire basis of Ashura’s loyalty to Dr. Hell is yet another lie!
But what’s more, to add injury to insult, the two doctors then proceeded to gun down the entire Mycenaean race that slumbered in the stone around Ashura’s cocoon.
Not only did Dr. Hell cause the disfigurement of Ashura’s body, rather than saving them from it, but he’s also responsible for what essentially amounts to the genocide of their entire race. A race bent on subjugating humanity, sure, but what’s that to Ashura? Those are Ashura’s countrymen – Ashura’s only ties to the human side of this conflict were to Dr. Hell. Devastated, in an unimaginable fury, Ashura falls to their hands and knees and begs for the aid of Kouji and Tsubasa – the only others to witness this scene – against the master who had so thoroughly betrayed them.
And from there, the lies continue to stack.
For in truth, Baron Ashura is every bit as enraged at the Kabuto family – at Kenzo for his collaboration in Dr. Hell’s heinous acts, at Tsubasa for toying with their body, at Kouji for piloting the reincarnation of their archenemy Zeus, the Mazinger Z, to destroy the Mechanical Beasts of Mycenae as they marched for Dr. Hell.
Ashura’s only human loyalty destroyed, their only debt remains to Mycenae. And Ashura has seen, in the pillar, that the rites to revive Mycenae have already been put in place, in need only of their blood sacrifice.
And so Ashura, the creature of two faces, shows just how two-faced they can be. A fine traitor, indeed.
Ashura flees from Dr. Hell’s lab, and would have found sanctuary at the Kurogane House if not for a disguised Pygman taking their place. Ashura’s recapture by Dr. Hell, however, proves to be a blessing, as they awaken in the Mycenaean chamber – the hall of sacrifice. It’s a chance to end it all and reach their goal sooner than expected.
But Ashura cannot kill themselves, as Dr. Hell explains with the revelation of another affront to Ashura’s identity, the suicide blocker’s true purpose handwaved away by a gift and yet another half-truth.
Ashura gladly accepts Dr. Hell’s gift, though it is a gladness only feigned. Within, the hatred continues to bubble and fester.
With their newfound robot, Ashura challenges Kouji to a one-on-one fight, a final battle. Another lie: Kouji is ambushed at their chosen dueling grounds by a horde of mechanical beasts. It remains unclear whether this ambush was yet another lie – that Ashura knew Kouji could escape – or that Kouji was right and Ashura had actually intended for him to be defeated. Not that Kouji isn’t gullible enough to be unfazed either way.
The attack on Kurogane house? A lie, to convince Dr. Hell that Ashura was on his side. Ashura being crushed by Brocken’s falling airship? A lie – Ashura used it as a cover to help Kouji break into Dr. Hell’s base. Kenzo’s death? A lie – he had hidden himself from Dr. Hell for ten years after freeing himself from the Kedora-infested body that forced him unwillingly into Hell’s servitude.
Baron Ashura as humanity’s trump card in this final battle?
The Grand Deception
The defeat of Dr. Hell was only the beginning of the end. The sky goes dark. The world glows red. Revived by Ashura’s sacrifice, made possible by Dr. Hell’s downfall, the gods of Mycenae rise from the dead, and in a single, monstrous slice of the sword of the Great General of Darkness, Mount Fuji is cracked in half.
Upon the Great Lie of the first fifteen episodes, Ashura had built one final deception. Unable to kill themselves and enact the ritual at the time of their return from the Pillar, and enraged at both Dr. Hell and the Kurogane House, loyal now only to Mycenae, Ashura played up the Great Lie – that the end goal of this quest was to defeat the evil that was Dr. Hell – to convince their “allies” to eliminate the last obstacle in the way of fulfilling their lives’ final purpose. No matter that Mycenae is as much an enemy to these “allies” as Dr. Hell ever was – by keeping the focus on defeating Dr. Hell, by making that the imperative, Ashura was able to work that plan out in the background, without Kouji and Tsubasa realizing it until it was too late. By uniting against a common enemy, Ashura was able to keep them convinced that they were on the same side. But as Ashura planned Dr. Hell’s downfall with Tsubasa in the Pillar, so too did they plan the downfall of the rest of humanity with Archduke Gorgon in the Mycenaean temple in the sky.
What makes this moment, this final treachery even more impressive is Imagawa’s presentation. It’s the reason I put a paragraph-long spoiler warning atop this post – the deceit has so much more power than it otherwise would have because the audience is strung along every bit as much as the characters. By keeping the secrets secret until the end, the show is able to maintain the facade of the super robot story, the Great Lie, until the very moment at which it falls apart, and suddenly all the pieces fall into place. The entire plot is upended, and only then do we realize that we were looking at the wrong side all along. What was once a super robot story with Kabuto Kouji as its pilot, is now a Greek drama, with Ashura as its tragic hero.
I normally despise this sort of information-hiding in stories for several reasons, but Shin Mazinger manages to avoid all of them. The secrecy here does not prevent the plot from advancing – Shin Mazinger has set up an entire fake plot for both us and the characters to follow while the lies accumulate behind the scenes. Nor does it detract from the rewatch value – while the shock value of the reveal is a large part of the draw, it is the depth of the scheming that gives Ashura’s Grand Deception its true impact, and on further watches a new layer of intrigue is in fact added to the show. The fun now derives from tracing the convoluted path of lies throughout its length, in addition to basking in the glory of the hotblooded robot battles. In writing this post, I have watched the last 11 episodes of the series in their entirety at least five or six times over the course of a month (and parts of them many more times than that), and they have only gotten better each time.
Furthermore, we, the viewers, were not left completely in the dark after all. This ending had already long been foreshadowed – the finale wraps around the end of the series and reaches its ultimate conclusion in episodes one and two. We saw the consequences of the betrayal at the very beginning; we knew where this was going from the start. Ashura’s behavior was pretty suspicious ever since that undisclosed final vision in the Pillar. The new introduction from the Baron in episode 16 stated an increased involvement in the story, hinting at what was to come. Gorgon even straight-up told Dr. Hell this would happen (also expressing his lament at Hell’s abuse of the Mycenaean legacy and swearing an oath of vengeance). More hints were strewn all throughout Ashura’s tale; a particularly vital clue (in retrospect) was even buried in a recap episode. All this foreshadowing is there, the pieces are in place, the plan is already in motion, but we don’t see it. We, like the characters, have bought the story that Ashura and Imagawa have fed us.
And you know what? That’s AWESOME. It was a freakin’ great story. As David Cabrera said in his blog post on the final episode, “Meanwhile, the show is hinting that [defeating Dr. Hell] was actually a terrible idea, but I, the viewer, cannot bring myself to care because what just happened is so f-ing awesome” (though with more expletive than I am willing to include). And then we see the real story that lay beneath the surface of this Great Lie, and it all becomes even more awesome. Shin Mazinger was truly something special in this regard. I loved the show I thought it was, but I loved even more the series that it ultimately revealed itself to be.
Baron Ashura gave Shin Mazinger a powerful emotional core the likes of which the show would otherwise, in all of its greatness, never have achieved. They are, in my mind, unquestionably one of the greatest villains in all of anime, a spot secured by the fact that I feel strange calling them a villain at all. I’ve lost track of how many times have gone back and rewatched this series in its entirety while writing this set of posts, and it’s been every bit as fantastic, if not better, every time. And every time, the shining star of the series is proven yet again to be Baron Ashura.
Baron Ashura the Two-Faced.
Baron Ashura the Magnificent.