It is relatively uncommon for a mecha anime to focus too strongly on the process of robot design and testing; test pilots are a common archetype (most iconically, perhaps, Isamu Dyson in Macross Plus), and the process of thrashing a new unit through its paces is usually a good framework for its sudden deployment in combat. This is why it is particularly interesting that 2017 saw two series ostensibly focused on robot designers, rather than professional robot pilots. I have written at some length about Atom the Beginning‘s interesting slow burn to a disarming revelation about society’s relationship with AI from the perspective of two students of engineering who build a sentient machine. It focused, in its own way, on the minutiae of being a research student. The difficulties in getting funding. The importance of always moving forward and iterating.
Knight’s & Magic begins with a science-fiction fan ending up reincarnated in a world where science-fiction technology is real, and able to use his past life memories to immediately become au fait with it. I mentioned in my previous article on the subject this makes him almost insufferably privileged, and removes a lot of the potential thematic depth of other-world fiction. This worsened in episode 2, where he was able to mid-battle reprogram a mech, rebuild its entire control interface and proceed to increase its capabilities such that he could overshadow professional soldiers, while being a child too small to reach the controls. The fight was nicely choreographed but immensely frustrating because it was so patently adolescent wish-fulfilment it reminded me why I am not really the target audience for the series. The whole premise of the series, it felt, was being put forward as “what if you were not merely reborn into an interesting, fantastical world, but one which works in such a way that your expertise made you as a god among mortals?” And that is ultimately not interesting to me.
Nevertheless I thought it fair to give the series a little more time to develop and episode 3 swung back around to something that seemed more interesting. Ernesti, the child prodigy, declares his intent is to become a weapons designer, and build new and powerful mecha for the nation he lives in. His hobbyist interest in science-fiction becomes useful, because he has completely atypical concepts of strategy and design doctrine. Now, stories of iconoclastic inventors seem more interesting to me than stories of effortlessly talented warriors – so when the boon he asked of the king for his service was access to the plans for producing power sources so he could improve on them I regained a lot of interest in the series. The remainder of the episode walked a fine line between being exactly the sort of story of experiment and research I wanted and being not quite well-paced enough to pull it off.
Atom was, in many ways, glacially paced. Incredibly little happened, really. The scientists were too amateurish, because they were students working at the fringes of their field, to really understand what they were doing – which made the final episode’s missed moments of realisation all the more powerful. I liked that. It was a series focused more on letting the viewer see the implications of things before the characters did, and allowed for charming episodes like the junior robotics competition. Knight’s & Magic‘s research storyline begins with Ernesti tasked with building a new class of robot before he is allowed access to the nation’s military secrets concerning power supply. He immediately begins by asking why nobody has thought of using fixed weapons to supplement handheld ones, and invents a new musculature system. This is a bit fast – even though the developments are not flawless, and the focus of the next section of the story is on solving issues of fuel consumption, balance and so on so much ground is covered it feels (to me) the focus is not quite right. His three huge stated aims – redesign the basic mech chassis to allow for fixed ranged weaponry as a secondary armament to handheld melee weapons, partially automate fire control for weapon mounts to reduce the level of training pilots need and redesign the musculature and power management systems to generally increase performance – are all well underway within one episode when any one of those would be the focus of most research-focused stories. It feels once again that Knight’s & Magic has a bit of a problem with scale – it is all well and good having an intelligent, idealistic hero who wants to build powerful mechs but having, effectively, a child in their lower years of secondary education set out with some initial success to redefine a nation’s military doctrine on a recruitment, training and equipment level touches again on the problem of Ernesti is simply too good. When he runs into problems beyond the simple mechanical ones he can invent his way around – politicking, the jealousy and distrust of authority figures etcetera – the series is a lot better. Episode 4 has rather more of this and continues the idea that the series almost swings from good to bad at a whim.
And yet although these things do exist – he does run into obstructive nobles, industrial espionage, mechanical failures and so on – they feel rather inorganic problems because the focus of his military innovations feels so broad and power fantasy-esque, not least because he is a child. Here, perhaps, the isekai or other-world narrative is working against the more interesting ideas of an iconoclast inventor. Rather than a Howard Hughes figure (and a story about the mecha equivalent to the Spruce Goose would be a good story I would watch), rather than some fantasy-robot equivalent to The Right Stuff, what is being offered in Knight’s & Magic feels to me like a story of someone meta-gaming in a roleplaying game – the equivalent at times to those novelty T-shirts worn by science afficionados of “what to do in the past” that presuppose you can convince people that mould is good for you, that you can build a wing and a steam-engine and a battery just like that. Those T-shirts are, ultimately, amiable jokes about the relative simplicity of supposedly complex and ground-breaking inventions. Ernesti is the embodiment of that mindset, someone who is able to find enough charismatic people who like his charming personality to let him win and keep winning no matter what problems he faces. The inevitability of those victories he has already won (and they are numerous, even in three episodes), and the magnitude of his ideas, mean I cannot really feel the obstacles that are presented are credible ones.
Trying exactly to say what I dislike about the series without lazily saying Ernesti is a bad or overpowered character or just hating a series because I am not the sort of viewer who needs a power fantasy where loving nerd media and being a coder makes you a god in your own realm is difficult. The series is a little more than that, because it has put Ernesti in the role of a designer who wants to improve the world rather than just an ace pilot and saviour. That immediately makes me willing to continue watching because it does, in a way, temper the flaws. But it could really do – were I to put down in plain terms what I feel would make it more interesting to me – with reigning in its scope a tiny bit. Either be a story about someone who wants to make piloting robots something more people can do (and focus on the implications of that in a world where traditionally piloting has been the preserve of the elite) or be a story about someone who sees a flawed military doctrine and wants to modernise, or just be a story about someone who wants to build the most powerful robot possible. Any one of those three options could tell a good – and, indeed, cathartic and powerful-feeling – story. Putting all three together – and having the plot move so quickly at times – means all three lose a little impact.