Keeping it Real Robot

flag-07-pilots-get-attention-from-medical-team-post-operation

While watching FLAG, something really impressed me. Immediately after a particular mission,  the mecha pilots are given medical attention. A team of medical staff attend to the combat team, even when they didn’t sustain any injury — from enemy fire or otherwise. Given this lack of injury, this is a first — I’ve never seen this before in mecha anime.

There was also this one scene when a pilot needed to hit the stationary bike to cool down his body after the prolonged and high level of tension he sustained during the mission. If there was psychological decompression administered as well, I’d be even more impressed. After all, it may really be difficult to carry on socially after one has blasted machines, buildings, and perhaps people to bits.

flag-02-pilot-cooldown-on-stationary-bikes1

This got me thinking: Aren’t these pilots being too needy and fragile for grown professional soldiers¹ (compared to immature teenage pilots)? Consider that they fought, at least in the early going, by leveraging their tremendous technological advantage: the tactics they employed reduced the risks of taking enemy fire to a high degree. They weren’t launching frontal assaults despite their advantage in ordnance, technology, and training.

The United Nations Forces pitted mechanized special forces against opponents who were working with what amounted to 20th Century Cold War era military capabilities. And yet, as a viewer I was anxious for the team. I felt a real and palpable danger of being under fire. Anything can happen and their advantages can amount to very little. So when they arrive from a mission they’re very intense and in need of medical/psychological support. Note here that they aren’t whining, crying, or raging. They let the medical team do their jobs as befits their training and the pilots’ understanding of teamwork and the system.

Are they being treated like spoiled jocks? I don’t know, but the narrative presents them to be very valuable assets. I can think of Neon Genesis Evangelion‘s underage pilots as comparable assets; though Ikari Gendo [->] behaved as if they were disposable, especially towards his son Shinji. Also while there’s appropriate amount of medical support for Eva pilots, I find that there’s hardly any psychiatric/psychological support. Given the age of the pilots, I find this lack very very weird. Shinji has Misato, but she herself is pretty messed up. No professional counseling support may account for the general/accelerated pace of the mental breakdowns of those poor kids. Parts can be replaced, even an entire mecha unit can be, but trained fighters – not that easy in the context of most real robot anime I’ve seen.

This brings me to the behavior of elite pilots in other ‘real robot’ anime. It’s not my intention to dump on them, it’s no interest of mine to diminish my own enjoyment of these characters and the anime they inhabit. With that out of the way, let’s look at the flagship of real robot anime: Gundam.

gundam-z-quattro-amuro-four-kamille-beltorchika-headshots

In Gundam pilots sortie like it’s the most natural thing in the world. In Zeta Gundam, Katz Kobayashi steals the Gundam Mk 2 [->], and a G Defenser [->] in seperate occasions. This is the height of conceit (both in terms of the character and the narrative), he gets punished the first time and gets praised in the next. His behavior is beyond atrocious: wholly disregarding the chain of command, risking very important military assets, and endangering the lives of friendlies. He lives through the fights completely without reflection of what happened, and without any psychological short-term (or long-term?) effects.

Amuro Ray in Mobile Suit Gundam, after hearing what he interprets as disparageing remarks decides to not only run away, but also steal the Gundam. He takes it to the desert and buries it feet first, all 18 meters of Lunar Titanium Alloy (don’t ask me how). This behavior is not wholly punished. In the franchise it does seem that the theft or hijacking of mobile suits is a virtue/or is rewarded more than punished². But more importantly, there is a significant lack of counseling available for him, Kamille Bidan, and all these teenage pilots throughout the franchise.

I think that the narrative attempts to justify this by presenting it as an important theme: how much of history, or at least the war effort depends on these immature pilots. Somehow they are more important than mobile suits (I can’t see how that applies to Katz, but well). The Principality of Zeon is said to have lost the One Year War due to a lack of sufficiently experienced mobile suit pilots. I suppose that there isn’t a surplus even 5 years, 7 years, a decade after the first war.

