Conventional wisdom these days has it that Super Robots are ‘Super’, whilst Real Robots are ‘Real’ – and ne’er the twain shall meet.
Generally this is reasonable and, despite a noticeable drift of a few modern mech shows back towards the outrageously implausible science once again (mostly in revival series or parodies), the general trend has been to ground the science of mechs further and further in what might be seen as ‘real’ (though, not entirely true…).
Mech, Myth and Magic
If you examine the history of mech drama, this development is easy to understand, and even if we discount folkloric ‘mechs’ (such as the Gollum – yes, I know…), and begin with the 1921 play ‘Rossum’s Universal Robots’ by Karel Čapek we see an utter lack of interest in the feasibility of the technology alongside a powerful regard for the allegorical potential of such constructs.
I do not suggest that there is anything unusual about this.
The time in which this sort of technology was brought into the then young discipline of science fiction was a period of development which was perhaps even more profound than the one in which we live today. It might be hard for us to imagine it, but to the common folk of the 1930s and ’40s, the power, relative scarcity and complexity of most technology made it almost divine, and those in command of it almost gods.
Indeed, this very notion was touched upon by Arthur C. Clarke, who suggested in one of what are now known as ‘Clarke’s Three Laws’ that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”.1
Within the active lifespan of a single generation, at the turn of the 20th century, mankind had gone from a state of slow technological development to a headlong dash, seemingly to the grave. This ran from the battleship – the most potent weapon of war at the turn of the century – which had taken centuries to perfect, to the ballistic missile and the horrors of the atomic firestorm. Children born into the fading Victorian world had become the backbone of that post-industrial expansion and had seen technology used, seemingly exclusively, to make the process of war an ever more efficient and terrible thing.
Is it any wonder therefore that they, and the children born into this time, questioned the very morality of technological development and began seeing it in the divine terms noted above?
Of course to assign moral agency to technology itself makes for a very poetic device, but misses the point. Technology is a human thing; it does what we do, for human reasons. It is neutral unless we give it some sort of direction, and harmless unless we dedicate it to good or evil ends. That of course was the very point behind media like Čapek’s play, or Fritz Lang’s masterful film, ‘Metropolis’.
In the aftermath of World War I, following the machine-gun massacres of Flanders or Ypres, the question raised itself: should we set technological development aside, in the face of the fact that we are not moral enough to master it? This was explored in H.G. Well’s story ‘Things to Come’, filmed in 1936 in the aftermath of the rise of Nazism in Germany. Herein, across the speculation of a century, mankind was questioned again and again about the morality of driving headlong down a road of technological development.
In Well’s vision, curiosity and compassion win out and the basic ‘neutrality’ of technology is affirmed. Mankind rises to the heavens, and Raymond Massey urges hope for the future, and an understanding of the nature of the tools with which that hope is fashioned (the scene in question begins at the 1:30:00 mark).
The story proved prophetic, in that less than four years after it was released, a mechanized slaughter, the likes of which the film only barely envisaged, was unleashed upon the world – before the forces involved had spent themselves in the conflict, we had sunk as a species to moral depths so profoundly cruel that they have not yet found their equal.
For those who survived that war – especially in the cities, whose populations were drawn further into conflict than ever before – technology once again became the source of great evil. As we lost the need and even the will to look our foe in the face and witness the dying of the light in their eyes, the very act of murder became remote.
Press a button, destroy a city… It is hard not to be moved by such casual, cruel facts.
In Japan especially, the reaction against ‘technology’ in the aftermath of the war was profound, stirred up by those few remaining souls who were old enough to remember some of the troubles which had come with the Meiji restoration and its passion for catching up to the industry of the West.
Strange as it may seem, the aftermath of WWII in Japan (and other places) actually saw people come forward with firmly held convictions that only by returning to the soil, and a less developed way of life, would the world find peace.
However, for others ‘growing into’ this age, such as Tezuka Osamu and Yokoyama Mitsuteru, this flew in the face of reality. Certainly, the world had changed, but to put one’s head in the sand over what mankind had become would not fly with them or their peers. Just as technology had brought Japan down, so too would it raise it up again, as the country determined to rebuild itself on the back of the very developments which had crushed it. In that regard, many folk – including Tezuka and Yokoyama – recognized the need to raise a generation of children to adulthood with none of the fear of technology that their parents had learned.
Their responses to this challenge have become legends in their own right.
Hope Springs Eternal
Tezuka gave us Tetsuwan Atom, the mighty ‘Astro Boy’, whose life was an affirmation of the positive role of technology in a civil society.
Yokoyama, however gave us something more profound and more thought provoking when he delivered up his Tetsujin 28 in 1956.
Here we had technology represented in an honest, direct way: A robot war machine controlled mainly by a young boy, but of course subject to the will of whoever was able to secure those controls. Indeed, several times Tetsujin 28 came under the sway of the series antagonists, driving home the message that it is the hand, and the mind, behind the technology which determines the moral outcome of any action.
