‘Drink less, or taste not the Pierian spring’

Mecha Musume SwordfishNo mecha musume Fairey Swordfish exists.
But if one did, she
would be a tea-drinker.

Yes, more about mecha. In fact, the first, more boring, half of the entry that I posted the second half of last weekend. A blog entry like the Haruhi adaption and Huxley’s Eyeless in Gaza, I suppose.

We have a concise summary of the practical problems with mecha, and (the maternal half of my genes coming from a line of physicists and chemists) I was brought up to believe that kind of language. Bipedal mecha as war machines are apparently, if not impossible like sound travelling in a vacuum, certainly utterly implausible. You can throw bricks at people having problems with plausibility, but to do so is to write about things as they should be rather than things as they are: I find the idea that we’re all capable of controlling our reactions (at least, controlling them to the point of accepting every anime on its own terms) highly unrealistic.

Besides, we already have a bipedal war machine which uses its dexterity to cross awkward terrain and which can be fitted with a wide range of equipment to suit different circumstances. It’s called the infantryman. No point reinventing the leg, if you will. Better still, the infantryman runs on cheap, widely-available fuel and has surprising resilience: my paternal grandfather carried some shrapnel (from a head wound received in the bocage fighting) to his grave without showing any ill effects. Shoot your computer and see if it’ll last four more decades.

However, I am not interested in defending mecha anime, at least not directly: I’m not in an evangelistic mood today. What I find interesting is the question of expertise diminishing enjoyment, because this may be an explanation for my own struggle in recent years to enjoy a lot of fantasy anime, or fantasy in any medium.

Back in the day, you see, I used to enjoy fantasy – fantasy in the stereotypical, Tolkienesque vein – which took me to books from the period(s) which the Tolkienesque riffs on. Then the fantasy novels and films with which I began started to look ridiculous. Why read about a group of distinctly modern characters carving their way through Ye Olde Fantasyland when Pearl is on the menu? And if you do want to read about people carving their way through Fantasyland, there’s The Faerie Queene: still fantasy, but fantasy spun out to an impressive length, with added moral allegory and pointed remarks about politics. And one’s need for morally complex GAR is easily filled by Le Morte Darthur (or however you wish to spell it):

I promised by the faith of my body to do this battle to the uttermost while my life lasteth; and therefore I had liever to die with honour than to live with shame. And if it were possible for me to die a hundred times, I had liever to die so often than to yield me to thee, for though I lack weapon, yet shall I lack no worship.

[‘liever’ = ‘rather’; ‘worship’ = ‘honour’/’reputation’]

Oldskool IronyPerspective no, irony yes.

Now if, for instance, you had somehow secretly observed me while I watched Spice and Wolf, you would’ve overheard me muttering ‘medieval guilds weren’t this hardcore’ and ‘if she’s a shepherdess then I’m the King of France’. However much I told myself that no, Spice and Wolf is not a historical drama, nor is its world intended to be especially convincing, I couldn’t help nitpicking. I was being unfair – but I couldn’t stop being unfair, even though I rather liked parts of the show (the badinage between Horo and Lawrence, for example).

(Incidentally, one of the few things I didn’t complain to myself about was the economics. I don’t understand economics, past or present, as it was one of the wide range of useful and informative subjects I avoided studying at school. God bless Britain’s over-specialised education system and its propensity to produce knowledgeable drones.)

To make things worse, I find it hard to put up with the twee. Channeling the twee is one of the primary ways that we Britons sell our country to tourists – and to ourselves – and consequently it turns my stomach a little. Thus I found it hard to handle the first episode of Aura Battler Dunbine, with its twangly music and flitting fairy; a shame, as in substance Dunbine’s first episode was straight-down-the-line Tomino, albeit with an unusually nationalistic edge. I have a sneaking suspicion that, as a rule of thumb, when anime does fantasy it spirals downwards to the twee like an anime fan’s life spirals towards debt and a pungent body odour.

(‘What about Escaflowne?’, I hear you ask. ‘You liked Escaflowne, didn’t you?’ Well, leaving aside the show’s other merits, like Kanno’s soundtrack, Gaea as a whole wasn’t really Fantasyland. Fanelia was a little twee, but Fanelia was destroyed by rampaging mecha early on in the story.)