All this contemplation of real robot anime tropes and conventions is brought about by my watching FLAG. I must say I am deeply impressed, as it’s giving me (as of this writing I’m 9 episodes out of 13; I’m totally savoring and not rushing this) what I’ve been looking for in real robot shows (far beyond what I found most ‘real’ in Gundam and Macross [->]). Interestingly though, it can be argued that the robots in the show aren’t really important in the narrative as a whole. In FLAG, the story isn’t about the pilots and their thematic significance in the war. Hung in his first impression of the anime even commented [->],

The story is really interesting, though I think it could have done without the whole mech aspect. I have a feeling that the mech stuff was thrown in there so that the anime would have more mass market appeal.

I’d be tempted to agree only that the mecha designs aren’t the shiny ones that attract contemporary mecha fans (see Gundam SEEDGundam 00Macross FrontierCode Geass). But he is onto something in that the story could have stood well enough even without the mecha aspect.

Mark, in his review on COLONY DROP put it best [->]

It’s hard to tell who the bigger red herring of the series is, the photojournalist characters Shirasu and Akagi or the HAVWCs. This is a “real robots” series in every sense of the term, perhaps the truest to the subgenre ever. The HAVWCs fit seamlessly into the setting, what is in essence Tibet with overtones of Afghanistan, once a Central Asian Buddhist hotbed itself, now primarily known as being bombed into the Stone Age. The HAVWCs fit in so well that at times they seem fit to disappear from the story altogether with the viewer being none the wiser. The premise of Flag could easily have been centered on a team of commandos with little alteration to the plot.

That said, the mecha themselves are great. Unorthodox, but not ridiculous. Granted there was little leeway for the design staff to slip up—if you thought Armored Trooper Votoms, another Ryosuke Takahashi project, had a relatively small amount of mecha designs, then Flag will stun with its grand total. Ornamentation is minimal, they’re quite compact and squat with low centers of gravity. True to a Takahashi production, the HAVWC looks like a piece of equipment designed to absorb bullets and deliver payloads.

I was impressed with the post-operation decompression I mentioned in FLAG because it is a real robot anime (i.e. a show that had robots in it). I’ve only started to watch Armored Trooper VOTOMS [->] so I can’t really say much about  Takahashi Ryousuke [->], though he is reputed to have made the realest real robot shows (I’m glad that FLAG led me to VOTOMS). Aside from SDF-Macross I have only seen super robot shows until I started watching Gundam. And part of what disappointed me in Gundam when I first tried it [->] is how ‘unreal’ it all felt, how the science fiction of it still felt very much like a fantasy to me — in some ways a regression from what I’ve seen in Macross up until then.

The Macross franchise wasn’t giving me what I was craving for as well. After Macross Plus, the franchise went for sillier directions — I love them madly and LISTEN TO THEIR SONG [->], but Macross 7‘s fights are crap [->], and in Macross Zero and Macross Frontier, EVERYTHING IS BRIGHT. Too many bright greens and pinks that to me  (neon laser beams, flight contrails, etc.), detract from the grit that I’m looking for in a real robot show.

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And yes FLAG delivers, and HOW! The action feels like how I imagine Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six would be adapted, how the operations in the Clear and Present Danger film are portrayed: a fetishization for paramilitary seriousness as opposed to the wacky by comparison portrayals of combat in the Rambo movies,  for example. of I were to compare the action in most Gundam shows to film, I’m inclined to compare it to the Star Wars franchise, something not really known for ‘gritty’ combat (more like flashy) but uses space craft fighters, capital ships, and mecha that will feel very much at home in a real robot anime.

In a way very little action happens relative to a Gundam mission (excluding the large, set-piece battles), but the little things that happen are all very exciting. They matter³. If the net result involves low casualties and collateral damage, it doesn’t detract from the excitement of the fight. I felt that pilots were in real danger, and that their decisions however minor seem consequential. I want more of this.

