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.

The Incredible Hulk pursued relentlessly by the US Army as he punches a tank shell and screams about being 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.

Philadelphia, a.k.a. my sister can’t be this beloved

You know, I just realized I never got around to posting my review of Oreimo. Well, enjoy.

The titular little sister Kirino leaning forward in the foreground while the older brother Kyousuke glares at her behind her back with his arms crossed

My biggest surprise in recent (read: 2014) anime discoveries has been Oreimo, a.k.a. My Little Sister Can’t Be This Cute. I had written it off as borderline wank material but my brother kept insisting I should try it out. And yes, there’s fanservice, but not the sexual kind (okay, there’s a gratuitous panty shot in the second episode).

The series is about a high school guy who discovers that his otherwise perfect overachiever of a sister is addicted to pornographic computer games, specifically the subgenre of incest porn where the male protagonists nail their younger sisters. He understandably freaks the fuck out, especially since his sister hates his guts. Then he discovers that his little sister is into the porn for its emotional content, which is to say that she’s enamoured of the idea of having a little sister of her own.

The series is one of the few anime that shows being into geek shit is actually not a mainstream thing in Japan. The fanservice, then, is in the show’s depiction of the little sister as the ideal otaku: well-adjusted, popular, and good-looking. Actually I can see that she’s more like the otaku’s ideal girlfriend, like an independent invention of that male nerd fantasy – the girl geek. And there’s even an episode where the sister defends her hobby to her judgmental father.

The fantasy of the series, the yearning that informs every episode, is the desire for acceptance. Well, there’s also the fantasy of a girl who appreciates the misunderstood target audience, which I will acknowledge as not a fantasy I care about. But once you can see what the series was going for then perhaps you might be able to appreciate the story for itself.

As always, your mileage may vary.

PS

I have since been informed that the anime takes a jarringly squicky turn near the end. Heads up for all you watchers out there. For now, I’ll stand by my recommendation, as being 80% good is still an A in most grading schemes.

Kung Fu Fighting

Goodness, what is this Dengeki Bunko: Fighting Climax? A 2D fighting game with modern anime characters, you say?

And it’s available in English on PSN? And there’s a sequel with even more characters?

Let’s see, in the original game there’s Celty and Shizuo from Durarara, Kirino from Oreimo (not a character you’d expect in a fighting game), Holo from Spice and Wolf, Alicia and Selvaria from Valkyria Chronicles (that was also an anime), Satan from The Devil is a Part-Timer . . . Boy, there’s a lot. Fighting game nerds say it’s more for anime nerds, but if I want hardcore I’ll fire up Tekken. This title looks like a pleasant game to relax to as I make cartoon girls assault each other.

The man behind Attack on Titan

Great interview with the Attack on Titan guy translated into English over here. Hajime Isayama sounds like a really cool dude to hang out with. He goes on about zombie flicks and Guillermo del Toro and stuff. It’s all interesting, but some interesting-er bits were that he’s a fan of Knights of Sidonia, was influenced by Muv-Luv Alternative (which was later spun off and adapted into the anime Total Eclipse and Schwarzesmarken), and modelled Captain Levi after Rorschach from Watchmen. I’m not into the manga, but now I’m looking forward even more to season 2 of the show.

Also, I gotta highlight this remark:

I thought it’d be awesome to actually be a battery for machines like in The Matrix.

What am I watching in Winter 2016?

I originally posted this over in the podcast group blog. I rather like having everything I write in one spot, so now I’m reposting it here. I picked two shows to talk about out of the assload that I’m currently watching.

Anakin Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi posing with lightsabers while clone troopers shoot their guns in the foreground.

