I was interested enough in Armoured Fleet Dairugger XV to keep watching past a point I’d usually give up a series that was not interesting me. It was a super robot show I was not familiar with outside of knowing that it was perhaps the biggest-crewed robot of that era of super robots (with fifteen pilots), that it was (seemingly uncharitably) parodied by Robot Chicken for the length of its stock footage and that it had never featured in Super Robot Wars. And so, when I found out it was receiving official, subtitled streams on Youtube, I decided to watch it.
I have recently got very into playing Horizon Wars, not only enjoying the rules but enjoying the freedom a highly customisable wargame gives to create interesting an unusual armies. When the Biowar expansion came out I felt there was only one thing to do – combine my love of super robots with my love of wargaming and make stats for a whole army of deadly monsters-of-the-week…
The 1990 TV anime Brave Exkaiser was the first entry in the Brave franchise, and while it is a highly generic super-robot series it is interesting to view it as laying the groundwork for ideas that the subsequent franchise entries would build on. Tracking the ways in which these ideas develop provides a way of looking at the franchise as a whole that in some way serves to explain its often interesting approach to a super-robot story. Central to almost all entries (the notable exception being Brave Command Dagwon) is a focus – often humorous – at the relationship between a young boy and some number of robot friends. In some cases this is heavily brought to the fore – Brave Police J-Decker runs with the idea by having a whole stable of robots all with human companions and even – in a tongue-in-cheek fashion – love interests. Often the intent is not to make a serious statement about the nature of machines and humans, but the shift from the child hero piloting a robot to a child surrounded by robots and aliens is an interesting angle which is often used for endearing comedy.
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.
Episode 25 of Rahxephon begins with Ayato having “become” the Rahxephon, its true form being a giant version of him with design elements of the machine itself attached. This is, one could argue, the “mid-season upgrade” of the machine, its point where its true power is unlocked for the final battle – and there is definitely a final battle at hand, with the Mu controlling earth, TERRA in ruins, Narai-Kanai destroyed and the moments of love-confession and resolution passed. Rahxephon has toyed with becoming a super-robot anime at times, but never committed; some combination of events has always subverted or prevented action catharsis. In a way this is the ultimate in the robot representing the pilot – Ayato has never been particularly comfortable in his identity or at home in this unusual world, and TERRA has never really understood what it is doing – and so the “message” being pressed home is that there cannot ever be proper catharsis. When he tries to be decisive, he misunderstands the situation. When he vacillates, people die.
This was a difficult story to begin writing, because I had so many ideas for it and it was so difficult to condense them into a piece of short fiction. Initially there were going to be a whole squadron of pilots and it was going to be a fun caper about some soldiers trying to throw a surprise party for their captain – elements of Full Metal Panic and Patlabor perhaps. The protagonist was going to be a slightly too serious bridge officer called Hitomi, and it was going to be a farce. The problem was I couldn’t write a caper story as funny as Butch Minds the Baby and I couldn’t hit a suitably easygoing tone without it seeming smug.
Then I decided I quite liked some of the supporting cast more, and there was going to be a Super Robot Wars-esque story about the pilots alone, with the brash, Excellen Browning-like character constantly annoying her wingman. That didn’t go anywhere either.
Then I hit on the characters I really liked from the original idea – a well-meaning but slightly intimidating ace pilot, and a very nervous copilot. I downplayed the initial plan for heartwarming cuteness and focused more on a genre parody drawing on Godannar, Gunbuster and similar super-robot stories. The narrative voice ended up more akin to The Stainless Steel Rat, and this was the result. Also included is a picture, drawn by a sadly anonymous artist, of the two main characters of the story – its style, very muscular and pin-up like, somewhat informed the tone.
Episode 43 of Eureka Seven significantly advances the main, alien-contact plot in its scenes of Renton and Eureka on an unusual beach. They have travelled to the Promised Land, as expected, and face new challenges even with Norb’s clues about its identity. The viewer learns, in time, about Earth’s role in this setting (and the difference in perspective from which the characters view it) – yet what is more interesting by far, beyond the actual main plot, is the subtle building up to a subplot for Dominic and Anemone and how the revelations this offers about Dewey and Holland reflect on what Renton and Eureka are seeing. It is one of the points in Eureka Seven, much like the Ray and Charles subplot, where it deftly redefines and arguably surpasses its roots in Gundam. Eureka Seven is indebted to the Gundam franchise, yet – much like the similarly referential and reverential Rahxephon has its uneasy relationship with Evangelion – it is at its most fascinating when it diverges from it.
Episode 23 of Rahxephon is a very, in many ways, typical episode of mecha anime and yet as a result, for this point in the series, a very atypical episode of Rahxephon. As a result, it is disarming, and poignant, and a very strange counterpoint to the crushing anticlimax of the previous two-part story about Makoto’s failure to implement his plan. It closes off a character’s arc in truly heroic style, yet constantly undermines the aesthetic expectations of the audience to make it less simplistically hot-blooded. Furthermore, it hints at tragic ironies but never makes them clear, not spelling out how one character’s doubt and inaction could have prevented another’s tragedy and leaving the doubt in the viewer’s mind of whether or not what happened could have – or should have – been prevented.
Aldnoah Zero shows its inspirations from across a number of science-fiction animé, but perhaps most clearly Turn-A Gundam in its invading empire from space bringing advanced technology against a more primitive Earth. While Turn-A took this to an extreme, with technology more advanced than many of the pure science-fiction Gundam series set against early 20th century weapons, Aldnoah has a “standard” military sci-fi setting, with its own war robots and advanced versions of existing weapons, set against a high-powered invading force with more fantastical equipment. Having greater technological parity in this way puts the focus more easily on conflict from the start; although very quickly in Turn-A the Earthrace finding and learning to use advanced weapons becomes the defining plot point, it makes it very clear from the start that without this, the Earthrace cannot even destroy a single Moonrace machine.