2018/03/21

The Decline and Fall of Mecha

This video, which was recommended to me by multiple trusted sources, endeavors to chart the course of mecha anime from its post-WWII origins through its peak in the 80s and 90s to its current malaise.

Do give it a watch.


My comment: I dropped out of the mecha scene--and anime in general--when they stopped hand-painting on cells and moved to all computer animation. Every series has a pastel, pristine sameness to its aesthetic that to me is the visual equivalent of nails on a chalkboard.

However, I was there for the height of mecha anime, and even then I noted a few quirks--which, again, mecha has in common with most Japanese animation--that struck me as inherently limiting its appeal.

  1. Most anime--and Eastern storytelling traditions in general--have never seen fit to incorporate three act structure to the same extent as in the West. Your typical anime series eschews a short-to-moderate buildup of rising action followed by a protracted period of escalating conflict culminating in a cathartic climax capped off with a nice wrap-up. Instead you get an extended intro that meanders across several episodes--the sort of mini story arc normally reserved for TV pilots in the US--which gives way to more episodic, threat-of-the-week plots before rushing into a finale that rarely if ever ties up loose ends. Honestly, you're lucky to get anything resembling closure.
  2. Two words: tonal dissonance. Probably owing to fundamental differences in the conventions of Eastern and Western humor, a lot of anime series--especially mecha series---whipsaw between goofball antics and maudlin moments of existential angst. Picture the typical Alan Alda-written and directed episode of M*A*S*H.
Now, that's all well and good for certain audiences, and I've certainly derived hours of fun from classic mecha anime like Mobile Suit Gundam, Super Dimension Fortress Macross, and Neon Genesis Evangelion. The ride is usually worthwhile, even if it comes to an abrupt stop upside-down in the middle of a loop. However, I'm wondering if the venerable mecha genre couldn't stand to benefit from more universally accessible Western storytelling techniques.

Perhaps it's time someone wrote #AGundamForUs.

touching, slightly strange, and I wonder if it is part of the anime influence

19 comments:

  1. "My comment: I dropped out of the mecha scene--and anime in general--when they stopped hand-painting on cells and moved to all computer animation. Every series has a pastel, pristine sameness to its aesthetic that to me is the visual equivalent of nails on a chalkboard."

    This is one of the things that made me lose interest in anime for a good while. It's gotten better over the last few years though.

    I'm kinda torn on anime endings, they are often abrupt but at least they bother to have endings. American cartoons (remember those? That's a whole other rant right there) tend to just stop without any conclusion, even if the show had an ongoing story.

    My favorite mecha anime G Gundam has a great conclusion, I don't recall any loose ends. One of many reasons why it's my favorite.

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    1. Early '00s transitional anime were very known for bright pastel colors and awful choppy animation. Even remastering them doesn't really get rid of the problem.

      A lot of anime does have that problem, but it actually got worse over the years as it went unchecked for so long. I do think shorter series suffer from this less, though.

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    2. ^The problem of pacing, I mean.

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    3. > My favorite mecha anime G Gundam has a
      > great conclusion, I don't recall any loose
      > ends.

      Hear, hear. Not my favorite (that goes to Macross Plus), but definitely up there.

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  2. "This is one of the things that made me lose interest in anime for a good while."

    Good to know it's not just me.

    "My favorite mecha anime G Gundam..."

    Where you have gone, I cannot follow.

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  3. My relationship with mecha is probably a bit different than most.

    I like Gundam well enough (the good ones anyway) but it was never my favorite. My an action adventure fan at heart and it was shows like VOTOMs, Macross, and Layzner that really took me to places I wanted to go. Even older 70s series like Mazinger Z with its episodic hi-jinx were closer to what I wanted.

    The 90s grew further from that with more series instead centered on the self and stories that were nowhere near as big in scale. Though there were great ones like Nadesico, Escaflowe, and Big O, that I like quite a lot. The one that really changed everything for the worse was Evangelion.

    I'm not sure why the video creator says its influence is not as obvious on the genre, as it very much is. Now you can't make an episodic or adventure mecha without either being ironic or tongue in cheek or exploring Important Themes and covered in otaku and weeb tropes. All this because Evangelion made it "credible" or whatever. The series ended up severely limiting the genre.

    It's no wonder it doesn't have anywhere else to go.

    But he does bring up an interesting point at the end. War against invaders and against the unknown are big themes in mecha. The latter of which hasn't actually been a big theme for awhile. Ever since Gundam came around the genre has been more focused on human political affairs, even in Evangelion as much as anyone wants to admit. The Angels could have been made by Dr. Hell and it wouldn't have changed much in the way the show worked at least on the surface level.

    If the genre wants to continue out of the corner it painted itself into, I think it needs to aim big again. Superhero mecha, adventure mecha, and superversive mecha, are what is really needed again. And please, do it without the blasted irony.

    And without the CG mechs.

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  5. There's another possible reason mecha anime declined: the low Japanese birthrate. Remember that mecha shows were originally created to sell toys to children.

    I talk about it here.

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  6. Would this comment section be a bad place to start a real robot vs super robot discussion? I kid, I kid.

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  7. I've never seen Neon Genesis Evangelion, but from what I know of it, it was the Watchmen of mecha anime.

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    1. Basically.

      It's a subversive take on an established medium that everyone has decided to use as a base for future works that ended up narrowing said medium and limiting growth while cutting off tradition.

      It's also the same in that it's not bad at all, but its influence has done much damage.

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    2. So in a way, you're saying that Evangelion was a deconstruction of the Mecha Genre. Makes sense. Deconstruction in just about every other art form ruins it for the future.

      BTW, I HATE that people pronounce it with a hard G. Especially since the enemies are called Angels (with a soft G).

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    3. Eva is definitely a deconstruction of the mecha genre--down to the deliberate choice to make the Evas organic instead of machines.

      NB: Hideaki Anno has cited Childhood's End by Arthur C. Clarke as a major influence on Eva.

      "BTW, I HATE that people pronounce it with a hard G. Especially since the enemies are called Angels (with a soft G)."

      If it helps, the reason is that both the Greek Ευαγγέλιο and the Japanese エヴァンゲリオン are pronounced with hard G's. And the enemies are called Disciples in the original Japanese dialogue. They're only called Angels in the English dub.

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  8. MegaBusterShepard here.....

    Lost interest around 2005. Not only did the genre become stale (to me) everyone seemed to be chasing either Evangelion or Gundam style of storytelling. Last two mecha I really loved were Zoids and Big O because they dared to do something different

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    1. Yeah, not even Japan is immune to TV executives wanting to play it safe and chase the puck.

      Considering how it was created to sell toys, Big O was better than it had any right to be.

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    2. MegaBusterShepard here......

      One of my favorite anime. Detectives plus giant robots.

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    3. AKA "What if Bruce Wayne had a super robot?"

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  9. Brian.
    To answer your question if the meca gente would benefit from Western story telling techniques. Of course it would. In fact a 30-45 minute episode a la Clone wars would be the ideal medium.
    Undoubtedly it's my deepseated uninformed cultural bias but i find Asian story telling to be at times to be pointless riverboat plots. The story meanders on and on with no resolution because the end is back to square 1. Only with more death and a weariness of the great circle of life It's like reading through typical ancient Greek attitudes towards life and death.

    xavier

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