Spectacle and tradition are key parts of the super-robot aesthetic; their presence and quality is what defines the action, and their absence is usually part of a key plot point (a good example is how a series such as Evangelion or Rahxephon will avoid showing the graphic methods of their “heroic” robots and instead let the reactions and consequences tell the story). Episode 1 of Captain Earth, a series written in part by Yoji Enokido (who also worked on Star Driver, Rahxephon, and the first Evangelion Rebuild film among others) ended with massive spectacle – a level of ridiculous scale that was quite a departure from the tone set by the episode’s buildup. Humanity’s defences against the alien Kiltgang were shown to be multi-layered and culminating in a network of orbital bases that together helped build a super-robot. Each step of its assembly in orbit increased its size dramatically, and the episode’s ending set it out as an immense, tall-shouldered machine with the bravado, elegance and machismo in its posturing of something like Star Driver‘s Tauburn or Gurren Lagann‘s later-series machines.
OH MY GOD GATTAI YES YES YES YES YES ROBOTS YESSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS—
BasuP@伊織が好き (@BasuP) April 06, 2014
The first episode of the 2014 animé Captain Earth promises, in its title card, that “everything will be obvious soon” – indeed, compared to its natural comparison-points in studio Bones’ other mecha animé Eureka Seven and Rahxephon it is forthright and straightforward in its worldbuilding and conflict. Enemies – Approaching Earth Objects – have attacked Earth in the past and are doing so now, and this time humanity has created a machine to fight them on an equal footing. From this introduction to the concept there are hints of a more in-depth plot – factions exist within the human governments who seek a solution to the alien problem other than using fighting-machines (the “Ark Faction”), and the motivations of the enemies are still fairly uncertain – but as an introduction to a new world – and indeed a new take on a very established concept – it takes an approach that proceeds at a rapid pace to build up its revelations.
As my recent article on Eureka Seven‘s antagonist suggested, the film Char’s Counterattack serves as the thematic culmination of the Gundam timeline. It takes the ideas and motivations of the defining characters of the story and pits them in a final confrontation which arguably ends with the total end of the matter, with both sides reduced to nothing. Yet perhaps equally interesting is how it calls back to past series in its new characters – most notably the highly divisive Quess Paraya. The dynamic within Char’s forces between her and rival ace pilot Gyunei Guss is seemingly a straight inversion of the usual; it is the woman who is the “natural” pilot and the man who is the “weaker”, enhanced soldier. Yet in this inversion, and the sexually-fraught interactions it creates, Quess is presented as a character more reminiscent of the enhanced soldier Elpeo Ple from ZZ Gundam.
Note: This article contains significant discussion of the plots of Char’s Counterattack and ZZ Gundam.
Episode 36 of Eureka Seven is arguably archetypal in its structure – a slow-paced chapter of the ongoing story that clarifies, in a fashion, both past and current mysteries. It follows the formula of many episodes in this way – presenting a series of character portraits that modify the viewer’s preconceptions and opinions both via dialogue and unspoken action. Its first half offers, in sequence, insights into Dewey, Norb, Eureka and Holland – all of which are focused on cutting through mystique or mystery to explore a unified theme for the episode of identity and honesty. In some ways Eureka Seven uses character development as its “enemy of the week” – a series like Rahxephon uses each physical enemy, in the form of the alien rock-monster Dolems – to explore a character flaw or interaction. Eureka Seven, by contrast, presents the characters’ crises and failings as its conflict points, eschewing the actual robot conflict that might be used by other mecha animé to hash out disagreements for physical, in-person, confrontation or action.
