VOTOMS: Clarke’s God Is Dead

Armoured Trooper VOTOMS is a simple show. I should swiftly add that by ‘simple’ I don’t mean to imply ‘bad’ (it was good) or ‘stupid’ (it wasn’t stupid), simply ‘simple’, in its denotation but not any of its connotations. Armoured Troopers are simple mecha, tin cans with machine guns, the characters are simple people, the dialogue is frequently sparse (and better for it) and some of the show’s best images, such as Chirico carrying a sick Fyana across Sunsa’s airless desert with Zophie following behind him, are its simplest ones.

That particular image is a fitting example, for the Sunsa storyline seemed to me to be the simplest part of the show. The first arc closes with a change of circumstances in Uoodo City, the second with the end of the war in Kummen, and the fourth with dramatic events on Quent and the movement of large space fleets, but the third arc, the Sunsa arc, only alters its central characters. (It’s a fine example of whittling-for-meaning.)

In fact, we don’t even learn as much as we might expect about Chirico’s own past: he meets a character whose family were killed by the Red Shoulders, but he eventually reveals (in his internal monologue) that his own unit wasn’t on Sunsa at the time – and this is all we get. There’s no heart-rending confession, no whining and no catharsis: when he isn’t being directly reminded of it, Chirico simply shoulders the burden of his past and soldiers on.

Personally, I felt that this quarter of the series was the weakest. I’d venture to suggest that some of the episodes were a little flabby, particularly those episodes at the close of the arc which brought the rivalry between Chirico and Ypsilon to a head: they kept promising a decisive encounter between the two warriors, and kept postponing it.

Yet these episodes were hardly uninteresting, because the conversations between Chirico and Ypsilon made the irony of the title ‘Perfect Soldier’ more obvious. For the Secret Society, and its scientists who treat Ypsilon as an object, the perfect soldier is a self-absorbed person who feels no emotions, apart from those which make him a better killer. Ypsilon considers himself to be a chosen individual whose destiny is simply to continually hone his skills. As far as the standards of the story itself are concerned, however, the perfect soldier has a conscience, dislikes killing and behaves selflessly. This describes Chirico and Fyana well (and for a surprisingly large part of the Sunsa arc Fyana is looking after Chirico or vice versa). It ought to be a description that fits, because we’re expected to sympathise with Chirico and Fyana and take them as moral examples.

Anyhow, if the Sunsa storyline was, in its great simplicity, the distilled essence of the show’s general flavour, then the final quarter of the show was something of a dramatic departure from that essence (and I’m about to launch big spoilers, both for the ending of VOTOMS and probably for Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann, so be warned).

If, when I was writing this, you’d told me that VOTOMS would end with Chirico being chosen as God’s successor, shooting God with a pistol and (as seen above) taking God’s brain to pieces from the inside, I would have laughed at the ridiculousness of the idea. Yet that is essentially what happened, and I didn’t laugh.

The intervention of Wiseman (which is God’s name, if you haven’t seen the series) became overt at least as early as halfway through the series, as it was presumably him who placed Chirico and Fyana on the abandoned spaceship. (Actually, I have a suspicion that several other things could have explained that, and that the writers chose the Wiseman End later, but I may be wrong.) The Quent episodes also eased me into the right frame of mind with the judicious application of sufficiently advanced magic/technology.

I’m going to pause there – normal practice would be to cap that last paragraph with a resounding closing sentence – and suggest that my allusion to Clarke’s third law is not a throwaway one, as it might be in another of my posts, because the application of that law (which I prefer to think of as a dictum) controls Chirico’s attempt to kill God.

Chirico initially pursues Wiseman out of curiosity and a desire to find out who he himself is; when he finds out that Wiseman wishes him to take over the job of ruling the Astragius Galaxy, he plays along, accepts Wiseman’s trials and abandons his friends so that he can comprehend the technology that Wiseman runs on. And it’s when, in the final episode, Wiseman explains his own workings to Chirico – when the technology involved becomes distinguishable from magic – that Chirico is able to commit deicide. Wiseman’s mystical invulnerability thus relies precisely on the incomprehensibility of his technology.

This is very much a Judeo-Christian reading, even in its capitalisation of ‘God’. In my defence, Wiseman’s dialogue (or the translation of it that I was provided with) leaves itself open to this interpretation: he does say ‘I am the light of this world’. Subtle this is not, but then VOTOMS is a simple show – so simple, in fact, that it has Rochina show up and tell Chirico to his face that he ‘just killed God’.

