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.

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.

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.

Red Mars

It seems that Takashi Miike is directing a live action film adaptation of the manga-cum-anime series Terraformars. This might be surprising for people familiar only with his art house work such as Audition or 13 Assassins, which feature extreme violence and sexual deviance, but the man has actually made quite a lot of commercial schlock: some kids’ movies, a few comedies, a video game adaptation. This news is of a piece with his earlier work. Plus Terraformars itself is pretty damn violent all on its own. I’d say this property is right in his wheelhouse.

But hey, Miike is apparently also making a Blade of the Immortal movie with a 2017 release date! I’m definitely looking forward to that one.

War in the Pacific

So it appears that they’re really serious about promoting the new Star Wars films on a global level. There’s a licensed Korean webcomic adapting the original trilogy and putting in extra stuff. It starts from when Luke was just a towheaded moppet on Tattoine learning to shoot a laser rifle from Uncle Owen.

Young Luke Skywalker lying on his back on a Tattoine night and fantasizing about the distant stars

This adaptation is pretty smart, because I hadn’t thought about it but there have been like two generations of moviegoers born since the theatrical release of Return of the Jedi. I do like how the artist doesn’t try to slavishly reproduce the actors in 2D. The linework reminds me of art from some French sci-fi bandes dessinees. But who the hell’s Windy, is he from the Expanded Universe?

Anyway, if you want to check the webcomic out (for free by the way) go to LINE Webtoon and sign in with Twitter. You’ll get to read the official English translation. I’m not sure myself if I’ll stick with this comic, though if you want to check out other webcomics in this library I would say Hive is a safe choice – basically Walking Dead with giant bugs, and prone to the comic and TV show’s trick of always pulling the rug out from under the protagonists to keep the status quo.

Or for actual good stuff, Chiller‘s a horror anthology that goes multimedia with sound effects and mild animation – for maximum effect I recommend reading it alone in a room with the lights off – and Witch Hunt, which is about demons hunting witches in modern South Korea.

Judgement Day

I saw Terminator Genisys. It was the best of the Terminator movies not directed by James Cameron.

I realize that’s not saying much since Terminator in the 21st century struggles to be decent, but at the very least it’s leagues beyond Terminator 3 (the one with the Terminatrix) in terms of quality. In fact, here are my rankings of Terminator movies:

  1. Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991)
  2. The Terminator (1984)
  3. Terminator Genisys (2015)
  4. Terminator Salvation (2009)
  5. Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003)

Genisys is the kind of C-level movie one can waste time on during a Saturday afternoon looking for something to watch on TV. The movie has two main issues: its action and its nostalgia. The action movies of the 80’s aren’t a genre that Hollywood makes anymore (apparently they’re mostly made in Eastern Europe now). This unfamiliarity with raw and wordless violence is evident in the movie, as I’m not that engaged in the action. It’s not enough to show two robots punching each other, as the Transformers movies showed us; we need to care why those two robots are punching each other in the first place. Certainly the movie makes us care more about the fate of the principals than Terminator 3, but that’s not a high bar to hurdle.

Of course, a hallmark of the 21st century revival of old franchises is the strangling miasma of nostalgia that surrounds such works. Scenes copied from the first two Terminator movies (i.e., the good ones) are peppered liberally through the present iteration. The nostalgia and the movie itself works best in the scenes set during the 80’s. Things get more meh when the action moves to 2017.

On the actors themselves, let me observe that the Terminators of our century have had an ongoing problem with casting bland white guys as the lead – chronologically listed, they are Nick Stahl, Sam Worthington, and now Jai Courtney. Regarding Sarah Connor, Emilia Clarke (a.k.a. Daenerys Stormborn, the Mother of Dragons) mostly does an impression of T2-era Linda Hamilton. It’s an okay impression but not an impressive acting job on the whole.

This isn’t the worst nostalgia-driven movie I’ve seen – that distinction would go to the 2012 Total Recall – and I can honestly say it was an okay bit of fluff. However, and speaking as a fan of the franchise, I wish that they’d stop rehashing the same story and make something new again. They kind of tried with Salvation, which was entirely set in the apocalyptic future, but that movie never examined the world it was set in and was just about some guy stumbling through the wasteland. I’m not asking for high art here, Terminators. Be like Predators and give us something different.

Danger Zone

I’ve been sick with either a cold or a flu, so yesterday I stayed in bed and watched Point Break. It’s really a perfect Saturday afternoon movie. I’d never seen it before, but it had been on my list for a while and the other movies I had on hand seemed too deep to watch while fever-tripping (Atonement, The Sound of My Voice, and Never Let Me Go).

I’d forgotten how shitty the early 90s looked. The clothes and the boxy cars gave me a feeling of constriction and heat stroke, like I was wearing too-tight clothes in a noisy office with no air conditioning. And it’s got that L.A. River again from Terminator 2, probably one of the crappiest rivers in the world.

I do wonder how the surfing scenes were shot. It would have been hilarious if the director had used the same trick as Elvis in Blue Hawaii, but the actors and their doubles were actually out there on the waves. And kudos to all for the sky diving scenes. They make no sense and are barely justifiable in plot terms, but they do tie in thematically to the whole “freedom” thing the surfers are into. I must mention that my only exposure to surfer talk is from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, so it was kind of weird hearing people say “radical” with no trace of irony.

I also have to give props for how the action unfolds. The movie zips along from scene to scene with nary a slow part. The biggest negative to the movie is, once again, Keanu Reeves’ acting. I forget every time how wooden he is and am reminded whenever I see a new movie with him in it.

Overall, though, I found this movie diverting.

War of the Worlds Part II

What’s this? An unofficial animated sequel to The War of the Worlds set during the First World War?

And it’s from Malaysia, too. Hmm . . .

Well, the CGI war machines look good but the animation of the human characters looks kind of like it’s from a late 90s or early 2000s cheapo cartoon show, like that Saturday morning Stargate one. I suppose it’s nice to see animation from countries besides Japan or the US. We’ll see if the animation industry in Malaysia is a going concern from here on.