Thursday, September 1, 2011

A genre mostly concerned with shouting and punching

I feel like I would be misrepresenting myself on the Internet if I went five posts without talking about either video games or anime, and since everyone is always scrupulously honest in cyberspace I shall do so.  I could fulfill both requirements in the same post if I wanted to talk about Super Robot Wars, (alternate link) I will eschew the nerdy home run that post would be in favor of the modestly dorky line drive of a post about giant robots.

Anime (big-eye cartoons from Japan) is not a universal monolithic media mass consisting of Dragonball Z and weird porn; there are numerous sub-genres within it, just like there is for any medium.  You have romantic comedies, space operas, sports shows, kids shows, adult shows and the pinnacle of entertainment, giant robot shows.  We're far enough removed, here in the far future of 2011, for there to be little-to-no reaction when I give the obligatory, "yes, like Transformers/Robotech/Voltron," even though my inner pedant then has to rush in to add, "no, not like Michael Bay/Robotech was actually adapted from Macross and two other related shows (Genesis Climber Mospaeda and Super Dimensional Cavalry Southern Cross if you must know)/it was actually called Go-Lion in Japan and was cut to be much less dark when it was brought to America."

I actually struggle to come up with easy comparisons to American media, and I've spent a while trying to figure out why and it's sort of related to why it's so hard to make a live-action superhero movie work.  Superhero comics and giant robot anime have this in common; they are both inherently melodramatic, which should be self-evident to anyone who watches something like this or has seen a picture of Batman crouched on a gargoyle in the rain.  I'm hesitant to call genre fiction melodramatic across the board, but usually genre's purpose is to raise stakes and heighten circumstance and if you go too far in that direction you end up in Melodrama Town, population Your Father, Previously Thought To Have Perished.  Regardless, we tend not to look too fondly on melodrama here in the States.  Realism reigns supreme here, for good or ill, and even when we're talking about fantasy or sci-fi we tend to have problems if things aren't 'realistic' or 'believable' (by which I think we usually mean 'internally consistent').

Giant robots could give a fuck about realistic.  The idea of a mobile weapons platform in the shape of a human being that can be piloted by one or many people, possibly capable of doing kung-fu, is completely absurd.  I don't think you have to turn off your brain, necessarily, to watch giant robot cartoons, but you do have to turn off your sense of shame.  This is not because this stuff is for kids (some of it is, but there are just as many that aren't; Getter Robo, one of the original, formative giant robot shows, can basically be summed up as "three murdering psychopaths fly giant robot, kill dinosaurs") but because it operates on a level that we, in our post-modern age, are probably too ironic to be able to deal with.  Giant robot shows are not concerned with irony.  That orange robot over there, that can transform into a tank, is going to now transform into a giant hammer, which the main robot (formed though the following process: a cyborg human merges with an alien robot lion to form a smaller robot, which then merges with a drill tank, a bullet train and a stealth bomber) is going to grab and use to turn the enemy robot into motes of light, except for the core, which is actually a human transformed by despair and hatred.  We tend to, as Americans, look at something like that and not give the correct response, which is, "Yes, that is awesome," and instead say things like, "oh, that's silly," which is not correct.  You cannot approach a giant robot show with irony, unless you are taking that word in the Pratchettian sense (i.e. 'like iron').

The pinnacle of civilization
I get fervent about giant robot shows because they are over the top, yes, they might seem silly, yes, but you kind of have to approach them openly and with a sense of wonder, as strange as that may seem to say.  There is a line from Mobile Fighter G Gundam where the main character's love interest has been stolen away to outer space and he's all, "fuck, how do I get to outer space," whereupon his master's horse appears in its own giant robot suit.  So he gets in his robot and his human robot rides the robot horse, and apparently the robot horse is capable of at least intra-stellar travel, and then he says, and I will never forget this as long as I live, "he who interferes with another man's love shall be sent to hell by the hooves of this horse!"  And then he rides his horse into outer space.  There are more things in heaven and earth.

This gets to why I love these shows, though, because they are usually examples of people taking advantage of the medium.  I have liked plenty of psychological thriller anime and slice of life romantic comedy anime (okay, fine, I like Monster and Mitsuru Adachi stuff) but those shows aren't really doing anything you couldn't do in live action.  Giant robot shows take the medium by the balls.  Oh, I can draw anything?  How about this: a kid finds this robot head underground, and there's room to ride around in this head, which then grows arms and legs to it can run around.  Then his friend steals a robot from their enemies, who all have these ridiculous looking mecha they run around in, and they fight together, and then his friend decides that they are going to combine the robots, so he grabs the head (which can form a drill at the bottom of the head instead of having the arms and legs) and shoves it onto the top of his body.

And it works.

And then later, they literally fight the moon.

Go big or go home, I guess is what I'm saying here.


  1. This is probably the funniest thing I've read all week: "Melodrama Town, population Your Father, Previously Thought To Have Perished".

    I tend to think that the 'bigness' has to be big in the service of accentuating or clearing ground for an emotional or philosophical bigness. David Foster Wallace, for instance, uses his fair share of postmodern literary conventions and hyperbolically distended characters, but that doesn't write a blank check for those methods, as the wealth of shitty postmodern metafiction will attest.

    On the subject of giant robots I genuflect to you, connoisseur of the absurd, being myself not very interested in moving pictures. One anime film I have seen is My Neighbor Totoro, which film I also cannot easily compare to the American scene; it does have a remarkable emotional depth, which depths are plumbed by fat, passive monsters and a bus that is also a cat (a catbus, if you will). So you tell me -- are giant robots a sort of blank check, or are you over-generalizing against the tendency to over-generalizing criticism of genre fiction?


  2. I feel the same way about "Con Air"...

  3. I was trying to figure out why I couldn't post a comment on my own blog. Turns out I forgot to re-enable JavaScript.

    I don't actually think a particular piece of media is good solely on the basis of it being about giant robots; the existence of Robot Jox is a compelling argument against. That said, this post began as an introduction to the genre in preparation for talking about a specific show worthy of investigation. Hyperbole aside, as in more genres the shows that are actually interesting are few and far between.

    However, there is something almost sublime about a giant robot show that just works and is firing on most/all cylinders. I am a guy who loved The Wire; looooooooved The Wire. I'm working up what will inevitably be an obnoxiously long series of posts about it. Anyway, The Wire is so steeped in realism and verisimilitude and so forth that it's basically a documentary about things that happen to be fake (and not in the sense of The Office). I don't need my entertainment to be absurd all the time. But if I need something to be fun, or punch those emotional buttons or speak to my reptile brain, well, giant robots.

    I also don't know that I would claim any of the giant robot shows I know of as better than Totoro, which is pretty friggin' good. But they're also trying to do different things. It's like some guy saying, "this hammer is totally better than that screwdriver," and me being all, "well, yeah, you're trying to drive in a nail."