(Warning: This post contains spoilers.)
There are many interesting aspects about the anime Robotics;Notes, but one thing that’s particularly noteworthy is that it is a show about giant robots. That might not sound so impressive on its own, but it’s actually quite rare for a show to be “about” giant robots. Certainly, there are anime which include giant robots, anime which place giant robots in the spotlight, and giant robot anime which are driven by strong themes, all of which can be strong in their own rights. Where Robotics;Notes differs, however, is that it concerns the very thematic concept of giant robots, particularly what they mean to the people who watch and follow them.
Senomiya Akiho, Robotics Club President
In episode 1, we’re introduced to the Central Tanegashima High School Robotics Club and its president, Senomiya Akiho. An energetic girl, Akiho is an avid fan of giant robot anime, particularly the highly influential and hot-blooded series Gunvarrel. Akiho’s primary goal as Robotics Club president is to complete a 1:1 scale functioning robot replica of Gunvarrel called the Guntsuku-1, a task she inherited from her sister Misaki. Akiho, we are shown, has nowhere near the genius of her sister who designed the blueprints for Guntsuku-1 in the first place, and the enormous task before her sets up a couple of important questions. First, is Robotics;Notes the sort of anime that would, after deliberately pointing out how unfeasible it would be to replicate the design of an in-story fictional robot while also providing examples of “realistic” robots in society, allow Guntsuku-1 to be completed? Second, whether it ends up being finished or not, how prominently will Guntsuku-1 figure into the narrative? More specifically, will it actually somehow fulfill the role of a giant robot even with its various setbacks? These two mysteries work together to create a slow-burning sense of anticipation in Robotics;Notes which center upon the idea of “giant robots,” or more specifically the “giant robots of anime.”
Legendary anime Gunvarrel
The “high school kids in a club” setting is not new to anime, but because of its increasing prominence in recent years Robotics;Notes initially gives off the impression that it might stay primarily in the microcosm of the clubroom. Even when factoring in the fact that Robotics;Notes is from the same company which created Chaos;Head and Steins;Gate, two series with grander themes than K-On!, there still exists in the early episodes the possibility that the anime would focus on the everyday of the Robotics Club amidst this greater story, or at most show how small their world is by comparison. While the story of the Robotics Club does eventually begin to tie itself into a greater conspiracy and makes it clear that the show is not so limited in scope, even from the beginning Robotics;Notes creates a strong sense of connection between many of the characters and varying conceptions of robots. This in turn helps to establish that deeper thematic level of the meanings of giant robots.
Robotics Club members (left to right): Senomiya Akiho, Daitoku Junna, Koujiro Frau, Yashio Kaito, Hidaka Subaru
Going by just the club members, the male lead and childhood friend of Akiho, Yashio Kaito, is a slacker who primarily experiences giant robots through a fictional Virtual On-esque game called Kill-Ballad, which is itself inspired by Gunvarrel. The hikikomori fujoshi Koujiro Frau, turns out to be not only the creator of Kill-Ballad, but also the daughter of the producer of the original Gunvarrel anime, making Gunvarrel her tie to her missing mother. Hidaka Subaru, who initially refuses to join, is a champion of small-scale robot battle competitions who is forced to compete in secrecy because of his father’s disapproval. Daitoku Junna’s grandfather specializes in robotics, but an accident at a young age left her with a fear of robots. In each of these examples, Robotics;Notes in some way connects the theme of giant robots to other people.
The completed Guntsuku-1
There are two important developments about halfway through the series. First, the Robotics Club manages to complete Guntsuku-1, but it turns out to have accumulated over time so many compromises and shortcuts in its construction that the final product is a cumbersome and ugly-looking machine. Physically speaking, it is no more a robot than a golf cart with a head grafted on. Second, it is revealed that the final episode of Gunvarrel never aired because it was actually brainwashing propaganda (the broadcast of which was was stopped by Frau’s mother), which creates an extremely negative public opinion of Akiho’s beloved anime. Here, Akiho’s reactions to both events emphasizes the role of giant robots in her life, which in turn foregrounds how giant robots as a fictional concept can be interpreted.
The Gunvarrel conspiracy
In regards to Guntsuku-1 and its lackluster debut, Akiho specifically mentions that they are not abandoning Guntsuku-1. Rather, they are setting it aside so that they can come back to it later, which is indicative of Akiho’s belief in the spirit of the giant robot concept. Even as the Robotics Club moves onto working on a more realistic robot (the Guntsuku-2) for a robotics expo, Akiho not only makes sure not to forget Guntsuku-1, but her influence encourages the other club members to create an augmented reality modification so that people using a technological interface can view Guntsuku-2 as if it actually were Gunvarrel. Similarly, even when the horrible truth of Gunvarrel becomes known and people view it with disdain, Akiho resolves to still love Gunvarrel because she believes that her positive experiences with it trump whatever diabolical authorial intent may have been at the heart of it. At this point, it becomes increasingly clear that what is important to Akiho (and Robotic;Notes) is not the physical component of giant robots as massive titans of power but as symbols and icons of inspiration, existing in the hearts of those who love what it could be, instead of what it was supposed to be.
Akiho’s persistent spirit along with Guntsuku-2
Akiho embodies this “giant robot spirit.” Late in the series, when the conspiracy which underpins the series is in full swing, Akiho falls into a panicked depression, which comes as a shock to Kaito. Throughout the series, Kaito acts like a reluctant accomplice to Akiho’s madness, someone who follows only because he must. In this situation, however, Kai reveals that he was only able to act the role of the slacker because Akiho was there as his beacon of light, with enough motivation to carry the both of them. Kaito always saw in Akiho what Akiho sees in giant robots: something (or someone) who is not the most logical or rational but is an enduring source of motivation.
By the end of the series, the Robotics Club must stop the leader of the conspiracy and prevent the death of millions. In order to do so, they (along with their friends and family) repurpose the Guntsuku-1 using parts of Guntsuku-2, giving it functional modifications that they were simply unable to the first time. Appearance-wise, it’s still more or less the cumbersome hunk of metal it was before, but at this point in the story it’s clear that what makes Guntsuku-1 into a valiant giant robot just like Gunvarrel is not how closely it matches the original design but rather the intent of the people who support it. This includes not just the current Robotics Club and the people they know, but the people who worked on it throughout the years such as Akiho’s sister. As if to reinforce this point, when the antagonists view Guntsuku-1 through the technological interface of their own robot, all they can see is the actual Gunvarrel (via the same augmented reality image used for Guntsuku-2), complete with signature attacks.
The virtual image of Guntsuku-1
In describing Robotics;Notes as an anime about giant robots unlike so many others, this distinction mainly has to do with the fact that Robotics;Notes incorporates into its story how giant robots as cultural artifacts are received and interpreted by the people who engage with them. It is not the only anime to address this on some level, with Martian Successor Nadesico and the 2004 Tetsujin 28 being a couple of examples, but Robotics;Notes does so while putting into question throughout its narrative the very existence of its signature robot. It is not until the conceptual processes for conceiving the effects of “giant robots” are in place that Guntsuku-1 truly takes center stage, which in turn creates a unique and interesting position for Robotics;Notes. If one were to categorize Robotics;Notes, would it be considered a “giant robot anime?” The fact that this can be argued both ways is, rather than being a weakness of Robotics;Notes, one of its greatest strengths.