We’ve talked in the past about the distinction between Super Robots (those which defy ALL known physical laws in pursuit of their narratives) and Real Robots (those which tend to emulate, to one degree or other physical reality).
I do love Super Robots, to be sure.
There is something about their mythical, almost divine nature and the way that they become extensions of their heroic controllers: as if they were golems of old, responding to the will of their mage-priest masters.
However, whilst these analogues for divine power and the bounties of a technological future might have been all well and good in the ’50s and ’60s, for generations of children who were growing up into an increasingly technical world, they did – and do – have their limitations.
Super Robots, like heroes such as Superman, are essentially perfect and are subject only to increasingly potent ‘plot devices’ to bring any sense of threat into their narratives.
This is far more important than one might think…
Mecha, especially Super Robots, are representations of our own selves as viewers: ciphers for all our potentials and reminders that we stand to lose things of real value to us should we stray from the correct path in life. The issue for Super Robot-like characters is that they are essentially removed from the sort of terminal properties which make our own journey through life ‘real’.
It might be morbid to suggest it, but the potential for death/destruction is essential to the hero’s journey and this is something which we – or, at the very least publishers of marketable pop culture titles – seemed to forget in the age of the Super Robot. Eternal heroes, such as Getter Robo for all their power and authority, lack the most important, primal qualities for which we all look when consuming such narratives.
Whether we accept it or not, we need our heroes to be plausible representatives for ourselves. Stronger, faster, better perhaps, but ultimately as vulnerable and uncertain as are we. We need to know that we too might be capable of great things, should the call to action come for us, and we are thrust into that great cycle of change, growth, and revelation.
When death is suspended for characters to which we – and company bank balances – have become attached, the heroic imperative itself loses some of its luster, and tells us that we are required to pile overt moral precepts onto these immortal, unchanging heroes in order to give them back some of the relevance of which they have been stripped by the desire to give them to the ages. When ‘ending’ loses its meaning, because it rarely visits the camp of our heroes, then all the actions of those people so protected by this narrative shield lose their value, and risk reducing the actions of even the heroic mecha to the most trivial forms of fan service.
Even throwing hordes of bad guys at the hero in a callous desire to showcase the threat involved is meaningless. These throw-away villains, whose own deaths mirror the indestructibility of the hero, cheapen the narratives because they further trivialize the nature of the heroic ideal. After all, if the threats against which our own narrative double must struggle are of no account, then can the transformation which should take place at the conclusion of such a tale reveal anything of value to us as seekers?
Duress and Destruction
When the oil stopped flowing in 1972/73 as a result of the OPEC embargo, it put the West – and Japan – into a flap. By the 7th decade of the 20th Century, all the industrial economies of the world were bound to the spectre of crude (not that we are much better off, even now) and this crisis set politicians thinking about ways to secure their supplies into the future. However, across the world in Japan, it also unsettled a number of pop culture writers who finally saw what their own narratives were missing: ruin.
Reality was calling to the robot writers, and in ruin they found their way.
The Real Robots were coming…
At its most fundamental, Real Robots are nothing more or less than military hardware taking on human form, and are no more valuable to the overall context of their stories than (almost) anything else in it. They get shot up. They run out of fuel. They fall apart. They become outdated. They are not invulnerable, neither are they godlike.
One might even wonder if the ruddy things have a point…
Yet, the real robot series did something profound to the whole nature of the mecha narrative: it took the emphasis off the technology, and gave the conflicts back to the people within, often rooted in an overarching plot which combines the still-important technology with the sort of character progression which was not possible in Super Robot series.
This is not to say that real robots are in any way realistic… It just seems a decent way to delineate the insanity of the metal gods of the ’50s from the rust-buckets of the ’70s…
Utility and Uniformity
It can be debated as to what was the first real robot was.
Certainly, Go Nagai’s Mazinger Z introduced more realistic elements in the early 1970s, but as it also still contained many of the classic Super Robot tropes, it is still right grouped with the earlier mechs (even it if is something of a hybrid).
In general, Tomino’s Mobile Suit Gundam is regarded as the first true real robot series in 1979, which – despite the rather classical look of some of its mechs – set up all the basic terms of the ‘real’ when it exploded onto screens.
In Tomino’s world, the mechs were little more than tools. Even the titular Gundam itself was soon revealed to be little more than a ruse rather than a ‘Super Weapon,’ keeping the Zeon/ジオン forces distracted whilst the Federation rolls out the bog-standard GM suits, with which the war itself is finally won.
