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.

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.

After the war

I saw that Force Awakens movie a while ago.  I don’t know if anyone has made this observation yet, but I thought Kylo Ren was basically the personification of the whole movie: he’s a reiteration of an original product that’s neurotically obsessed with whether he’s as good as the example he’s copied from.

He’s good enough, which is kind of my feeling on the movie as a whole. I thought it was decently entertaining, though it’s kind of interesting to see the Marvel blockbuster formula being used for something other than superheroes.

As you know . . .

Ah, classic sci-fi, is there no situation where you can’t figure out a clumsy way to shoehorn in an exposition dump? So many world-building ideas shoved into dialogue and description that stand out for their awkward placement. As can be seen in this little satire:

If all stories were written like science fiction stories

. . . “Do you think we’ll be flying on a propeller plane? Or one of the newer jets?” asked Ann.

“I’m sure it will be a jet,” said Roger. “Propeller planes are almost entirely out of date, after all. On the other hand, rocket engines are still experimental. It’s said that when they’re in general use, trips like this will take an hour at most. This one will take up to four hours.”

After a short wait, they were ushered onto the plane with the other passengers. The plane was an enormous steel cylinder at least a hundred meters long, with sleek backswept wings on which four jet engines were mounted. They glanced into the front cabin and saw the two pilots, consulting a bank of equipment needed the fly the plane. Roger was glad that he did not need to fly the plane himself; it was a difficult profession which required years of training . . .

“There are more people going to San Francisco today than I would have expected,” he remarked.

“Some of them may in fact be going elsewhere,” she answered. “As you know, it’s expensive to provide airplane links between all possible locations. We employ a hub system, and people from smaller cities travel first to the hub, and then to their final destination. Fortunately, you found us a flight that takes us straight to San Francisco.”

 

Future Imperfect

I love point-and-click adventure games. I love walking around their worlds and clicking “look” on each piece of background scenery, I love talking to every character I come across, and I even love obtuse inventory puzzles that leave me wondering how the hell a rubber ducky is supposed to help me get on a subway train. This is not a rational love but one born from the nostalgia of a person who played a lot of Sierra adventure games as a kid.

But art does not exist in a vacuum. Audiences always bring their prior experiences with them when encountering a text. Keeping in mind my partiality toward its genre, I must say this: I like Technobabylon.

Said the cyborg bouncer with the mohawk:

Part police procedural, part conspiracy thriller, and wholly a sci-fi cyberpunk journey through a decadent city of sorrow and sin, Technobabylon is a pleasant return to the old adventure and puzzle gaming formula. You play as three main characters: a curmudgeonly police detective hostile to the newfangled AI that governs his city (like a white Bill Cosby, minus the rape), his younger and more enthusiastic post-op (actually post-genetic-engineering) female-to-male partner who’s down with the hacking and the tweeting and the bipping and the bopping, and an unemployed shut-in on welfare addicted to the Internet who subsists on protein sludge extruded from her shitty apartment’s food machine. Also there’s a murderous plot which could lead all the way to the top. Continue reading “Future Imperfect”

The Golden Age

Haha, this is nuts. I had no idea mental illness played such a part in the development of science fiction:

In 1950 Horace (H.L.) Gold launched the last of the Golden Age pulps, Galaxy Science Fiction, with the deliberate intention of de-emphasizing technology and concentrating on serious sociological and psychological stories. Unfortunately Gold also suffered from severe agoraphobia, and many writers quickly realized that they could sell to Galaxy by writing fiction that catered to Gold’s illness, hence the large number of “domed city,” “underground city,” and “the whole world is just one big city” stories that dominated printed science fiction well into the 1970s.

Shadows of the black empire

Junot Díaz on the relationship between minorities and science fiction:

Look. Without our stories, without the true nature and reality of who we are as people of color, nothing about fanboy and fangirl culture makes sense. What I mean by that is, if it wasn’t for race, X-Men doesn’t make sense; if it wasn’t for the history of breeding human beings through chattel slavery, Dune doesn’t make sense; if it wasn’t for the history of colonialism and imperialism, Star Wars doesn’t make sense; if it wasn’t for the extermination of so many indigenous nations, most of what we call “first contact” stories don’t make sense. Without us as the secret sauce, none of this works, and it is about time that we understand that we are the Force that holds the Star Wars universe together. We’re the Prime Directive that makes Star Trek possible. We are… in the Green Lantern Corps? We are the Oath. We are all of those things. Erased, and yet without us? We’re essential.

That’s some good stuff. Maybe I should finally finish The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.

Four ways to forgiveness

There’s no two ways about this: Spirit Circle is a damn good manga. Unfortunately, it’s rather hard to discover this for yourself, as all the synopses I’ve read make it sound incoherent or unremarkable. Take this one, for example:

Fuuta Okeya is a normal 14-year-old boy, except for the fact that he has the ability to see ghosts. A cute girl transfers into his class one day, but acts particularly aggressive towards him. This girl called Kouko Ishigami is followed around by a ghost called East. Fuuta tries to get along with her but ends up failing after she sees the birthmark he usually keeps covered. She then declares him as her enemy, his birthmark as a cursed brand and claims they have a long history, while talking about reincarnation. Who is this girl and how are they connected?

