The opening episode of Gundam: Iron-Blooded Orphans (abbreviated henceforth as G-Tekketsu) is particularly strong both as a franchise entry and as a piece of science-fiction television. While I particularly enjoyed the dense, confused mayhem of G-Reco, its predecessor, that series’ shortcomings became obvious in time; in trying to tell a story about characters uncertain of what they were doing, it was unable to tell the audience effectively what was happening. G-Reco was, in the end, about various groups of people unused to war finding their efforts at starting one went awry; in some ways a possible critique of the “chickenhawk,” the politician who talks big about militarism but has no stomach for blood. Yet in the end its concepts – of a number of insular, superstitious nation-states in space ending up embroiled in a pointless inconclusive war that ended up benefiting a small number of loudest-voiced people – were significantly more interesting than its status as a piece of fiction.
In my previous article, concerning the genre of what is ultimately pulp, soapish historical fiction, I discussed the idea that it is impossible for a work dealing with an elite and a dispossessed to be be apolitical. By extension, a work which downplays or mocks the downfall of an elite for comic value – by presenting socialists or reformists as figures of fun and inconveniences – can not unreasonably be read as sympathetic to that elite. Downton Abbey, the aristocratic soap popular on British television of late, is a good example; modernity, and a world where the landed gentry are no longer so comfortable, is presented as something annoying and the humour is drawn from how the most posh members of the society are inconvenienced by it.
From the start, Rose of Versailles has a menace hanging over it – that of the French Revolution, constantly alluded to by the narrator and gradually brought into the main plot by the exposure of its privileged protagonist to the injustice of the world she fights for. The shoujo aspects of it – Marie Antoinette as the privileged adolescent involved in social spats with her rivals at court playing out like schoolgirl bickering – fade away through a move towards genuine threat. It goes from two women arguing about talking to each other to attempted fraud, efforts to undermine the monarchy and even assassination plots before the story as a whole pulls away from Marie herself to the possible downfall of the French nobility as an institution. Oscar is a confidante in this story, the woman in which Marie can put her faith as a friend, and yet this is set against her growing revulsion at the injustice of the system itself.
This was the part of this series of stories I was most interested in writing, and yet the part which was hardest to write without betraying what I intended to do with the series. Part 2 set out both the tension – as the boys at the heart of the story could not reconcile their fictional idols with the reality of interacting with an adult alien – and the setup for this climax as Lovely made her dramatic appearance, being in some ways everything the boys wanted and in other ways nothing of the sort.
Part 3 had to be the fallout from this, a slow decline from the hope of Part 1‘s classic super-robot tone through the bathos of Part 2’s non-event of a fight into the confrontation between expectation and reality. At the same time I did not want it to simply be grimdark nihilism, and I hope I avoided this. The theme I wanted to play on was that interaction between depiction of war (or in this case heroism, or alien contact) and the truth of it. The final scene of War in the Pocket is excellent for this; the refrain of the children that the “next war” will be cooler, and longer, and more exciting shows that those people who did not take part in the story’s events know nothing of anything that matters. I homage this, in a way, with Daichi and Yuuya seeing a super robot war as a story of monsters of the week and inevitable, not too perilous victory – while Keiko, not so obsessed with this black-hat and white-hat morality, can only perceive the war part of the phrase.
But that is only a part of what I wanted to use as my dramatic climax. The other part is something that I see no reason to not explore within the framework of this genre – the question of how sentient a sentient super-robot actually is. I really like Brave Police J-Decker as a series because it plays with this idea. The robots are the strongest characters in the story, outshining most of the humans – but it is the core human-AI relationship that drives the story’s best moments. In these short stories I have imagined that Lovely is perhaps not cynical but not willing to be seen as a tool. She is Earth’s protector, but she is a living creature front and centre and that is something boys raised on media that presents your robotic big brother as someone who does your bidding (a trope that has existed since Tetsujin 28) can’t relate to. Lovely, not being so familiar with the “expectations” placed on a super-robot by people raised on fictional super-robots, eventually snaps and it is this that drives this story. The children are being children, for sure, but they are toying with someone’s life.
I hope this does not come across as too nihilistic. Instead I wanted to explore the ideas of how boys raised on male-focused media about saving and protecting helpless girls, and about robots that serve man, might react in a situation where their fictional fantasies become real. The effects of media, and the ways in which young people engage with the fiction they consume, fascinate me – and writing a piece of almost meta-textual fiction in this vein (that is not slapstick self-awareness) is something I have long wanted to do.
A photograph of Shimada, Shizuoka, a fictionalised version of which is the setting of these stories.
