Giant Robots and Why We Love Them

Originally posted by me on PodCastle in the Sky

A quick glance at the lineup of a typical anime season will reveal a large number of shows featuring giant robots. In the recent winter season alone we can count among giant robot anime the series Mobile Suit Gundam: Iron Blooded OrphansSchwarzesmarken, Macross Delta, and probably a bunch more I’ve overlooked. Point is, giant robot anime are like cockroaches and herpes – they keep coming back.

But what’s so great about giant robots? Yeah, I know, to ask the question is to answer it. Giant robots kick ass. I mean, have you seen Robot Jox?

Or Pacific Rim too, I guess.

Fine, but why giant robots? Why not, say, giant tanks, like in Heavy Object?

I think it ultimately comes down to power fantasies. A giant robot perfectly embodies the juvenile dream of invincible domination that a tank cannot. Realistically speaking, a tank is a better weapon. It’s smaller, so it’s harder to hit; it’s cheaper, since manufacturing tank treads is easier than a bipedal walking machine; and it’s safer, since it’s easier to knock over something on two legs than a machine that rides low to the ground. Tanks are pound for pound the deadlier weapon, yet they don’t feel that way.

Consider that riding in a tank is akin to being jammed into a broom closet. Who feels invincible when the walls are pressing in everywhere?

Michael Peña driving a tank in Fury

Even were they roomier, though, tanks are fundamentally more like a heavily-armoured house on wheels. It’s a place to hunker down and hide in. One feels safe by virtue of being enclosed.

Melinda of Heavy Object holed up in the perfect otaku bunker

Look at the image from Heavy Object above of a tank driver in her native environment. It looks like a shut-in’s dream room – no windows or doors and ample monitors to watch TV and surf the Internet. The outside world might as well be just another program on the computer screen. It’s a perfect metal womb to hide in.

Feeling safe, though,  is not the same as feeling powerful. By contrast, a mecha is more truly worn than ridden. It’s human shaped and therefore more of an extension of one’s self – like the perfect battle armour or a second skin, or a new metal body that replaces vulnerable flesh.

It’s also important to remember that the heroes in giant robot anime are all teenagers, even the ones who aren’t. The modern iteration of the giant robot subgenre tends toward the melodramatic and the angst-ridden (as opposed to the gleefully consumerist giant robot shows of the 70’s and 80’s). There’s usually a sense of persecution and oppression being unjustly visited on the protagonists, whether it’s the outcast mercenary troop of Mobile Suit Gundam: Iron-Blooded Orphans or the underdog defenders in Argevollen.

But who are the villains who bedevil our heroes so? The enemies are often generic imperialists who fight for poorly-articulated and nonsensical political objectives. They aren’t fighting for anything specific because ultimately their goals aren’t important to the narrative. They’re just there to be roadblocks, to harass and  obstruct the hero and provide them something to punch.

The enemies of giant robot anime are so generic as to be universal. Look at the nickname bestowed upon the protagonist of Valvrave: The Boy Who Fought the World. This says it all. The enemy of the giant robot anime is no one specific, but rather everyone. Parents, teachers, bullies, rivals, friends, classmates, adults – which is to say, the generic “they” that persecutes the suffering hero of the show – are all the bad guys. They’re who he’s fighting against.

The giant robot pilot is like the Incredible Hulk – he wields incredible power but is misunderstood by the world. In the end, Hulk, like a surly and emo teenager, just wants to be left alone.

And here we come to the ultimate answer. The giant robot anime is the perfect teenage fantasy, for it’s a metaphor for the teenage condition: an innocent hero is possessed of unwanted new abilities which cause him to be unfairly beset on all sides by powers desperate to control or crush him.

This is the secret of why giant robot anime is so eternally alluring. Even adults who have their shit together will still occasionally feel like the world is picking on them for no good reason, and wouldn’t it be great if you had a magic wand that could make everything disappear? That could stop the world from pissing on you for just one damn second?

Why do we love giant robots? Because we all wish we had one of our own.

Senpai notices Edmonton

Well, more like senpai notices other senpai blew up Edmonton.

Meanwhile, Rest of Canada argues over which city is Best Girl. Thank you, Grauniad, for your Guardian Canada week focusing on cities and topics across the country.

For increased amusement, check out the comments on the Toronto article, where Canadians alternatively defend and attack the T Dot whilst simultaneously claiming they don’t care if foreigners think Toronto is a world-class city.

Although having said that, I must admit I’ve been obsessively reading each piece in the series. What can I say? I also obsess over what the world thinks of Canada.

Spies in the night

I love spy stories. I especially love ones that are based on real events. That’s why I was fascinated by this news article about the only known Soviet agent to have infiltrated the CIA. The entire thing is a great read, but I especially liked this part:

In a psychological evaluation from that year, [the Czech intelligence service] described Koecher as “over-confident, hypersensitive, hostile towards people, money driven, showing a strong inclination to instability, emotionally unstable, possessing an anti-social almost psychopathic personality, touchy, intolerant of authoritarianism”.

In other words, just the man for the job.

Samurai Jack and Jill

Recently I saw A Boy and His Samurai, a Japanese movie about a samurai who inadvertently time travels to the present day. Don’t ask how, you didn’t really care how the thingy worked in Big or Freaky Friday, did you? In fact, structurally it’s a lot like Big, with the magic at the start, the funny stuff early on followed by the serious adult stuff, then the magic again to wrap things up.

So it’s a comedy-drama – the samurai gets taken in by a single mother and swears fealty to her as her feudal retainer, then as time goes on he becomes an up and coming pastry chef. There are the expected fish out of water jokes, but the movie’s also a thoughtful examination of class and gender in the 21st century, particularly how modern society is still structured around the nuclear family while steadily breaking down the systems that produce nuclear families. The film’s not a didactic women’s studies manifesto, but it does illustrate exactly how tough it is to be a single parent and how gender and class expectations tie into that difficulty, all wrapped up with a sweet story about a boy finding a surrogate father.

The Devil went down to Los Angeles

So Lucifer is actually good. Yes, I’m surprised as much as anyone. The Devil quitting hell to run a nightclub and solve crimes in LA is inherently dumb as a premise, but so deliciously stupid it’s brilliant. I can’t even find a trailer representative of the show, as every official one makes it seem blander and more formulaic than it is. I’m just going to stick the opening scene here instead:

Watching the show is a guilty pleasure, like back when True Blood or Sleepy Hollow were good. It’s based on the Vertigo comic book series, but very, very loosely. For one thing, the Lucifer on the comic book was a big ole sourpuss, whereas the TV one is delightfully hedonistic. The show appreciates its dumbness and just runs with it. The ridiculousness is the point. I’m glad that the show was renewed for a second season and look forward to folding many loads of laundry while watching it.

Also the theme song is pretty rad, but here’s one of the official trailers if you insist on seeing it:

Science: School is for losers

Most amusing, Guardian. This is a rather droll observation:

It’s uncertain whether universities are delivering on their core purpose. One recent study tracked thousands of students during their time at university. It uncovered a rather disturbing picture: after two years at university, 45% of the students showed no significant improvement in their cognitive skills. After four years, 36% of students had not improved in their ability to think and analyse problems. In some courses – such as business administration – students’ cognitive abilities actually declined in the first few years.

Note the last bit about MBAs. Scientific evidence proves it makes people dumber!