So – even though few (if any) fantasy writers would claim to be attempting to create a convincingly medieval aura – medieval books ruined me for modern fantasy, because I’m a snob and/or a prig. (Certainly not because I grew out of fantasy writing. Clothes seem to be the only thing I’ve ever grown out of.) Is something similar (minus the snobbery, and with added practicality) a problem with mecha for some viewers? Maybe mecha warfare is just unacceptable if you actually know how machines are put together, and how different weapons and vehicles interact on the battlefield – even if few of the writing staff on the latest Gundam would claim to be aiming for realism.

I can’t judge, because it’s hard to get into judging when your forename is a reminder that judging’s not your prerogative, so that will have to remain a speculation from a baffled bystander. Besides, Crusader evidently manages, and waterjunk claims an engineering background while exalting 00 as ‘the first ever Gundam to actually put in effort to make… sense’ (which I find hard to swallow, but there you go). Moreover, re-reading the previous paragraphs I realise that I’m assuming that knowledge from the Humanities and knowledge from the Sciences can do similar things. Given that my mother’s family is dangerously prone to saying what they mean and getting useful tasks done, I’m not sure that that’s a safe assumption.

Adopting Jeff’s suggestion that Japanese anime fans tend to be male and tend to grow up interested in machines, I propose that mecha is a genre for (though not necessarily enjoyed exclusively by) boys who were gearheads in their youth, but never learned much proper science or indeed much about military matters. Admittedly, I am just describing myself here: the child who cannibalised the Solid Rocket Boosters from the Lego Space Shuttle to make ICBMs for the launch tubes of his Lego ballistic missile submarine. Though . . . given the close proximity of all available targets (the compost heap at the bottom of our small garden being the most remote hostile state), should I have reclassified said weapons as cruise missiles?

Bits and Bobs

  • I noted in my previous entry the element of monster-slaying in mecha. sdshamshel suggests that Evangelion is ‘the pinnacle’ of this movement, and makes some sharp observations about Rebuild‘s Angels.
  • Owen defends Code Geass (good) by turning to its toned-down mecha (dubious). The division between ‘symbiote’ and ‘vehicle’ could be useful.
  • They say mecha doesn’t rock. Yet random mecha talk is still good random talk. I need to hunt IGPX down someday.

29 responses to “‘Drink less, or taste not the Pierian spring’

  1. Wow wtf how did you dig up that really old post of mine? Anyway, I must agree with the point that most otaku have little concept of real military mechanics. In fact, most people just do not grasp the military mindset.

    Interestingly, all it takes is a read of Starship Troopers. Otherwise, compulsory military service would be the other way. (unfortunately for us Singaporeans).

  2. My enjoyment for mecha stems from my reason for enjoying all science fiction. I’m a dreamer and like to see things completely different from reality, though if they also manage to reflect aspects of reality in an unique way then that’s best. So it’s exactly because I’m not scientifically inclined I enjoy mecha, and perhaps the more realistic it gets the less likely I would be to enjoy it, though I’ve yet to find a mecha genre I don’t like.

    Since you brought up fantasy I’m curious to know if you’ve ever read the stories of Robert E. Howard. I’ve yet to read the Conan stories but I recently finished a collection of his King Kull stories. While they are in a fantasy setting, it’s the grim and gritty kind, with intrigue and murder everywhere. Howard himself said he didn’t try to create new worlds but just imagine our own world’s ancient and bloody past. He did a very good job of it I think. It’s definitely no Merry England.

  3. I admit as of late the mecha shows that go for realism and in my opinion fail are treated much more harshly than the more fantasy oriented and out right outlandish mecha shows (G Gundam). Having been forced to read technical manuals thick enough to beat people to death with I have to say that I doubt that Japanese otaku are true gearheads since most engineering schematics I see my fellow students draw are far more confusing and use a lot of mathematical measurements (which confuse the hell out of me) that I just don’t see in mecha.

    I propose that Japanese male otaku are just like most other men, we grow and mature, but our inner child never really goes away. Our toys never get put away they only get replaced by bigger and more expensive ones.

    As for fantasy I grew up with this…

    So I think I have a much higher tolerance than most people for fantasy.

  4. I think whether or not a machine with legs would be plausible or not is very pressing a question in a medium which has brought us, among other things, a girl… thing turning all humans except two into seawater, galaxies thrown as weapons in weird subspaces over the fate of the all, and involuntary genocides caused by evil eyes and bad jokes.

    Aa friend of mine studies physics and I assume he’s rather well-versed in the ways of engineering, and he likes mecha. I think it all lies in how good you are at suspending your disbelief and how well the work in question helps you with that. I suppose technical illiteracy helps, of course.

    Wow, that means it’s not all bad being bad at schematics and newtonian physics!

