Let’s Talk About Mechs, Bay-bee

Dean has an epiphany during a re-watch of The Big O, check out the big reveal in the next Dean Talks Anime.

Dean Talks Anime:

Let’s Talk About Mechs, Bay-bee

An opinion/review by Christopher Kinsey

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Since the beginning of my anime viewing the noticeable trend was robots. I was all about Transformers when I was a wee one in the early 80s, and anything robot related led me along the path to mecha. Say what you want about the translation of Robotech it did the legwork on getting more anime translated, but you did not come for the love triangle. You watched it because a Veritech or Valkyrie fighter was the thing you personally wanted to pilot against the Zendrati invasion. It’s a really great power fantasy where the right training or, in many cases, destiny you can go from the average person to a great hero. The only difference is a matter of scale.

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Top Gun had nothing on this.

Depending on who you ask, the idea of mechs came about from the golden age of American science fiction novels. E.E. “Doc” Smith’s Lensman series had quite the following in post-war Japan, and it is probably the first example of powered armor in fiction. It’s also well known that that series inspired a lot of sci-fi concepts of the modern era, influencing everything from Gundam to Star Wars. Unfortunately I can’t say I agree with that. A battlesuit is a great concept that really needs more love in Japanese entertainment (or entertainment in general), but it rally all began with Tetsujin 28-Go AKA Gigantor. Like many manga artists who lived through the war, Mitsuteru Yokoyama saw firsthand the raw power of technology when he saw the state of the city of Kobe after bombing attacks. He combined his own experiences with readings he did on Hitler’s concepts for superweapons into a story about a boy detective (Because boy detectives were quite big in the comic scene of the 50s) who pilots such a superweapon via a radio remote.

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So I guess if you like giant robots…. Thanks Hitler?

The rest is history. In 1972 Go Nagai put the pilot in the robot with Mazinger Z. The 70s brought wave after wave of toyetic giant robot series, building upon the dual popularity of super sentai shows and rejuvenation of the kaiju film. Then at the end of the decade comes the fusion of mech and wartime space opera in Mobile Suit Gundam. Since then your average mech based anime series has either been variations of the ever present shounen style “Destiny” stories where our hero can control the biggest and best mech, but faces trials from enemies again and again until the sales dry up.

So yes, mechs are cool and they make some really great toys, but beyond a look what is a mech to an anime? I would go as far to say you could replace most mechs in such stories with another weapon of war and not much would have changed. Would Macross be that different if the planes didn’t transform? Would Gundam be nothing more than another Space Battleship Yamato? Sometimes you have a dynamic where the mech in question seems to have a human or fighting spirit of its own, but a mech is more often than not just a tool used to show war. Just looking over a list of the anime of the last five years most shows of this nature need a barrage of sexy babes, the legitimacy of an older series or a cutesy comedy style series to make it onto Japanese television with a mech show.

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I am required by law to put a Gundam picture in an article about mecha. It never said I had to put a flattering one.

So what do we do about it? How do we make mechs memorable instead of merely background? Well for one we need something new and innovative in mecha design. I don’t mind a mech that’s chunky and utilitarian for the needs of realism or wartime like setting, the mechs in Code Geass did that very well and looked cool doing it. But there hasn’t really been a new mech design that has really got the imagination flowing. If it’s not utilitarian then it seems to borrow heavily from the Evangelion artbook with a zest for looking like it fell through an Apple store on the assembly line. Save for the series that are legacies (Mazinkaizer SKL looks really great) very few mech designs now of days have that raw look of power. Gurrenn Lagann had some nice throwbacks to the 70s with a few cockpit designs from the late 90s, but what if we decided to go back further to the days of remote controlled mechs? The Big O was a long time ago and I think it’s time we gave the design style of the 60s a shot again. Or perhaps dust off some designs that really didn’t hit mainstream. The dieselpunk mech designs of Kishin Corps were a lot of fun and it would really do well with so many alternate history of Europe during the great wars popping up all over the video game and manga scene in Japan.

So many Kickstarters and not a single one to start this up again?
So many Kickstarters and not a single one to start this up again?

We could change the scale of these behemoths. Another little known favorite of mine is Gad Guard. In this series you could bond with a stone called a Gad, which would transform according to your true heart’s desires. If your heart was full of good desires, it turned into a modest 12-16 foot robot that was molded by your desires and personality. Conversely people with bad ideas are the foes. Scaling down the size of one’s robot pal as well as making them manifestations of the controller’s inner self gives a series like this an actual empathy for the fighting machines as well as the controllers or pilots. Keeping the cast size small other than the threat of the week creates a kind of closeness that you can’t get from an epic space opera or giant robot battle.

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If you get nothing else from this article, check out Gad Guard. It’s got a lot of heart.

Something that’s really sticking out in my mind is the fusion of mechs in other types of stories. Escaflowne is one of the first anime that comes to mind when you think of when it comes to fantasy style mech stories. That has continued up to the recent Tenchi Muyo! War on Geminar which combines all of that, adds double forkfuls of harem themes and relates it all directly to the Tenchi Muyo universe. That’s just way too much on one plate. Kenichi Sonoda did a really interesting take on an alien invasion with Cannon God Exxaxion which was a good blend of subterfuge, politics and a touch of hard science fiction in a setting that’s believable and relatable to. We need more series we can relate to, make something set in the near future rather than the far flung. Pull a Pacific Rim and show the world we live in today learning how to face down giant monsters from beyond. Take it back in time to a mad scientist filled Wild West. Take the fantasy mechs in a different direction and put said mechs in feudal Japan or ancient Rome. There has to be more settings than the year 2XX6, random JRPG rehash and deep space.

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Of all the things not to get translated in the 80s, this was left behind?

Finally, we need to bring back the battlesuit. As much ham fisted satire one can wring out of Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers there was a missing element that tore most of the enjoyment of the film from me. Robert Heinlein was always my favorite of the great sci-fi authors, and the fact that they had the bugs and none of the battlesuits was a crying shame. But that co-ed shower scene wasn’t going to pay for itself, so there we go. With the popularity of the Marvel films it should be a no brainer that someone should follow in the footsteps of shows like Bubblegum Crisis and Tekkaman Blade. Such technologies are always being researched by real combat forces all over the world so it wouldn’t be that far to stretch the imagination and the empathy to the characters as a consequence. Tiger and Bunny can only go so far.

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Also in accordance to my own law if I mention battlesuits I have to put up another picture of a Hardsuit.

So let’s roll up our sleeves and get mechs back on the menu. We’ve had enough of slice of life, it’s time to slice things with star sabers. We don’t need no stinkin’ moe when you have two tons of robotic awesomeness under your seat. Get out of high school, get into an advanced research facility and steal a walking tank to fight evil with! In short, just save me from the current state of anime. Just for a little while. Please?

Dean The Adequate has a dream garage as follows: A Shelby Cobra GT 500 from Gunsmith Cats, the Swordfish from Cowboy Bebop, A Valkyrie YF-19 Super from Macross Plus and the Big O. Amazon doesn’t have them, and trust me I looked because I have Prime. Now I know why everyone says I’m difficult to shop for. It’s just as well; the zoning board rejected my plans for a super subterranean lair anyway. The fools, I will destroy them all!