[Perhaps this is a good reminder for me that I'm always in effect analysing a translation. It would be a fun exercise to take different sets of fansubs of the same show, and the official translation, and compare the different spins they put on the story.

Actually, even the fonts used by the original animators are significant. For a start, they can tell us something about the taste of Sheryl Nome's fans.]

Whether or not we should be looking at Wiseman this way, I think it’s interesting to pick out what distinguishes him from the omnipotent, omniscient (&c) God that theologians throw at one another. One striking difference is Wiseman’s inability to perceive thought itself. He was able to send messages over long distances to Killy, Rochina and Chirico, but if he could read minds he’d have known what Chirico was planning.

Wiseman is, moreover, not good, or at least not good in any traditional sense. Wiseman’s mission in (after)life is to be a kind of gardener tending to the galaxy’s wars – not to stop them, but to make sure that they promote humanity’s growth. Given how VOTOMS is infused with a war-weary tone (from the lyrics of the opening song to Chirico’s final departure, in the epilogue, in search of a world without war), and how much trouble (to put it mildly) war has caused Chirico, I think it’s safe to say that this is evil, as far as the show’s own moral framework is concerned. Wiseman himself argues that the normal rules do not apply: ‘[o]nly God does not sin when he kills!’

This is where the contrast between Wiseman and Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann‘s Anti-Spirals becomes most obvious: Wiseman promoted struggle and evolution, while the Anti-Spirals devoted their energies not just to suppressing external struggles, but also to suppressing (by inculcating despair) the urge to struggle at all.

I’m most definitely not an expert on Nietzsche, but I think it’s safe to say that Gurren Lagann is quite Nietzschean while VOTOMS is, despite featuring deicide, pretty un-Nietzschean. It is after all Chirico’s rejection of power-hungry behaviour which allows him to resist Wiseman’s temptations, and his final action in the series is to reject the world of (military) struggle in favour of cryogenic sleep travel. (What were the Anti-Spirals doing on their home planet? Sleeping.)

These two shows are, however, alike in having a strong, consistent internal morality. We’re not expected to ask if Simon’s struggle is justified, let alone question the rightness of Chirico’s rejection of Wiseman. Which leaves us with a final question: if our personal views don’t align with a particular story’s internal morality, do we judge the characters from our viewpoint, or the show’s?

(Yes, I appreciate that we can only see the show’s understanding of good through the lens of our own, and so on. I’m just asking.)

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14 responses to “VOTOMS: Clarke’s God Is Dead

  1. I read the introduction (or first part, whatever) to Thus Spoke Zarathustra but couldn’t really extract much out of it.

    That’s an interesting question you prompt, viewing the show through our eyes, or through the show’s narrative? That’s kind of confusing (it warrants it’s own write-up) as labeling the show – the entirety of “its” essence – presumes that the grand narrative of that essence is kind of like this “thing” that is capable of producing and sustaining a sentient-like lens (hence the confusion – it’s not sentient nor animate [insert irony here]).

    This is definitely relative to earlier posts in which in search of no. 9 questioned Kaiba and Ergo Proxy in their meta-connotative powers, that is to say how much they affect the way we view stories and anime in general. Kaiba perhaps challenges the viewer-narrative because of the lack of a main-character-signifier. EP because of its post-modernity (or what have you…)

    On second thought, I think I’m overthinking your general question.

  2. Technically, when taken out of the Christian context, anything related to Christianity ceases to have any spiritual significance and becomes a more mundane sort of reference.

    And in all actuality, God does not kill, or direct any of his creation to kill. Murder and killing is both a symptom and a result of not following what God has planned for us.

  3. First off, Drmchsr0, check out the Old Testament: God smites folks. The deity as worshiped by the Jews and Christians can kill a whole bunch of people when He wants to.

    And secondly, Animanachronism, I wouldn’t say Nietzsche is about killing God. People like to take his most controversial quote out of context, both my fellow atheists (because it sounds pithy) and Christians (who like to make the used-to-be-witty-but-is-now-rather-passe turnaround quote about how Neitzsche is the one who’s dead).

    Neither realize that they both betray an ample level of ignorance regarding the source material by reading the quote at face value.