Source: Google Maps
This is the follow-up to What’s Her Name? Lovely Chaser!, the first part of this series of short stories intended to take a more grounded and human view of the primary-coloured super-robot genre. What I think has been the preoccupation in writing these is presenting the children as children – not the sometimes hyper-irritating perky heroes of a super robot series, but – to continue with the mecha-anime analogy – sometimes well-meaning, sometimes spiteful children like Al from War in the Pocket. The personalities – and insecurities – of the three children at the centre of these events are becoming clearer. Keiko is unsure if her putting on a spiteful and harsh facade is really her. Yuuya sees his fantasies of being the anime hero dissolve. Daichi simply doesn’t know what to do – he’s trying to be mature but is still a child. The three children are set against Lovely, who is both naive and empirical. She has a vague concept of wanting to help, but does not – at this stage – really understand what she is fighting for. This seemed to offer a very interesting opportunity; the AI that wants to learn about humanity is learning it from children, whose worldview and life experiences are lacking. She sees petty disagreements writ large socially, sees insecurity about trivial things and – in something that will likely be returned to – sees her points of contact with the world immensely prejudiced about her because of their conflation of reality with fiction. I think Yuuya may in time become a more prominent character; something about the ultimate sci-fi nerd being unable to disconnect an actual living alien from his preconceptions of what an alien is and what a super-robot is is particularly interesting.
As to the fight between Lovely and the disaffected dock-worker, there are a few things that I was thinking of when I wrote it. It was, plainly put, intended to homage the opening scene of the Patlabor movie. That is a great scene in a film about industrial decay. It suited perfectly this story, about a super-robot in a world that does not necessarily need them. Thinking about how it played out – with the teacher being taken hostage and the students simply put in peril of being stepped on by someone who does not know they are there – that was a scene that I wrote to suggest some things about Daichi’s priorities. Saving the adults is something that happens in the process of saving other students. Daichi would have these priorities – saving the person he knows best would most likely be how he would tell Lovely what to do.
Much as the first story built to this, this – setting up Daichi as the temporary hero, the boy who saved his “damsel” – builds to a sequel I intend to write. Meeting Lovely, being given the power of a super robot in their hands, seems to be playing to a boys’ fantasy – they can save even the girl they claim not to like, and the unpopular teacher, and be the big heroes. But Lovely is, ultimately, a woman herself. Keiko also has a Machine Stone. What is implied in this story is that the boys are happy to have Lovely around but don’t really listen to her. That’s a dynamic that could go in interesting directions.
It has been a while since I wrote any journal-like visits to the fantasy world of my earlier short stories; I had written a few and could not think of more topics to write upon. However, after this hiatus I once again had inspiration; the idea of examinations for selecting those to hold public office is a historical detail that has always fascinated me, as has the concept of social patronage. Both details seemed to fit well the fiercely virtuous, pious and studious culture I had created and so this story came about. I have explored in past stories the social climbers, the means by which peoples’ status may improve in this society (marriage, a form of debutante-like social meeting of eligible youths, military service and the simple conspicuousness of being seen at a religious gathering) and so I wrote a piece about someone seeking a patron to sponsor their entering government.
Illustration kindly drawn from my request by Daniel Olsen
This is the first part of at least a two-part story. It began, as an awful lot do, with a chat online in which I asked the question “wouldn’t it be cool if?”
In this case, it was “wouldn’t it be cool if there was a story a bit like The Iron Giant and War in the Pocket, but with the relentlessly cheery child protagonists of the Braves franchise?” That and “wouldn’t it be cool if there was a robot story with a female AI as its lead robot?”
I began, probably approaching this backwards, with the robot. Lovely Chaser (intentionally a riff on Lonely Chaser, the opening theme to Galvion) was going to be the inexperienced but ambitious superhero, someone sent out to do good in the world with a very – initially – straightforward sense of justice. She would meet the usual kid archetypes, and from there things would go somewhere interesting. One thing I have been considering a lot is the urge to “deconstruct” or subvert traditionally child-friendly media with “dark” or controversial readings – infamous examples include reading Spirited Away as a film about the sex trade, for example. How do stories like Madoka, or War in the Pocket, fit into this? Why do I happily read Madoka as a relentlessly sociopathic tale that can’t let media for girls be innocent, and yet have no qualms with War in the Pocket taking the gungho world of Gundam into dark places? And how should this be applied to something as (generally) cheery as the Braves stories?
The answer I think came from approaching the matter from the other direction; looking at, specifically, the differences between the 2004 remake of Tetsujin 28 and the OVA finale to the Braves franchise, GaoGaiGar FINAL. Both are, in their way, “dark” spins on beloved children’s robot shows. Tetsujin unsympathetically, unheroically, paints a post-war world where there’s little place for a straightforward hero. GaoGaiGar FINAL takes the colourful aesthetic unchanged and just adds a high body count.
