Thinking About Hong Kong Through the Lens of G Gundam

Hong Kong has been on my mind a lot as of late. Earlier in the year, I began re-watching Mobile Fighter G Gundam, an anime in which the latter half of the series takes place primarily in the futuristic “Neo-Hong Kong.” A few months earlier, I actually visited Hong Kong for the second time ever—the first time was three decades ago when I could barely remember a thing. Then, in recent weeks, news of Hong Kong has been dominated by the ongoing protests there in response to the Mainland Chinese government. This confluence of events has me wondering about how Hong Kong was traditionally portrayed in media, and imagining the possible Hong Kongs that could have been.

Giant robot fighting tournament aside, the Hong Kong of G Gundam is close to the classic portrayal of the territory in the 1980s and 1990s: tall buildings and a mix of glitz and grime, much like in Bloodsport or the countless works to come out of the famed Hong Kong film industry. One major difference between fiction and reality is that in G Gundam, the Neo-Hong Kong government is the sovereign ruler of all nations—a consequence of winning the previous “Gundam Fight” tournament. It’s extra ironic because G Gundam was made in 1994; that’s a mere three years before Hong Kong was to be returned to China after two hundred years as a British colony. According to a talk by director Imagawa Yasuhiro, the producers of G Gundam were aware of this and didn’t care.

While Neo-Hong Kong being the world’s foremost power is portrayed as a double-edged sword, especially in how the appearance of prosperity hides the damage and decay of the Earth itself, seeing a Hong Kong so powerful contrasts with its relatively declining influence in the real world since 1997. Hong Kong had been a major player on the world stage due to the economic freedoms allowed by its British colony status, and the relationship between China and Hong Kong is meant to be “one country, two systems” in order to maintain the make-up of both, but there has long been a growing fear by residents of Hong Kong that this was never meant to last.

Two areas that point to Hong Kong receding from center stage are the film industry and the pop music industry. Hong Kong’s notoriety in movies is a shadow of its former self, while China increasingly funds and influences major Hollywood productions. Cantonese pop from Hong Kong, which swept Asia in previous decades, had a long lull that it seems to only be recovering from now. This stands out all the more because the prime minister of Neo Hong-Kong in G Gundam is named Wong Yun-Fat (a reference to famed director Chow Yun-Fat), and the fact that G Gundam itself has a full-on Cantopop soundtrack for the second half of the anime.

Visiting Hong Kong, I noticed how different each area of the territory is. Hong Kong island feels like it’s somewhere between London and New York’s Chinatown. Kowloon reminds me more of the Asian cities I’ve been to, and is also the namesake of Neo-Hong Kong’s Kowloon Gundam. I didn’t go to the New Territories, but I hear it’s where you live if you want to get away from everything else. Lantau Island, in the New Territories, is actually the site of the final battle in G Gundam. On Sundays, you’ll see countless girls, many in hijabs, occupying the street. That’s because it’s the only day out of the week that the domestic workers of Hong Kong—from Indonesia, the Philippines, and other Asian countries—have off. Hong Kong is a place of amalgams and contrasts that reflect an economy of haves and have-nots, not unlike the world of G Gundam.

Hong Kong is still significant in the world, but China’s economic rise is one of the biggest stories of the last two decades. Because of the mainland’s increasing global influence, it makes me doubtful that we’ll ever see more Neo-Hong Kongs in media, Hong Kongs that dominate the Earth. “Hong Kong as powerhouse” is an interesting narrative, but because it’s competing with the tale that the influential are seeking to weave, it might very well remain in the imagination.

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Otakon 2019 Interview: Furuya Toru

This interview was conducted at Otakon 2019 in Washington, DC. Furuya Toru is the voice behind famous anime characters such as Amuro Ray (Gundam), Tuxedo Mask (Sailor Moon), and Seiya (Saint Seiya).

