I. Background and roots
Like many other cultures, the Japanese people have viewed the supernatural power of transformation as part of their heritage for centuries. The Japanese word bakemono
, or obake
) translates as "something that changes" and is used to descibe a type of mythological spirit, goblin or demon that can change its shape from one thing to another. A particularly interesting type of obake
is the tsukumogami
("spirit of past 99"), which is an inanimate object of some kind that, upon reaching 100 years of age, is possessed by a spirit that can transform it into a goblin form. There are tsukumogami
that transform from umbrellas, paper lanterns, shoes and even toys. So the concept of an inanimate object or tool transforming into a living creature is an old, old concept in Japan.
Statue of a Japanese obake kasa
, or umbrella goblin.
Jumping forward to the mid-1880s, there were complicated clockwork toys and mannequins made in Japan that were designed to look like people and emulate simple tasks like serving tea or firing a bow and arrow. Thus, when the term "robot" was first coined in 1921 in Karel Capek's stage play R.U.R.
(Rossum's Universal Robots
), the idea of mechanically-created humanoids was already a familiar concept in Japan, as in many other countries where such creations had been around for many years.
First use of the word "robot" on the Czech playbill for R.U.R.
Possibly the first "robot in disguise" ever depicted in popular media was Maria the robot, seen in Fritz Lang's 1927 silent film masterpiece Metropolis
. The metallic female robot is diguised to look like the human woman Maria, who is a proponent of the downtrodden workers who slave away under a futuristic city. Thus, when the human Maria is replaced by her evil robot double, the robot Maria becomes the first "pretender" in robot history.
^ The transformation of the robot double of Maria
As the robot grew in popularity, many different types were introduced in science-fiction novels and magazines of the 1930s. The image of the giant humanoid robot soon become commonplace on sci-fi pulp magazine covers, and carried over quickly into the new medium of superhero comic books and cartoons.
Cover art from the 1935 issue of the Amazing Stories
sci-fi pulp magazine. Almost an Autobot, but not quite...
Pulp magazine illustration of giant robot, ca 1939
"The Metal Monsters" episode of the 1940 Superman cartoon