Non-anime: Star Wars: The Clone Wars

Thanks to The Force Awakens and the damn Galaxy of Heroes mobile game that I got hooked into, I’ve grown interested in the only bit of modern Star Wars that I haven’t watched. These are actually two different series – one is a 2003 show animated in a more traditional style while the other is a 2008 CGI spectacle. The 2003 version was helmed by Genndy Tartakovsky, he of Samurai Jack fame, and it’s just as excellent as his previous work. It’s a largely wordless action show which reduces a massive interstellar civil war into a series of intense duels across different planets. In style it’s basically a samurai epic in space, which should be unsurprising considering what Samurai Jack was like. Both Samurai Jack and the anime Katanagatari felt very similar to me, probably because they both take a lot of their cues from the chanbara genre (i.e., samurai movies). So I must recommend the Tartakovsky Clone Wars as an action and a samurai fan. Plus it changes General Grievous from the ridiculous robot with emphysema that he was in Revenge of the Sith and turns him into a genuinely terrifying enemy.

The 2008 Clone Wars changes things up quite a bit. It explores a lot more of the titular conflict, but in style it’s much more of a kids’ show. General Grievous has become a cartoonish bad guy who keeps getting beaten by the heroes every week like the villain from an 80’s Saturday morning show. At points I half expected him to shout “I’ll get you next time, Gadget!” like Dr. Claw at the end of every episode of Inspector Gadget. This isn’t a criticism, just an observation, as I realize that this iteration has a different target audience than the previous one (being on Cartoon Network I assume the Tartakovsky show was aimed at hipster animation aficionados).

Anakin Skywalker’s apprentice Ahsoka is the spunky Young Adult heroine one would expect from this sort of bildungsroman, and while I’ve only just finished the first season I expect the rest of the show to build up to her becoming a full-fledged Jedi. But even as a kids’ show this series can get pretty dark and depicts actual characters dying, which I appreciate in that it doesn’t try to keep kids in a metaphorical hamster ball separated from the real world consequences of violence and conflict. Though there’s really quite a lot of fighting in this show. I mean, do people in Star Wars ever just watch Netflix and chill? I know what regular people on Star Trek do to relax, but I have very little idea what it’s like to not be a general or a mystic space knight on Star Wars.

Still, an interesting thing to ponder is that for most 21st century kids, this is their Star Wars. It’s not the original trilogy, it’s not even the prequels, it’s this CGI show that’ll be the first thing that comes to mind when the words “Star Wars” come up. It’s at least a lot better than the prequels, and it’s a pleasantly entertaining show to relax with, so I’m going to stick with my Star Wars viewing project. Possibly I’ll move on to Rebels once I finish.

Anime: Schwarzesmarken

This is just an enjoyably dumb show to bitch about if you’re into giant robots and military porn, which I am. I also have a fascination with both alternate history and the Warsaw Pact countries during the Cold War. The show is stupid but in a creatively-nourishing way – whenever I’m watching I’m either imagining German pop music playing in the background or mentally composing a rant about how remarkably off-base its understanding of history and international politics is. That’s when I’m not criticizing it for its right-wing politics and historical revisionism. God, this anime is shit. But I can’t stop watching it.

Yotsuba and the Slice of Life

More from that interview translation blog: Interview With Yotsuba Artist Kiyohiko Azuma.

I’d like to point out that the guy also did Azumanga Daioh, the slice-of-life series I like to describe as Seinfeld if it was about Japanese high school girls. I couldn’t get into the manga, probably because I had trouble telling the girls apart, but I didn’t have that problem with the anime.

What’s interesting about the slice-of-life genre is that it’s always a slice of fictional life, which is to say that it’s always about the heartwarming and positive aspects of ordinary life. The lives being sliced are those without sorrow or tragedy or money problems or heartbreak. It’s inherently escapist, which, of course, is one of the biggest reasons behind the genre’s appeal.