  5. I’ve also had a rough history with “fantasy” anime – well my definition of “fantasy” is probably different from yours; I’m classifying Mai-hime and Fate/Stay Night as fantasy. Why? – well, the whole ‘pick your Aeon scenario kind of bores me, all Shiz-Nat’s aside. Likewise, pick your weapon (be it saber, archer, or…rider?) as well as Shakagan no Shana strike me as particularly repetitive. Yeah, I do like old things done in new ways (ef), but it’s the fact that “fantasy” anime focus on the plot – focus on the redundancy – and not on the presentation of the thing (although FSN supposedly did a bang-up job on lighting ‘n stuff).

    I also have an awkward disposition towards anime music and music-anime. Honestly, I have yet to see music in anime that wow’d me (Nagato’s left hand aside) – Beck was a watching not for the music but for the fun of it all (which doesn’t really include the music, at least for me). Likewise, I have this horrible prejudice against Nodame Contabile – I heard Rit-chan saying it was terrible, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it was (I’m under the impression that it is). I’m no pianist, never was, probably never will be, but I think I have somewhat of a warrant to critique the music minus the “pianory.”

    As it actually concerns “fantasy,” Amatsuki was boring, although I have to watch Serei no Moribito, which I have heard great things from.

    And I don’t know anything about mecha!

  6. @ tj han: One advantage of holding a post in draft for a week or two is time to hunt down interesting oddities from aggregator archives. It’s certainly true that military thinking is hard to understand from the outside, at least in my own experience of military friends. But then the career – legally sanctioned violence on behalf of your state – is an odd one.

    And commiserations on the compulsory service. A Greek friend of mine said that National Service boiled down to (a) boring, tiring things and (b) things that were just boring.

    @ Demian: Your first paragraph certainly matches my own experience. I’ve read no Howard, though I am comparitively forgiving of fantasy writing which doesn’t take itself very seriously so I might stomach it. Even with twee elements out of the equation, however, I personally think it’s nigh-on impossible to write with a medieval mindset, at least if you live in a developed country.

    @ Crusader: Right. Most of the time, real mechanical engineering is boring, and boring things don’t make good entertainment (by definition). And it’s true that aiming for realism means setting yourself up to fall harder if you fail – like the divide between hard and soft sf more generally, hard is harder to get right (and goes out of date faster). And Conan does at least have a redeeming element of hilarity. (Fantasy’s G Gundam?)

    @ Kaiserpingvin: Well, yes. Ignorance is bliss, as they say. Suspension of disbelief is something I’m a little suspicious of, as a model of viewer behaviour; it seems a little mechanical, and I like to think that perhaps good enough characters can get us to invest enough in any story, however ridiculous its dressings.

    As for the idea that humanoid mecha are not a problem compared to other things we find in anime . . . perhaps. It probably varies from show to show. And of course there are always people willing to take things humourously-seriously.

    @ lelangir: Personally I found Fate/stay night‘s lighting and animation in general to be rather lacklustre, but that might be because I watched the parts of it that I did shortly after watching Gankutsuou. Fantasy anime’s hidden wars and magically contrived contests are certainly odd. Personally perhaps I find that aspect in particular not so problematic.

    I have to say I’m not well-versed in anime where the characters themselves sing, besides the various parts of the Macross franchise that I’ve encountered. But I can imagine that expertise might diminish enjoyment in much the same way. Seirei no Moribito is, in my view, pretty damn good, though it’s not paced as I would have liked. Great action scenes, certainly. It’s not High Fantasy, I suppose. More martial-arts-coming-of-age-story? Not sure.

  7. “…expertise diminishing enjoyment, because this may be an explanation for my own struggle in recent years to enjoy a lot of fantasy anime, or fantasy in any medium.”

    I’m not so sure if it’s simply a matter of expertise – as previous comments have noted, the issue seems more the suspension of disbelief; is not diminishing enjoyment of a genre generally a result of wider exposure and then becoming jaded by it?

    The reactions you have to the first anime (or at least the first good anime) you watch will certainly be very different from the tenth, especially if all ten that you’ve seen are from the same genre or follow a similar style – and that isn’t necessarily linked to expertise on the fictional subject covered, but rather because you’ve seen the same thing before (and possibly done better).

