The Robots of Algiers?
In the wake of Mobile Suit Gundam, TV bosses recognized that the days of the Super Robot were numbered, if not actually up.
However, some creators clearly felt that Tomino had not gone far enough with his narrative of colonialism and civil war – specifically with regard to the tip of the hat which the series still made to the Super Robot, in both the look of key Mobile Suits, and some of the character dynamics.
This is not a totally fair thing to say, especially considering the fact that before Gundam, few people could have envisaged where the series would go. However, it is easy to see how creators were able to take the insights that came out of the story of Amuro/Char and use them to experiment further on the intersection between robot anime and the realities of war.
Takahashi Ryōsuke, the legendary Sunrise director who’s career overlooked many of the greats of the Real Robot Boom, first recognized what could be taken from Mobile Suit Gundam and expanded into a more profound – meaning more personal and direct – war narrative.
Specifically, he was concerned that the nature of mech conflict in Gundam, though a good deal more ‘real’ than ever before, still had a detached effect on both the participants in the conflict and on the observers. Now, this might be a case of splitting hairs a shade too thin, but Takahashi felt there were few moments of real pathos in the series, in which the viewer felt sufficiently conflicted about the actual nature of war.
It is clear that the Amuro/Char (as well as the Federal/Zeon) relationship was meant to be conflicting – and it is certainly true that those characters were written in a very interesting way, which made it harder to side completely with one against the other. Amuro is a whiny, moaning idiot at the outset, whilst Char is painted as the conflicted professional. However, though both of those characters reverse roles by the end of the series (with the death of Garma providing an apt prologue), their writing had, in Takahashi’s view, become so extreme that any empathy one might have held to had long evaporated. In Amuro’s case it was his outright denial of his part in La-La’s death (and yes, Amuro… You killed her. Deal with it!), and in Char’s case his insanity was capped off with his decapitation of poor old Kycillia.
Powerful programming, and still the stuff of legend in the Gundam fanbase – and, let it be known there is nothing ‘wrong’ with this either. It is just that, from Takahashi’s perspective, it might have lacked a complete sense of humanity, the sort of which he has often picked out in the grand duel between the White Base and Ranba Rall’s forces, for example. In Rall and Hamon we have characters whose motivations are, whilst conflicted, still human and recognizable. Moreover, they are not beyond the scope of the viewer, in that they are ‘gifted’ as Amuro and Char are, with neither technology nor some overriding revenge narrative which protects them from the worst excesses of the plot. Indeed, from the very outset of their engagement to the final, pathos-riddled death of Hamon, we are looking at characters with whom we might very well sympathize – a thing which has given them the status of heroes in the Gundam timeline, and ensured them a place of (comic) honor in Gundam: The Origin.
Takahashi seems to have especially liked this engagement as much for the setting though: amid the desert sands. This is so because as a fan of classic cinema – especially war narratives – he had developed a real passion for the sort of retrospective, personal war narratives which had dominated the more reflexive late ’60s and ’70s.
After the jingoism of the 1950s, in which war narratives often gloried in victory and the dominance of the righteous, even popular audiences of the time sought narratives that were either brutally comic (Kelly’s Heroes – 1970), outrageously active (Where Eagles Dare – 1968), or glaringly insightful (Cross of Iron – 1977).
Takahashi had one film on his mind in 1979, which perhaps informed his reaction to Gundam, and affected the way in which he re-tooled that narrative into what we get on the screen in Dougram: The Battle for Algiers (1966, by Gillo Pontecorvo).
A Truly French Revolution
One of the 20th Century’s most important films is The Battle of Algiersis, an ‘on-the-ground’ reconstruction of the events of the Franco-Alegerian war of 1954-1962, in which the embattled post-war French state struggled to maintain control over its former holdings around the world, in the wake of World War Two.
With the general ‘drawing in’ which followed the ending of World War II, many colonial powers had to address how they were going to deal with their holdings after an expensive war which was, in part, fought over the evils of cultural imperialism and race hate.
Give them up, or hold onto them… Either way, there was no easy way to go, and many countries tried their best to keep hold of some shred of their holdings (and the wealth that went with them). Thus when France decided that it would attempt to reassert its pre-war authority in the East and West both, it was not immediately seen as a bad move.
With hindsight, we know the consequences of course – a series of costly wars in Vietnam and the subject of Pontecorvo’s seminal film, the Great Berber Rebellion, AKA the Franco Algerian War of 1953-1961.
In an age of important decolonization wars, this one struck a chord with many, even at the time for both the proximity of the conflict to Europe and the urban, ground-up nature of the resistance to French occupation.
I do not wish to get too deeply into the politics, or the film, however. What is important is that the guerrilla nature of the urban conflict between a mechanized, modern army and the ordinary folk of Algeria inspired Takahashi in dealing with the more realistic narrative of Dougram.
Titan of the Sands – Blockhead – Out of the box
Thankfully, the troubles which I encountered with the earlier Dougram do not seem to have followed through to the Blockhead.
Let’s get down to the Federation’s ultimate badass and see how she goes together.