I’m reminded of something I read a long time ago comparing tha manga Azumanga Daioh and High School Girls. I don’t even remember which blog I read this on, but the blogger observed that one of the biggest things they found unrealistic about Azumanga Daioh was that the high school girls never talked about boys. In contrast, the girls of High School Girls constantly talked about boys, about their periods, their make-up, their teachers, their rival social cliques – which is to say that they talked about the kinds of things actual high school girls talk about. This is unsurprising considering that the author based the series on her own experiences in an all-girls high school.

I quite liked High School Girls and nearly drove myself crazy trying to find copies of the manga. As you might expect, a series where girls talk frankly about menstruation kind of had niche appeal ten years ago. The series was made into an anime and renamed in English as Girl’s High.  Things in the story were necessarily squished for the adaptation, which is why I consider the original manga to be superior, but at least the anime ending was charming and fun.

Yeah, I realize that the dancing is just rotoscoped actors, but I do like how the way each character dances directly links to their personality – the uptight girl does the frug (I think that’s what it’s called), the extrovert goes crazy with a guitar riff, and so on. And even better, all of the girls are endearingly awkward. It really does look like a bunch of teenage girls messing around instead of accomplished dance students displaying their skills. Plus the ending shows just how much effort the girls put into appearing cute – the make-up, the studied playfulness, the deliberate construction of their social fronts. It’s not Erving Goffman but it’s still something.

An interview with Tsutomu Nihei

Over here is a translated interview of Tsutomu Nihei, the author of Knights of Sidonia.  I find it interesting that he’s aware he needs to do more to make his work appeal to female readers. I dunno, dude, maybe make it less male gaze-y? Just change up the presentation and quit with the harem antics and fanservice.

It’s not like Sidonia’s subject matter or setting are alien to shoujo or to female readers. I mean, Please Save My Earth had psychic death battles and They Were Eleven began with a giant info-dump about fusion reactors and space empires – things that should be pleasantly familiar to old school grognards stuck in the sci-fi ghetto. (The latter also had transgender aliens reenacting And Then There Were None in space, but I digress.)

Though I do wish the interviewer had asked Nihei more about his science fiction influences. Which novels did mini-Nihei consume as he dreamed of writing his own science fiction? Still, it’s an interesting interview and even if you’ve never read the manga (like me) it still gives an interesting perspective on what made Knights of Sidonia.

This Ain’t the Left Hand of Darkness

You know, I like Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash. It’s about a bunch of amnesiac Japanese youths dropped into a fantasy world and forced to kill monsters to survive. Yeah, it’s like the hundredth variation on the “trapped in an RPG world” subgenre, except this one isn’t a power fantasy about the uber-l33t players replacing their pathetic offline lives with an awesome new virtual existence. No, this one actually examines what it would be like to have to kill another living being for the first time or lose a close companion or any one of a number of video game experiences that would be traumatic in real life. In other words, it treats the RPG world experience like a war movie.

I like the show, but it ain’t perfect. I’d say the worst thing about this anime is that every week I forget Ranta is an awful human being and every week he reminds me of that very fact. I’ve never liked fanservice – if I want porn I can get porn, anime studios – but I’d take a gratuitous shot of Yume’s naked asscrack every week (and holy shit was that ever gratuitous) over yet another tired line about how Ranta’s female teammates only have worth if he finds them sexually attractive. He could at least vary up his misogyny and insult women for having a different waist to hip ratio than men or having slightly higher pain thresholds or whatever. You know, really open up new horizons of animated sexism.

This is probably the thousandth time I’ve heard the joke that goes “you have small breasts, therefore you are worthless” on various anime series. Even if I thought that joke was funny, I certainly wouldn’t think so after hearing it repeated in one form or another since the 90’s – which is probably the last time someone laughed at that joke, by the way. You know, because it was already old and the person hearing it couldn’t believe someone was still using that joke.

I complain because I actually do like Grimgar. This Ranta thing is like a mouse turd in a bag of chocolate chips. I realize that the light novel author has mental health issues and might not be aware how jokes work (for instance, that they should be funny), but that doesn’t make this part of the show suck less.