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.

Armored Trooper Votoms: Part 3

In an interstellar war between the nations of Gilgamesh and Balarant, a woman designated “Proto-One” is the galaxy’s first Perfect Soldier. Genetically modified for battle and having her memories artificially placed to give her all of the necessary knowledge to be an efficient killer, she is highly prized as a military weapon and has been prepared for nearly every situation. However, her encounters with a stoic mercenary named Chirico Cuvie provide the biggest shock of her life: the emotion known as love.

Named “Fyana” by Chirico after an intense encounter in the anarchic city of Uoodo, they eventually escape the planet together at the end of the civil war in Kummen. There’s no time for a honeymoon however, as they are immediately abducted by an abandoned spaceship that seems hell-bent on reminding Chirico of his bloody past. Episodes 28-39 of Armored Trooper Votoms trace Chirico and Fyana’s lives as they both begin to figure out who they really are. We also get to see the other side of the war for the first time as the Balarant military makes its appearance.

I’ve criticized the romantic side of Votoms in my previous two reviews, but their time aboard the mysterious spaceship improves that aspect tremendously. You’re never really sure how they ended up in love, but now that they are, they love each other in a way that two soldiers unfamiliar with emotional response only can. The “Deadworld Sunsa” arc of Votoms is very different from the first half of the series, as it lets the viewer truly see for the first time the relationship dynamic between Chirico and Fyana. Previous mention is made of Chirico’s past as a “Red Shoulder,” but it is only now that we are given the knowledge that to be a Red Shoulder is to be a member of the most ruthlessly efficient and barbaric military group ever known. As both Chirico and Fyana are biological engines of death and destruction, it appears that their tacit understanding of each other despite barely knowing each other only brings them closer. Chirico is willing to fight to the death for Fyana and vice versa, and woe is the enemy who ends up in the targeting sights of either one.

The forced trip to Sunsa gives us the opportunity to see space battles in Votoms, and just as the tactics of warfare must change from city to jungle, so too must they be modified for a zero-gravity environment. Votoms isn’t exactly trying to be a 100% accurate depiction of inertia as it applies to fighting in space, but it does a good job of showing how both Chirico and Fyana must handle enemies that can come from any angle, and later battles on Sunsa show tremendous creativity without dispeling the realism that Votoms is known for.

Like the previous two arcs of Votoms, Deadworld Sunsa can be treated as a stand-alone series, but part 3 has far more connections to the underlying plot that drives the entire show. New characters introduced give the viewer a better understanding of the Perfect Soldier program and the nature of the Red Shoulder platoon. Old friends and enemies reappear, though not necessarily where you expect them. In every case, they impact Chirico and Fyana in myriad ways. By the end, the desire for the truth is what will compel you to keep watching.

Armored Trooper Votoms: Part 2

Armored Trooper Votoms is the story of Chirico Cuvie, a soldier and Armored Tooper (giant robot) pilot who was betrayed by his own military and forced on the run. Previously, Chirico found himself in Uoodo, a city where might makes right and people are very likely not to wake up the next morning. In episodes 14-27 of Armored Trooper Votoms, the AWOL soldier Chirico Cuvie trades the disorder and chaos of Uoodo for the focused destruction in the jungles of Kummen, a country at odds with Melkia. Chirico, a man who lives to fight, finds himself in his natural habitat amidst a civil war.

The aptly titled second part of Votoms, the “Kummen Jungle Wars,” sees Chirico acting as a mercenary for the Kummen government, fighting against a rebellious prince who seeks to prevent his nation from abandoning its traditions and modernizing. As the war progresses, it becomes clear that neither side is “good” or “evil” as is often the case with clashes of ideology as well as real robot anime. New characters are introduced on both sides, some familiar and welcome faces appear, Chirico still uses a Scope Dog, and the Perfect Soldier project which forced Chirico on the run is further along than it’s ever been before. …Or is it?