So with all of this in mind I thought about what I needed to do to stop Lovely Chaser just being a “what if this happy robot show was actually dark?” affair. The answer seemed to be – to suit the tone of the inspiration materials – make it an improving story, not one setting out to vindictively punish its cast – and indeed in this story and probably not the sequels I want to avoid being mean-spirited. But there’s no shortage of implied emotional heaviness in children’s shows. The ending of Brave Police J-Decker is good precisely because it’s being sad in a traditionally funny show. It’s adversity that the heroes emerge from. Much like, in a way, how Pixar’s films reduce you to tears and then leave you feeling a bit better at the end. I don’t profess to say this is going to be as adept as Up or the Toy Story films (although those latter are themselves worth considering in how they let adults approach media about childhood in an emotional way) but I want to try and get that same sense across – Lovely, Daichi, Yuuya and Keiko are not going to have an easy time any more than Woody and Buzz, or Al and Bernie, do. But rather than this being a story of their being crushed, I want to try and make it about how they come out stronger.
That’s a lot of high-minded words, ultimately, for a story about a schoolgirl super robot. But for some reason this story – about, and inspired by, an awful lot of things I really like – needed a lot of thought to work out how to approach.
For several episodes the secondary plot of Eureka Seven, the increasing disharmony among the Federation forces around Dewey’s increasingly extreme plans, has proved more interesting than the main plot of Renton and Eureka as the emissaries to an apparently uncaring alien intelligence. This is perhaps indicative of the series’ wider difficulties; it is a particularly existential story at its heart, an expansive narrative that plays its hand very cautiously. Renton and Eureka’s non-courtship, their development, has played out over the whole series so far and now they are left in limbo, the preparations by definition inadequate. A human story – the mad genius trying to destroy the world to prove a point – is understandable. It offers a conflict that can be comprehended and fought with guns, the sort of thing a mecha anime wants. A story of metaphysical self-discovery, of discussion of the nature of humanity and of the nature of an alien deity, is alien, conceptual science-fiction. That Eureka Seven discusses this, and gives it space to grow and develop at the pace of uneasy first love as an allegory for first contact is its virtue, and yet at the same time difficult to write about on an episode-by-episode basis.
One of the key drivers of dramatic conflict in shoujo anime tends to be the clash between the privileged and underprivileged; in Aim for the Ace you have the school’s “elite” versus the perceived talentless interloper (picked up in Gunbuster and mixed with the macho world of robot piloting), in Dear Brother these themes are further explored with its setting of a very exclusive school with its own student inner circle, membership of which encourages disdain for non-members. Even something like Glass Mask, set in the world of theatre, still builds core conflicts around two things – rebellion against, and then acceptance of, an apparently unreasonable authority figure and the distinction between the right sort and wrong sort of people. The protagonist of such stories is generally one of the out-group for some reason beyond their control – a lack of money, unsupportive parents, etcetera, and the story is about their overcoming adversity to earn the respect of the in-group. It is not always this simple – Dear Brother begins in this fashion and then questions whether the “in-group” should really exist by portraying it as destructive and unpleasant – but I feel it fair to say questions of class and privilege sit centrally within a number of popular shoujo anime.
This story owes an awful lot to two things. One is Tom Wolfe’s excellent book The Right Stuff, an acerbic, shocking and often brutal look into the US manned space program and jet fighter development program. It is a work of nonfiction that any fan of science-fiction, of robot anime or boys-own aviation stories like Top Gun should read. It talks about the real life analogues – to be blunt almost to the point of banality – of the most memorable figures in military science fiction. It is a book about the people whose fictional equivalents are Roy Fokker, Isamu Dyson, Bernard Monsha, and so on.
I read it and felt no military SF I had read really captured the world of the fighter ace adequately. In order to make stories in that world entertaining, the aces must be cocky and ultimately, for the most part, successful. They do not die until pathos requires it and it was that that was exploded by The Right Stuff. The military fiction mould from which military mecha anime is cut eschews – in the sorts of stories that felt most analogous to The Right Stuff – the arbitraryness with which someone’s life could end. As a result they do not, I feel, adequately capture the macho camaraderie Wolfe also highlights. The most memorable characters of stories I loved were revealed as thin facsimiles of far more fascinating historical figures.
Yet the second inspiration for this story is undeniably Macross Plus. It is still – even if it now feels hollow and empty in its characterisation – an OVA which gets across, I feel, how the world of the test pilot was presented to the world in the space age. The rebellion is sufficient to thrill but still undercut with respectability. There is a sense of nobility and responsibility as Guld is forced to come to terms with his being a bad person. I have not watched Macross Plus since reading The Right Stuff but I very much want to, because while Wolfe’s book was often brutal, unremitting in its depiction of a churn of human life that seems to a modern perspective insane and unsustainable, it was also humorous and hopeful and filled with – as one settled into its prose style – the camaraderie that made it all possible. In its bizarre scatological moments, its depictions of utter bravery in the face of death, its depictions of the constant pursuit of success, it makes the sanitised fictionalised version of events seem believable.
This story is my response to all of this – my response, in fact, to my considering what I liked about mecha anime in light of reading Wolfe. Its protagonist is introspective, trying to understand from an outsider’s perspective how others she has distanced herself from live.