I’m quite unsure if I’m making any contribution to a real robot typology at all in this post, though I do realize now that the term itself is fan-created; a distinction made by players of the Super Robot Wars series of games from the ‘super’ types. The term ‘super robot’ is probably first heard in the original OP of Mazinger Z. But if it is a fan-made distinction, then we here at We Remember Love are working towards such a typology — probably in the form of a sliding scale that will distinguish the anime from each other, not just the mecha. From my experience super and real elements are becoming more present in shows past and present: Space Runaway Ideon had real robots, Gubuster had real robots, Gundams in W and 00 behave like super robots, and so on. We’ll have it posted soon.

flag-01-havwc-front-view-vehicle-mode

Notes

¹ Crusader wrote interesting things related to Gundam (real robot anime context) [->]:

In addition the in the recent Gundam series there is a distinct lack of death on the hero faction which automatically removes much of the PTSD factor further making war a mere backdrop for mecha beating each other to pieces. […]

Within the mecha genre the most glamorous of all soldier subtypes is already chosen, the pilot. There is a great difference between a pilot and infantry, after all a pilot will rarely see the first hand the results of his/her handiwork in the same way a ground pounder would, the fact that pilots do put kill markers on their planes is indicative of how each group has different views on killing. Moreover a pilot is usually an officer with better pay and better facilities than the enlisted. Things are easier for a pilot since IFF is usually good and for the most civilians don’t go off getting in the way in fighters or mobile suits, hence by default a mecha pilot will rarely if ever accidentally kill civilians as opposed to the infantry whose environment is far more confused and IFF is depended sole on a snap judgment measured in milliseconds. For the most part if a pilot does pull off a blue on blue it’s because he/she hit a ground target that was misidentified. So by default Gundam and mecha can’t ever really be anti-war because they deal with a sanitized aspect of war the only more sanitized version would be something about sailors on ships bravely swabbing the deck, not to say that their contribution is unimportant (as the Carrier Battle Group is the primary arm of force projection) but rather that they do have a sanitized environment which they swab on a regular basis. Moreover pilots don’t as a rule have it any where near as bad as the infantry since the idea of digging a hole to shit in with toilet paper being a luxury item is often enough to disabuse anyone with a romantic notion of war.

In FLAG the mecha is ground-based [->] [->] [->], and directly engages infantry units [->]. I wonder what he’d make of this. After all, this UNF unit is more like special forces and isn’t part of a carrier battle group. I also noticed the very intense involvement in the maintenance and tuning of the pilots regarding their mecha. These pilots are no grunts, but they don’t exactly fit the profile the way Gundam pilots do as Crusader presents it.

² There is the phenomenon/tradition of the Gundamjack [->], in Macross Ichijyo Hikaru and Saotome Alto both get to fly Variable Fighters not meant for them in the initial episodes. In FLAG there has been no such thing in 9 eps. The UN would rather scuttle their mecha units than risk it being captured by enemies.

³ Use the machine gun for suppressing fire for too long a burst (no longer a burst)? It has mechanical consequences for your robot. Use manual targeting for a weapon not customized for your robot (it’s too big a gun)? You’ll miss a few shots that you can’t afford to, and it has mechanical consequences for your robot.

I think I need to make it clear that ‘realer’ in real robot doesn’t make the anime necessarily ‘better.’ The fantastic conceits in Gundam and Macross don’t necessarily make them inferior to FLAG or the VOTOMS franchise. It’s just that when I have a craving for grit and perhaps GRIMDARK, I now know where I can get my fix.

About ghostlightning

I entered the anime blogging sphere as a lurker around Spring 2008. We Remember Love is my first anime blog. Click here if this is your first time to visit WRL.
This entry was posted in analysis, comparative, fanboy and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

30 Responses to Keeping it Real Robot

  1. anavelgato says:

    this series was the most populat in 2008

  2. Ian K says:

    I’ve seen a bit of FLAG. It didn’t have a chance for the characters or plot to get under my skin, but I was also impressed by its attempts to be more realistic and relevant than the run-of-the-mill mecha show.

