Flexibility of Ingredients in Giant Robot Anime

On the recent Anime World Order podcast there was an e-mail from a listener lamenting the lack of “real mecha anime.” The AWO guys (Clarissa was absent) concurred with his view, and said that, while they understand the argument that elements they don’t enjoy in current shows were present in past robot anime, the ratio of ingredients for baking this “cake” has changed for the worse. As one of the people who speaks about elements of current robot shows being able to trace their elements back to previous decades, and who has argued this point before, I agree that the shows of today are different. Different things are emphasized to differing degrees, and the robots are not always used in the same ways as they would in the past. My question in response is simply, what is wrong with this change?

From what I understand, when Anime World Order and their listener say they desire proper mecha shows, what they are actually looking for are shows heavily featuring action, power, and manliness as represented by giant robots. While I too am a fan of cool robots shooting lasers and all sorts of diplays of machismo, and I’m aware that Daryl and Gerald’s tastes are not exactly the same as their listener, the problem is that if you define “proper mecha” as such, then the genre becomes extremely limited.  Who draws the line to say, “this is the correct amount of robot prominence in a mecha show?” You can point to Mobile Suit Gundam and say that it’s a show that has the “right ratio” of elements, but I can point to Mazinger Z and say how actually different it is compared to Gundam in terms of narrative focus and even the ways in which the robots are used, not to mention the differences between Gundam the movies vs. Gundam the TV series. How about Superdimensional Fortress Macross, which (indirectly) takes the Char-Amuro-Lalah love triangle and transforms it into a main draw of that series?

The reason I bring this up is firstly because I want to emphasize how much  that ratio has changed even within the conventional history of robot anime (and I am deliberately avoiding bringing Evangelion into the equation due to its unusual position), but even more importantly because the shows which “get it right” in the current age are the product of adjusting the ratio in favor of a certain perspective on what giant robot anime should be like. Shin Getter Robo vs. Neo Getter Robo is brought up frequently in the podcast as an example of a relatively recent giant robot anime done right (or at least in the spirit of the old stuff), but it does not actually have the same ratio of elements as the robot anime of the past. If anything, it’s somewhere between the tamer Getter Robo anime of the 1970s and the harsher Getter Robo Go manga in terms of action and violence, and to highlight certain elements of each while ignoring others makes not for a show like the old stuff, but one which emphasizes certain desired elements from the previous works. This is hardly a problem as Shin Getter Robo vs. Neo Getter Robo does in fact offer the things that AWO says it does, but it’s also the result of distilling a robot anime into something more focused and specific to the preferences of particular viewers, which is not that different from the objections leveled at the current audience of robot anime.

I understand that this criticism is primarily aimed at Code Geass and other anime like it which put characters front and center in their stories and use robots for flavor. While I could argue that shows like Votoms do the same thing only in a way which emphasizes a masculine ideal, if we assume that current shows simply do not have enough robots, then I have to ask why the thrill of violence and power should be the primary motivation of robot anime? AWO speaks of the sacrifices that robot fans must endure in current mecha shows, but what about the same sacrifices people made in the past to enjoy those old robot shows when the ratio may not have been ideal for them? If people see elements such as romance, attractiveness of characters, drama of war, friendship, or any number of themes in robot anime, then I think it’s fair to say, “You know what, it’s cool that those elements are there, but wouldn’t it be great if there were anime which really brought those things to the forefront for people instead of having them buried beneath layers of action?” Using robots as a means to tell the story at hand, having problems solved by thoughts and intentions instead of by robots as a power metaphor, those sound like great ways to convey a narrative or express an idea. De-emphasizing power in a giant robot anime can and often does lead to interesting things.

Turn A Gundam, which isn’t a “modern” mecha series like Code Geass, but still places both a different level and type of emphasis on its mecha component, results in an overall stronger story because of it. The 2004 remake of Tetsujin 28 is hardly like the old 1960s one, because the theme shifted from “isn’t it cool that this kid has a robot?” to “exploring the post-war condition of Japan and the specters of the war through this robot as a science fictional element.” Yes, the latter theme was part of the original manga and anime to an extent, but by not having to value the proper “ratio,” it was able to do more. Robotics;Notes possesses many of the “flaws” of current robot anime such as an emphasis on high school, a lack of robot action, and a strong dose of drama, but it’s also an anime which emphasizes the thematic purpose attributed to giant robots. It uses the intimacy of a high school setting to show the bonds the characters have with the concept of giant robots, and does so by utilizing the “modern formula” that is supposedly anti-mecha. In all three cases, their amount of straight-up conventional robot fighting is less than expected, but it allows them to serve different purposes.

