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.
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.
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 SEED, Gundam 00, Macross Frontier, Code 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.
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.
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.