2020/10/21

Mecha Resurgent

Life-sized Gundam

Forbes is bullish on the mecha genre's future.

What with a giant walking Gundam to be unveiled in Yokohama at the end of this year, it’s worth realizing that this kind of thing doesn’t happen in cultural isolation. So much so, that the last five years has seen a real resurgence of the mecha genre, both in Asia and across the world.

If you have only been on the periphery of all this, you will have likely noticed a few things in recent years. Such as increased number of mecha anime Blu-rays released in the West, an uptake in people building Gundam model kits (or gunpla), more mecha games and a lot of new mecha anime.

Sales figures back up these claims. Check out the current and projected US anime market share:

US Anime Market Size

This is where we get to a strange meme that has been popping up intermittently over the past year or so, that somehow “mecha is dead”.

In the face of the various evidence available, this is a bizarre claim at the very least, but in the context of the actual increased popularity of mecha, begins to make more sense.

Specifically, many of these claims originate from quite specific sources, sources that work for a new agency that is trying to position itself as some new kind of creative consultancy.

It sounds like everything is coming up roses in mecha land. Anime is certainly selling like hotcakes, thanks in no small part to blu-ray and streaming releases making an end run around Hollywood during the lock downs.

Scratch the surface, though, and you find that a besetting problem--the one that the YouTuber linked in the original piece was actually addressing--persists. 

Read through that Forbes article again, and you'll find it mentions Gundam 22 times. The vast majority of the column inches devoted to discussing the growth of mecha is given over to this one franchise.

The point that I and others have made isn't that mecha is unpopular or selling poorly. It's that the genre--like many others--is stuck in a self-referential rut. Pointing to the recent glut of Gundam and Gundam or Eva-derivative series doesn't gainsay the observation that practically every mecha series is either Gundam, Eva, or derivative of one or both.

In short, Forbes is answering an aesthetic critique with an appeal to economics, which is like trying to derive ethics solely from empirical data. The mere fact that a work is lucrative doesn't necessarily mean it's good. Consider that The Last Jedi is the second-highest-grossing Star Wars movie, right behind the arguably worse TFA.

That's not to say that every recent Gundam or other mecha series is of poor quality. Many of them are fine productions. What even the Forbes article attests to is that mecha anime has fallen victim to the corporate play-it-safe attitude that frowns on innovation. After all, Big Brand X would be history if people didn't like being told the same story over and over.

There's a paradox that exists in tension with--not contradiction to--the human fondness for repetition. Neither MS Gundam nor Star Wars would be with us today if visionary directors hadn't broken from the pack and presented familiar tropes in new ways that solved longstanding storytelling problems. In Tomino's case, it was mixing super robots with war epics to pioneer the Real Robot genre. There's no need to elaborate on what Lucas did with his childhood pulp influences.

Sales success proves that people like the familiar, but it can also gauge audience response to innovation. I'm uniquely placed to give firsthand testimony on that count. My first mecha novel series, created to break the genre out of its feedback loop, has been my biggest commercial success yet--far outpacing my major award-winning space opera series

What that success tells me is that there's a large and growing subset of greater mecha fandom that's hungry for a series that respects venerable genre tropes while trying something new with them.

We'll get a clearer picture of that audience's size when the second series in my epic mech saga launches later this month!

Combat Frame XSeed: S - Brian Niemeier

Haven't read the first hit Combat Frame XSeed series? Get caught up now!

15 comments:

  1. I do think the audience itself is more aware of Gundam and NGE glut than the production companies are.

    Take Super Robot Wars T, which is the first Super Robot Wars to sell better globally than in Japan, and its Gundam presence is more minuscule than other recent SRW entries, and there is no Evangelion. In fact, they are series more obscure to the west such as VOTOMs, Getter Robo Armageddon, Gunbuster, and Aura Battler Dunbine, on top of newer series. It says a lot that these more obscure series (relative to the west) carried it to success overseas. Cleverly including some Cowboy Bebop certainly helped.

    The greater thing to take away is that there is a hunger for the genre that is not quite being fed. Hollywood has no idea how to capitalize, and Japan is still stuck on CG mecha and responding to a 25 year old series.

    Audiences want traditional stories of big action and high stakes. You can't get much bigger than giant robots.

    The next few years in the genre are going to be interesting to see.

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    1. Let's hope Corona-chan put the brakes on Hollywood's planned Gundam adaptation.

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    2. Directed by Michael Bay and starring Shia LaBeouf no doubt

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    3. Jerry Bruckheimer and Roland Emmerich need to be put o trial for what they did to blockbuster movies.

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    4. Now I want to read a Hollywwod spook story wherein Bruckheimer and Emmerich are judged by a tribunal of the shades of D.W. Griffith, John Ford, and Mac Sennett.

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  2. Take a look at Battletech's Clan Insavion Kickstarter. That IP got big enough to have an animated TV show before Harmony Gold almost singlehandedly killed FASA. During most of my time in the fandom, finding anything more than a $20 box set with cardboard cutout mechs was a miracle, and MWO had more in common with Crysis than with any previous MW title.

    Then Catalyst put out the box set and beginner box. Then Hare Brained Schemes put out the Battletech PC Kickstarter. Now the Clan Invasion has shipped,with over $2.5 million in contributions not counting later backers.

    No offense to XSeed (I kicked in for the latest), but walking tanks in a neo-feudal future always appealed to me more than anything Gundam-esque.

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    1. It's good to see the stompy mech contingent getting some love in the comments. I restricted my remarks to spiky mechs in the post since that was the focus of the Forbes piece, but Combat Frame XSeed gets Eastern and Western mecha out of their respective ruts by reconciling both subgenres.

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    2. And if you like walking tanks doing battle in a neo-feudal future ...

      https://www.brianniemeier.com/2020/09/combat-frame-data-dome.html

      https://www.brianniemeier.com/2020/10/combat-frame-data-scf-001-seed-castellan.html

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  3. Unless I am missing something - and I well might be - the last truly great mecha anime was still Gurren Lagann. Absolutely nothing has come out even close to its quality since, though there have been some pretty good shows.

    Still, that we're 13 years on and that show, despite its incredibly high quality, has spawned as far as I can see no real imitators or competitors is something to notice, I think.

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    1. Thank you for mentioning Gurren Lagann! I keep waiting for another show like it and three hasn't been one. After all, who the hell do you think I am? ;-)

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    2. Kill la Kill was from the same creator, I think? It had mechs near the end -- and I guess you could argue the clothes were like battle suits -- but wasn't really a mecha anime per se. Still, might be worth checking out regardless. I liked it better than Gurren Lagann, personally.

      Also, I think both Valvrave and Aldnoah Zero were better than Lagann.

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    3. I interpreted Darling in the Franxx as a response to and refinement of Gurren Lagann’s ideas. GL had the better fights, but I think DitF stuck the landing at the end where GL tripped over it’s own theme/ to shoehorn in a melancholy ending. I’m a simple man; you end your show with marriages and babies, I click like.

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    4. I disagree so strongly I don't know where to begin!

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    5. Okay, okay, I don't want to be a jerk. I used to agree about GL. What convinced me was Aleczandxr's video "The Duality of Gurren Lagann". The ending for what the show was doing perfectly.

      DitF was okay in its first half but it was never that great and got progressively worse as it went on.

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    6. Kill La Kill was also a masterpiece, yes.

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