This just would not have happened in a Super Robot series; the main mech all but side-lined.
There is real beauty in it, though.
The mechs of the worlds of Gundam, Macross, Votoms, Dunbine and many more were glorious in ways that their Super counterparts could never be. The grime and the grit of these mechs was as appealing as the primary color schemes of their ancestors because they were integrated into their worlds in a a way that Super Robots could never be.
By their very nature, Super Robots have to be almost totally apart from their worlds, in a form of mobile hyperbole.
Real Robots succeed best, conversely, when they blend so totally into their eorld that one cannot imagine them outside of their specific context, as if they are just one element in the overall story – just as with real technology, real war and with the real people who are required to live in such disturbed times.
Fang of the Sun: Dougram
Though many out there would probably hold up Armored Trooper: VOTOMS as the pinnacle of the Real Robot genre (and I cannot disagree, in pure terms), the one I liked most as a youth was Fang of the Sun: Dougram.
Running from 1981 to 1983, this series was the first mech show to be able to capitalize on the success of Moble Suit Gundam, and brought us not only an interesting take on the civil war dynamic which had made Gundam effective, but also created ‘real’ designs for its mechs which, even today have not found their equal.
From Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fang_of_the_Sun_Dougram#Plot):
The series begins in a desert on the colony planet Deloyer, where the remains of a destroyed robot are resting as a red-haired woman is standing in front of it. The woman hallucinates what appears to be a group of armed soldiers alongside the robot in a non-destroyed state. A man named Rocky appears, leading to the woman running into his embrace where she cries tears of joy. After this, the series flashes back to an earlier time, in order to explain the circumstances leading up to the first episode.
Malcontents on the Deloyer colony agitate for the independence of their world from the Earth Federation. In an unexpected coup, the elected Governor declares martial law and sets himself up as absolute dictator. With the approval of the Federation, he rules the planet with an iron fist. In reaction, a ragtag group (including the governor’s estranged son) rises in open rebellion, using a powerful prototype Combat Armor: the Dougram. Their goal is the end of the dictatorship and total independence from the Federation’s influence.
The story follows the actions of the guerrilla freedom fighters known as “The Deloyer 7.” The war is fought across the planet Deloyer as the Federation vigorously pursues the rebels. The series is noted for its realistic use of not just the combat armors and support vehicles, but also military tactics. The series also followed a wide range of characters and political intrigue, with many shady characters switching sides throughout the series.
The series technical designer, Okawara Kunio, had cut his design teeth working on a number of mech shows for the Sunrise company, including Tomino’s Gundam and the Xabungle series (as well as work for other companies such as Gatchaman, Hurricane Polymer and Tekkaman). Indeed, he is said to have been the first designer in Japanese animation history to earn the title of ‘mechanical designer,’ and has always been in high demand for this eye for the nature of the machine, and a sense for the reality of the unreal.
For Dougram, Okawara created a series of mecha which are truly unique in anime history. Each one is visually given its sense of reality by Okawara in its clear association to technology with which the audience would be familiar. For example, all the elite mechs of the series are equipped with glass canopies, and cockpits redolent of fighter aircraft, lending them an appropriate air. Moreover, the technology was unified across the whole series, with tanks, copters, planes, cars and other vehicles all sharing a design philosophy which contributed to the narrative in the grounding of its tech.
The opening of the first episode, also envisioned by Okawara and series writer Takahashi Ryosuke, gives us the very tone of the real robot… An epilogue, in which the rusting, worn-out and discarded remains of the Dougram are discussed with regard to their place in the war.
Rooting its narrative in an even more realistic style, based in the way that Algerian rebels fought off French colonialists, the series was a real hit for Sunrise.
1/72 Combat Armor Dougram by Max Factory
Max Factory has recently released a new range of Dougram kits in 1/72 and I’ve been curious to have a go at them, ever since I discovered that they were working along the same lines as Bandai with regard to pre-colored, snap-fit tech.
Max Factory, though a well established company (from which I bought my first garage kits back in the day) is still a small affair and I was expecting something without the tight tolerances to which Bandai’s kits are made, but right out of the box, I was pleasantly surprised…
I have to note, an interesting feature here, to go with the crisply molded main sprues…
There are three sets of canopies, including one which has been pre-printed with the framing (always a bugbear for me).
I do have some concerns over the nature of the styrene on this kit, as well as the amount of flash which I had to clean from some parts (a little worrying on a supposedly new tooling), but let’s not judge the goose till it’s cooked…
Well… Let’s get back into my childhood and see how this beauty goes together!