How Funny is Robot Anime?

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There are a large number of attempts at light-hearted mecha animé; comedy and the ridiculous, in some form, has generally been a part of the genre from the beginning. Go Nagai and Ken Ishikawa’s mecha manga which would in turn be adapted for animé – Mazinger Z and Getter Robo, two foundations of the genre – are frequently absurd, darkly comic and violent, while their animated forms toned some of the extremes down and added less grotesque humour. While such series were not specifically comedy animé or parodies, they nevertheless accepted that the genre – aimed for younger audiences – could be funny. This continued through series like Daitarn 3, which is filled with absurd scenes and strange villains – and if anything was already acknowledged, in a fashion, by Zambot 3 removing the punchlines from the expected comic violence to make it real.

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Purely comic or parodic mecha animé is something of a later development for the genre, once its ground-rules had been laid down and there was something to parody. A series such as ZZ Gundam is a good such example; as a direct continuity sequel to the overbearingly melodramatic Zeta Gundam it immediately begins with a cast of idiots, jokes involving property damage and people falling over and funny animals. ZZ‘s early arcs are frustrating for many viewers because of this; it is a sudden overbearing tonal shift into slapstick where characters’ failings are turned into the source of jokes and yet simultaneously – as revelations later in the series prove – are setting up core conflicts for more serious plot points. As the series progresses, and its cast settle into their roles, it is still a funny series – visually busy and exaggerated, filled with mischief and wry observations about the genre – but settles very much into a typical Gundam series and the continuation of Zeta that one might expect. Judau is a funnier character than Kamille, more inclined to mess about and get results via unorthodox methods, and his interactions with Roux and Ple are highly entertaining – but at the same time the Argama is back travelling around the same stomping-grounds of Dakar and Kilimanjaro and Dublin (a kind of Greatest Hits of UC Gundam), various Axis mobile suits are being thrown around largely ineffectually (with second antagonist Glemy a more loathsome and perverted version of Paptimus Scirocco) and Haman is a credible and competent enemy. It has gone from a resigned, silly-yet-sometimes-dry send-up of Zeta to an expected sequel to Zeta with more jokes.

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Since one can argue that mecha animé in general is a celebration of the ridiculous, and much of it is funny in its overblown nature (which makes the moments of intense pathos that punctuate something like Giant Robo or G Gundam all the more effective), purely “comedy mecha animé” – differentiated, I would argue, from a series which simply is light-hearted in tone – is generally one of three things. It may juxtapose the robots with some other genre more condusive to comedy such as fantasy (which has its own set of tropes and things to parody, often overlapping with those things that are inherently funny in mecha animé), sports or sometimes simply pornography (for example the truly awful Knights of Ramune, or the more interesting recent animé Daimidaler.) The jokes here are about how two unexpected genres are being brought together, how different forms of science-fiction or fantasy logic play against each other. Alternatively, it is self-referential humour, more often making some larger point about science-fiction as a genre; Patlabor is often highly amusing, undeniably a mecha series but at the same time is an interesting pseudo-cyberpunk tale and much of its comedy is at the expense of the mecha elements; they are unwanted irritations, unsubtle things and symbols of a technologised, corporate future. Even Terrestrial Defence Corp Daiguard, a very affectionate comedy about a privatised super robot team with outdated equipment, is as much a comedy about office life and the kaiju and ecological disaster SF genres as it is a super-robot series.

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Actual purely parodic mecha animé is thus a small third kind; it is almost purely introspective, with humour that relies on a significant amount of genre literacy. Such series are generally physical comedies at heart, with a plot focused around taking apart in ridiculous form the already absurd aspects of their genres. Three examples of this genre-referential comedy show this well; ARIEL, Project A-Ko and Sailor Victory. Each is very much a comedy that only works for a mecha fan, with humour relying on a mixture of reference-spotting and understanding some context to a joke. ARIEL provides a good example; its villains are at first glance a very stock alien empire, with a very clear 1980s science-fiction aesthetic to them. That they are immediately revealed to be broke and completely useless – but pitted against a super-robot whose pilots do not want to be there – feels a lot like a take-down of something like Zeorymer (with its evil conglomerate villain the Hau Dragon) or Dangaioh (with its general tone of reluctant pilots versus a relentless foe). What is more, since ARIEL is an adaptation of a light-novel series which itself was parodying the conventions of older super-robot animé, its entire tone – four disjointed episodes that explain little about anything and simply provide four parodies of cliché super robot plotlines – is an in-joke. The writing assumes the viewer is watching a longer series, and the joke is that they are not. Project A-Ko is similarly overreliant on reference and genre literacy; much of its running time is spent repeating a simple joke whereby the “villain” sends an ineffectual super-robot against the protagonist which is defeated because the world is established as one where the narrative conceits needed for it to work do not. The second half is an alien-invasion story which begins with an extended visual parody of Do You Remember Love and then returns to the simple character humour to conclude the basic plot. It really shows, in a way far more direct than ARIEL does, the flaw with pure “comedy-mecha” series; visual references and knowing comments on how inherently ridiculous a genre founded on spectacle (and entered into with some audience-work contract accepting that it will be ridiculous) are not generally enough to make a good comedy.