Critical writing about popular and new media such as television, computer games and so on is arguably underrepresented in the arts media. This, combined with a generally low level of critical cultural coverage – that which exists to serve a purpose beyond informing purchases as most reviews do – has created a cultural environment lacking in the kind of healthy debate which drives improvement. Furthermore, there is a trend across news media to increasingly emphasise simplified, list-based reportage and controversial editorial – driven, as claimed by internal sources, by competition both from the tabloid press and the growing online media including sites such as Buzzfeed. Two recent pieces of television and film criticism – firstly Now it’s The Walking Dead for kids – must we all be teenage zombies (Moran, M. The Guardian, 24/03/14) and secondly The Good Wife’s shock twist: the latest in a long line of recent TV bombshells. (Donahue, AT. The Guardian, 25/03/14) I read in The Guardian seemed emblematic of this shift in focus in the cultural environment.
Rahxephon never shies away from an opportunity for bathos in its storytelling; undermining the viewer’s expectations, often through undermining or challenging those of the characters, is a recurring conceit that allows it to clearly communicate how knowledgeable of the “truth” any given character is. For example, the conflict between Elvy and Haruka which came to a head earlier in the series was based around Haruka’s ongoing deceit being revealed. Resentment at being shown to be ignorant or ill-informed is a major driver of conflict, accentuated far more in Rahxephon as a continued plot point than in many similar series. This is because it is a series about ignorance and misdirection more than anything else; what seems to be conspiracy to some is in fact a simple lack of information, or a failed assumption that others know what is going on.
ZZ Gundam is the third part of the trilogy of Gundam television series that form the core of the Universal Century timeline – each follows chronologically on from the next and, through different pervading dramatic tones used in each entry, the trilogy has a strong sense of character progression among those characters which recur. ZZ is sometimes criticised for being too light-hearted and inconsistent with previous works – it marks a significant departure from the often cynical seriousness of Zeta Gundam and at the same time is a very different kind of light-hearted story to the surreal, resolutely 1970s animé, Mobile Suit Gundam. It is at first far more reliant on simple physical humour – clumsiness, visual jokes and general slapstick scenes – than most Gundam animé, far more visually a cartoon in its use of the animation medium to go from exaggerated visuals to detailed sci-fi stills.
Note: The subsequent article will contain some plot details for Zeta Gundam
The emphasis of episode 14 of Rahxephon is – despite its opening with more cryptic conversations between Haruka and Futagami – almost entirely on the arrival of the prototype of a mass-production super robot, bringing together two sets of expectations. In mecha animé the prototype is generally the ace unit, and the new Vermilion unit lives up to this cliché with its red colouration and the fact it is piloted by Elvy, a character shown to be the most capable of the TERRA support pilots. Yet Rahxephon, being a super-robot animé, has its own set of cliches surrounding the arrival of a human-made robot – the viewer will likely expect it to be doomed to fail simply because it is piloted by a side-character.
There is more action in the first half of episode 35 of Eureka Seven than there has been in much of the series previously; it is an episode about acting, about taking responsibility for what must be done and doing it. Holland claims the Gekkostate’s mantra is “do it yourself or you won’t get anything,” while Dewey claims that “the only thing I ever wanted was to win, using my own words as a human being.” So much of the series has been about people trying to avoid action, or refusing to accept what must be done – on all sides – but now there has been a sea-change. Dewey’s actions have motivated all the characters to act, because there is now a quantifiable, known threat. If anything this vindicates Renton; all along his resistance to acting has been whenever he has felt he does not know why he should act, and his impetuous actions have come from what he perceives as a proper understanding of a situation. Dewey’s wanton slaughter, and his realisation of his feelings for Eureka, have given him the reason he needs.
Tonari no Seki-kun, or Master of Killing Time, is a series of short sketches based around a simple joke – an ingenious student devises ridiculous ways of entertaining himself in lessons while managing to avoid ever attracting the attention of the teacher. Five episodes in, it has managed to quite avoid becoming repetitive by making its protagonist unpredictable – it has become an absurd comedy that exaggerates what could be a simple premise not through a simple escalation of scale into parody, but through wrong-footing the viewer and engaging far more with the viewpoint character, Seki’s studious classmate Yokoi.