“Oh, it’s another high school story,” you might think. “Is it like Bleach? I’m guessing from the art it’s a comedy-romance and the reincarnation angle is the only unique thing about it. Oh well, high school comedy-romances are a dime a dozen.”

A girl and a boy fighting in the present day, as two young people in the pre-Hispanic Americas, as an old witch and a young knight, and as a ninja and a feudal Japanese swordsman

Hell no. I would never have tried this manga out if I hadn’t known it was written by the same person as the one behind Lucifer and the Biscuit Hammer, but I’m glad I did. I think I have enough samples of his writing now to say without hesitation that Satoshi Mizukami knows how to write a moving story.

Basically, Spirit Circle is about the dispute between a boy and a girl that stretches backward and forward to the past and the future and back again, through different reincarnations and universes. In the present day, the boy searches through his past lives to find the reason for the girl’s animosity, while in each life the two fight and try to find a way to stop fighting.

Don’t get me wrong, this manga is definitely funny. There actually is comedy and romance in this series. But each reincarnation of the two rivals lives rich and full lives with their share of tragedy and suffering and peace and joy. Some heavy shit goes down, and not in just the past lives of the two.

The series is available on Crunchyroll’s online manga service. I do have to mention that I read it on my tablet and the app has the annoying tendency to occasionally show me a page that I’d already read. If that happens to you, I recommend exiting the manga and entering it again; that should make the proper page show up.

I’ve found Crunchyroll’s online manga offerings to be rather sparse in number and in quality. One might call it hit-or-miss but in my case I’ve found more misses than hits. This manga, though, is definitely one of the good ones. It’s also being simultaneously published, which means that it’s still not finished. However, from the way the story is going I think it’s almost done. If it sticks the landing then it’s going into my list of favourite series.

Back to the future

Screenshot of fake Amiga-style computer GUI circa 1988

I just finished Christine Love’s game Digital: A Love Story and now I just want to proclaim my enjoyment for that particular visual novel. The game and its interface are set up to look like a computer system from 1988, which initially made me think it was a hacking simulator like Uplink. However, the game itself is quite small and, mechanically speaking, is not much more complicated than a Choose Your Own Adventure book. Savvy players could probably beat the game over one weekend. It’s essentially a game of clicking a succession of different buttons on the screen.

Like the Choose Your Own Adventure books, the appeal of this game is not in the gameplay but in revelling in the aesthetic presentation. I never thought I’d feel nostalgic for the whine and screech of a modem connecting to another system, yet here I am in the 21st century deliberately seeking out such a thing. This is a cute little game that could and I’m glad Christine Love was seemingly able to follow it up with commercially-successful titles.

I’m certainly looking forward to playing more of Love’s work. You can even see for yourself if her stuff is for you without incurring even the most minimal financial cost – the game is free to download from Love’s website. If anything I wrote here even mildly piqued your curiosity then go right ahead and try the game out. I think you’ll like it.

The return of Haruhi Suzumiya

Spring is here and with it the new spring anime. Today I come to discuss one series in particular – The Disappearance of Yuki Nagato.

It’s been quite a few years since we saw anything related to Haruhi Suzumiya, so you might be forgiven for not remembering that Nagato is the anti-social alien android pretending to be a high school girl to keep a close eye on God (a.k.a. Haruhi Suzumiya, a Japanese schoolgirl unaware of her position as the Prime Mover and the source of all Creation). The original show had all kinds of crazy stuff – time travellers, psychics, dream projection, and enough sci-fi cliches for a Star Trek series.

However, The Disappearance of Yuki Nagato is about a parallel universe where those things seemingly don’t exist. Specifically, it’s about an alternate ending to the movie The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya where the protagonist chose to stay in the universe of the ordinary people. So without the science fiction elements, what are we left with? A rather ordinary slice-of-life high school story about a girl, the boy she likes, and the literature club they belong to. Watching this premiere, I realized that there was a good reason that Nagato was only a supporting character in the regular show. Quite honestly, a quiet and shy wallflower is not heroine material. The conflict and forward movement in the plot was only able to happen in this episode because of the actions of two other characters who were more outgoing than the supposed protagonist.

There are encouraging hints that all is not as it seems. Nagato experiences a moment of deja vu when she spots the alternate Haruhi Suzumiya on the street, while Asakura remains disturbingly skilled with a knife despite being a regular student. And let’s remember that this world conforms too perfectly to a happy and idyllic story of teen romance for one Yuki Nagato. Anyway, I hope very much that these oddities are explored more in the rest of this season.

This is only the first episode, so I’ll stick with this show a little bit more. If I see any pocket universes or sandworms later on I’ll let you know.