Sailor Victory makes a far better attempt, however. The former is short (only two 25-minute episodes), thus its jokes remain fresh and it does not over-rely on references in place of finding its own humour. There are references – the protagonists’ ship resembles the Hover Pilder from Mazinger Z and launches from a swimming pool, while a running joke about an arm-mounted drill (referencing Getter Robo) is quite charming. Its parody, however, is not based around how unsuitable or unrealistic giant robots are – the joke is not that mecha don’t work – but that giant robots are inherently ridiculous and that is some of their appeal. It makes very similar jokes, and lampoons the same cliches of the genre, that many other animé do; heroes make grandiose speeches even if it is impractical, everyone over-explains their plan, disguises are always terrible yet strangely effective – and yet sometimes does this more subtly than it seems. Project A-Ko is overstuffed with visual jokes, characters so exaggerated they become intolerable and a general lack of good pacing. ARIEL feels like a sequence of sketches only loosely tied together. Sailor Victory, however, is more fast-paced, coherently plotted (the story is silly and superficial but nevertheless solid, which provides the basis on which it can be funny – indeed, it somewhat evokes a two-part episode of Goldran or J-Decker) and thus able to have fun within a defined boundary. The opening credits make this quite clear – the lyrics are super-robot celebratory stuff with a girl power twist (indeed, the OVA has an entirely female cast of heroes who are fun and nicely-depicted comic archetypes) set to an opening that seems like it should be more exploitative than the comedy is. Their “transformation” sequence is full of nudity and flowers – but rather than piloting in some fetishised parody of a flight suit (as a female pilot in other comedy-mecha might) they simply end up wearing perfectly ordinary clothes. That, in fact, is probably one of the better jokes in the OVA, and it is a simple visual one. Often the overly sexual aspect of super-robot uniforms for women is parodied by making the outfits even more revealing – Sailor Victory makes them perfectly ordinary after a naked transformation.

Obviously, this is only a fairly synoptic look at the relationship between comedy and mecha animé; one could subdivide and argue the differentiations endlessly (where does a series like Goldran or Nadesico or Majestic Prince fit?) Consider it instead something more of a sliding scale; from ultra-referential comedy where the joke is familiarity at one extreme to a comedy where the humour is found within all the writing, not simply via specific parody or genre lampshading. However one considers it, though, even though series mecha animé do exist – and can be very good (for example Armoured Trooper VOTOMS, or Fang of the Sun Dougram) – it is a genre that has had some kind of comic appeal or nature within it from the start.

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6 comments

  1. Seiya Meteorite

    If I’m correct, Sailor Victory is also meant to be a parody of Sailor Moon also, though aside from the nude transformation with them ending up in their sailor schoolgirl uniforms, Aya Hisakawa/Sailor Mercury voicing one of the characters (the girl with the glasses named Shizuka), and one of the other girls looking like Rei/Sailor Mars (the girl with long blue hair, Kiyomi), it’s got nothing else to do with Sailor Moon.

      • Seiya Meteorite

        Thanks. I’m a Sailor Moon fan and I thought it had something to do with Sailor Moon when I saw this at first, but I was wrong, kinda. Where did you get that screenshot with the English subtitles? I can’t find an English subbed version anywhere.

          • Seiya Meteorite

            Thanks. I’ve wanted to see what this

            It was released in the US, but I believe only in English. First heard of this from a guy named BennetttheSage in his review series “Anime Abandon”.

            One other thing, how were you able to download it? I’ve tried to download it and the other Graduation OVAs, but every time I try with certain ones, nothing happens.

          • r042

            It was quite some time ago but I believe the torrent worked fine then. I am not sure what the problem could be save it being unsupported by seeds.

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