Lessons of the Giant Robot

by Brian Ruh

26 February 2003


I’ve been having a difficult time reconciling my study of Japanese popular culture with the current world events swirling around me. How can I watch and write about things like anime (Japanese animation) when the “leadership” of our nation is blundering forward, on course for another unjustified war? Simply put, I believe there are potentially revolutionary ideas in anime. Watching anime will not, of course, change — neither will the simple acts of reading and listening to music. These acts of consumption are mere precursors to the larger step of taking action in the world, but THEY are important nonetheless. Even anime can influence how we view our lives and the events surrounding us.

In the current political climate in the US, we are looking for meaning and significance in our entertainment. There is the tendency to try to see reflections of current events in the archetypical stories we tell. We want to read these stories as validations of our own righteousness, yet they can often be read in a contrary fashion. Said Lord of the Rings actor Viggo Mortensen in a recent interview, “…I don’t think that the civilians on the ground in those countries (such as Iraq) look at us in the way that maybe Europeans did at the end of World War II, waving flags in the streets, I think that they see the US government as Saruman.” As Mortensen points out in his analogy, the power of popular culture lay in its refashioning of older myths and stories to have relevance to modern life. A film such as Lord of the Rings is just one artifact we can use as a conceptual tool in order to gain insight and meaning into our current times.

Another such tool is that of the mecha (short for “mechanical”) genre of films and series in Japanese animation. One of the most used (some might say overused) tropes in Japanese animation is that of the giant robot. Japanese television shows and films about giant robots have been used for cultural criticism almost from their very inception. In watching the show, the viewer, as vicarious pilot of the robot, becomes one with the machine, a machine that is almost invariably designed for combat. This identification with the mechanical allows shows about giant robots to be not about the robots themselves, but about larger issues such as society and the nature of war.

From the outset, anime such as Astro Boy (which kicked off the first major wave of Japanese animation in 1963) questioned what divided the human from the mechanical. The character of Astro Boy was a robot designed to replace his creator’s dead son, who would go on to use his great mechanical powers to fight evil. In this groundbreaking television series, we see a view of technology as both protector and friend.

Subsequent mecha anime, such as Mobile Suit Gundam (1979), would more seriously examine the root causes of war and conflict. In the Gundam series, creator Yoshiyuki Tomino painted a future conflict between Earth and the space colonies in deep shades of gray. In an article in Animation Journal examining how issues of war and peace were treated in mecha anime, David Vernal said, “Gundam teaches that the roots of conflict lie in the actions and beliefs of individuals rather than nations, and that war becomes possible only when individuals submit to the institutional ideology espoused by governments or charismatic leaders.” Although some may scoff at the idea of being able to learn anything from a cartoon featuring giant robots, we would do well to heed this advice.

The complexity of anime such as Gundam can be contrasted with an American cartoon television series like Transformers, which originally aired in the mid-1980s. The cartoon was based on a line of Japanese toys that could change from robots to vehicles and back again. The lines of battle were clearly drawn between the “peace-loving” Autobots and the “warlike” Decepticons, with the series’ main focus on the Autobots’ fight against the energy-stealing, Earth-plundering ways of Megatron and the rest of the Decepticons.

In spite of such clear divisions of good and evil, the Transformers show can still be useful as a conceptual tool for modern events. Like the parallels Viggo Mortensen draws between Lord of the Rings and current events, Transformers has assumed new relevance in recent years. As commander of an ever-militarizing state with energy-grabbing schemes, George W. Bush seems like our own real-life version of Megatron.

Indeed, “good-versus-evil” simplicity seems to be making a comeback, at least in cartoon programming. For reasons of ideology, or perhaps simply a lack of imagination on the part of network programmers, we are returning to the animated shows of the past on American television. In the past few months, new versions of He-Man, Transformers, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles have been aired. All three shows deal with the standard archetypal fights of good versus evil in which the divisions between good and evil are well defined. Of course, there are equally simplistic giant robot shows from Japan, yet few American animated programs have analyzed what it means to have a crisis of the self (as in Neon Genesis Evangelion), and few US animated films have examined the role our country should play in world affairs (as in Patlabor 2).

Midway through the television series of Robotech (originally broadcast in Japan as Superdimensional Fortress Macross), the captain makes a speech to the crew and civilian population of the giant spaceship on which they reside. Following a freak accident, the ship has been slowly trying to make its way back to earth, using their giant robots to try to defend against the alien attacks that have been steadily wearing them down. When one of the pilots of the robot defenders decides to marry an alien woman, the humans realize that it is time for peace. Says the captain at the wedding ceremony, “We do not forgive blindly, or out of ignorance, but because we are a strong and willing nation….Each and every citizen must develop a responsible attitude toward the prospect of peace. We must learn from our mistakes to live with different people, different nations.”

Until we are able to construct the robots of which we dream, the robot will always represent the future. Even the robots of our cultural past are indicative of the future, a future that could have been. There are lessons to be learned from giant robots in our shared popular culture. We must learn how to adapt and change. We must transform, as it were.

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