Mechanical Design – The Overlooked Key to Science Fiction (Part 1c – Mecha Part III, or Diving Suits, Walking Domes and Metal Moustaches)

 In the previous two articles in this series I have talked about the importance of striking a balance between easily-understood connotative meaning in a design, and overdoing this to the point of incongruity. It is now time to look at some designs, remaining within the same franchise, that on the surface reject all ideas of being human-like in order to create an entirely “alien” look, but can still be considered in terms of visual connotation.

 

This is the SUMO, a mechanical design from the 1999 animated series Turn-A Gundam. The premise behind this entry in the by-now 20 year old franchise was to completely subvert and reimagine the by-now stock plot of a far future conflict between Earth’s distant colonies and the planet; it created an early 20th-century world that by degrees is revealed to be Earth, long after a terrible war led to mankind’s regression in technology by several generations. Two civilisations emerged, a highly advanced one living on the Earth’s moon, and a much more backward one on Earth itself. The plot concerns an invasion by this “Moonrace” of Earth and the revelation that various pieces of advanced technology had been buried underground to be unearthed in the future; mankind is able to develop technologically at a far-accelerated pace owing to these machines and weapons.

The job of creating mechanical designs for Turn-A was given to Syd Mead, and the overall aesthetic blends the high-tech sci-fi “look” the franchise had moved towards with designs heavily inspired by retro-futuristic science fiction. Traditionally, the antagonists’ war machines in Gundam series have been dehumanised and redolent in the imagery of fascism and dictatorship, however the SUMO moves more towards the scientific in creating an “enemy”. As a result, the threat presented by the Moonrace is embodied by their overwhelming strength thanks to incomprehensible (to the Earthrace) technology rather than the trappings of human evil. The SUMO’s visual connotations are still intended to alienate and create a “faceless other” to be fought against by a more expressive hero, but do this through evoking diving suits and early space suits; the sense of otherworldliness is heightened by these associations with protective equipment for visiting environments where man is unsuited to life, rather than the simple visual iconography of war.

By presenting the “enemy’s” footsoldier as reminiscent of equipment used for exploration rather than oppression, the tone of the conflict changes; misinterpretation of intent and fear of the unknown are presented as the prevailing themes rather than simple dichotomies between “right” and “wrong” within the series. Even when more overtly militaristic designs are introduced later when the conflict expands, the consistent aesthetic thread unifying Mead’s mechanical designs is alienation and isolation; the first Moonrace machine that the viewer sees in the series, the WaDOM or Walking Dome illustrated above, towers over buildings, visually reminiscent both of an earlier franchise design in the original Mobile Suit Gundam’s one-off machine the “Big Zam” (tying the series back into its fictional timeline) but also giving the sense of an observation platform.

It is worth nothing that outside of the most basic visual associations (a humanoid design with two arms and legs), and a few more tangential connotations of diving suits brought about by the bulbous design and dome-like helmet, the SUMO has none of the immediate connotations of the GM or Jesta; even its main weapons of a stereotypically futuristic pistol and an archaic-looking bladed weapon are alien to the viewer. There are few visual points of reference; the design is not immediately spelt out as “good” or “bad” simply through colour or shape – indeed, rounded shapes and gold and silver colours are more associated with “good” designs in most science fiction, with antagonists often presented with more angular architecture and subdued colours. Everything about the SUMO is ambiguous, from the function of its blade weapon (which later in the series is shown to be an advanced gun in itself) to its allegiance; it looks heroic but acts like an antagonist for much of the series. Mead has not just created a design which evokes “otherworldly, advanced invader” but goes beyond this to play with the viewer’s preconceptions of the connotations of colour and shape in science fiction – and indeed the franchise as a whole, where white and gold have been the hero’s colours in several entries.

To someone who is familiar with the franchise, these in-universe connotations of colour shown by the golden-coloured SUMO which is introduced prefigure certain plot developments which homage previous series; this is a level of connotative meaning that works within the narrative itself and which is also picked up in the title design, the Turn-A itself (pictured above). While the characters in the series initially do not see the significance of the machine’s head crest marking it out as the hero’s unit (changed from a samurai-like set of horns as in most franchise entries to a moustache by Mead in keeping with the retro-futuristic style), viewers familiar with the setting have certain expectations of a white, crested machine that are subsequently fulfilled.

 

To conclude, Mead’s designs for Turn-A Gundam both evoke series staples in terms of colour and ornamentation, but in eschewing the obvious connotative meanings of the GM and its related designs use visual aspects thematically rather than literally; the semiotic interpretations are a step distant from those that the franchise has come to rely on and reflect the narrative and its development and themes rather than simply providing visual shorthands to a machine’s purpose. 

NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR

Turn-A Gundam is one of my favourite animated works; its combination of retro-future mechanical designs with a well-realised and often whimsical setting that is an equal mix of comparatively plainly presented Western period drama and the alternate-history aesthetic of Studio Ghibli’s films, and a plot which endeavours to go beyond the often predictable and pulp-y staples of the Gundam franchise make it stand out as a highly enjoyable piece of science fiction. I felt it only fair I finished this series of articles on the franchise with a chance to talk at length about an aspect of what I consider its strongest (but at the same time least typical) entry – Mead’s arresting and unique designs.

Future entries in this article series will look more widely at the visual culture of science fiction, moving outside of this one long-running franchise.

Source of images: http://www.mahq.net

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3 comments

  1. schneider

    Yup! The Moonrace mecha design successfully conveyed an alien look, suggesting science totally incomprehensible in the eyes of the Earthrace. I also loved how the battles in Turn A Gundam were clumsy, awkward skirmishes that were nearly never settled decisively.

    The Sumo’s pronounced round shoulders give it the silhouette of a bouncer/bodyguard. Very fitting.

    • r042

      Another continuity point I liked was Moonrace stuff was often “UC design plus” (the MP Baund Docs for example) while the Mountain cycle units were unmodified for the most part.

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