Gerald spoke of Die Hard and how keeping its constituent elements but not understanding it as a whole does not necessarily make for a proper Die Hard. That might be true, but why are we limiting the scope to just one movie? Action movies can be Commando, but they can also be Highlander or The Dark Knight. If that example is too broad, then let’s look at a franchise like The Fast and the Furious. After four movies about racing cars in deserts or highways and having some vague infiltration plot, Fast Five comes out and changes the formula into what is essentially a heist film. By focusing more on action with purpose and the teamwork element, and being less about the cars themselves, the result is a much more solid and well-rounded film which is still undoubtedly of the action genre.

Or to put it in terms of Daryl’s analogy, yes if you change the proportion of ingredients when baking a cake, you get something different. The thing is, cakes are but one possibility. What we have now are robot pies, robot souffles, robot quiches, robot donuts. You might prefer cake in the end, but all of those are equally valid and can be equally delicious.

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26 thoughts on “Flexibility of Ingredients in Giant Robot Anime

  1. Pie is stupid. All forms of pie are terrible. Apple, cherry, you name it. I am greatly opposed to the idea of pie, especially compared to cake. And souffle and quiche? Those are just completely unacceptable. I have never and will never partake of any of those things. As such, I reject your proposition because cake is superior.

    Donuts? I guess I can deal with those. They can be sufficient cake-y…if done right. But you don’t know if that’s the kind of donut you’re dealing with until you actually bite in. By contrast, there is far too much of this wholly inedible pie/souffle/quiche stuff, and I’m not even gonna take a bite out of those.

    Perhaps a less analogy-ridden way of putting it–though everything I said above is applicable in the literal sense as well– is that the answer to your question “I have to ask why the thrill of violence and power should be the primary motivation of robot anime?” is “because the thrill of violence and power is the primary motivation of all worthwhile entertainment, across all media. Everything else is…well, everything else.” I’m sure there are people who think otherwise. Plenty of them, in fact. They’re just all wrong, is all.

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    • “the thrill of violence and power is the primary motivation of all worthwhile entertainment”

      Have you ever considered that you might be a sociopath?

      To put it less harshly, allow me to inform you that there are actually forms of entertainment which are not motivated by these narrowly specific criteria which you describe. Many people in fact seek out entertainment which evokes emotional resonance, describes the creator’s insight into the meaning of the world surrounding them, or embraces the traditional aesthetic values of art. These people are generally known as “adults”, and one day you may become one.

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      • “Many people in fact seek out entertainment which evokes emotional resonance, describes the creator’s insight into the meaning of the world surrounding them, or embraces the traditional aesthetic values of art. These people are generally known as adults”

        No, these people are frivolous teens of the Bourgeoisie.

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    • That’s a VERY limited way of looking at media, especially ALL media like you say. Isn’t there media you enjoy that doesn’t place its focus squarely on violence? You said you liked 70’s shoujo some time ago, and many of the best of those aren’t violent.

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  2. I think Daryl perhaps inadvertently points out a pretty hot topic in fandom: it’s about evolutionary changes of the commercial narrative that may clash with some established fan expectations (which may also be changing).

    I’m just hoping the narrative of this topic changes from “people who stopped being pandered to are whining about how things are more pandering today, just not to them,” because I wish there’s something more to it than that. There has to be.

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    • I agree that there has to be something more, and that “pandering” may not even be the right word to describe what’s going on. If anything, and I think Daryl points this out as well by referring to the shift from toys to card games among kids in Japan, that it’s all tied to those evolutionary changes in not just commercial narrative, but what fuels those commercial narratives.

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    • To be honest I find that as the fandom starts delving into the supposed “heyday” of this genre they are finding not everything perfectly matches up the anime promised in the art books of our youth. Seeing the contents of these shows past snippets of an OP sequence or whatever they get to do in an SRW game is a cold reality full of hijinks and inanity.

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      • “Seeing the contents of these shows past snippets of an OP sequence or whatever they get to do in an SRW game is a cold reality full of hijinks and inanity.”

        Er, isn’t this essentially reiterating what I said on the show when I noted the modern mechanisms by which people interact with entertainment? Actually, I can’t tell if you listen still or just read this post since you and Jeremy both appear to have me blocked.

        There is, after all, some slight discrepancies between what I actually said aloud, what’s noted here, and what I actually believe (since a substantial portion of what I verbally spoke is merely espousing the views of the person who wrote in). The most recent example is in the comment you’re replying to: *I* never referred to the card games shift.

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        • By card games I was referring more to the whole Pokemon/Yugioh/whatever monster battling and collect ’em all anime, which I know you talked about. Apologies if that wasn’t clear.

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        • I find it hard to keep listening to your show when you constantly say ignorant and hateful diatribe. Try as hard as I might to make it through whenever someone asks you about robots.

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          • VF5SS: If that’s the case, then this isn’t exactly a conversation being held in good faith. The blog opens with a link to external media, the implication being “okay, go and consume that media, then come back here for my response to it.” If you skip that step of consumption, you’re basing your response from what you think I might have said rather than what actually happened.

