What the Hey is Up with Heybot, Hebo?

If you've spent any time on Twitter over the last two seasons, you've certainly heard of one kids' anime whispered in hushed tones: "Heybot". Despite one or two long-running kids' series being licensed by Crunchyroll per year, few break into mainstream consciousness. Why and how has Heybot risen to prominence, and what cruel fate would allow such a thing to exist?

It's a bit of an open secret that kids' anime is where the real innovation is. Without having to pander to the strict tastes of a conservative otaku market, animators are able to take risks and experiment. Ikuhara and Junichi Sato guided the direction of Sailor Moon, Hosoda worked on Ashita no Nadja, and Rie Matsumoto began her career with PreCure. Even when not dealing directly with auteur-tier directors, series like Jewelpet surprise with inventive senses of humor, and cult favorite Tribe Cool Crew featured some inventive uses of CG and even stop-motion animation.

This brings us to Heybot. A shameless commercial for the Heybot toy, it's collect-em-all plastic screws, and tie-in junk food imochin, Heybot surprises and astounds by being one of the most outrageous and surreal kids animated series Japan has presented. Stranger series exist, for certain, but none with the added transgressiveness of knowing elementary school boys are watching this before school. It has the 90's Nickelodeon vibe of Ren and Stimpy or Rocko's Modern Life, with grossout gags and references to 80's and 90's pop culture staples like Die Hard, Silence of the Lambs, Misery, The Shining, and other movies little Japanese kids should not have seen. Who exactly is this for?

The story follows one Prince Nejiru, of Neji island (neji means screw) who has a, frankly, sexual obsession with screws. He is sent out by his father to seek his fortune, and comes across a type of robot called a Vocabot who's boneheaded (hebo) and who farts (he) a lot. He names this companion Hebo-t. Nejiru collects screws from all over the island, and when they are screwed into Heybot's head, gag songs filled with bad Japanese puns are played. Each episode ends with a climactic battle where Nejiru and an opponent compete to create the ultimate gag song to impress a giant Screw Deity.

None of this will make the least bit of sense to a non Japanese viewer, and my desire to import a Japanese Heybot toy has been tempered by the fact that the gags and specific rules of the game go completely over my head. But no matter: Unlike most shonen competition series, Heybot isn't concerned with playing by the rules. It presents Nejiru and Heybot as goof offs if not actively evil, constantly tries to replace them with better protagonists, and one episode, doubling as a holiday commercial, has a smaller toy version of Heybot try and murder the series' namesake.

The supporting cast is similarly deranged. There's Heybot's love interest, VoCammy (voiced by Satomi Arai) a pink Vocabot with a humanoid suit who regularly tries to kidnap Heybot. There are the VocaReemans, a trio of loser bots, one who continuously vomits, another who continuously sleeps, and one who continuously complains on Twitter. There's DJ Sarukky, a hip hop gorilla (from Detroit!) who dances to a beat sample that plays whenever he's on screen. A personal favorite is ghost girl Yuuko, clearly inspired by Sadako of the Ring, who shows up making absurd gags and puns.

Even with a brief plot synopsis, one isn't sure what will happen in a given Heybot episode. It has the attention span and anti-humor ambitions of a Tim and Eric production. Nejiru and a female version of Heybot star in an infomercial- then there will be a line from Die Hard, "Now I have a machine gun" spoken in English. Five minutes later there's a visual gag with Bruce Willis. One episode features ghost girl Yuuko responding to all plot developments with, "Yeah, I like it." Another of Heybot's human forms pursues a pig serial killer who talks in code. We're introduced to a girl named Memiko who discovers her best friend is an alien. Five episodes later she's spouting "Cool Japan" slogans to a flustered lizard-man version of Haruki Murakami. Finally, Heybot will fart in someone's face. It's there to frustrate and bewilder, like a preschool Un Chien Andalou. Even Nejiru admits, "This show tends to go on tangents."

And yet the more you watch, the more you can see all of the absurd plot threads have an internal logic. All of the throwaway gags keep building on each other, as though there's some kind of meaning behind it all. Heybot will repel a lot of people, because it actively tries to gross you out. But those of us who keep returning week after week do so because with Heybot, we've found a project with staff that is allowed to keep experimenting with crazier and crazier ideas. It'll be great to see where this all leads.


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