225: Pilgrimage to Mecha

Pilgrimage to Mecha

Earlier this year, Namco Bandai celebrated the 30th anniversary of the seminal mecha series Mobile Suit Gundam with a life-size statue of its hero's iconic battle armor. But the country's love affair with robots goes much further back than Gundam. John Funk sheds some light on why robots - especially those of the "giant, fighting" variety - are so popular in the Land of the Rising Sun.

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I'd love to go there and watch RX-78-2 in all it's glory.
But I disagree, building mechs is not "Despite logic, physics and economics all pointing to the impracticality of giant humanoid fighting machines" because they are way more mobile.

Unless you look at Mech Warriors hilariusly retarded mechs.

Mechs aren't that much more mobile unless you count the thrusters and if you can stick rockets like that on a 200 ton mech you can also build a 50 ton hovertank (which would be pretty much a gun with armor, thrusters and a cockpit, saving a lot of nonsense a mech has). In battle your profile and armor matter a lot, tanks are built to be as flat as possible to offer less target area to the enemy and be easier to hide behind cover to reduce the chance of hits further. A 12 meter tall mech could just as well paint a bullseye on its torso because with that height every tank within several kilometers (MBTs have a range of up to 4km) will hit it. With a larger surface the same thickness in armor would weight a LOT more so you wouldn't be able to get the same armor as a tank has within reasonable weight limits and a mech with thin armor would really get wiped out. Finally there are the issues with maintenance, huge legs like that are prone to breakdown especially if the thing weights a lot. Anything breaks down but at least tanks don't fall over and wreck their barrel when a chain snaps. More weight generally means more maintenance, many of the German superheavy tanks and concepts in WW2 were too difficult to keep operational and often lost without even seeing any combat because they broke down and couldn't be repaired in the field.

Where mechs could be useful is in urban combat but only if you got their size down a lot, you'd probably have to make them into power armor to really help there so you can get them into buildings (unlike buildings in animes real ones don't tend to have mech-sized corridors everywhere). Of course tanks with legs (like a spider, keeping the body fairly low to the ground) can make sense in some situations too but those don't really count as mechs.

aaaaanyway....

That sounds like a quite cheerful message considering Gundam tends to include Hitler-style genocide lovers who substitute Newtypes for Aryans or ‹bermenschen (funny aside: Armored Trooper VOTOMS has the evil guys specifically in search of an overman who could replace the dying god, said overman promptly rejects the god's morality and substitutes his own just as Nietzsche described him).

Mecha=Free thruster flights

Very cool article. As a Gundam fan, the whole ideology about robots symbolising advancement, and movement towards the future, is very interesting. And I had no idea about any of that. I'd love to see the giant statue. Now, let's see them build an Exia somewhere...?

Which reminds me, I actually need to go build my SVMS-01O Overflag. It's been sitting in a box for too long!

Great article, good to see Gundam alive and well. Now if you'll excuse me, I need to buy more gunpla.

Yes, of course we want them to be real! (I still have dibs on Tallgeese III)

I would really want to visit Japan and see it one day. It'd be amazing. I'll find a Haro somewhere while I'm at it.

It truly goes to show just how much Mobile Suit Gundam has influenced our modern day culture.

Zeithri:
I'd love to go there and watch RX-78-2 in all it's glory.
But I disagree, building mechs is not "Despite logic, physics and economics all pointing to the impracticality of giant humanoid fighting machines" because they are way more mobile.

Unless you look at Mech Warriors hilariusly retarded mechs.

I disagree. Mechs may be more maneuverable, but they sacrifice speed. It's also generally a better strategy to shell out several tanks than investing your entire budget on a super weapon that could quite easily be destroyed.

Hum. Interesting article. I've known of the cultural and often odd relationship to Gundam in Japan but I would have never connected that to a collect strive for advancement. Cross cultural analysis of the underpinnings of the East and West are always so fascinating. Though I can honestly say that I, like many in the west, can't stand Gundam.

Reading through this, I can only shake my head at the gap between what's culturally fascinating in Japan and America. American culture just seems so. . .meaningless in comparison.

MissAshley:
Reading through this, I can only shake my head at the gap between what's culturally fascinating in Japan and America. American culture just seems so. . .meaningless in comparison.

