What Sarina Bolden and Voltes V have in common
From one group of heroes with foreign surnames to another.
IT WAS A DECIDELY LOW-RENT SETTING— the “multi-purpose” basketball gym, the taped plastic tarpaulins, the moderator of the panel not even bothering to wear long pants — so you'd never guess it’d be the venue for one of the most fascinating and instructive interviews you could ever watch on Pinoy pop culture. It was 2020, just before the pandemic, and Joonee Gamboa, the longtime actor of stage and film, appeared on a panel at the Malolos Toys and Hobbies Convention (Malcon)1 to talk about his role as a voice actor on Voltes V, the Japanese anime that captured the imagination of young Filipinos in the late ‘70s.
The veteran thespian was recruited, along with other theater regulars, for the gig by their comrade Noel Mallonga,2 who was in charge of recording English language audio suitable for Pinoy kids.
Joonee had played three parts in the original series: Dr. Smith, the first mentor of the Voltes team; Dr. Hook, who would replace Dr. Smith as the man in the chair for the group; and the villainous Duke Zaki.
During his Malcon panel,3 Joonee was asked to recite lines from his original English recordings of Voltes V.
“This is no longer a practice, get all missiles before they strike our camp. Prepare to launch immediately!” the actor boomed in an American accent, before explaining how he was picked to portray the venerable Dr. Smith because his voice, even then, had a grizzled, authoritative quality.4
Next, Joonee was asked to read a line by Duke Zaki, a minor villain that appears later in the series. For his reading, the actor affected an accent that he described as a cross between French and German. “In fact, you have been appointed by the emperor to spy on Prince Zardoz on zis mission. He hoped Prince Zardoz will meet his death on earth,” the traitorous Zaki told Zuul.
In the panel, Jonee revealed it was his choice to give the character an odd accent, figuring someone from out of this world deserved an out-of-this-world affectation too. He chose the European flavor after taking a look at the duke’s regal get-up.
VOLTES V WAS A SURPRISE HIT ON PHILIPPINE TELEVISION, in large part because it was never a huge hit anywhere else, least of all in its native Japan. It was part of a group of anime series nicknamed the Robot Romance Trilogy, along with other titles Combattler V and Daimos, which also became a hit in the Philippines.
The Robot Romance Trilogy shows are just some of the dozens of entries in the genre of the Super Robot5 — giant machines that would transform to fight invading monsters, usually aliens, under the control of youthful heroes.
The big kahuna of super robots was Mazinger Z. While some older Filipino fans would remember that series as the precursor to Voltes V, it was actually the seminal manga and anime that would launch dozens of imitators.
In “Loving the Machine: The Art and Science of Japanese Robots,” author Timothy N. Hornyak wrote that the popularity of Mazinger Z spawned numerous imitations — “by the mid-1980s, over 40 different giant robot shows had appeared” — with many of the series being thinly-disguised advertising for toy lines. He mentions several notable copycats, like Brave Raideen, Combattler V, and Dangard Ace.
The absence of Voltes V from that list becomes immediately conspicuous to any Filipino reader. But looking at the artwork of Combattler V, it quickly become apparent why Voltes V wouldn’t even merit a mention. It’s heartbreaking, but placed in historical context and viewed side-by-side with its direct predecessor, what was a seminal series to many generations of Filipinos suddenly seems like a copycat of a copycat.
Hornyak quotes anime critic Fred Patten’s observation that the anime plots of these series are “metaphors for refighting World War II to defend Japan (and Japanese cultural traditions) against the invading armies of Western social influences. So while Voltes V was apparently not significant enough to warrant a mention in Hornyak’s book, it doesn’t take much therapy to see how it conforms to Patten’s observation about the WWII metaphor.
Voltes V, in its original incarnation, featured a team of Japanese heroes defending the Pacific theater against electromagnetic monsters sent by invaders led by an evil blonde prince. The only way it could have been more on the nose would be if Zuul had been named Oppenheimer.
