Those Magnificent Men In Their Fighting Machines

A CHAR is fine too

‘Mecha’, as a genre, is odd: there’s nothing obvious inherent in our humanity which makes us hungry for titans of steel beating seven kinds of coolant out of each other in the same way that, say, people are prone to falling in love and so we hunger for stories about love. Mecha appear to be very much styling - however inextricably bound up with substance style is – in that most of the time you could replace them with some other weapon; you wouldn’t have the same show, but the character conflicts and action sequences could still remain in place. And indeed, it’s not unheard of for mecha to be inserted at the sponsors’ insistence.

(There are legitimate questions about the idea of things being ‘inherent in our humanity’. Maybe comedy and tragedy are just traditions like giant robots – but if they are, they’re still rooted much deeper in our minds. Mecha is at least as arbitrary as pastoral: there’s no pressing need to have stories about shepherds in an idealised countryside, but for some reason we developed a tradition of pastoral writing. Though if you have a society where only rich, landowning people patronise the arts you may get pastoral poetry, and if you have a society which fetishises technology you may get mecha . . . now we’re slipping towards the conflict between determination by social forces and individual action.)

At this point I suppose I have to mention the distinction between supers and reals. It’s useful sometimes (when, say, you’re designing a game around mecha selected from a very broad church of anime) and, though it’s often attacked for being as arbitrary as mecha themselves, it describes some very real differences in approach. But it’s not an airtight distinction. Still, I’m going to spit out a baroque image to try to grasp the (unequal) relationship between the two, disregarding their fuzzy boundary.

First, let us go then, you and I, to the genre that Mobile Suit Gundam was born from. We have intelligent robots. We have giant metal humanoids controlled remotely, which push the definition of ‘robot’ at little, but we’ll let that pass. Piloted (from the inside) giant metal humanoids arrive with Mazinger Z, which for convenience’s sake I’ll take as an epitome (I’m suspicious of ‘Legacy’ and ‘Influence’ sections in Wikipedia articles, but Mazinger Zs does at least sound convincing). You can get the gist of what I’m talking about from the show’s first opening: mechanical monsters attack, normal powers cannot prevail against the monsters (the fighter planes being shot down), and the hero’s mecha saves the day.

I’d hesitate to accuse this genre of being necessarily simple (that would be shooting myself in the foot) but I don’t doubt that a lot of it can seem formulaic and empty; s-CRY-ed takes a well-aimed jab at a childlike reliance on heroic robots (and at acting in bad faith in general) in its tenth episode.

Anyhow, imagine super robot shows in the Mazinger Z vein as a tree. Now imagine Mobile Suit Gundam as a man tied to the tree with a long piece of elastic. Mobile Suit Gundam runs away from the tree, into the territory of more convincing warfare, but at the show’s heart there’s this great big reservoir of potential energy, a massive tension from the Super Robot tree always pulling the RX-78-2 backwards.

At first MSG seems to have got pretty far (it’s a good show for hard sci-fi fan speculation: ‘I have a problem with the depiction of the Lunarians [. . .] they’re too healthy’), but later on, with the Newtype Weirdness and some of the wackier, larger Mobile Armours (like the Big Zam), the elastic becomes a bit more obvious. Everything else in the Gundam franchise has a subtly or not-so-subtly different relationship with the tree: G Gundam, for example, doesn’t bother running away from it – instead, it climbs to the top of the tree and strikes a martial-arts pose.

Like So
Like so.

But there’s no need to restrict ourselves to Gundam here. Neon Genesis Evangelion grabs an axe and tries to cut the tree down. GaoGaiGar spits in Evangelion‘s eye, and works to grow the tree as big as possible. Full Metal Panic! grafts other plants onto the tree, and temporarily unties itself entirely for Fumoffu. Infinite Ryvius travels around the tree in circles while reciting passages from The Prince. Nanoha pretends to be attached to an entirely different tree, but if you look closely you’ll see it’s lying. The Super Dimension Fortress Macross climbs into the lower branches of the tree, and delivers an impromptu concert. Space Runaway Ideon fertilises the tree’s roots with the decaying bodies of dead children . . .

What I like about mecha is what is in the roots of the tree, and it’s also what MSG can’t – and doesn’t want to – escape from: turbo-charged and armour-plated physical heroism. Heroism has proved pretty resilient in the face of the apathy which is supposed to mark this age. And, as fun as it is to look at the old through the new, sometimes it’s just as much fun to look at the new through the old; Foucault on Homer is interesting – but what would Homer (if he existed) have thought of Foucault? (Victor Davis Hanson thinks the answer is ‘not much’ – I hope linking to The New Criterion doesn’t tangle me in US politics.) Now it’s true that nearly everything plays with the idea of heroism to a greater or lesser extent – but to do that you need the concept in the first place.