    He was talking in metaphor about a general change in the philosophical framework of society. That the age of superstition and suppression of reason was gone, as exemplified by the main justification western civilization used to legitimize the refusal to study and understand the world for what it was. “God” was “dead,” thanks to science, reason, and the willingness to ask those questions that the church, historically, didn’t want asked. And now it was time to re-evaluate our beliefs, morals, ethics, and perspectives. Because we can’t blame our follies and quirks of belief on an outside power, we have to take responsibility for own actions–right or wrong. (And people are the ones who have to judge that. Not overly consciously mind you, we’re all shaped as much by outside social forces as we are our own cognizance. The novel Crime and Punishment is a rejection of the overly extreme interpretation of subjective moral perspective, and it’s got a point. But humans are more stubborn than that–it takes a lot more than reason to change a mind.)

    Basically, he was saying that the time of the universal, objective perspective of reality and the world around us had gone. And that the truth that the world was a lot more subjective (and occasionally meaningless) would become common knowledge.

    A complete paradigm shift in the way the world thinks, as it were. If you notice how many people are willing to say “We all have different beliefs, all are equally valid, and we can respect each other’s beliefs” in this day and age, then you’ll realize that he was on to something when he said, as he put it,

    “God is dead.”

    Of course, the extrapolation of nihilism through Nietzsche (the lack of a God rendering everything meaningless) is a decidedly Christian/deist conclusion. As Christian philosophers in his day required the existence of a “God” as they knew it for there to be any meaning to anything in reality at all. From an atheoagnostic perspective, this would appear to be a logical fallacy. (After all, the lack of a belief in a hod, whether strictly held or loosely open, does not stop atheists or agnostics from finding meaning in things both physical and ephemeral.)

    That Nietzsche also came to a conclusion that nihilism was a possible outcome of the paradigm shift does not mean he was a nihilist either. His idea of a “superman” to lead humanity was rooted in the idea that should nihilism overtake civilization, a new moral compass would be needed–one to replace the one they’d lost.

    It was all quite speculative, the Ubermensch business. And kind of sci-fi-ish–even if a wave of nihilism *did* grip civilization, it’d take a really “super” human to singlehandedly stop it.

    But I digress.

    I actually have nothing meaningful to add to the subject at hand. That being VOTOMS.

    Hmm… Let me think of something.

    Okay!

    Seeing as how I wrote a ludicrously long Gurren Lagann essay once, ages ago, I might as well put another word in.

    Nietzsche did not say that humans should necessary aspire to a “will to power.” He argued that humanity already naturally strove in that direction. “Power” being shorthand for many things, wealth, glory, authority, fame. Personally, I also think humans strive for love, too. Which explains why a lot of us are so sappy. Myself included. But if Love Is Power, then who am I to argue? (Heh!)

    That struggle and evolution exists, and that these factors were a more logical “root” of human behavior than a simple “will to live” or a “will to worship,” that was the idea of the “will to power.”

    I wouldn’t say that Gurren Lagann is necessarily Nietzschean, as the characters struggle and fight out of a will to live and love. (Spiral Power!) They’re rooted in values they hold dear, and they fight against those that trespass. Indeed, Simon rejects humanity’s natural will to power in the end, content with making the world a better place for the new generation and stepping back into obscurity. Just because the will to power exists as a motivational force doesn’t mean you’re required, or even supposed, to follow it.

    Gurren Lagann is about the Will to Love. And Rap.

    …..

    Oh, wait, there was another question wasn’t there? Hmm.

    We can judge as we wish, whether from our own viewpoint, or through the lens of the show itself. Sometimes, though, it’s easy to see Moral Dissonance, and laugh if one must.

    Believe it or not, I will say that both Chirico and Simon are “right.” Chirico is a rejection of senseless conflict and loss of life. Simon fought because he wanted to protect innocents from slaughter at the hands of those who would “stifle” conflict. And to save the one he loved.

    Far as I’m concerned, they’re both on the level, even outside of their respective narrative moral foundations.

    And even if you don’t agree, I still feel alright sharing my view on things.

  4. Hey, thanks for the link. Also, I notice that the clocks and tea drinkers have been replaced with a pixel-sized smiley on the side. Hohoho :)

    Initially this had started off as a pretty long comment but I gave the final question some thought and found it’d probably be better lodged in my blog (sorry for the cheapness!) Will link back when done :P

    On the topic of deicide, I was wondering whether you had any thoughts of it in Serial Experiments Lain. It seemed to me that in that show [spoilers!] Lain destroys God because she wanted to preserve the old world instead of ushering in a new one where the Wired and the conventional, physical world are entwined with no clear boundaries. [/spoilers] It’s been ages since I’ve watched it but it’d be nice to know what others think of it :P

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  6. @ Baka-Raptor: Seventh!

