The giant robot returns! New screening revives beloved hero
The hit series drew huge lines at theaters in Jongno when the first animated episode was released in July 1976. In Seoul alone, 280,000 people ― which was a lot back then ― saw the first film, inspiring a generation of children to sign up for taekwondo schools. Some kids even believed that the National Assembly building had a domed roof because Robot Taekwon V was kept there, while others said he was hidden under the Han River.
“I remember going to the theater at 9:00 in the morning and staying until 6:00 p.m., watching the film over and over again,” said Kim Mun-seong, 36, a car salesman. “He was a charismatic character that brought a sense of pride to Korean children of that time.”
The old hero stepped into the spotlight again recently when the first episode was shown at the Pusan International Film Festival last month, drawing curious youngsters and reminiscing adults alike.
Why the sudden fuss about an old cartoon? The screening celebrated the restoration of a newly discovered Korean negative of the first episode. It was thought that the only surviving negative had been sold to an American company for use as a home video in the late 1970’s.
At a recent interview with the JoongAng Daily, director Kim Cheong-gi said, “I didn’t realize the value of my work at that time. After it was viewed by Koreans, I thought it was time to sell it overseas.”
Mr. Kim’s big mistake, however, was giving the original negative, rather than a copy, to the buyer.
“It cost too much money to make another negative at that time.”
Years later, when people started labeling Robot Taekwon V as a milestone in Korean animation, Mr. Kim wanted to bring back what he sold. But it would cost almost as much as importing a new film to the country. Mr. Kim, who despite his fame, was not lucky with money-making, couldn’t afford to import the film.
“Hi, I’m calling from the Korean Film Council, and we found a copied negative of your masterpiece ‘Robot Taekwon V,’ first episode in our warehouse!”
Mr. Kim immediately went to the office and saw it himself. It was a torn, worn and scratched roll of his work.
“I felt like I found a lost child,” he said.
Until that call, he feared that Robot Taekwon V would just become a myth in Korea. But the work was refurbished by the Film Council at a cost of 1 billion won ($1 million), sponsored by the Ministry of Culture. On the day of the screening at the Pusan International Film Festival, many people in their 30’s and 40’s as well as little children gathered in anticipation.
“The theme song of Taekwon V is so powerful. It always presses something in my heart,” said a 34-year-old man at the festival.
Indeed, it was an ambitious work for Mr. Kim, who says he wanted to be a Korean Walt Disney.
“At that time, typical Korean cartoons required about 12,000 pictures, but I used 38,000 pictures for Robot Taekwon V, to make it smoother,” said Mr. Kim. However, such ambition left him bankrupt, as ticket sales did not offset his investment. But Mr. Kim says he would not make artistic compromises. “I get picky with work,” he said.
“To make the taekwondo moves more realistic, I filmed real taekwondo fighters and then used the ‘rotoscoping’ method to draw the animation,” said Mr. Kim.
Despite its high quality, Robot Taekwon V did face some scrutiny, often being compared with the Japanese fighter robot, Mazinger Z, which was popular right before the birth of Taekwon V.
“A lot of people were questioning whether it was a generic version of Mazinger Z. It is true that I decided to make a giant robot character after seeing Mazinger Z. People might find the two robots similar. They both are giant fighter robots. But when I was designing Robot Taekwon V, my biggest concern was how to make it different from Mazinger,” said Mr. Kim.
“I designed Taekwon V based on the looks of Admiral Yi Sun-shin,” the historic warrior of the Joseon Dynasty. “Taekwon V is wearing a helmet like him. The two horns on his head were designed after the Korean mythological Dokkebi (goblins). Also, the robot uses taekwondo skills to fight the enemy. These things are clearly original, and all Korean,” he said.
Others criticized his work as “anti-communist propaganda,” because the main characters fight against the “red empire.”
“The government was not involved in my project, but I subconsciously colored the bad guys ‘red,’ as the social atmosphere was very much anti-communist at that time. I think my work was just reflecting part of society. I don’t see anything wrong with it,” he said.
The restored Robot Taekwon V will be released in theaters next summer around vacation time, as the public response to the Pusan screening was quite enthusiastic.
“It is amazing how much digital technology can do,” Mr. Kim commented on the quality of the restored film.
Now, Mr. Kim himself is tackling 3-D computer animation with his new animation project “The Great Emperor.” It is about the heroic Korean “King Gwanggaeto,” who lived during the Goguryeo dynasty. This animation is planned to be finished in 2007 and has the backing of a major U.S. investor, who is putting 14 billion won ($14 million) into the project.
“It is going to be a very large-scale animation, which will have elaborate battle scenes like ‘The Lord of the Rings,’” said Mr. Kim. “With digital technology, ideas easily become the scenes. In the analog era, despite so many brilliant ideas, there were limits to making them visible. Now, It is really a matter of ideas.”
But Mr. Kim says that people will miss the analog era one day. “Anything that is too common becomes cheap. People who are tired of digital creations will miss the ‘human smell.’ I think analog and digital will take turns in the future,” he said.
For Mr. Kim, the biggest change in the process of making the new animation is that he is no longer the absolute creator of the characters.
“I used to design all the characters by myself. From drawing to coloring, they needed my own hands. Now, with this new digital blockbuster project, I can’t design everything on my own. We hire a design company and many people work together to make a character that will have universal appeal.”
by Choi Sun-young