Weak Mecha

While at this point we have an understanding of the concept of a “weak” protagonists in giant robot anime thanks to characters like Ikari Shinji from Evangelion, rarely are main robots allowed to exude an image of weakness and vulnerability as well. If we even look at Shinji himself, while he’s known for being passive and lacking in will, the actual EVA-01 looks monstrous and acts even more terrifyingly.

In most cases when there is a “weak mecha,” it ends up being a joke character’s ride, whether that’s Boss Borot from Mazinger Z or Kerot from Combattler V. In terms of actual main-focus giant robots, the closest this concept gets its maybe Dai-Guard the almost-literal “budget robot,” or perhaps the perpetually incomplete Guntsuku-1 from Robotics;Notes. Maybe the Scope Dog from VOTOMS counts because it’s so disposable, but like Dai-Guard it still at least looks strong.

Of course it only makes sense that mecha tend to be on the powerful side; they’re giant mechanical humanoids after all. It’s just something I’m starting to consider a potential limitation of the genre and an interesting space to explore.

Otakon 2012 Interview with Tenjin Hidetaka

Introduction: I attended Otakon this year and got the chance to interview mechanical illustrator and designer Tenjin Hidetaka. Responsible for box art from various series including Gundam and Macross, his latest work can be found in Aquarion Evol. His official website can be found at http://www.studio-tenjin.com and his Twitter is @TENJIN_hidetaka.

For the sake of consistency with the rest of this blog, Japanese names are last name first.

OM: How did you get started working in the anime and toy industries?

Tenjin: My very first anime work was Macross Zero from Satelight. I can’t remember what year it was, either 2002 or 2003, but my first anime was Macross Zero.

OM: How is it like working with Kawamori Shouji? How did you meet?

Tenjin: I met Mr. Kawamori Shouji because I had been illustrating for a Macross fansite. I was drinking with a few friends of mine I had met through the fansite and Mr. Kawamori Shouji also attended the event.

But even before I met Mr. Kawamori Shouji I had been working as a professional illustrator, so when I had a chance to meet him I showed him my portfolio, and he gave me the chance to start working with him.

OM: Does the fansite still exist?

Tenjin: The fansite no longer exists. I deleted it right away. But I think some archive of it still exists. Some very hardcore fans from the past still hold onto their precious archives of the past.

OM: I can understand that. So you work both in fantastic designs such as robots as well as more realistic designs such as planes and other vehicles. As an illustrator, do you use the same philosophies and concepts in drawing the realistic vehicles and the more fantastic ones, or are there more significant differences you have to keep in mind while drawing them?

Tenjin: I think about the practical purpose of the vehicle, how it’s used. For instance, with a Gundam it’s a weapon, an instrument of war. So I picture what a tank would be like, and I take the heavy texture of paint and use it for the Gundam. But on the other hand, for something like a Valkyrie, it’s basically a plane so I try to use lighter textures and try to focus on thinner silhouettes.

OM: I actually have a question related to that as well. When it comes to robots, we mainly hear about mechanical designers such as Katoki, Okawara, and Kawamori, who are all about designing the robot from various angles, but we rarely get to hear from someone who’s a mechanical illustrator. What are some of the unique advantages and some of the things you have to consider while drawing mecha without necessarily having “design” in mind?

Tenjin: The difference is, when there’s already a design, I need to think about what the designer had in mind. Even with something as simple as a single line, I have to think about what its purpose is. I need to focus not just on the design in front of me, but other designs that the designer has created because what I am trying to portray through my illustrations is not just the mechanical design or that one item, but the worldview of the designer, the fantastic world that the designer is trying to communicate.

For example, for classic model art for the package or box art, something I focus on is the background. By putting a lot of details in the background, I try to express the storyline of the world behind the design.

OM: You worked on Aquarion as well as its sequel Aquarion Evol. It’s been a few years between those projects. What do you feel you’ve learned between Aquarion and Evol in returning to the franchise?

Tenjin: Something I improved in is weathering texture, introducing weathering to express just how old a vehicle is within the world of Aquarion and Aquarion Evol. But with Aquarion, there are two time periods, the present and 12,000 years ago. I don’t think I was successful in depicting how things would change in 12,000 years.

OM: Related to Aquarion, it seems like 3D modeling is increasingly used to animate mechanical designs, and figures such as Mamoru Oshii have talked about how there are fewer and fewer people who know how to work with 2D designs without going to 3D models. As an illustrator, what do you see as the potential for 3D modeling for mechanical designs in anime?

Tenjin: When I first entered this industry, 3D animation was just at its start. You were seeing the very first examples of 3D animation and, to be honest, the quality was very low. But these days 3D is used very frequently in Japanese animation and very naturally and so the techniques have improved enough that you don’t really notice the differences between 2D and 3D animation. So, I don’t think there’s anything to worry about in that respect.

OM: I just have one more question. I noticed that there quite a few works in that slide show [Tenjin had in front of him an iPad displaying various examples of his box art] from VOTOMS. Do you have a particular fondness for VOTOMS?

Tenjin: [in English, without the need for a translator to explain my words] Of course!

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 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.

New York Anime Festival Review in 3 Steps

1) This con was small. The Jacob Javits Center is huge. There may have been a Magic: The Gathering tournament going alongside it, but I hope to see more panels, more rooms, more everything next year

2) Guests were good, not great, but I enjoyed the panels I went to immensely (except for the cosplay competition)

3) Unicorn Table was awesome. Also I picked up all of Votoms for 66% off. Also I got an Anime World Order T-Shirt from Daryl Surat.