Dancouga (with the alternate full English titles of either Super Beast Machine God Dancouga or God Bless The Machine Dancouga – depending on who you ask) is a hybrid Super Robot/Real Robot anime, taking the serious tone of the Real Robot anime of the mid-to-late 80s, and combining it (har har) with a Super Robot anime of the Combiner variety.
The premise takes elements from some of the iconic premises for both sub-genres. Earth is attacked by alien invaders whose weapons outmatch those of humanity, lead by an evil Overlord and commanded by their Four Generals (Super Robot). The invaders steamroll Earth’s defenses and crush humanity before them, leaving Humanity fighting a guerilla war with whatever high-tech weapons they can get (Real Robot). Humanity’s secret weapon is a team of hot-blooded young pilots piloting a team of mecha that transform into beast machines, and then humanoid robots, and also into a larger humanoid robot – the titular Dancouga (Super Robot). However, there is a connection between one of the pilots of Dancouga and the Four Generals – one of the Four Generals is a Human traitor who is the fiancee of one of the Dancouga pilots (Real Robot).
Now, just mashing a bunch of concepts together will certainly get your foot in the door, but ultimately it comes to the execution to determine if the show is any good, and Dancouga is a mixed bag. Most of the the main characters – the Dancouga pilots, are archetypal. The show’s normative lead, Shinobu Fujiwara, is the Hot Blooded Impulsive Pilot, Masato Shikibu is the Jokester Youngster, and Ryo Shiba is The Spiritual Guy.
On the other hand, the team’s female member, Sara Yuki, has much more narrative depth. Her fiancee was the Human traitor who joined the Four Generals, which makes her role in the story much more personal, than just wanting to save the world. Most of the other characters – aside from their connections to the team – don’t have as much of an outside motivation. They want to save the world from the Alien Zorbados invaders because that’s their job. On top of this, Yuki often demonstrates a wider emotional range than her fellow pilots, and more proficiency than her fellow pilots (even beating opponents in martial arts combat that Ryo fail at). I get the feeling that while Shinobu Fujiwara is the Normative protagonist, from a narrative standpoint, Sara Yuki is the de-facto protagonist.
Unfortunately, there are a whole bunch of stumbles through the production. As with many other contemporaneous anime series, characters of color are very, very poorly written. Some of the Hispanic characters have very stereotypical names, and a depiction of some African American characters in Harlem later in the series could just as easily be taken from a minstrel show, with the clothing updated to the mid-’80s. Additionally, the quality of the animation is across the map – with some vehicle explosions being very well done, while a larger (and more narratively important) fight scene ending up very disappointing.
Finally, the pacing is rather poor. The titular Dancouga is not formed until the series 25th episode, which implies that they were shooting for a 52 episode runtime, but as with Mobile Suit Gundam, the series has a 35 episode length, which leads me to suspect that they got canceled early. The ending of the show goes along with this, giving a “Watch the OVA/Movie” ending, which is especially disappointing since, as of this writing, the Dancouga OVAs currently aren’t included on Discotek Media’s release of the TV series.
Speaking of which, the show has gotten a DVD release from Discotek Media and is available from Amazon.com & RightStuf. The story doesn’t get concluded until the OVA, but that hasn’t been licensed yet – hopefully Discotek will get the rights so we can get the end of this story, but I can’t otherwise recommend it.