    @ Lelangir: Overthought is my fuel.

    The idea that there’s some coherent essence and/or moral framework in a particular story is probably wrong. More likely, I’m just imagining that something I invented is an object I can study.

    Now you mention In Search of Number Nine, I’m reminded of a post there a while back in which iniksbane decided that s-CRY-ed couldn’t be his number 9 because he disagreed with the story’s message (which is perfectly reasonable – it’s his list of favourites, after all).

    @ drmchsr0: Any spritual significance to a Christian, certainly. (And, if the claims of Christianity are correct, any objective spiritual significance too.) But I would have thought that some of the weirder gnostic stuff in the early centuries A.D. was practically made out of Christian things taken out of a Christian context.

    In any case, I find deicide quite interesting whenever it crops up.

    @ Dorian Cornelius Jasper: I think you’re arguing past me. I needed a snappy title, and when I’m writing titles I’m afraid I’m like a newspaper editor: beauty trumps truth (it seems they’re different things after all).

    I’m not a Nietzsche expert, but my Philosophy teachers did talk about him enough for me to grasp that he didn’t mean ‘God is dead’ to be taken at face value. I don’t think I mentioned nihilism once – I was more interested in his emphasis on struggle.

    As for that emphasis on struggle, I bow to your superior knowledge. I like the idea that following the will to power’s dictates is more of a good option than an inevitable behaviour.

    I find it impossible, personally, to extract either Chirico or Simon from ‘their respective narrative moral foundations’. And I can’t imagine what they’d do in each other’s places, which is probably a testament to the power of both VOTOMS and TTGL.

    @ madeener: I think WordPress.com was having some image issues, or something. The tea-drinkers should be back in place by now.

    I wouldn’t say blog entry replies are cheap – it’s a habit I have myself. I haven’t actually watched Lain, for fear that it would bore me (because I have very unrefined tastes), but your mention of deicide is the first thing I’ve heard about it which makes it sound at all interesting.

  7. I tend to judge it from the viewpoint of the show, hence why I can sort of empathize with the Anti-Spirals and their objective. They wanted to save the universe, even if it meant suppressing evolution in all its forms.

    It may appear oppressive and tyrannical, but look at it from the Anti-Spirals’ POV. Would you have done anything less to save what had given you life?

  8. Yes, and a fair amount of the Old Testament was made up because the scribes felt it was necessary to blow a few things out of proportion and make up a few facts to ensure that their history wasn’t boring. (All the prophetical books, save the latter part of Daniel, are authentic. )

  9. @ C.I.: I sympathise with the Anti-Spirals myself, but that’s probably my view rather than the show’s. I think a while back I argued that the Anti-Spirals are pretty heroic, in their own way.

    @ drmchsr0: Hey, I like the latter part of Daniel!

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  12. Nice article–and it does make sense, since Arthur C. Clarke’s story “The Nine Billion Names of God” played a role in the original planning of VOTOMS.

    Plus, it’s a great (but somewhat scary) moment when Rochina yells at Chirico, “You’ve killed GOD!!”

    I’m on a bit of a VOTOMS kick right now–re-watching the original series and reading a lot of offline and online material about the show and trying to learn more about the spin-offs. It’s nice to see that the show is getting more attention now, and it’s a good thing that the original series is available in the US….but I still wish that it had become more popular here.

    Personally, I look at VOTOMS as a “companion” series to the new BATTLESTAR GALACTICA–gritty, no-nonsense science fiction storytelling that has a lot of depth if one looks under the surface.

    • Ooh, I hadn’t heard that there was a Clarke connection, that’s interesting — thank you!

      Votoms is something of a landmark series for me, I think it was one of the first things I watched from the 80s which didn’t have the word ‘Gundam’ somewhere in the title(!). I dig it out every now and then and watch a little bit of an episode, because there are parts where it captures a certain something, to do with the settings, I think, which I haven’t really met much of elsewhere.

      I am, I’m afraid, criminally ignorant of any of Battlestar Galactica, old or new, beyond roughly knowing the premise of the original series.

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