When Tetsujin was animated, the words ‘Super Robot’ were introduced, and the terms that we understand today as representing that mech type were developed. Super Robots were more magic than science, simply because the audience for which they were created had little ability to grasp the realities of such things: just as the technology of the time was unable to approach the ideals and dreams upon which such things were founded.
Indeed, there was nothing to be served in even going into such areas (as Gene Roddenberry later discovered on Star Trek) as once a narrative was bound to the reality of its time, things that pushed beyond it seemed hollow and false.
Thus, in an age in which ‘atomic energy’ was, in fiction, able to do anything (from mutating dinosaurs into gods to powering all manner of spaceships and robots), rather than being the glorified kettle/steam engine that it is in reality, the almost magical faith in the Super Robot allowed these ‘gods’ to bestride the world and give a new faith to their youthful adherents.
It is a magnificent conceit, and one of which Homer himself might well have approved, for in these Super Robots are we not seeing another form of the ancient heroic myth, in which the avatars of our better natures stand between mankind and the gods, to glory of the latter and the betterment of the former?
Yet… As popular, and even necessary, as it might have been it could not stand forever unchallenged, and as time turned, so too did the minds of the young.
As technology developed and our understanding of it grew, the mythical narratives of the ’50s seemed frail and insufficient for more ‘sophisticated’ minds. The mechs we have today are a result of that seeking for reality.
Of course, there is still much that is magical, even impossible about the RX-78, or the armies of Sidonia, or the Mortar Headds of the Joker Systems. That is not the point, however.
When the Oil Shock of 1973 forced Tomino Yoshiyuki to ask his fateful question (‘what happens when a robot runs out of fuel?’) he was only one among many creative realists who wanted to present technology in context, as part of a human world, which was not possible in series like Tetsujin 28, in which the technology was untouchable, or almost sacrosanct.
An Age of Change
However, something very interesting was happening in this age of transition…
As is often the case with technology of any sort, the old does not suddenly give ground to the new without a struggle or some sort of blending.
When Nagai Go’s Mazinger Z became the first Super Robot to adopt elements of what we would call ‘real’ today (its cockpit copter, its development facility, limited ammo, and so on) it was just the first of a wave of such machines which stood between the realms, to one degree or another. Hybrid warriors, still bright and colourful, but increasingly grounded in their physical reality, these mechs have a special place in the hearts of certain fans.
Especially the one in question today: Tryder G7.
The fascinating part of this post-Gundam Super Robot series (aired in 1980-81) was the fact that the creators attempted to bring out the reality of the world without too much emphasis on war. As Nagai Ichirou – who did voice work for both Gundam and Tryder – once opined: In Gundam, the harsh realities of violence were used to highlight the nobility of the human spirit.
This was effective but dark.
Tryder went a more comic route in that it maintained some of he stereotypes of the older robot form (such as the child ‘star’ being both a robot pilot *and* the CEO of a company) but added realistic elements drawn out of the setting itself.
For example, the Tryder itself was explained as ‘alien technology’ – brought to earth by a sympathetic defector, which allowed for near-normal tech levels in general, but still got around the hurdle of the elephant (or mecha) in the room that no one likes to address – the fact that even real robots are implausible (almost).
From the Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Invincible_Robo_Trider_G7#Themes
As with other super robot shows, Invincible Robo Trider G7 is generally a story of Trider G7’s battle with the alien Robot Empire, but its main drama derived from the protagonist, Watta, interacting with many normal, working-class citizens and showing the human kindness that they possess. The enemy Robot Empire is never explained to be anything more than “strange, mysterious robots bent on taking over Earth”. Each time the Robot Empire attacks, Trider G7 is launched in order to intercept them, and through various coincidences, the Robot Empire fails again and again while attempting to figure out what Trider G7 exactly is. In the last episode, the Robot Empire finally abandons their quest to take over Earth. This all results in a unique story structure where neither the good guys nor the bad guys have any interaction with the other side. The only real time contact between them occurs is between the protagonists and the exiled scientist Nabalon, who built Trider G7, but the only ones who actually know of Nabalon’s true identity are the protagonist Watta, Watta’s late father, and Clard, an engineer for the Robot Empire – none of the other major characters ever find out about this.
The series ended without a single fight in the final episode, but rather Watta’s elementary school graduation ceremony. There were episodes that focus not on the war, but on Watta’s school life, such as him having a cavity filled during a physical examination, and him going on a field trip with his class. These scenes hold as much excitement as his battles in Trider G7.
GX-66 – Tryder G7
Since the release of GX-48 (The Big O), the Bandai Soul of Chogokin lines have taken a sharp turn for the better, which, according to Oliver Barder of Forbes seems to be rooted in more reliable prototyping methods and improved production facilities.
I’ve been looking forward to this one for some time, and I’ve not been disappointed.
There’s a great deal here for the money, and in part II, I will take a detailed look at the Henshin and the material build. However, spoiler alert….. It rocks!
1: Clarke, Arthur. C. “‘Hazards of Prophecy: The Failure of Imagination'” in the collection Profiles of the Future: An Enquiry into the Limits of the Possible (1962, rev. 1973), pp. 14, 21, 36.
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