Ogiue Maniax: It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Furuya. I have a few questions I’d like to get the answers to. First, you’re known for many famous roles, but one of your early major ones was Hoshi Hyuuma in Star of the Giants. What was it like working on the show with director Nagahama?

Furuya: That was an anime from almost fifty years ago, and back then I was a middle schooler, and back then, Nagahama-san wasn’t there at the recordings. So I actually don’t have too many memories with him, unfortunately.

Ogiue Maniax: I have another question about Star of the Giants. I’ve heard before that there is a famous episode where a pitch–a single pitch–takes the entire episode. I’ve had trouble finding out more about it. Do you recall this episode, and if so, do you remember what it was like to work on it?

Furuya: There wasn’t an episode where a single throw was one episode, but there was an episode where a single inning was one episode. The anime always did this thing where it would end at a really good place–the camera would stop at the ball right in the air, and many people would want to know what happened next. So I think that went on to be talked about as only one throw in that episode

Ogiue Maniax: I want to ask about one of your recent roles. One of my favorite roles you’ve done is Casshern in Casshern Sins.

Furuya: With regards to Casshern, back then, I was at a point in time where I was thinking that I’ve gotten old and there’s lots of new people in the industry, and I’m not gonna have many main character roles like before. But then, Casshern from Casshern Sins was an offer I got directly from the director of Casshern Sins, director Yamauchi, who I had worked with previously on Saint Seiya. I was very honored at the fact that I was able to do the main character, and it was a while since I played a main character for a TV series. Unfortunately, maybe it was the overall theme being a bit dark and heavy, but it did not receive as good a reception as we hoped for, but I really like Casshern Sins.

Ogiue Maniax: It’s a really excellent show.

Furuya: [In English] Thank you so much!

Ogiue Maniax: I want to ask you about another main character, one that’s more obscure: the main hero from the anime Groizer X. Did you know that the show is actually apparently quite beloved in Brazil?

Furuya: [In English] Really?! [in Japanese] I didn’t know at all. I’ve been to Brazil three times, and I  knew Saint Seiya was popular, but I never heard anything about Groizer X.

Ogiue Maniax: I read online that it was one of the first mecha shows to come to Brazil, so it influenced Brazil in terms of giant robot anime.

Furuya: I think the people there might not realize I did both Kaisaka Joe from Groizer X and Seiya from Saint Seiya.

Ogiue Maniax: My next question is going back to your experience with directors. Director Tomino is known for being a very interesting person. As someone who has worked with him a lot, do you have any favorite stories or memorable experiences with Director Tomino?

Furuya: This is going back to Gundam, but back then, Gundam was a very new and novel concept for a show. As the person who came up with it, I thought he was a genius. I also thought he was a very scary person, but he actually came to all of the recordings we had, and he didn’t give too many directions. But back then, I remember that there were a lot of new female voice actors in the field, and lots of them were having a hard time doing their roles. So Director Tomino would actually be very caring to explain exactly how he wanted some acts to be done. So that was memorable.

Ogiue Maniax: Speaking of female voice actors in Gundam, I was recently watching an anime with Inoue You [the voice of Sayla Mass], and to me, you and Inoue both are fantastic voice actors. Sadly, she passed away, so I wanted to know if you have any lasting impressions or memories of her.

Furuya: You-san was in the business since childhood, so I really looked up to her. She was also a really good cook. Back in the Gundam days, after recording, we would go over to her place to have curry that she cooked.

Ogiue Maniax: That’s wonderful. 

When I think about your performances, you’re very good at playing characters of all ages–young, old, different personalities. Do you have any advice for, say, new voice actors who are trying to achieve that versatility?

Furuya: For new people in the voice acting field, I would actually say they should want to experience many things because my personal experience when I get new roles to play is that I go back and do some research on what kind of role this is, what kind of world this is, and what character I’m doing. I would think long and hard about what kind of voice that character would have. I would go as far as to act the same movements as the characters would be making. So I’d actually do it kind of like a play, where I would actually move the same way and give a thought as to what the character would move like, or what the world is like. In that sense, my approach towards those roles is the versatility I have, and to new voice actors, I would suggest them to get many new experiences so they can give more educated thought on how a character may sound like.