The fighting in Kummen is different from Uoodo, where it was usually cops vs thugs vs Chirico. Instead, Chirico in his mercenary role frequently acts as part of a mechanized platoon, following orders and occasionally giving them. The enemy, being much weaker than them, relies on guerilla tactics and hiding in plain sight in order to confuse the government’s soldiers and weaken resolve. The battles are intense and gritty without much posturing, lives are easily lost, and Chirico continues to wage war in what is basically the Votoms equivalent of a Zaku, a Leo, or a KLF: a rust bucket without many special features other than the strength and skill of the pilot within it.

The only real fault of Votoms is the way it handles romance, as it does so in a very Tomino-esque hammer-over-the-head manner. The origins of romance in the story of Votoms can make it hard to swallow, but don’t let it distract you.

Though the Kummen Jungle Wars arc ties into the greater plotline of Votoms, it can be considered its own self-contained story of a country at war with itself, where tradition and progress are forced against one another to determine the future of the nation. Watching just these 13 episodes alone can be satisfying enough, and if you’re unable to watch the Uoodo arc, the show was courteous enough to throw in a recap episode. At the end of Kummen, while a lot of questions are answered, far more are brought up, and there’s another 26 episodes to go.

Armored Trooper Votoms: Part 1

This is a review of episodes 1-13 (or was that 14?) of Armored Trooper Votoms.

Armored Trooper Votoms is the story of a soldier gone AWOL named Chirico Cuvie. Chirico is the pilot of an “Armored Trooper,” essentially a giant robot used for military purposes, but without any of the flash or style of a Gundam or a Valkyrie. Having found himself an unwitting accomplice in a conspiracy to attack a friendly space station, Chirico is betrayed by his fellow soldiers, but not before discovering their most important secret: A mysterious, expressionless woman inside a capsule and the target of capture by his former allies. Barely escaping with his own life, Chirico runs into a higher-up in the military, a man named Rocchina, who believes Chirico’s accidental treason to be anything but. Chirico is tortured mercilessly, but manages to escape and ends up in a city of scoundrels and gangs not unlike the entire planet in Hokuto no Ken. That city is named Uoodo.

In Uoodo, Chirico manages to make some friends, though none of them are by any means innocent, given the nature of Uoodo. Chirico must deal with a corrupt police force while still running from the military who believes him to know more than he actually does. As Chirico tries to survive, he begins to learn the secrets of the mysterious woman he met at the space station, referred to as the “Prototype,” and the viewer is shown that the conspiracy that got Chirico running for his life in the first place runs much deeper than anybody ever suspected.

Armored Trooper Votoms, as I mentioned, has giant robots, and not fancy ones at that. The result is that, while the action is not exactly completely realistic, it has a very gritty feel to it. An Armored Trooper is not made of super alloys, it does not have any fancy weapons or serious technological edge. It is basically a tank with legs. In fact, Chirico frequently switches Armored Troopers because the previous one got wrecked beyond repair in battle, though he prefers a specific type called the Scope Dog. In one battle, his Scope Dog was taken down by heavy fire from people on foot and in cars and helicopters. They are far from invincible, and this is the basis of the combat in the show.

As for the plot, this is what is meant whenever someone says that you have to give a Sunrise mecha series chance to set up, that they generally have a 13-episode test. This entire first part, aptly entitled the “Uoodo” arc, is ALL setup for what’s to come. I can feel it, I think anyone watching can feel it, the whole point of this first part is to set up the characters and the basic setting, and to establish what is “normal” for the show so that the show can then be turned on its head. These first 13 episodes for the most part feel fairly episodic. They sometimes revolve around Chirico’s friends trying to strike it rich, or Chirico escaping from danger, or a combination of the two, but along the way hints are dropped and characterization is expanded. My only complaint is that the show has a very Tomino-esque way of introducing relationships, which is to say unrealistic and rushed in order to make a plot point. Other than that, the show is on its way to success.

I have been set up. Now it’s time for the show to begin knocking me down.

PS: One amusing aspect of Votoms I should mention is the next episode previews, which are usually serious expositions of what will happen to Chirico. Best of all is that they all end on some extremely dramatic and cryptic message of what’s to come. The one that stands out in my mind is “NEXT TIME, CHIRICO DRINKS HIS COFFEE BLACK, AND IT IS BITTER INDEED.” It kind of makes the show hard to take seriously sometimes, but that’s okay.