[Week 0] What’s A Mecha? Nothing. What’s a Mecha with you?

For the film club I do with friends, we’ll be sampling four different entries from the 44 year history of Mobile Suit Gundam, a venerable animation franchise about large robots and sad children.
A dirty weathered Gundam crouches in the jungle, its equally weathered shield planted upright in front of it.
I've always felt this promotional image from "Mobile Suit Gundam: The 08th MS Team" sums up the "real robot" ethos pretty well.

For the film club I do with friends, I'm picking a series of selections from the Mobile Suit Gundam franchise. Because not all of us are anime buffs, I figured I'd write some short intros for each thing I plan to have us watch, to provide a bit of context and explanation. The intros got a bit longer than I'd anticipated (probably because I was procrastinating working on another thing I should have been working on instead). Since I ended up being really happy with what I wrote, I thought I'd share them with a wider audience here on the blog.

Week 0 | Week 1 | Week 2 | Week 3| Week 4 | Week 5

For our next series we’ll be sampling four different entries from the 44 year history of Mobile Suit Gundam, a venerable animation franchise about large robots and sad children.

Gundam belongs to the “mecha” genre, a popular genre in Japanese anime, manga and video games about giant robots that a human being can get inside and pilot around. Examples of mecha fiction with some degree of name recognition in the English-speaking world include Pacific Rim, Voltron, and Neon Genesis Evangelion. Marginal examples include Transformers, which is an outlier in that the Transformers are not human-piloted, they’re just robots (albeit in disguise), and Power Rangers, which is more of a costumed superhero show, but has mecha elements.

Often the mecha genre is subcategorized into two broad subgenres:

  • The “super robot” genre tells fantastical stories about giant robot superheroes. A super robot is often the unique creation of a mad scientist, or an artifact from an ancient civilization. Super robot stories deal with the robot and its heroic pilot defending the world by fighting monsters and evildoers. Popular examples include Gurren Lagann, GunBuster, and Mazinger.
  • The “real robot” genre conceives of a giant fighting robot as a piece of military tech like any other: it was created by an arms manufacturer, its abilities are (nominally) limited by the laws of physics, and it requires repair and maintenance. Real robot stories are concerned with the political, ethical, and psychological issues surrounding the use of advanced military technology. Popular examples include Macross, Code Geass, and our topic: Mobile Suit Gundam.

Often, you'll hear the words "gritty", "realistic", and "grounded" used to characterize the real robot genre. That’s true, but maybe only by comparison to super robots. We are still talking about big cool robot fights. Like most genre distinctions, the line between the “super robot” and “real robot” genres isn’t always a firm barrier, more a description of different narrative tendencies, often existing in the same work, side by side and in tension with one another.

That said, few mecha fans would dispute that the original Mobile Suit Gundam series is “real robot” through and through. Many fans would claim that it invented that genre, which seems to me to be correct. So let’s find out what happens when robots stop being super and start getting real.

For this five week series, I am planning to write a little intro before each selection giving some context, and musing on such varied questions as:

  • Are the creator and lead animator of Mobile Suit Gundam correct to blame themselves for Japan’s deadliest-ever terrorist incident? Or does the blame lie with yoga instructors?
  • When a massive economic bubble caused by inflated asset pricing finally bursts, plunging a nation into a decades-long recession, how am I supposed to get my anime fix????
  • If directors can set their productions of Shakespeare plays in whatever historical era they like, then why aren’t they setting them in the future with giant fighting robots? Or are they, and we’re just not looking hard enough?
  • Which entries in the Mobile Suit Gundam franchise most closely resemble the VeggieTales franchise?
  • Does this entire franchise exist just to sell toys? Or does it perhaps exist to sell “posable plastic models”?

All of these questions and more will be answered! Or at the very least, briefly raised, and made somewhat more sensible through context.

That's it for the general background! I’ll reach out later with the specific lowdown on our first movie.

Next: [Week 1] Mobile Suit Gundam I (1981 film)