Ogiue Maniax: If there’s one message you’d want people to take away from Gundam, what would it be?

Furuya:

Ogiue Maniax: Thank you very much!

Why Are There So Few Recent Titles in Super Robot Wars T?

When a series gets into a Super Robot Wars game, for the first time, it’s a momentous occasion, especially when the game in question is one of the “mainline” iterations. The mecha (or even spaceships these days!) can be from old and obscure works, cult favorites, and even the new hotness. When playing through the recent Super Robot Wars T, however, I noticed that there’s a significant dearth of recent series, and I’m using that term loosely—out of every anime included, only two are from the past 13 years.

Even that number doesn’t tell the whole story. One of the anime referred to above is 2018’s Mazinger Z: Infinity, a film sequel to the original Mazinger Z anime franchise. While technically “modern,” it’s meant to be a nostalgia work. That leaves only Expelled from Paradise, a 2014 film. The next one after that is Gun x Sword from 2005. It’s not inherently a bad thing, and there are a number of welcome surprises in SRWT like Magic Knight Rayearth, Cowboy Bebop, and Captain Harlock. In a Famitsu interview, the director, Terada Takanobu, mentioned that one of their decisions for including new titles was a desire to have something for every age group. So in the sense of newcomers alone, it’s a pretty even split. However, the heavy lean towards the old is still noticeable, and I think a number of factors go into this.

First, as the years go by, what is considered an “old” title vs. a “new” one widens. Second, mecha anime just isn’t the bustling industry it once was, at least not in the same way. Third, I think that, as much as they tried to pull in fans of all ages, their core demographic seems to be working adults somewhere around 25-39, given both the themes of the game and the title selection itself.

For many younger anime fans, a span of five years might very well cover their entire fandom, let alone the now five decades that have elapsed since the original Mazinger Z anime debuted. For Super Robot Wars, this goes double, as it often takes quite a few years for a hot new mecha title to get the spotlight. Back in the early 2000s, Gaogaigar (1997) and Shin Getter Robo Armageddon (1998) were considered fairly young upstarts when they appeared. Now, in Super Robot Wars T, they’re grizzled old veterans. Outside of Super Robot Wars specifically, it’s always fascinating to see a title like Cowboy Bebop (1997 debut but aired on Adult Swim in 2001) go from being the hot new thing in the US to being a virtually canonized masterpiece that’s sometimes more discussed than viewed.

The relative oldness of the entries in SRWT is in part a consequence of how giant robots are simply not the industry juggernaut that they once were. Long gone are the endless number of children’s mecha shows, and the robot anime that do remain know that their audience will often skew older. Super Robot Wars, given its nature as a crossover celebration of what is increasingly a niche genre, is sort of tailor-made for nostalgia, compounding the sense that its appeal does not lie in attracting newer, younger anime fans, but those with a lot of experience watching and loving mecha anime. There are newer titles to pull in, but will they have the same draw as these assumed childhood/youth favorites?

In that sense, it’s interesting to note just where the nostalgia hits hardest for SRWT. Many of the titles are squarely in the 1990s without being made as sequels or reimaginings—Cowboy Bebop, Magic Knight Rayearth, Nadesico, G Gundam, Gaogaigar, and Might Gaine—while plenty of other titles are late 80s or early 2000s. Director Terada mentioned that international fandom was a consideration for which titles to include, and while not the case with every country, I think that the 90s is an especially strong time for fan nostalgia now—or at least the 90s anime they may have seen years later because anime distribution wasn’t nearly as speedy back in the days of VHS tapes and Real Media Player.

