In my series of articles about mechanical design, I talked about the capacity for machines to seem human and evoke human-like concepts. 2D cel animation has a capacity that live-action film, or even 3D CGI, does not – to dynamically exaggerate motions and distort the characters in a fluid way that draws attention to the lines of action within the scene. While there are examples of beautiful 2D animation that seeks to recreate reality closely, often the more memorable scenes are those where the full potential of the medium is explored.
In 1998-9, a fresh take on Ken Ishikawa’s Getter Robo franchise was aired in the form of Getter Robo Armageddon; the original graphic novel and TV series had been significant in being the first use of certain cliches that its genre would come to rely on – the idea of a composite machine made up of individually-piloted vehicles, and the idea of a machine with distinct forms for fighting in different environments. Armageddon is a flawed series to watch owing to a change in staff after only a few episodes which left many plot threads introduced in the cryptic opening scenes either inadequately resolved or ignored. However, visually it is a very interesting piece of animation and the closing scene of episode 11 is a standout example. The heroes, out of action for a good section of the plot, have returned in style to hopefully put an end to their unfinished battle against the insane Dr Saotome and his henchmen Stinger and Cohen, who are in some way linked to a seemingly unstoppable alien race known as the Invaders. Saotome and his team have taken control of what used to be the heroes’ machine, Getter G, and it is pitted against its successor, Shin Getter.
Although the fight is allegedly between two mechanical creations, both are given biological aspects – Shin Getter has humanlike eyes and appears capable of emotion, while Saotome’s machine is infused, as he is, with the abilities of the Invaders and has more animalistic features. The parallels are even mirrored in how the machines mirror the stylised bodies of their pilots; the fight begins with the highly maneuverable Shin Getter-2 juxtaposed with its lithe pilot. This is a simple form of visual association but one which humanises the machine – its three forms are not simply engineered but take on aspects of the humans within. The use of machines which can split into component parts and reform, and alter their shape to suit draws on the series’ core conceit (that the Invaders can change their own shape) and is used to make a one-on-one duel seem far busier and more populated. A common trick in filming action scenes is to cut between many individual duels to give a sense of scale, and this segment uses the same concept in a duel ultimately between two individual entities.
Each time either side divides back into its components and reforms, the pace of the fight alters in a cinematic back-and-forth – and depending on which side is having to visually change its tactics, the viewer is able to get an idea of who has the upper hand. When Saotome brings out his own more maneuverable weapon in the form of Liger, the heroes choose to weather its attacks with the tanklike Getter-3; the form is introduced with an establishing shot of the stocky Benkei, its pilot, and then an immediate segue into it regaining the advantage by physically throwing its lighter opponent away. The villains are forced to use their own defensive form, which overpowers the heroes in turn with its long-range weapons. Their return salvo marks the next transformation of Saotome’s machine, into the balanced Dragon form, and they now have the upper hand. The surreal establishing shot of Getter-1 in which its internal mechanisms are shown is a visual nod to the series’ less serious roots; a reminder that the machine is still mechanical. Previously, the transformations have been glossed over or shown in abstracted form – Saotome’s component craft simply slamming together and warping into the end product – but this single change is shown to be clearly mechanical with detail given to how parts of the machine move to change its shape.
However, Getter-1 is then shown to be anything but a simple machine; everything about the meticulously depicted transformation is illogical, and its shape and the way it is animated are very biological with batlike wings and organic, fluid movement. At this point it is the inhuman Saotome whose machine seems less demonic and more heroic. The expected visual associations of “good” and “bad” are completely subverted and it becomes less clear who is prevailing. With both sides having by now expended all their secret weapons, what follows is a fast and frantic dogfight between the component craft, the heroes’ being on the defensive not shown by them weathering blows but by being unable to find the form that will give them the advantage. It is not until Ryoma, the pilot of Getter-1, breaks the “rules” of the fight by interrupting Saotome’s transformation that they can prevail. The constantly-changing nature of the combatants is interrupted and it is that that allows the heroes to gain the upper hand in the stalemate of transformations.
The victory is short-lived, though, as the viewer is reminded of Saotome’s machine having transcended its form; Saotome is able to simply rebuild it from thin air as long as some parts of it remain. He may have broken the rules in interrupting the transformation, but then Saotome’s crew break the rules in their own way by fighting with only two parts combined to buy time for the replacement to arrive. By this point, Saotome’s machine has gone beyond the mechanical; it now has a demonic face and mouth with which it physically bites its opponent. The established nature of the sides is breaking down and the heroes can no longer face their foes on even ground.
What follows is the fight’s conclusion; the heroes learn, alongside the viewer, that there is one secret weapon that has not been deployed. At the moment of realisation the background music, which has been absent since the first false victory, returns. The whole previous fight – between Ryouma destroying Saotome’s machine and the revelation of the final weapon – has had no music and when the soundtrack does return it is with a heroic drumbeat that steadily gets louder before the fanfare-like tune begins. The whole buildup to the weapon’s firing is incredibly theatrical and formal; the combination of the military music and processions of slow panning shots over the series’ cast of protagonists (including those who have died heroically) gives it an air of propaganda rather than the coup de grace of a hard fight. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, the battle seems to have been a foregone conclusion because of this weapon. Even the weapon itself, a huge fireball thrown at the enemy, is shown with a kind of grotesque pride – it is not simply victory, but the absolute annihilation of the opposition. The best part of a minute of the six-minute sequence is spent showing Saotome and his machine slowly vapourised – going beyond a simple celebration of Shin Getter’s power into a kind of sadistic overkill – and indeed the steady annihilation of everything in the shot’s path is redolent of footage of nuclear detonations.
Despite the proud music and the propagandistic parade of fallen heroes giving way to the ultimate victors, the visuals of this fight’s conclusion are anything but simply heroic. The viewer is watching a voyeuristic depiction of what looks like a painful death and being encouraged to revel in it because it is a hated antagonist getting their just desserts. It is this physicality, echoed throughout the fight, that sets Getter Robo Armageddon apart from many similar series and films; it spends time specifically trying to humanise inanimate machines with expressive elements and organic movements, and then fetishises their destruction.