            I mean, let’s be honest: most of the things you particularly hold my feet to the fire over aren’t even things that I particularly believe in very strongly! Those are things GERALD believes in with conviction for which my fervor is more “that sounds about right.”

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        • Yeah, but you’re basically agreeing with what the person who wrote in said, aren’t you? You and Gerald both agree fundamentally with what the writer felt when he wrote that letter.

          I agree that the problem here seems to be changing audiences. What Daryl, Gerald and the writer of the email want isn’t what necessarily sells in Japan. If it was, Giant Robo wouldn’t have been just seven episodes that end on a cliff hanger.

          And hell, what mecha anime was back in its heyday wasn’t all that either, aside from the classics everybody knows. Is there any large group of people out there seriously wanting a revival of say… Dorvack or Laserion?

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          • Instead of arguing about cartoons and going nowhere, a lot of you fine gentlemen could be pursuing more worthwhile endeavors. Like meaningful relationships with the opposite sex.

            Also, Daryl is a man who does not eat eggs, and as such his taste in food is suspect at best.

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  3. I personally like both kinds of series. At times, I do enjoy the mindless carnage of older series. Perhaps, it has something to do with Nostalgia. I don’t know, but I don’t care. However, like you said, you can have both. On a non-robotic note, one of my favorite series, Berserk, is a carnage filled blood bath, but has a quite good plot and characters. So, I agree with you I think, but I still do enjoy the older stuff.

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  4. There are always several reasons, including but not limited to the actual robots, making me keep up with different modern mecha productions these days and I can deal with all that variety just fine from series to series. I liked a few of the robots in Code Geass -especially during the first season and at least a little bit of the second- as well as other newer shows, so the claim that the people who enjoy those kinds of series must be watching them exclusively for the sake of everything that isn’t mecha-related is quite questionable.

    Moreover, I thought the robot action sequences were essentially the highlight of the newest Code Geass production, Akito the Exiled, which also had no sign of anything resembling a high school setting either. It was rather heavily militaristic. Clearly Sunrise doesn’t think the appeal of even that specific property is only restricted to fans of school/harem elements and it’s apparently doing pretty well in terms of sales despite lacking any of the familiar characters so far.

    It’s also worth pointing out that the current anime season will have at least three mecha series representing different perspectives into the genre and its elements. The mecha are a seemingly minor element in Gargantia’s world, but Majestic Prince places a lot of emphasis on a team of five unique robots to fight a space war and I’d imagine Valvrave will give the titular robot a big role no matter what happens in the school setting.

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  5. I think that there a formula and companies are looking to appeal to the biggest piece of the fandom that would throw their wallet and life savings to that certain product.

    In importing anime from another country, do the other country care about making series that would appeal to other audiences other than the experiences of their own workers?

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  6. The problem with Code Geass wasn’t the lack of red hot mecha action, it certainly had more than my second favorite Gundam series: Gundam 0080. The problem with Code Geass was that it just threw a bunch of shows and genres in a blender and turned it on.

    Characters ham it up like in a super robot show but the characters actions dont mesh with the hammy acting making it so that your laughing during character’s death scenes. The show tries to present itself as a battle of wits but most of Lelouch’s plans involve simply geassing people into doing whatever he wants and the big final plan is simply a plan from season 1 taken to ludicrous levels of BS. The show presents Lelouch with numerous love interest including two sisters (one his full sister, the other a half sister) but the guy never gets far with any of them.

    The problem with modern mecha isnt the lack of action, the problem with modern mecha is that no one is trying to do something new, they are just repeating scenes from a previous mecha series usually removing what made the original scene work in the first place.

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    • “The problem with Code Geass was that it just threw a bunch of shows and genres in a blender and turned it on.”

      Not quite, but…for the the sake of argument, why is that even a bad thing?

      For better or for worse, it worked. And it’s not just me or that the show is crazy popular, mind you, but there are other commentators who have been able to recognize that the series had several positives at various points. Your description makes it all sound so stupidly easy to do, but combining different elements isn’t something that is done blindly with exclusively fetishistic intentions or without any degree of skill.

      Thus your statement comes across as a rather unnecessarily cynical way to look at the series….but I suppose if you really didn’t like anything about Code Geass that’s probably how you’ll want to describe the series.

      Look, here’s the main thing that’s apparently flying right over your head: Code Geass is in fact intentionally over-the-top and completely unrealistic. That is definitely on purpose and much is done for the sake of sheer entertainment value. Lelouch’s plans, while some of them are pretty clever, do not need to be remotely realistic nor seriously applicable to our own world. The staff doesn’t believe that and neither should you.

