This post continues from my previous post, where I examine the mecha genre. I guess since I’m a huge mecha (read: Gundam) fan, I was a bit offended when kevo said that he don’t take recent mecha series serious. Instead of flaming him back, I decided to examine the genre and to see its place in today’s society.
Proposition: I believe that the mecha genre, with particular focus on the Real Robot half of the mecha genre that Mobile Suit Gundam gave birth to, is out of touch with today’s society. This is because there is little to no change to the Gundam formula throughout the years, despite much change to real life.
Real Robot, by definition, is more realistic than Super Robots, and has roots in science fiction. For example, the colony sides that exists in the Gundam universe is not an original idea, but is based on a idea called Space habitat, and which according to Wikipedia, are designed not only by science fiction authors, but also physicist. Yes, while some of the technology presented in science fiction is rather impossible, but most technology presented in science fiction at least is based on some scientific truth. Hence, it is safe to assume that the idea of Mobile Suits is also based on the technological advances that are present of the creation of the original Gundam series. Obviously, ideas like robots exists around the time of Gundam already, the only difference of a human sized robot to a Gundam is the size and the inclusion of a cockpit. Therefore, creating the idea of Gundam was not too farfetched from readily available ideas of technology. Yet, one other important aspect of technology that affects both the producers and audiences is the perception of technology when the series was created.
The original Mobile Suit Gundam first aired on TV from 1979-1980 and the movies were released during 1981-1982, which was around the same time that the IBM Personal Computer (5150) was released (August 12, 1981). In comparsion to nowadays, computers were not readily available to the public: they were expensive, not portable and lacking in connectivity to other computers. It was only through the released of IBM PC that computers became standardized on using same processor, making programming across computer easier. So back then, it was not usual for an average family to even have one computer. Some families might have a game console, which while being a computer, was rather limited in its capabilities. Even for families that have a proper computer, it is lacking in many things that we take granted for today (a graphical interface, Internet, sound etc) and therefore was catered to a niche market (hobbyists and programmers). For most people, computers, an advanced piece of technology, were just something that would rarely touch, and if they ever touch it, was not something that is catered to them (but instead they must adapt to the computer).
Also, the size and weight of computers have changed drastically since the first Gundam. Back then, ‘portable’ computers merely means that you can lug it from one place to another in one piece (with keyboard and monitor), but says nothing about the size or weight of them. Nowadays, not only we have laptops which is apparently classified heavy if it is >2-3kg, but we have smartphones and tablet that it is light enough that we carry around and use it whenever we want to. Therefore, the decrease in size and weight of computers made it a lot more accessible for most people to use. As seen in older anime series, I do not think that creators then can even imagine how different of a direction have technology have progressed. For example, I remembering seeing people using laptops in the Legends of the Galactic Heroes, but the ones they were using were even more bulkier than the laptop that I’m using to type this post up, and my laptop is a desktop replacement that is already 4+ years old, which is obviously ironic since LoGH is supposed to take place about 1600 years in the future (well, the way that people dress is also kind of backwards, but that’s another issue). From the LoGH example, it seems that anime creators might project the future of technology based on what they have seen in their time.
Lastly, the computing industry back then was highly fragmented, with computers not only providing different operating systems (similar to what we have in the smartphones today) but also different hardware (not only in terms of which computer having more RAM or processing power, but even the processor having a different design), which makes developing really difficult. Even after the hardware became standardized and Windows starts to dominate the consumer computing industry, the Internet didn’t appear until the late 1980′s. While there is mechanism that allowed interaction between computers even before the Internet, it was again not readily accessible to the public. Therefore, while there is a video chat like technology in anime like LoGH (remember most people were in military, so we actually don’t see much of consumer technology), I would not think people back can even think of having technology to support them in day to day things like idle chats with friends.
To the animators and audiences back in the 1970′s and early 1980′s, technology was perceived something was bulky and inaccessible for the general public, and hence we get arkward things like massive advanced machinery in military while the normal citizens using backward consumer products. Yet, does this change actually make mecha less relevant? For the Real Robots part of mecha, I believe so, as while technology that is in massive size continues to exist (servers, mainframe), technologies nowadays are no longer inaccessible and bulky to the public, and for us, we do think that is how the future is; making hardware smaller and smaller, and integrating to our lifestyle more and more (ie implants). If anything, war would less likely to be played out by huge robots controlled by people inside, but either be a cyberwar or one where drones (either unmanned or manned from a far location) plays a large part of it. Using mecha, which is bulky and accessible to only 1 pilot at a time, to fight just doesn’t cut it any more, as most people would just see it and ask “isn’t there a more efficient method to fight the war?”
I think I have only showed one side of the argument using the change in technology to argue that real robots are less relevant today, and I happily wait for someone to show me another side to this argument.
Lastly, I do think Super Robot anime is just as relevant today as it is before. Instead of connecting to technology, I feel that Super Robot is closer to western genre of super heroes, which seems to be going pretty strong in Hollywood for the past few years. And obviously, I can’t just dis Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann, right?
PS: The idea of actually doing this (half-baked) analysis came up as I was watching this TED by Lauren Zalaznick, discussing the conscience of television. Whether you agree or disagree with her, it is a pretty interesting clip.