Super robots and spirituality

Dai

Hunter
When I first watched Ideon: Be Invoked, the movie conclusion to Space Runaway Ideon, I was stunned. I knew that the show--and especially the movie--had a reputation for being grim, but I was startled by both the matter-of-fact way it handled its violence and just how resonant Tomino managed to make his themes of war's self-defeating futility in a show ostensibly about three oversized trucks that combine into a big red robot.

This is a movie where Earth is annihilated in the first half hour, a pregnant woman is shot in the face, a child soldier's head is blown off, and ultimately all humanoid life in the universe is wiped out.

In some ways, you could consider Ideon an anti-super robot show. Unlike grounded, 'real world' mecha shows, the popular image of super robots is as straightforward power fantasies for 10-year-olds. Ideon appears to start out this way, only to turn it on its head by the end. The story increasingly becomes more reminiscent of Urotsukidoji's apocalyptic visions (thankfully without the tentacles) than something like Tetsujin No.28.

Rather than indulging the fantasy of controlling a god-like avatar, the humans eventually realise that they have been trapped and controlled by it. Meanwhile, the more violently both mankind and the alien Buff Clan attack the Ideon, the more they hasten the destruction of their own worlds. Notions of free will go out the window as the Ideon sacrifices all sentient life in order to give birth to a new and 'good' race from the untethered souls of the old.

And yet, it's far from the only super robot show to do this, almost to the extent that the anti-super robot has become the true super robot. Evangelion, RahXephon, Gurren Lagann, Getter Robo Armageddon: they all start out with action-figure-friendly robots punching each other, and culminate in metaphorical or literal rituals that reshape life as we know it. Then you have something like the 90s Giant Robo, which both revels in and subverts classic super robot tropes.

I'm curious to know which other super robot anime have gone down a route like this, which you thought handled their deeper themes most effectively, and where the trend started. I'd guess something from Go Nagai in the 70s was the first, but I haven't seen much anime from that period, so I don't know what. Any thoughts? How did a sub-genre that so often exists only to sell combining robot toys to kids also become a sandbox for pseudo-religious existential epics?
 

Neil.T

Titan
I feel like this would be a good question for our resident mecha fans @orgun and @Scrambled Valkyrie, and also @Yami, who has a good grasp of Evangelion and Ideon, among other things.

My own lead in to the mecha genre was Evangelion, so the "anti-super-robot" formula was actually my starting point. There's probably not a whole lot I can offer in this discussion, other than perhaps a little tidbit about Detonator Orgun. On Manga's old DVD of it, there's a commentary track with anime expert Jonathan Clements where he points out that although it might look to new viewers that Orgun is copying Eva in places, it actually pre-dates it. There's a mention of the Orgun connection on the wiki of the Eva fansite Evageeks:

Beyond that, I did read something about Tomino (in Clements' book Anime: a History, I think) about how once a show he was directing had served its purpose in selling toys, he could go to town and do with it whatever he pleased — which seemingly involved committing repeated acts of genocide against his cast. 😅
 

Yami

Vampire Ninja
The mecha genre has attempted to deconstruct itself since almost the very beginning, the first such example probably being Tomino's Zambot 3, early to the point where calling it a 'deconstruction' almost feels inappropriate. I feel this probably can be traced back to the kaiju genre of Japanese cinema, obviously epitomised by Ishiro Honda's Godzilla, which is about much more than its titular monster, before the series became more cartoonish and child-friendly though with some notable examples making an effort to be more than the sum of their parts.

I can't think of any examples of mecha anime that play on metaphysical themes that precede Ideon, but I think the primary inspiration for these elements is 2001: A Space Odyssey; Ideon even seems to have some visual quotations from 2001, which has its own connection to the world of anime in that Stanley Kubrick, after seeing Astro Boy, asked Osamu Tezuka to be art director on the film.
 

Dai

Hunter
Interesting. The only thing I knew about Zambot 3 was the title. Looking at the synopsis, it does sound very Tomino, even at that early stage in his career. I wonder if Discotek will pick it up at some point.

Kaiju movies certainly have a very different feel to western equivalents (massive kaiju fan reporting in). This became most obvious in the first US attempt at Godzilla (1998), which is more a 'wild animal on the loose' movie than a kaiju movie. In Japan, a being of that size is seen as something beyond humanity's capacity to deal with, with the only methods for quelling a kaiju normally being to turn nature against it (volcanos, avalanches, etc), or by creating a new technology as abhorent as the kaiju itself (the Oxygen Destroyer, black hole cannon, etc). In America, even a 50-meter creature is still just an animal, and it's just a question of getting it into the open to plug it with a couple of conventional missiles.

With both super robots and kaiju, I wonder if the roots go deeper, all the way back to the animism inherent in Japanese Shinto. When a culture perceives all things as containing a spirit, it makes sense that something dozens of times the size of a human, whether organic or metal, would be seen as god-like. Looking at it from that perspective, there's almost an argument that the original super 'robot' could have been Daimajin (1966).


In that trilogy, downtrodden villagers call upon the statue of an angry deity, which comes to life and seeks vengeance. It's a divine avatar in the most literal sense. While I'm not drawing a straight line from those movies to the samurai-inspired designs of many early super robots, there do seem to be common cultural touchstones at work for the image of a giant golem-esque warrior as an angry god.
 