  8. It really comes down to one thing; whether the mecha are the story, or if they’re merely a plot device to help tell the REAL story. Escaflowne uses magical mecha as a plot device; ditto Gasaraki and NGE and the better Gundam series – they’re a tool, an enabler for the plot to go down the path it goes, while the interactions between characters are what carries the show. It’s when the Mecha are the star that you have problems…

    Now, I could link a thread or two arguing the topic which AREN’T Spacebattles… but I won’t. :D Basically, they boiled down to ‘if you can build a mecha with this super-technology, then you can apply that same technology to a tank or some other platform for similar or better performance without all the headaches involved with building, maintaining, and employing humanoid mecha’.

    Besides, I should point out that Japan currently has a growing shortage with regards to engineers and general hard-science personnel. Apparently, a love of Gundam doesn’t necessarily lead to a career as an engineer, at least not in Japan.

  9. Mecha? Hmm, they’re fun to watch, but for me, that’s just about it. Most of them remind me of lego blocks …

  10. @ vendredi: Well, it’s possible that my problem is being jaded by experiencing ‘too much’ of one genre (in novel form: I avoid fantasy anime, as a rule). Maybe ‘expertise diminishing enjoyment’ is the right way to describe a particular problem with mecha, but the wrong way to describe my predicament.

    @ Haesslich: Yes. They needn’t even be a plot device, really: I’d argue that the mecha in Gun x Sword are just styling (very stylish styling). And it’s very interesting that Japan should be running out of engineers. A similar thing seems to have happened in the UK (people have deserted hard science and engineering in favour of the soft subjects), so it would be interesting to see if this is a trend in the developed world as a whole.

    @ blissmo: Ah, but I had great fun with lego blocks in my youth.

  11. I take this stance on the entire mecha are not possible/plausible mindset:

    “Who the hell cares.”

    Firstly, it would be incredibly fun to pilot a bipedal mecha. Secondly, with regard to the physics and mechanics, find a loophole. I, being from the computer science field, am very familiar with the concept of knowing what can and cannot be done. The study of computational complexity tells us that certain problems cannot be completed within the confines (time and memory) of the technology we have currently. We don’t just give up, though. We find a way around the problem. Usually, this is done by getting an approximation of the answer we are striving for.

    We shouldn’t encourage future engineers to give up so quickly. If we do, then we’ll never have giant biped robot warriors or android maids.

    That’s just a dim future. I don’t think any of us really want that.

  12. @ j.valdez: Hmm. I’m not sure it’s such a dim future: much as having five women actually, literally vying for one’s affections would be very irritating, so having one’s house squashed by a gaint humanoid fighting machine would just be too humiliating. If World War Three has to trash my city, I’d rather it was done the traditional way.

    As for encouraging future engineers to give up . . . maybe it’s an Old Europe thing. I’m just not getting a sense of aspiration and progress in a world full of untried possibilities when I consider mecha.

  13. Animanachronism: The basic reason we’re running low on engineers is simple – corporations and governments have made it so that engineering jobs pay less than lower-level ‘soft’ jobs like banking…. and the students are going where the easy money is.

    Oops. I guess there’s a SLIGHT problem with offshoring everything…

  14. Cruise missiles by definition suspend themselves in the air by use of airfoils. For example, V-1 was a cruise missile, V-2 was a ballistic missile. Range does not come into it.

  15. @ Haesslich: Rational self interest, then? I’ve got the impression from our media that jobs in science are now pretty well-paid, because of the dearth of suitable candidates, but I’m not sure if engineering’s the same. As I’m doing a lit. degree for the love rather than the money, I’m a bit miffed at the general move to soft subjects, in a ‘I was into Poets before they were famous, or would have been if I was alive at the time’ way.

    @ Pete Zaitcev: Hmm. In that case I suppose my lego ones didn’t qualify.

  16. this is the ssme media that’s talking about a rise in violent crime due to videogames making people into killers. A lot of engineering and design jobs have moved overseas (China, India, Eastern Europe) because they’re cheaper than local graduates, font have to covered by (expensive) benefits pakages, and so on. What they want are low-level engineers and high level dupervisors for managing the overseas stuff, but the pool of talent is short because a lot of students didn’t get into engineering or science because of all those cuts and layoffs 6-9 years ago, and saw the writing on the wall.

    Of course the companies who did this forgot that to have staff locally who can supervise, they have to start as engineers or scientists and work up to that level… but those jobs got sent overseas years ago and they laid off the guys and girls who’d be useful now. Oops.