Mecha anime resurrects personal combat for a science fiction setting. Mecha are like lightsabers: they permit you to deposit THE FATE OF THE UNIVERSE, &C on the shoulders of two people fighting. Better still, mecha are humanoid, which means that, to the eye, very little separates a Gundam taking on a mechanical monster from the stereotypical man-with-a-sword fighting a dragon – a situation so stereotypical that it’s almost never played straight in normal fantasy writing.

Strike vs ZnO

I’ve mentioned how cyclopean Zakus are before, and there’s not as great a difference between (for example) Kira Yamato leaping into the sea to fight a monstrous ZnO, and Beowulf diving into a lake to kill Grendel’s mother as their chronological distance might suggest. (Although – going out on a limb here – I’d say the Beowulf poem is better than Gundam SEED.) Mixed in with the man-and-monster element is the fun of two men in armour fighting – something dealt with literally in Escaflowne and Code Geass, in which mecha pilots are knights. Perhaps there’s a little of this in Space Runaway Ideon too: I’m thinking of the eighth episode, when Gije launches an attack to prove his status as a samurai. (Pleasantly, it’s Ideon‘s aliens, rather than the human characters, who use the concept of ‘samurai’. That eighth episode really is an interesting study in several flavours of masculinity.)

Mecha anime is a niche for the world-saving action hero outside of your standard shounen action saga which, while not necessarily bad or stupid (see, for example, coburn’s examination of Soul Eater), is not my cup of tea. And the ‘real robot’ is an excuse for adding some speculative / science fiction into the wish-fulfilment mix – mecha as a fig leaf, yes, but a very cool fig leaf with a very big gun.

34 responses to “Those Magnificent Men In Their Fighting Machines

  1. And here’s the deal breaker: how do you think Nadesico would fit?

    I think as a treatise for genre you’ve covered all you can with a fig leaf, but I’m not so certain you have properly stated the appeal in light of the super robot and real robot divide. For me it is a guide to analyze fans more so than shows…

  2. For all that I like certain mecha shows, it’s not an empowerment style which really suits me. I’m very much into the heroic roots, but the robots themselves don’t really satisfy me as sci-fi or as tall men in armour. It all seems rather formal to me, I don’t want to be uber upon jumping into my ride, I want to be able to force choke people. That way they can never ambush me in the shower.

  3. Isn’t it as easy that big Mecha are the most awe-inspiring Father-figures ever made? After all, they are giant (which the child percieves the father as), you internalise yourself in it (lying inside it might be more of a Mother-figure, though), and it’s the one thing that can save the world (as the Father is omnipotent).

    Nah, just joking. Freud was a nonsense-spouting maniac, but great fun to harp off (and admittedly a genius for proposing the subconscious).

    Your tree-analogy was delightful. I’ll reserve the right to call upon it in the future, when need arises.

    @coburn: Wouldn’t it be more awesome to be able to call up on a Galaxy-sized Mecha throwing Andromeda than to do the Vader? :3

  4. I think that while Mobile Suit Gundam gave birth to the real robot series it is still mostly a super robot series, kind of like how while Jesus gave birth to Christianity he was still technically Jewish.

    Mobile Suit Gundam was the catalyst for Zeta Gundam to solidify the classic traits of real robot show we now recognize, but MSG still had instances of MS of the week (just as if it were Mazinger Z with it’s machine beast of the week), invincibility of the Gundam (Zaku bullets just bounce right off of it in the opening episodes and Amuro is made to look like a novice pilot while the strength of the Gundam is exagerrated, which is the classic super robot series point of view wherein the robot is the star and the pilot the tool to use it.

    Couple that with throwaway weapons like the Beam Trident, the whole G-Bull, G-Sky, G-Easy combination stuff, the Gundam Hammer (which would admittedly later become a popular icon) and Mobile Armors like the Zakrello (which just looks like a cheesy evil looking mecha that you would see in a Super Robot show) and it has far to many elements of a super robot series to really call it the first true real robot series.

  5. Would you classify Votoms as a cool fig leaf?

    How about games like Front Mission from Squaresoft? I think the same thing applies to mecha video games as well.