But of course, Japanese psychosocial theater wouldn’t exactly play well with young Filipino audiences, so tweaks to the anime were in order. That was how the Goh brothers became the Armstrong trio: Kenichi turned into Steve, Daijiro into Big Bert, and Hiyoshi into Little John. The lethal ninja Megumi Oka turned into Jamie Robinson, the enigmatic rodeo champion Ippei Mine into Mark Gordon. Even the blonde bastard prince went from being the Aryan-sounding Heinel to being Zardoz, which sounds vaguely Spanish.
Now it was Filipino psychosocial theater on display. Imagine they could have turned their heroes into anything, and they turned them into… Americans.6
But the Filipino production and the voice actors like Joonee Gamboa somehow made it work. From the start, the series had a magical bond with the Filipino audience. By now, its story is the stuff of legend: the series was such a hit on GMA-7 before it was abruptly taken off air, supposedly because censors within the Marcos dictatorship deemed the series too violent for children. Conspiracy theorists have held that it was canceled because of revolutionary overtones, but cast members seem to believe the reason wasn’t quite so complicated: Voltes V’s high ratings were supposedly too high for rival networks controlled by Marcos cronies, who asked for it to be stricken off the air.
But it obviously stayed in the consciousness of Filipinos long after its original broadcast. Voltes V would later air with Tagalog dubs, and would become weekend morning staples for generations upon generations of young Filipino viewers. In the ‘90s, GMA-7 even tried airing it on prime time television as counterprogramming. Not bad for what was once a copycat of a copycat.
The network, of course, would later embark on an ambitious project to turn the anime into a live action series. Skeptics were doubtful about whether a Philippine TV station would be able to pull it off, and when the graphics looked great, many online pundits attributed it to the work of Japanese producers. Except they were wrong: it was talented Filipino animators who lovingly crafted the imagery in tribute to the series they’ve loved since they were kids. The volt in sequence would give the chills to anyone who grew up watching the anime. Truth is, only Pinoy artists working under a Pinoy company could have pulled it off because no one else in the world cared as much about the project or the property.
Of course, adapting the series to live action also meant that the characters would be played by local actors. For better or worse, Steve, Big Bert, Little John, Mark, and Jamie — despite their surnames (or alien lineage) — were now finally Filipino.
Which is how it should be. Like the robot for which it is named, the series may have had alien origins, but it was always the Filipino bits that made Voltes V special.
Midjourney: “A young black Filipino girl with short curly hair playing soccer against a Japanese super robot in the style of '70s anime”
LAST MONTH, ANOTHER GROUP OF HEROES WITH FOREIGN SURNAMES made headlines, when the Philippine women’s national football team defeated host New Zealand at the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup. It was the first victory for the country —men or women — at the highest level of football competition in the world.
Fittingly, it was Sarina Bolden who scored the first-ever goal for the Philippines in the World Cup. After all, it was a penalty kick from the talismanic striker against Chinese Taipei that punched the country’s ticket to the World Cup last year. Beyond that, she has been the team’s vocal leader on and off the pitch.
After the game, Sarina would deflect a lot of the credit to her teammates. “I’m really happy and proud that I could do that for Philippine soccer, and it doesn’t happen because of me. It happens (because of) this whole team. My teammates, staff, the admin.”
The composition of that team was the subject of much interest. In my post about the women’s squad last month, published on July 18, I had noted that there had already been a well-established pipeline for members of the Filipino diaspora to represent the country: “For more than a decade now, the people working with the women’s team have been building bridges to allow women footballers from around the world to suit up.”
This year’s edition of the Women’s World Cup had unprecedented media interest, a testament to the growth of the sport, and that spotlight found the Philippine team even before their historic feat. On July 20, Yahoo! Sports published an in-depth report by Henry Bushnell called “The making of America’s other Women’s World Cup team: The Philippines.”7
It was an excellent piece with an unfortunate title, because it reported in fabulous detail the painstaking work that went into building the pipeline that connected football players of Filipino lineage to the women’s national football team. It brought into the forefront the sacrifice of everyone involved, from supporters to officials to players, to make it happen — this wasn’t some instant overnight team.