It’s also telling that the gimmick of the main heroes is that they’re salarymen, i.e. full-time working adults around ages 25 to 39, instead of teenagers. In some sense, it works as a gimmick, but when past original characters have been decidedly less mundane in their basic premises, the idea of “loyal company employee” stands out. There’s something to be said about how the notion of the salaryman as the default position for adults in Japan has been shattered for many years now, but I won’t go much into it except to say that while a heroine who just really likes a steady paycheck might have seemed like the most milquetoast thing once upon a time, in our current global economy, that idea almost borders on escapist fantasy.

Or maybe the team just really wanted to do a story with Jupiter as a focal point. Between Shin Getter Robo Armageddon, Nadesico, Crossbone Gundam, Aim for the Top!, Gaogaigar, and Cowboy Bebop, the fifth planet from the sun gets major play.

There’s one last possible reason the series is lacking anime titles from recent years: they’re saving them for a direct sequel. While there’s no news yet of a true follow-up to Super Robot Wars T (as opposed to just another game with a completely different cast and universe), there are enough loose threads in this game that a continuation would not be surprising.

Super Robot Wars T and Gaogaigar’s Unspoken Plot Change?

I’ve been playing the heck out of Super Robot Wars T (available via import in English for the Nintendo Switch and PlayStation 4), and as always, I’m into the loving fanfictional goodness that the franchise always entails. When you have all of these different giant robot heroes in the same universe, the interactions are an endless source of amusement and head-nodding affirmation.

Of the many crossover moments little and big, however, there is what I believe to be an unspoken story element that significantly alters the course of one particular series: King of Braves Gaogaigar. This might be mere fan speculation on my part, but I think it also makes total sense.

In the original 1997 Gaogaigar TV series, the main character Shishioh Guy uses an attack called Hell and Heaven to finish off monsters. A little into the series, however, he discovers that using the attack too much does severe damage to his cyborg body, and that overusing it could lead to death. In response to this, his team (known as GGG) creates a new, alternative finisher called the Goldion Hammer, which becomes his default decisive blow through most of the series. It’s only in desperate times when the Goldion Hammer isn’t available that Guy will resort back to Hell and Heaven.

But in Super Robot Wars T, when you meet Guy, the Goldion Hammer is nowhere in sight, despite the story being well past the point in the anime where he was supposed to get the Goldion Hammer. And yet, Guy shows no signs of excessive use of Hell and Heaven. On one level, this is likely a gameplay pacing decision, to keep Gaogaigar from having its strongest attack early on, but I think there’s also an in-story explanation: he simply didn’t have to use it as much in the SRWT universe.

Whereas Gaogaigar and GGG alone fought against EI-01 and the Zonders in the anime, in the game, they occasionally received help from Watta and Tryder G7 (from Muteki Robo Tryder G7), as well as Maito and Mightgaine (from The Brave Express Mightgaine). In other words, in SRWT, Guy had enough assistance in his many battles that, by the time we meet him in-game, he isn’t anywhere near as overburdened as he is in the anime.

It’s considerations like the above which make Super Robot Wars T (and Super Robot Wars in general) such a treat. I’m looking forward to seeing whatever other crazy moments are in store.

Kotobukiya Wants to Know Your Favorite Yuusha/Brave Robots

Good news for fans of 1990s giant robot fans: plastic model and figure maker Kotobukiya is looking into making plastic models from the Yuusha/Brave series, and they’re holding a survey to get customers’ opinions.

The survey is in Japanese, but for those who can’t read the language but still want to participate, I’ve translated the prompts, which you can see below.