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  7. I suppose that mecha does have something in its physical heroism — a manly, over-the-top pose in the face of postmodernism, if you will. And, given that postmodernism is my mortal foe, that’s one more point in mecha’s favor for me. I think that part of the appeal of anime as a whole is its near-complete disregard for the “no more heroes” mandate, but I won’t deny that there’s a unique sort of appeal in the way giant robots portray epic struggles.

    Also, I shudder to think what Homer would say of Foucault — or what most notable pre-20th century writers would say of most writers now, for that matter.

  8. I like the tree example, and I think I can sort of understand what you’re getting at. Unfortunately, you’ll have to bear with me cause I’m not a big fan of mecha. Up till now, the only mecha I’ve probably seen are FMP (yay for mentioning Fumoffu), TTGL, and well, Macross Frontier.

    Mecha Pilots as knights? As you say that, I’m getting a mental picture of Alto dashing into enemy territory without thinking to save Luca in episode 7. Haha the knight in shining armor, except Luca doesn’t really fit the image of princess…

  9. RahXephon went to South America and built a statue of the tree, then?

  10. @ omo: Trust you to ask the hard question. Let’s see. I find it hard to write about Nadesico because of the big reservoir of nostalgia I associate with it, but . . . maybe it sits on the same branch as The SDF Macross and tells jokes in between the other’s songs? Like a lot of parodic works, it’s hard to classify in the first place because it gleefully riffs on anything and everything.

    And you’re right that this is about mecha fans more than mecha anime (tree excepted – and even that’s an attempt to produce a useful model for fans). That is because I wrote this post and its forthcoming companion piece by examining myself as I watched mecha, rather than by examining mecha per se.

    @ coburn: I find your lack of faith disturbing Well, no one’s going to force you to like mecha! ‘Formal’ is a good word, thinking on the ideas of almost-religious convention that omo picks up on in his reply.

    Sometimes mecha shows do invest some power in the pilots (actual powers besides simple piloting skill) as well as their mecha (i.e. Newtype psychic powers). There’s the issue of symbiosis too: Gasaraki‘s hero is a good pilot partly because (avoiding spoilers) he resonates with what his mecha’s made of, while Shinji Ikari is similarly useful (plus he arouses his Eva’s maternal instincts, as it were).

    Hunting down the locations of power (violent, rather than political) is an interesting game. I remember one of your posts a while back regarding Haruhi and Haruko.

    @ Kaiserpingvin: I wonder what kind of mecha Freud would pilot himself? I’m glad you liked the tree – it was fun coming up with it. In coburn’s defence, it’s hard to fit a galaxy-sized mech in one’s shower, though I suppose the ultimate solution is to have the shower inside the mecha.

    @ Kaioshin Sama: Hah! I like the Jesus suggestion. Maybe Zeta Gundam is St Paul, then. You’re spot on that MSG resorts to ‘MS of the Week’ and can be pretty throwaway. It’s clearly something new, but it’s pretty closely related to its ancestors, which is one of the things I was trying to get at with the tree. This may be why I prefer the compilation movie trilogy.

    @ dorne: I’m thinking about VOTOMS at the moment. It’s pretty unusual, given how (as you pointed out on MAL) the Armoured Troopers are completely interchangeable (though I’ve only seen one Brutishdog so far) and can be taken down by the right countermeasures. Expect more on this when/if I manage to write a full post.

    This ought to apply to videogames too. I haven’t played any Front Mission (I just Wiki’d it, and I do like the name ‘Wanzer’), but I’d say the Mechwarrior series gets fairly far away from the tree (and, incidentally, has a feudal-style society to back up the men-in-armour thing). Ugly mechs, though.

    @ Pontifus: For all we know, I suppose Homer and Foucault might get on quite well. I’m sure Foucault would have liked to talk about a living oral tradition. But still . . .

    Part of what distinguishes mecha from the rest of anime’s heroism is of course the mechanised element, which I’m hopefully going to touch on shortly, for the gearheads.

    @ Hoshi: Luca’s pretty effeminate. But then so is Alto (I do wonder if his name has anything to do with the use of ‘alto’ in music). But that is the kind of knightly behaviour I’m talking about, yes. It’s probably partly because I spend too much time reading about knights already.

    And Fumoffu managed to make me love it despite the general lack of the franchise’s mecha (‘Dude, where’re my Arm Slaves?’), so it must be good.

    @ otou-san: Yes. It probably sailed there with Macross Zero on an environmentally-friendly multi-hulled canoe.