Even before their match against New Zealand, head coach Alen Stajcic was already pushing back against any criticism about the team’s composition. “If they have Philippines in their heart and in their blood, and they’re good at football, then they’re eligible for our team. They all play for their flag, they all play for their country, they all play for the people in the Philippines, wherever they reside.”
That didn’t stop the reactionary takes about the team of “imported players” even after their big win. One reader wrote in a letter to the editor of SunStar: “If you represent a country, you should at least have been born there. If not, you should have lived in that country for a minimum of five years, enough to have learned a little bit of the language and the local culture. Also, it would help to have a familiar-sounding last name.” To be fair, the reader Leah Coronel cast a wide net, saying beauty queens with foreign sounding names such as Pia Wurtzbach and Catriona Gray shouldn’t have represented the Philippines either, saying “it’s very misleading to the rest of the world who might now think that all Filipinas look like” those Miss Universe titleholders.
Leah Coronel may have been more militant than most, but hers is a common sentiment among many Filipinos.
It doesn’t help that for the longest time, there would always be pushback against Filipinos taking ownership and making space for ourselves. It dates back to our colonial history and affects the way we look at the world even today.
True, there are always the people who would comment “Proud to be Pinoy!” whenever there’s someone with even a smidgen of Filipino blood on the world stage. But honestly, you’re just as likely to encounter obnoxious posts like, “Proud to be Pinoy comments in 3, 2, 1…” preemptively mocking those who would even think to comment something about their perceived kabayan, like How dare you claim this for the Philippines, who do you think you are? Like we don’t deserve things and that we should know our place.
But then, why couldn’t we claim things for the Philippines? Lord knows throughout our history, foreigners have been claiming what is ours to be theirs, leaving our forebearers disadvantaged and marginalized, often in systemic ways that still affect many of us today.
Why does everything have to be foreign, and only foreign, by default, like the Voltes V Armstrong brothers? It’s not like we’d be claiming anything we don’t deserve. Take Sarina Bolden. Yes, she wouldn’t have been as good a footballer if she hadn’t been American. But there are thousands of very good footballers from California, where soccer is the No. 1 youth sport among girls. If she’d never played for us, Sarina Bolden would never have become a World Cup legend. Like Voltes V, her origins might be alien, but it’s the Filipino bits that made her special, transforming her from just another player into an icon whose name is forever etched in the annnals of football history.
Sports always tends to bring up matters of race, citizenship, and lineage. The discussion is always fraught, but the Philippines is hardly alone in dealing with these issues. The emergence of hafu athletes like Rui Hachimura and Naomi Osaka have forced Japan to confront its silent xenophobia. Discussions about France’s immigration policy, diversity, and even its colonist past always come up whenever there are big sporting competitions, complete with ignorant trolling and thoughtful athlete responses.
If it feels like we’ve been having this same conversation about race in Philippine sports, it’s because we have. And that’s a good thing, because all those conversations have helped many fans mature and understand what goes behind the composition of the teams.
It may not seem like it, but honestly, I think it’s part of the reason why the Philippine women’s national football team hasn’t gotten as much shit as other teams have in the past — from the Fil-Ams in the PBA to the Europeans on the Azkals.
I was running the original incarnation of FireQuinito.com when the Azkals emerged on the scene in 2011. The late Ronnie Nathanielsz, the former Marcos propagandist turned sports executive, once wrote a stunningly ignorant column using the success of the national men’s football team to take shots at Filipino-Americans:
The other key factor, we believe, is the character of the players who are mostly from Europe and have imbibed a different culture from the Filipino-Americans who demonstrate their skill in the PBA. ... In a British educational system which brothers Philip and James Younghusband and Chris Greatwich surely enjoyed, they teach young men to first and foremost be gentlemen.
In America, from what we know, the accent is on how to get ahead and do well financially. Nothing intrinsically wrong with that except that the difference is eventually palpable and being suddenly exposed to Fil-Europeans ... our fans have warmed to the difference.
That earned a lengthy rebuke from Rafe Bartholomew, which I published on the blog in 2011. In his post, Rafe had a prescient line:
Perceptions change over time, and the media, in constant search of storylines, can turn on athletes, especially those born or raised outside of the Philippines.