  17. Don’t have to be, even. This small keyboard is prone to typos.

  18. @Haesslich
    While what you say for the most part is true regarding the shortage of engineers in the civilian market, the military industrial complex in the US at least is looking to hire numerous engineers of all stripes assuming you are eligible for a security clearance. If an engineer did not mind making weapons then companies like Northrop Grumman seem to be paying pretty well. I know an engineer who specialized in avionics who went on to be a cop because SFPD was paying almost 90K US a year. From the number of Engineering grads at my school it might be that there are engineering grads who just elected to get a different job that paid better.

  19. Crusader: That’s the issue, isn’t it? You can’t use foreign workers for fear of their being employed by other agencies… but at the same time, ‘local’ engineers are either going into civil engineering or something else, as other engineering jobs have been eliminated in favor of cost-cutting at the expense of creating career paths for those engineers that they’ll need at the upper levels, to supervise those ‘foreign folk’.

    Part of it’s due to perceived work-life balance (or lack of), but most of it seems to be monetary; engineers CAN get paid more if they’re working for projects which have military applications… but only at the higher levels. New graduates are going to either NOT get hired, or else will get paid shit wages and work long hours in a way that an engineer in India would be happy to work… but which won’t get a student with a $30-50K debtload excited about a career unless they absolutely love the work.

    Basically, the high-paying jobs in Engineering aren’t for the starting guys… not even in Japan. They’re for the people who’d be middle-level or senior engineers… but for the most part, there aren’t as many of those as there used to be, since the guys who COULD’VE been middle-level or senior by now never started as engineers in the first place, or didn’t get jobs 7-8 years ago to develop their careers to that point, and have since gone onto other th ings.

  20. What you say is true that starting pay these days is shit, but one thing I learned while being poor during my childhood was that you have to start from somewhere. In tough times some work is better than no work even if it requires a diet of $0.10 ramen. I believe that there is no job in existence that I am too good for, I have to eat somehow and positive income is always better than zero or negative income.

    As far as I can tell an electrical engineer can make more than I can for starting salary at Lockheed, so while pay is shit it’s somewhat better than other college grads.

  21. Epic thread. I think your discussion has travelled several miles beyond the borders of my knowledge, so I’ll stay out of this one.

  22. You know, I was just going to say something good about the Swordfish… Unfortunately, I don’t know much. The picture is historically accurate in the sense that Emil did not have a central canon.

  23. I was going to email you saying something clever about the Il-2 (it was an Il-2, wasn’t it?) image you used recently, but similarly I don’t know much.

    The fact that she’s carrying the torpedo on an over-the-shoulder strap could just possibly be a reference to the ‘Stringbag’ nickname. Wikipedia says, without any citation, that

    The Swordfish received the Stringbag nickname not because of its construction but because of the seemingly endless variety of stores and equipment that the aircraft was cleared to carry. Crews likened the aircraft to a housewife’s string shopping bag which was common at the time and [. . .] could adjust to hold any shape or number of packages.

  24. Animanachronism: Short form is this – the media lies like a rug, and tends to present uniformed speculation as ‘THE TRUTH’. They go for short sound-bytes which are easy to digest, but have about as much sustenance as eating a bag full of pork rinds with extra salt.

    Crusader: Electricians may, yes. I don’t know about EE’s, though… at least, not initially. Still, between the heavy science and maths requirements, along with the prospect of a low-paying job… you have to love it to do it, and even many people who love engineering are debating between spending 10 years of their lives trying to earn enough to pay off their heavy loans on top of living like otaku in Japan… or else getting another job which pays semi-decently, which they don’t love, but allows them a better lifestyle AND the chance to pay off loans faster so they can save for a house.

  25. As much nutritive value even.

  26. I tend to take the j.valdez stance on mecha. Plus, for as long as I can remember I’ve loved Science Fiction and Fantasy and how the good ones often use a setting that attempts to seperate the issues of our day and bring them into a futuristic context to philosophize about any variety of topic.

    This love of Sci-Fi ultimately carries over to mecha and I too couldn’t care less about whether mecha a plausible or not because they are usually just plot devices or meant to exist for fun anyway. It’s the love of the mecha and not any sort of realism that sustains them for me.

    Anyway, as long as the job market isn’t allowing for steady and secure employment of engineers and those duties are often being relegated to India and Southeast-Asia among other regions I wouldn’t count on that shortage going away anytime soon. It strikes me as more a self-manufactured deficiency in skilled labour and human resources than anything. It’s an incentive situation as Crusader points out.

  27. Well, yes. Ultimately mecha are there to be fun, rather than inhibit fun, but I found it interesting that some people can’t help but pull apart exactly why mecha are implausible – which gets int he way of their fun.

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