Giant robots officially fly the flag for cool Japan

by Tim Hornyak

Special To The Japan Times

With its mountains of public debt, a nuclear meltdown to mop up and the 2020 Olympics bill, you’d think the last thing the Japanese government would be spending taxpayer money on is a study on robots in science fiction.

But as the Terminator once said: “Wrong.”

From the halls of Kasumigaseki comes “Japanese Animation Guide: The History of Robot Anime,” a 90-page inquiry commissioned by the Agency for Cultural Affairs and its Manga, Animation, Games, and Media Art Information Bureau.

The bureau’s boffins seem intent on capitalizing on what remains of Japan’s gross national cool as perceived overseas. Cool Japan, a concept now more than a decade old, has been parlayed into national policy, and the agency commissioned the report as an initial framework for discussing the key pillar of anime with people overseas. The robot study could be the first of several examining different anime genres.

Published in Japanese last year, a shortened version of the study is fresh out of the translation oven and now available in English. It’s the first of its kind, and makes some giant-robot-sized claims about the importance of the genre.

“Robot anime represents a unique form of popular culture developed in Japan,” the authors assert. And: “The sense of exploration and vitality inherent to the medium of robot anime is a reflection of the Japanese psyche.”

Imaginary robots existed in many cultures even before the anime debut of that seminal Japanese sci-fi robot, Osamu Tezuka’s Tetsuwan Atom (Astro Boy), in its pioneering Fuji TV cartoon show in 1963. However, the show also marked the beginning of serialized TV anime itself.

Apart from being a runaway hit, the flying, endearingly cute Astro Boy, with his atomic engine, symbolized Japan’s emergence from the ashes of World War II as a gleaming, bullet-train-driven technocracy. Mitsuteru Yokoyama’s Tetsujin 28-go (aka Gigantor), a crime-fighting colossus controlled by a boy, was also inspired by war — the U.S. B-29s that firebombed Japanese cities.

While Tezuka and Yokoyama laid the groundwork for giant-robot anime, it only flowered in the 1970s and ’80s after being doused with a heady fertilizer in the form of wildly popular tokusatsu live-action special-effects shows such as “Ultraman.” These combined giant heroes, kaiju monsters and dramatic battle scenes to great — if sometimes hilarious — effect.

The titular machine of “Mazinger Z,” a 1972-74 anime based on Go Nagai’s manga, was a towering, spiky-headed combat vehicle piloted by the young Koji Kabuto. By putting his protagonist inside Mazinger, Nagai unleashed a powerful combination of man and machine that kids couldn’t resist. In a host of formulaic shows, the many similar super-robots of the 1970s also had pilots, giant stature and the ability to transform or combine, the study points out, adding that Mazinger’s eyes also lacked the pupils seen in earlier fantasy robots, making it appear more of a mechanism than a personality.

The popularity of cartoons such as “Mazinger Z” and “Yusha Raideen (Brave Raideen)” saw merchandising usurp the dominant creative impetus from the manga artist. But the flood of toys and models turned into a tsunami with “Mobile Suit Gundam,” which debuted in 1979. Anime’s answer to “Star Wars” posited a space opera of enormous “mecha,” military robots (dubbed “mobile suits”) with elaborate armaments and a fetishistic attention to detail and realism.

The franchise eventually amassed an enormous national following, and has displayed remarkable longevity over the past 35 years, with new series every few years. Its associated merchandise such as Gunpla plastic models have been snatched up by rabid “Gundam” otaku (obsessive fans) and attained a staggering scale: billions of dollars in sales and an estimated $50 million in the year to August alone for “Gundam” branding on everything from tofu to cars. Japan’s very soil has been “Gundam”-ified with an 18-meter-tall statue of its RX-78-2 trademark robot in Tokyo’s Odaiba recreation district.

Giant-robot anime enjoyed a golden era in the early 1980s before entering a period of decline; shows such as “Kido Keisatsu Patlabor (Mobile Police Patlabor)” and “Neon Genesis Evangelion” managed to buck this trend. “Gundam,” however, has never looked back.

“The success (of shows such as ‘Gundam’) led not only to toy businesses, but anime artists and creators could build up original science-fiction stories,” says anime critic Ryusuke Hikawa, who coauthored the study.

“The original animation success led to the creation of huge anime films. American movies such as ‘Transformers’ and ‘Pacific Rim’ were produced under the great influence of Japanese robot-anime culture.”

Hikawa notes that Japanese roboticists who have created real robots — such as Honda’s Asimo humanoid — drew inspiration from the robot anime they grew up with. But he emphasized that his study is aimed at fostering cultural exchange and “mutual international understanding.” Can giant robots bring people together?

“This report is critical because it is the first time that Japanese have staked out giant-robot culture as being uniquely, distinctly Japanese,” says vintage sci-fi robot-lover Matt Alt, whose company AltJapan translated the study.

“For decades, Japanese otaku and foreign otaku have had very little communication with one another. This report is a serious effort at bridge-building between domestic and foreign pop-culture scholars.”

Tim Hornyak is the author of “Loving the Machine: The Art and Science of Japanese Robots.”

  • Steve Jackman

    The fossilized bureaucrats don’t seem to understand that you kill the “cool factor” of anything as soon as you aggresively start marketing it as “cool”, or start using in-your-face tactics.

    Secondly, for all the years of hype about Japanese robots being cutting edge, they turned out to be entirely useless for any practical applications, such as checking the state of the inside of the nuclear reactors in the aftermath of the Fukushima accident. Japan ended up using American robotic technology for this purpose, when radiation levels inside the buildings were too high for humans to go in for inspections. American robots may not look as cute as their Japanese counterparts, but they were able to get the job done.