WMD

Cardcaptor
Interesting. The only thing I knew about Zambot 3 was the title. Looking at the synopsis, it does sound very Tomino, even at that early stage in his career. I wonder if Discotek will pick it up at some point.

Kaiju movies certainly have a very different feel to western equivalents (massive kaiju fan reporting in). This became most obvious in the first US attempt at Godzilla (1998), which is more a 'wild animal on the loose' movie than a kaiju movie. In Japan, a being of that size is seen as something beyond humanity's capacity to deal with, with the only methods for quelling a kaiju normally being to turn nature against it (volcanos, avalanches, etc), or by creating a new technology as abhorent as the kaiju itself (the Oxygen Destroyer, black hole cannon, etc). In America, even a 50-meter creature is still just an animal, and it's just a question of getting it into the open to plug it with a couple of conventional missiles.

With both super robots and kaiju, I wonder if the roots go deeper, all the way back to the animism inherent in Japanese Shinto. When a culture perceives all things as containing a spirit, it makes sense that something dozens of times the size of a human, whether organic or metal, would be seen as god-like. Looking at it from that perspective, there's almost an argument that the original super 'robot' could have been Daimajin (1966).


In that trilogy, downtrodden villagers call upon the statue of an angry deity, which comes to life and seeks vengeance. It's a divine avatar in the most literal sense. While I'm not drawing a straight line from those movies to the samurai-inspired designs of many early super robots, there do seem to be common cultural touchstones at work for the image of a giant golem-esque warrior as an angry god.
As I understand it the roots of Godzilla go back to censorship post WWII. In Japan they were prohibited from openly talking about the atomic bomb attacks in their media by the Americans and Godzilla was symbolic of the A bomb. A force of destruction that couldnt be stopped.
 

Yami

Vampire Ninja
Interesting. The only thing I knew about Zambot 3 was the title. Looking at the synopsis, it does sound very Tomino, even at that early stage in his career. I wonder if Discotek will pick it up at some point.

Kaiju movies certainly have a very different feel to western equivalents (massive kaiju fan reporting in). This became most obvious in the first US attempt at Godzilla (1998), which is more a 'wild animal on the loose' movie than a kaiju movie. In Japan, a being of that size is seen as something beyond humanity's capacity to deal with, with the only methods for quelling a kaiju normally being to turn nature against it (volcanos, avalanches, etc), or by creating a new technology as abhorent as the kaiju itself (the Oxygen Destroyer, black hole cannon, etc). In America, even a 50-meter creature is still just an animal, and it's just a question of getting it into the open to plug it with a couple of conventional missiles.

Of course, the kaiju were often depicted as allies/protectors of Earth and/or humanity - which is another parallel with the more deified mecha in the canon.

It is interesting to compare and contrast the different approaches towards the 'giant monster' taken by American and Japanese cinema. With King King, although "it was Beauty killed the Beast" the airplanes certainly helped but, as you said, King Kong was depicted as 'just' an animal rather than a deity. By all accounts, in his first appearance in Japanese cinema in 'King Kong Appears in Edo' (now a lost film) he was also felled by conventional weaponry. It was with Godzilla that the immovable object/unstoppable force idea really comes into play.

I think you're right with your observation regarding Shinto.

As I understand it the roots of Godzilla go back to censorship post WWII. In Japan they were prohibited from openly talking about the atomic bomb attacks in their media by the Americans and Godzilla was symbolic of the A bomb. A force of destruction that couldnt be stopped.

Yep, though Japanese cinema had begun to have a relatively open dialogue with the atomic bombings by the time of (or around the time of) Godzilla's initial release - Kaneto Shindo's Children of Hiroshima (1952), Hideo Sekigawa's Hiroshima (1953) and Akira Kurosawa's I Live in Fear (1955) - Godzilla was probably the first attempt to portray on-screen what it was like to be in the midst of the attack. If anything it probably drastically underestimated the horror - Barefoot Gen might do a more accurate job - but I'm sure I'm preaching to the choir here when I say that Godzilla's attack on Tokyo is one of the best directed scenes in cinema history, with Honda successfully managing to include real human dramas amidst the chaos which is where films of its ilk usually either don't try or fail miserably.

From Zambot 3 onwards that's where the success of the mecha genre lies - in interweaving human drama and consequences into its narrative. The characters literally drive the plot and with Evangelion and the works of Tomino, we see how the character traits of the pilot can influence the nature of the mecha that they operate.
 

ayase

State Alchemist
As I understand it the roots of Godzilla go back to censorship post WWII. In Japan they were prohibited from openly talking about the atomic bomb attacks in their media by the Americans and Godzilla was symbolic of the A bomb. A force of destruction that couldnt be stopped.
I wanted to weigh in on this thread for a while but I'm only now finding the time to do so. I'll try to return with a more thought out post later but I just wanted to say I think this is pretty spot-on, and that a lot of that same "giant monster as allegory for immense destructive power that can be used to protec but also attac" common to mecha shows can be traced back to Godzilla, and perhaps not only represents nuclear weapons but also Japan's relationship with the US after WWII and during the Cold War. Their big former enemy, now friend, who ostensibly now protects them but also has it in their power to destroy the world.
 
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