  1. Please select your gender. (Choices are male, female, and no answer)
  2. Please select your year of birth.
  3. Among the options below, please select your favorite work in the Brave series. (Options are in order of release date)
  4. Please select the Brave series products you hope to see. (Pick 3)
  5. Please write any opinions you have pertaining to Brave series plastic model kits
  6. Please tell us your favorite plastic model purchase from the last six months.
  7. Please tell us why the answer in #6 is your favorite.
  8. Please choose any of your favorite plastic model lines from Kotobukiya. (Frame Arms series, Frame Arms Girls series, Hexa Gear series, M.S.G. Weapon Unit series, M.S.G. Heavy Weapon Unit series, M.S.G. Gigantic Arms series, M.S.G. Mecha Supply series, M.S.G. miscellaneous, Other)

So happy survey-filling-out (?)! I for one will be voting for Shadowmaru (J-Decker), King J-Der (Gaogaigar), and Gaogaigo (Gaogaigar vs. Betterman novels). Survey ends May 31.

The Real Captain Planet: Brave Fighter of Legend Da Garn

The 1990s Brave franchise—most famously known for its swan song, King of Braves Gaogaigar—is a series of children’s anime centered on boy heroes and their heavily merchandisable giant robots. While the overall quality varies, each show indicates a push and pull between being half-hour toy commercials, displaying impressive mecha animation, telling stories that kids enjoy, and imparting important lessons for young viewers. Over the years, I’ve been told multiple times that one of the turning points is 1992’s Brave Fighter of Legend Da Garn: the third entry and first to attempt a more mature and long-form story. Having finally watched it, I can see a more serious yet also a scattershot approach that belies the competing forces dictating the direction of Da Garn.

Takashiro Seiji is a normal ten year old boy whose mother is a news anchor and whose father is a member of Earth’s Global Defense Force. When a mysterious robot attacks the city, he comes across a power lying within the Earth itself that manifests itself as a giant robot guardian known as Da Garn. As the masked commander, Seiji leads Da Garn, and eventually other robot allies who emerge, against ever greater threats—especially the enemy’s ongoing attempt to rob the Earth of its “planet energy.” There’s an ongoing environmentalism and world peace theme underlying everything, exemplified by a line from the opening theme: “This planet is our cherished ship.”

Due to this show’s opening, I once had a very mistaken impression of Seiji. The way he’s drawn and animated in it, there are times when he looks like an adult. It’s almost as if they either hadn’t decided his age, or figured that making him look 6 feet tall and muscular would make for a more exciting intro regardless of how odd it looks. Whatever the case, my expectations had to be modified, though Seiji’s quality voice acting from Matsumoto Rica (best known as Satoshi from Pokemon) helps keep him an endearing if somewhat typical protagonist.

The robots, in typical Brave fashion, are all about combining. Da Garn combines with a plane and a train to become Da Garn X. Later robots combine together and then get additional partners to combine together. However, they’re also kind of a thematic hodgepodge. Da Garn himself is a police car. He gets plane allies and motor vehicle allies. Then they start introducing robots based on animals, even making it seem like one is going take over as the star of the show, as if someone said, “The surveys say kids like lions!!”

There are so many mecha, and they’re given so few opportunities to show their personalities, that only a handful ever get highlighted, leaving many to be less memorable. In contrast, it’s hard to forget any of the robots in Brave Police J-Decker or Gaogaigar. Even compared to a series like Girls und Panzer (which also groups a gigantic cast into “squads” with collective personalities), Da Garn can feel sparse in terms of characterization. The main exception to this glut is an antagonistic robot named Seven Changer, who (of course) has seven different forms, and whose cool arrogance is delivered effectively by Koyasu Takehito (Dio in JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure).

Speaking of villains, I’m not sure if I’d call them particularly strong, but they are definitely memorable, and they’re explored in great detail. Many of their identifies are initially a mystery, and they’re woven into the simultaneous small-town/global atmosphere in interesting ways. As the series progresses, their stories are increasingly a part of the narrative, and it allows Da Garn to touch upon ideas that would make less sense with Seiji or any of his friends. In fact, I’d argue that the anime doesn’t really find its footing until it starts to do more with its villains.