    Only one thing irritated me: Why did the creators give all of the members of the international mech strike force Japanese names, instead of ones more representative of their backgrounds?

    • ghostlightning says:

      Hmmm,

      SDC Unit

      Capt. Chris Eversalt —female commanding officer of the SDC unit, HAVWC mecha pilot
      2nd Lt. Nadi Olowokandi —transport and scout helicopter pilot
      2nd Lt. Hakan Aqbal —transport helicopter pilot
      1st Lt. Rowell Su-Ming —intelligence officer
      1st Lt. Jan Nikkanen —back-up pilot and intelligence support officer
      1st Lt. Christian Beroqui (—engineer and mechanic, technical support
      1st Lt. Shin Ichiyanagi —HAVWC mecha pilot

      The nationalities are quite diverse, judging from the names used. Only one Japanese (Ichiyanagi the pilot).

      • Ian K says:

        Hmm, its been a while since I saw it. I guess I was confusing a variety of asian names as japanese. That’s embarassing.

        On the bright side, the one complaint I had about the show is now gone. I really need to see the rest of this.

        • ghostlightning says:

          I had just finished watching it hours ago, and man it was quite good. Episode 12 was very very exciting with its set piece battle.

          Don’t mind your confusion. It happens to me a lot as well. I was halfway through writing this post thinking that the pilots did get psychological decompression. Good thing I reviewed the scenes and caught myself imposing my wishful thinking on the text.

  3. G says:

    The RX-78-2 wasn’t made from gundanium. That aside this has convinced me to watch FLAG, it’s been on my list for a while but now I want to see it sooner.

    • ghostlightning says:

      Right, it should read Lunar Titanium Alloy, not Gundamium. FIXED. Thanks G! Come back and let me know if it is as how I’ve portrayed it.

  4. I think Flag resorts too much to caricature in its portrayals of its journalists, fanatics and UN officials (I can expand on that, if you want), but its a credit to the series that I can even make that kind of criticism in the first place. (Normally it would be the other way round: I’d be highlighting one or two characters who weren’t caricatures. Though I think there are genres and modes where caricatures are an asset. But Flag doesn’t fit there.)

    One thing that intrigues me about Flag is the way that the story’s climax finishes with a shameless pose from one of the HAVWCs (http://animanachronism.wordpress.com/files/2009/03/flg-capturetheflg.jpg). It’s very effective, but I wonder whether it’s an admission that ultimately we have to return to humanoid robots being cool to generate excitement, or just a product of having a (homodiegetic, if that’s an acceptable word) photographer who’s good at getting striking photographs controlling the animation. Or both.

    • ghostlightning says:

      Very interesting, and I would appreciate if you would expound on your observation that they are caricatures.

      I hadn’t seen many shows that portray journalists (it’s been decades since I saw The Killing Fields IIRC a journalist was a lead character) so I can’t really tell that the show did little else but rely on the caricatures of journalists. I knew pretty much that these folk will be portrayed in an overwhelmingly positive way, but I had thought that them remaining in the background as storytellers didn’t give much opportunity beyond the portrayals of insatiable truth/thrill seeking among the lead journalists, and Akagi’s casting Saeko as one of the ‘goddesses of renewal’ in the world).

      I had thought that The chief investigator’s scene with Saeko (the one where he bought some coffee from a vending machine and asked her to sit down with him) took some edge off of his oiliness (which had made him a caricature – if I should follow your lead). It seemed to me in that scene that he didn’t want to come off the way he did, and knew that if he delivered a speech to Saeko – he’d have just proven her right.

      He wasn’t able to overcome this impasse, and Saeko was able to ask him, “What kind of person did you want to become, when you were little?”

      -Now if FLAG let him answer this, it’d have been an extension of the caricature. Instead, the acknowledge of his behavior was expressed in his salute (without taking over the scene/the operation) to the departing SDC team in their mission to liberate the hotel. I think there’s quite a bit of nuance here – but I may be reading too much.