  11. well then that was pretty definitive…great post

    i love the idea of the super robot shows as the tree with every other show either embracing or rejecting the tree

    also mecha’s as an M.O. for heroism is a neat idea, but (keeping in mind I only just started) in zeta gundam Kamille sees like anything but a hero. three episodes in and he just uses the mecha to escape the tyrannical government.

  12. >>‘Mecha’, as a genre, is odd: there’s nothing obvious inherent in our humanity which makes us hungry for titans of steel beating seven kinds of coolant out of each other

    I’m pretty sure mecha happened in the same way Godzilla happened– it’s one of Japan’s postwar reactions.

    And yeah, Mazinger Z was the first super robot.

  13. Now, as a quick note, mecha doesn’t always have to be mainly about big manly robots piloted by, if only occassionally, equally masculine pilots, as you seem to hint at even if you don’t explicitly state it (or, at the very least(!) that was my impression, as a last line of defense) – I cite http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mecha_Musume as a phenomenon and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sky_Girls as an anime as examples (even if I’ve only heard of the former and haven’t seen the latter, both of them personally creep me out).

    One could probably also reasonably assume that a show like http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Idolmaster:_Xenoglossia , which I, again, haven’t seen, puts the focus on the (female) pilots with a mere mecha facade.

    Daring also to link to a site like Newgrounds in your respectable blog, I found this ‘mecha dress up game’ amusing: http://www.newgrounds.com/portal/view/444899

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  15. @ berkles: Thank you! Kamille isn’t especially heroic early on in Zeta, though I’d argue he does become a little more heroic later. The show’s probably engaged in playing with the idea anyway. I’ll be interested to hear what you think of Kamille’s fate at the end of the show.

    @ Baka-Raptor: I . . . actually, I can’t think of a witty rejoinder this time. I must be ill, or something.

    @ wildarmsheero: Okay, I think I can see that. I’m not sure whether that explains why people who aren’t Japanese enjoy mecha too, though. And I’m glad to hear I was on the right lines with Mazinger Z.

    @ LillePer: I’m aware of mecha musume which can, now and then, be quite funny. But your point is good: I did ignore women in this post. Probably I did this because the super robot tree does the same: Mazinger Z, and shows in its vein, have a ‘token girl’, who might pilot a mecha, but is usuallly unhelpful at best in battle. Token girls seem to crop up a fair bit in the ‘real’ genre too. But of course there are mecha shows with all-female or mostly-female teams and/or a female protagonist – I’m watching Soukou no Strain at the moment. I suppose nothing says you can’t have a female knight (I know Spenser, at least, has a reverse trap knight). And female pilots are of course also an opportunity for fanservice: jpmeyer’s been keeping tabs on Code Geass‘s motorcycle-seating shots and there’s always Godannar, as an extreme example.

    This probably requires more thought from me.

  16. >>I’m not sure whether that explains why people who aren’t Japanese enjoy mecha too, though.

    Because robots are cool?

  17. . . . and chicks dig them? I’ll go with that.

  18. No, Daniel, you are the demons.

    @Baka-Raptor: Thee art loony?

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  21. I only like some mecha, like in Code Geass and Full Metal Panic, but for some reason, I can’t stand the mecha in Macross F

  22. @ Michael: I’m one of the tomatoes, more like.

    @ blissmo: Variable Fighters are definitely abnormal. I guess a lot of whether or not we like specific mecha designs does come down to taste (it’s an awesome mecha, but in purely aesthetic terms I doubt anyone actually likes the look of the Nether Gundam).

  23. Valkyrie variable fighters are just starting to look inappropriate these days.

    With the first Macross taking place in the early 21st century, and the whole concept being alien technology grafted on to our own existing stuff, it made perfect sense for a regular jet fighter to be a mech. I think that made Macross more “real” in its real robots than Gundam.

    But it’s the future now… and the anime franchise may do it for nostalgia’s sake, but what is UN Spacy’s excuse?

    Never saw G Gundam, but I guffawed at the windmill gundam.

  24. Hmm. VFs are a tough call; I find transforming mecha inherently less convincing (I prefer talking of convincingness as opposed to actual realism), and you could accuse alien technology of being Applied Phlebotinum. On the other hand, there aren’t exactly many Super Special VFs in the same way that Gundam usually revolves around a prototype, extra-powerful unit. Anyhow, VFs look good to me.

    I recall a discussion on /m/ about Don Quixote as a mecha pilot. Opinion on what he’d pilot was divided, but it was universally agreed that he’d mistake Nether Gundams for actual threats, and try to fight them.

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