Alone with Goldorak

Liliane Lurçat’s A cinq ans, seul avec Goldorak: Le jeune enfant et la télévision (1981) may have been the first book written about anime outside Japan, although it is really about viewers’ responses to something that happens to be anime. It remains a meticulously constructed work of psychological research, by a scientist testing children’s reactions to popular television programmes. She presents an often chilling view of the effects that such a show, made for older Japanese boys several years earlier, might have had on terrified French children, left ‘at [four] years old, alone with Goldorak.’

We might consider the degree to which viewers respond to what they think is on the screen – a possible issue of both ignorance and aesthetics, not in a historical sense, but a perceptual one. When Lurçat (1981: 25-6) asks her child interviewees if the ‘giant robot’ Goldorak really exists, she receives a dizzying array of responses. Lurçat herself notes (1981: 25) that the question is ambiguous – there is, after all, such a thing as Goldorak on television, and even toys that bear its name. It has both a ‘materiality’ and ‘an existence within the animated spectacle’. The children’s replies cannot even agree on the material of Goldorak’s construction, claiming that it is made of stone, or of wood, or is ‘a robot’. Tellingly, one boy calls Goldorak a ‘marionette’ and eight of Lurçat’s respondents claim that Goldorak is ‘a man in disguise’ – either a reference to the pilot of the machine within the show, or perhaps even an indicator that the respondents were not all that sure which show they were supposed to be discussing.

At the risk of injecting a note of snide hypercriticality into the debate, not one of Lurçat’s four-year-old interviewees points out to their adult questioner that Goldorak was not actually a ‘robot’ at all, but in fact a ‘mecha‘ or pilotable machine. Acuff and Reiher (1997: 69), suggest that children under seven are not mentally equipped to understand that Goldorak is a machine operated by human agency, but that is part of Lurçat’s point – that whatever fine distinctions or equivocations an older viewer might present, the youngest audience sector sees something quite different, and indeed rather terrifying.

Lurçat’s research remains valuable three decades later, in part because few others have concentrated so exactingly on the responses of the child viewer to a single anime. We might suggest that there are elements of the Hawthorne effect here, which is to say that the very fact that the respondents were the subject of an experiment led them to articulate positions that would not have otherwise troubled them. This is not to detract from Lurçat’s achievement; even if some of her respondents merely give the answer they thought they should, Lurçat’s collated responses provocatively argue that a television can be a horrific device that invades the sanctity of childhood.

Lurçat’s study is also notable in that the word ‘Japan’ is not mentioned at any point. Unlike Ségolène Royal’s politically motivated tract, Le ras-le-bol des bébé zappeurs (1989), which articulates media violence as an unwelcome foreign import in France, Lurçat entirely ignores the nationality of her cartoon subject. True to the formalism of Reader-Response, Lurçat spends no time wondering how Goldorak came to be, who made it, or what kind of channel it has landed on. Indeed, she does not even explain what Goldorak is, apparently expecting her readership to already know its plot and themes; readers that do not may only interpret them through the stumbling explanations of the infant interviewees.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Schoolgirl Milky Crisis: Adventures in the Anime and Manga Trade.

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