      As for the fanatics, I read it as impenetrability. Ru Pou wasn’t going to give an interview – so the journalists who told the story weren’t going to put words in his mouth. So given the narrative conceit of the show, there was no way to portray a sympathetic or even just up-close characterizations of the Gelut sect. I think this works for me – obfuscating their motive. I read a bit about religion and war/terrorism/petropolitics and the characterizations of the leaders/dictators/powerbrokers remain obscure since they don’t grant interviews – their characters are read through phenomena that only investigation, speculation, and conjecture will yield causal chains (allegedly of course).

      The shameless pose at the end… I rather liked it, but I see where you’re coming from. The whole show is rather sentimental. The images evoke sentiment – all of them: from the candid shots of conflict, damage, fighting, people, to the posed shots of the characters. They’re all meant (as I read it) to evoke strong feeling. And what causes strong feeling are human (yes homodiegetic) images, and imposing imgages of the natural world (because it inspire/intimidate us by making humans small) – but it’s always about humans. The ‘capture the flag’ image was very much in character. Your statements are not mutually exclusive so I’d say both. And yes that whole episode made me very happy.

      The climax and aftermath reminded me of Gundam 0080: War in the Pocket, and strongly reminded me of Gundam: 08th MS Team. I had thought the final episode was rather indulgent, but it’s not a major complaint. I don’t think either of us think that the show is quite bad, I follow your reasoning that we can talk like this (in a nitpicky fashion) because it’s rather good.

      • Whenever (or at least most of the times) Akagi visits the journalists’ bar, there’s a shot of moths battering themselves against the lamp outside the bar’s door. That’s the kind of thing I felt I could do without. Maybe it comes back to the question of the pose: since the story’s constructed by journalists, and is (as we find out) a kind of eulogy, why shouldn’t they come out of it looking good?

        That particular UN official was handled well. I was thinking more of the general tendency of the UN officials to be faceless spokesmen intent on distorting or hiding information (things which, in Flag‘s world of cameras, are very bad). As for the fanatics, it wasn’t so much Ru Pou’s refusal to give an interview that irked me, as the masks that all the Gelut seemed to wear . . . all the time.

        ‘Sentimental’ is a good description. It wasn’t what I expected from Flag‘s reputation and premise before I began watching it, but it did sentiment rather well — I think The 08th MS Team is a good comparison.

        • ghostlightning says:

          Ah yes. Now that you’ve mentioned it the moths metaphor was handled a bit too thick – but I had thought that since it was such a big motif for Ichiyanagi it was representative of more than just the journalists so this I missed as something particular to the journalists.

          As for the Gelut sect, I had thought the masks made them interesting ninjas (hehehe – don’t mind me) and was a wise move to avoid depicting the common everyman terrorist’s ethnicity: only the victims and good guys get to be ethnic, as well as (obviously exception-ally outlier) big bads. Consider how the Longku mecha gets to be Chinese while there is nothing Chinese (in terms of aesthetic or any other participation by them) about it…

          …While the SDC is a freaking showcase of ethnic diversity (only that the Japanese gets to have the coolest job, gets to not-brood, without having to lead the group).

          The UN official who handled the PR was indeed a stock caricature come to think of it and could’ve been handled differently quite easily.

          Now that the giddiness about the show wore off, there is something tactical that bothered me in the final battle: how close the the two HAVWCs stood in relation to each other – they were practically shoulder to shoulder. This made them such easier targets to shoot by both the Longku and the assault helicopter (I rather enjoyed how vulnerable ground-based mecha are to assault helicopters, it really put them in their place and ‘grounded’ the role of mecha in warfare).

  5. cuchlann says:

    My impression of Eva was that Ikari didn’t *want* the pilots to be psychologically sound. I could be wrong about that, but I think he wanted them to break down, as a step toward Instrumentality.