Brave Fighter of Legend Da Garn ends up being the kind of work that is best viewed as taking a step beyond its trappings and its immediate predecessors while still somewhat beholden to them. It’s polished in some areas like visual presentation and general momentum of its narrative, but it sometimes succumbs to the weight of all the different expectations placed upon it. But while it may be outdone by later Brave series, it’s still a joy to experience, quirks and all.

Gattai Girls 9: “Mobile Police Patlabor” OVA 1 and Izumi Noa [Anime Secret Santa]

Introduction: For the second year in a row, I’m combining my Reverse Thieves’ Anime Secret Santa entry with my Gattai Girls review series—posts dedicated to looking at giant robot anime featuring prominent female characters due to their relative rarity within that genre.

Here, “prominent” is primarily defined by two traits. First, the female character has to be either a main character (as opposed to a sidekick or support character), or she has to be in a role which distinguishes her. Second, the female character has to actually pilot a giant robot, preferably the main giant robot of the series she’s in.

The year is 1988, and the long-standing image of giant robots in anime fluctuates between either fantastic heroes and gritty, expansive science fiction. In this environment, one multimedia franchise decides to ask a simple yet potential-laden question: how does a society police its citizens in a world where mecha are commonplace?

In the near future of Patlabor, humanoid robots are commonly used in various industries, the police have also decided to incorporate mecha known as Patrol Labors into their forces. Patlabor follows Special Vehicles Unit 2, a ragtag bunch of eccentrics who solve Labor-related crimes. While there are multiple iterations of Patlabor, including anime, TV series, OVAs, and films (all of which apparently have branching continuities), this review will be focused on the first OVA series, titled simply Mobile Police Patlabor, but also known as Patlabor: The Early Days.

At first, Patlabor presents itself as a fairly low-stakes works, with its eclectic cast of officers and mechanics trying to deal as much with each other as the crimes they’re supposed to prevent. However, it gradually reveals concerns that are deeper and broader than first expected—provided you peel back the curtain a little bit. Over the course of the seven episodes of the first OVA series, those “Labor crimes” (not sure if pun intended) often speak to underlying social issues in Japan such as the struggle between pacifism and militarism that has affected the nation since World War II.

Such themes are the wheelhouse of the OVA’s director, Oshii Mamoru, and he gets even more philosophical about the intersection between technology and society in his Patlabor films. Here in the first OVA, though, Oshii doesn’t go nearly as hard on his pet topics, and the result is a comparatively much more straightforward story. The OVA is much more willing to be a police drama with some underlying political messages, and thus more approachable for those who might feel the films to be too overbearing.

But it’s also impossible to shake the idea that Patlabor cares relatively little about what it presents on the surface, especially when it comes to the treatment of the ostensible protagonist, Izumi Noa. If one were to guess what Patlabor is about from just the opening alone, one would assume that Noa is the star of the show, as she relaxes with, takes care of, and fights in her beloved Patlabor, Alphonse. In fact, she’s the only character who appears in it at all! Yet, somehow, the clear poster child for Patlabor as a whole only ever has a semi-major part at best in any of the episodes.

It’s not as if Noa is portrayed as useless or incompetent or in need of big, strong man to rescue her, but her general character—tomboyish robot lover with a knack for piloting—seems to have the least connection to the series’s underlying focus on the intersection between politics and technology. In contrast, Shinohara Azuma is the son of the president of a Labor-manufacturing company, while Goto is the deceptively intelligent and wily chief whose past has him confront the militaristic elements of Japan. Even the other prominent female characters, Kanuka Clancy and Nagumo Shinobu, seem to get more screen time than Noa because they’re tied much more deeply with the police system. Ironically, the woman who was to be the heroine by virtue of her neutral and apolitical passion for mecha ends up feeling more like a side character.

Overall, Mobile Police Patlabor seems to embody much of the OVA spirit that permeated anime in the 80s and 90s by providing an opportunity for projects to go in unique and interesting directions. The result is a fascinating series, but also one that seems in conflict with itself at times.