Indeed, the public’s honeymoon with the Azkals didn’t last too long. The very next year, the team was caught in a firestorm after former Philippine Olympic Committee chief Christy Ramos accused a couple of members of the team of harassment. That led to controversial comments from GMA News anchor Arnold Clavio on “Unang Hirit” calling the Azkals fake Filipinos who were only pretending to be brown.
There were many, many takes on the issue, most of them terrible. I was working for the website InterAksyon.com at the time, where we decided to take the crisis as an opportunity for a series of discussion pieces asking, “What’s a Filipino?”
The very best of those pieces came courtesy of Alex Compton, the American former basketball player and coach. I remember sitting down with him for coffee before a PBA game, and the conversation was so insightful I decided to turn the interview into a piece.
ARNOLD CLAVIO’S STATEMENTS MAY NOT BE APPROPRIATE but they’re common sentiments. The issue of Filipino identity is an argument with many different sides; hindi ito black-and-white, multi-faceted tayo dito eh. It depends on how you turn it, you’re gonna see a lot of different angles, and there’s legitimacy to many of the arguments.
Sa akin, one of the things I believe for many of the Fil-Ams coming here, I would hope that they’d be humble, accept their blessing and understand that it’s a blessing, and treat people with respect. Even if you’re part-whatever, dapat lang may respeto. It’s just basic human dignity, that people treat each other with respect.
And I would hope, for a lot of Fil-Ams coming over, they would slowly — or quickly, I guess, depending on the person — learn about Filipino culture, understanding the nation, understand concepts like “sama ng loob,” “utang na loob,” intricacies like delicadeza, things that you don’t initially get because they’re not in the culture you’re originally coming from.
On the flipside, overseas Filipino workers are heroes in so many ways. I can’t tell you how many friends have studied because Tita, who’s in the U.S., put them through school, or Tito, who’s been in Saudi for ten years, built this house — and he doesn’t really want to be in Saudi, but he wants to provide for his family. And how many billions of dollars are generated from OFWs who are trying to help their countrymen?
Now their kids, sino ba sila? When they’re in the U.S., they call these kids Filipino, but in the Philippines, they’re called American. They’d be like, “I’m not anything, anywhere. The law says I’m Filipino, and the law says I’m also American. But you’re always looking at the negative side.”
I do hope things never take a sour turn for Sarina Bolden and the heroes of the Philippine women’s national football team. And I do hope that they have the opportunity to take the prescription of Alex Compton for foreign-born Filipinos.
But if things ever do take a downturn for the Filipinas, I am hopeful that we would be able to handle the conversation with more nuance and thought than we have in the past.
In 2022, the convention hawould move to a mall that at least had airconditioning.
Mallonga also was the original voice of “Big” Bert Armstrong on Voltes V, along with credits for work in English and Tagalog for many of your favorite Japanese imports.
Joonee’s Dr. Smith sounds exactly like his Dr. Hook. Which probably explains why the Voltes team accepted their new mentor so quickly, given how he sounded exactly like their old boss.
The Super Robot genre stands in contrast to the Real Robot genre, which features human heroes using robots as tools or weapons in their adventures. The series “Mobile Suit Gundam” is considered the pioneer of this genre.
Voltes V is widely available online. It’s on YouTube with a Tagalog dub, and it’s also on the American streaming service Peacock, which does not include English audio, only subtitles. I’m not sure about this, but it’s quite possible that the series was only ever dubbed in English by Filipinos.
Aside from the Yahoo! Sports piece, there were also local news items about Philippine players Olivia and Chandler McDaniel, Ryley Bugay, and Reina Bonta prior to the World Cup kicking off. More than a week after Bushnell’s article, on July 28, the BBC published its take on the story suspiciously titled “The other American women's team at World Cup,” which kind of read like copied homework. But by then the Philippines had scored its historic victory, and outlets around the world wanted a piece of the Filipinas: the Los Angeles Times published a piece on Latinas on the Philippine team, while SFGate published a short feature on Sarina Bolden, a Bay Area native.