    • ghostlightning says:

      If so, it’d be an interesting conceit – that the unsoundness posed actual risks during the operation, which were all desperate defensive last stands… and they did break down, mostly Shinji, and these incidents proved never to be too much of a risk to NERV and the defense of its Central Dogma (man Eva jargon is such a wild hoot).

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  7. Vendredi says:

    I still haven’t gotten very far in FLAG myself, but the tone of the show makes me recall another Takahashi mecha show other than VOTOMS that Iknight was talking about some time ago – Gasaraki. I think FLAG fits very much in his idea of “mecha obscura”, where actual combat is shown as a messy, convoluted affair that involves many awkward camera angles and “Where is he!?” sort of moments.
    A very interesting read – helped me gather some thoughts into a more coherent post on how we categorize a “real robot” anime. I hope it might help whatever you’re cooking up. I think if anything, it’s the attention to detail in FLAG that makes it so convincing – very little is, as you state – “hand-waved” away.

    • ghostlightning says:

      Good job with that post, it’s a good resource for our further work!

      I hand’t been thinking about ‘mecha obscura,’ so thank you for mentioning it. It’s a great device to get more out of smaller tactical engagements. Just imagining a Gundam show done with this kind of direction/treatment gets me all pumped up.

  8. gloval says:

    If there was post-op medical check-up in Macross, Fokker would still be alive, just saying.

    Anyway, seems FLAG would be interesting…

    What is it about anime that the international force / world government / global whatever would be the United Nations? Not that I’m complaining since back in high school I’ve also written two “seasons” of a cheesy “TV series” involving a top-secret UN force composed of characters obviously similar to my classmates, because we’re cool. Ahaha, good times.

    As for the posed mecha shots. I’ve been hearing about MacArthur’s Leyte Landing being re-shot (to make it bad-ass, I suppose, as we remember it now in our history books) for a Life Magazine article.

    • ghostlightning says:

      If there was post-op medical check-up in Macross, Fokker would still be alive, just saying.

      YOU SPEAK THE TRUTH. Post-op medical attention > Pineapple Salad T_T

      It’s not just the Earth, but the UN(SPACY) extends all the way TO THE ENDS OF THE GALAXY! Just sayin’.

      I’m pretty sure this image [->]had some influence in the scene The Animanachronism referenced. As for MacArthur’s photo op, it’s quite possible that it’s a posed image. After all the cameras then didn’t have the luxuries and abilities of today’s SLRs, etc.

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  14. Soukou says:

    The terms Super and Real Robot are used in the anime industry since 1996, they weren’t created by fans for what I’ve heard.
    Posted via http://vastbrowser.com, hosted with http://AmpHosted.com, sponsored by http://forum.codecall.net

    • ghostlightning says:

      Hi Soukou, you may want to take out the links if you don’t want your comment sent to my spam folder.

      The term super robot has been around since the 1970s, from the Mazinger Z OP:

      SUPAA ROBOTTO MAJINGA ZETTO

      The term real robot started floating around the time the Super Robot Wars games. Since the first SRW game came out in 1991, the term real robot is most likely to have come from the 1990s.

      • Soukou says:

        The term real robot is referred in Nadesico, episode 17 I think.

        • ghostlightning says:

          Will check that out, since I have it archived. Nadesico is a 1996 show and given it’s meta-parody nature, I won’t be surprised at its awareness of the SRW franchise, and it eventually premiered in SRW A (Game Boy Advance) in 2001.

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  16. Burak N. Aydin says:

    Ghost, I can not thank you enough for writing about FLAG. I am a big fan for real mecha anime and this just made my day! I watched all eps in a single day and I loved it. Even the unorthodox storytelling (by photos and camcorder videos) or the slow pacing did not bore me. This is a great mature anime that must be seen if you are serious about anime. I loved the characters, setting, serious mission execution (almost like a surgical operation), mechas, everything! Arigatou and soshite, arigatou! 🙂

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