      I doubt we were even watching the same show if you believe otherwise. Come on…you think the acting is out-of-place? Not at all. It matches both the exaggerated nature of the character designs, their theatrical mannerisms, the melodrama, the slapstick comedy, the color palette, the soundtrack, the pacing and many other aspects of the show. Trying to pull off any down-to-earth acting was never in the cards and the creators have confirmed this explicitly. It would be almost like complaining about the acting in Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure, which also has the characters “ham it up” even when important people die.

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      • Here’s the thing though: if you make an anime about how some guy is a genius you have to make it so that you think the guy is a genius and not the writer got drunk and needed the script finished so he just pulled something right out of his ass.

        As for the acting I wouldnt mind if the story was some high octane action shonen jump type series like Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure or to use a mecha example G Gundam. The problem though is that Code Geass is a series about insane people commiting atrocities all while waving their arms around. One of the key scenes of the second season is Lelouch brainwashing a bunch of people and then putting them on Mt. Fuji and then blowing it up killing not only the brainwashed soldiers, but the miners mining the Sakuradite as well as the rest of the people who live around Mt. Fuji.,

        So yeah I am not going to laugh at the crazy antics of a guy like that just because he screams all of his dialogue.

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        • And my reply to that would be this: the entire story was a theatrical melodrama about a flawed genius facing larger-than-life situations, instead of a historical documentary about a real person made of flesh and blood. The main character’s relative intelligence level was established early on, whenever the creators did make an effort to show the audience how a few his thoughts worked or how some of the plans had come to pass. But even then, realism or scientifically accurate explanations were never a true concern. In later episodes, they merely simplified the whole process.

          I believe that was enough, at least by the standards of a Japanese cartoon. Especially because over-the-top events do not require down-to-earth justifications. The same goes for the acting: exaggerated performances aren’t the exclusive privilege of shows featuring Super Robot action or insane martial arts fighting. Melodramatic voice work is actually perfectly suited for melodramatic material in general. Thus the very same examples you’re bringing up, regardless of the lack of proper context, can be easily turned around to support my argument.

          I’m not telling you how to react or what to prefer, that’s all your own business, but I think it’s not very difficult to see things differently.

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  7. I can’t speak for Code Geass, but as a long-time Gundam fan who just gave up on Robotics;Notes, here’s my heuristic for what constitutes a mecha show:

    1) The characters, and their relationships and conflicts, need to be the focus of the narrative, not the plot and sequence of events (or, for that matter, the setting and its history.)

    2) The ubiquitous conflict of the show must be man versus man. Conflict-by-proxy is totally acceptable here; when Mazinger Z is fighting the Mechanical Beasts of Doctor Hell, the mechabeasts are proxies for the conflict between Koji Kabuto and Doctor Hell. (This step is the one that has been gradually expanded the most; for example, when GaoGaiGar fights a Zonder, that Zonder is also acting as a proxy for a man-against-nature conflict against whatever negative emotion caused that Zonder to be created – but it’s still a man-against-man conflict, too.)

    3) These conflicts must frequently be resolved with giant robot violence. (I bet you were wondering how long it would take me to get to the requirement of having mecha in the mecha genre.)

    So, for example:
    For the six episodes of Robotics;Notes I watched, it completely failed the first test, and largely failed the third test.
    Turn-A Gundam passes one and two, but really pushes the bounds of the third; it’s certainly about as far as I’d be willing to go in non-robot conflict and still call it a mecha show, and I know that it doesn’t pass that smell test for many Gundam fans.
    GITS:SAC would fail the third – there’s Tachikoma fights, but not *enough* Tachikoma fights – and would be pretty fuzzy on the first.
    I’d say that most Mechagodzilla movies fail on the first and second tests, to the extent that Godzilla and Mechagodzilla don’t count as characters, and to the extent that any conflict against Godzilla is directly a man-versus-nature conflict.
    And Evangelion gets a corner-case win for having plenty of interpersonal conflicts, and plenty of giant robot violence, even though the giant robot violence isn’t solving the interpersonal conflicts. (Quite the opposite, really.)

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  8. Here’s my two cents to this discussion. I understand being upset about manliness in the super robot genre, it’s supposed to be about machismo, but since when has manliness been a tenet of the real robot genre? Amuro,as we see him in Gundam, certainly isn’t a strong male figure who saves the day by being a manly man in the way that Kamina and Simon do in Gurren Lagann or Guy does in GaoGaiGar. He whines, he complains, he’s not muscular, has to be slapped into action…and it isn’t kinda the point that the manly men in Gundam are all dead by the time the war comes to Side 7?

    Also, I think Eva does need to come into this discussion since Eva takes the lack of masculinity in Gundam and put it into a super robot show and makes it a central plot point.

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  9. Pingback: Spring 2013 Robot Variety Extravaganza! | OGIUE MANIAX

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