Ye, it's a totally different paradigm. In North America we often criticise Japanese and Japanophiles as being overly fanatic, but I think that's only one side of the coin. From my experiences the Japanese are much more willing to commit 100% to an idea, vision, or cause, and that also means that they frequently like to search for a deeper meaning in things. (incidentally, that is also what i believe makes them such fanboys and fangirls). With america, dedication is a means to an end for yourself to enjoy a good life. That's not to say Japanese are better; they tend much more easily towards fanaticism and absolutism, such as in WWII. But yes, it's really a fascinating phenomenon to observe.

While I do think the concept of moral and political shades of grey, as well as anti-war and seeing the conflict from many perspectives was a respectable part of Gundam, I think that the series takes it too far nowadays. It's become so formulaic with many moral paragon-type characters which I find incredibly irksome. The whole series is imbued with a sense of 'half a dozen virtuous men in superpowered robot suits CAN and WILL define the shape of this morally chaotic landscape. And kick everyone else's ass because they are morally/mentally flawed and that makes them weak'.

Also, that video of Gackt is slightly disturbing. Those japanese fangirls scream like they're in orgasm and the 'seig Zeon!' chant has FAR too many nazi overtones...

JusticarPhaeton:

MissAshley:
Reading through this, I can only shake my head at the gap between what's culturally fascinating in Japan and America. American culture just seems so. . .meaningless in comparison.

Ye, it's a totally different paradigm. In North America we often criticise Japanese and Japanophiles as being overly fanatic, but I think that's only one side of the coin. From my experiences the Japanese are much more willing to commit 100% to an idea, vision, or cause, and that also means that they frequently like to search for a deeper meaning in things. (incidentally, that is also what i believe makes them such fanboys and fangirls). With america, dedication is a means to an end for yourself to enjoy a good life. That's not to say Japanese are better; they tend much more easily towards fanaticism and absolutism, such as in WWII. But yes, it's really a fascinating phenomenon to observe.

While I do think the concept of moral and political shades of grey, as well as anti-war and seeing the conflict from many perspectives was a respectable part of Gundam, I think that the series takes it too far nowadays. It's become so formulaic with many moral paragon-type characters which I find incredibly irksome. The whole series is imbued with a sense of 'half a dozen virtuous men in superpowered robot suits CAN and WILL define the shape of this morally chaotic landscape. And kick everyone else's ass because they are morally/mentally flawed and that makes them weak'.

Also, that video of Gackt is slightly disturbing. Those japanese fangirls scream like they're in orgasm and the 'seig Zeon!' chant has FAR too many nazi overtones...

I'm not so sure that's the case. Gundam 00 made a big deal out of the fact that the protagonists were essentially terrorists, and that they acknowledged that.

KDR_11k:
Mechs aren't that much more mobile unless you count the thrusters...

Oi, mate, I'm supposed to be the realism-loving pedant here, and I'm supposed to explore the difficulties in designing mecha, and why the laws of physics will dictate that they'll never be more than curiosities in the real world.

Nevertheless, a fairly detailed analysis of why that is the case, although it doesn't include a major weakness of the designs which is a point of interest to engineering types. Most engines either use circular motion (e.g. gas turbines, electric engines), or else convert reciprocating motion into circular motion via a crankshaft (e.g. spark-ignition/compression-ignition internal combustion engines). A mecha, on the other hand, by virtue of its design, will either convert circular motion to reciprocating motion, or more confusingly, reciprocating motion to circular motion right back to reciprocating motion again.

The problem with this is that reciprocating motion isn't particularly desirable in a mechanical design. Reciprocating designs are more complex, requiring more moving parts, which just means more things to wear out. It would require a lot of maintenance for the designs of these mecha, as you point out, which isn't helped by the fact that you'd need a highly-strung, very powerful engine to make up for the fact that you have to make allowances for the inefficiencies of a leg-based design in any non-biological machine.

And that's before you get to the whole issue of surface area under the feet, preventing the machines from sinking into soft ground, and the other issues you point out above. Somebody will probably design a series of mecha as interesting mechanical toys, but it won't get much further than that.

KDR_11k:
Of course tanks with legs (like a spider, keeping the body fairly low to the ground) can make sense in some situations too but those don't really count as mechs.

Actually, tanks with legs, in a spider design, make even less sense than bipedal mecha. For each leg, you add extra transmission and suspension components which just adds to the weight and complexity of the design, and that's ignoring the potential power requirements for each leg - you could end up having to have an engine for each leg, and eight engines adds redundancy - in the negative sense.

* * *

Zeithri:
I'd love to go there and watch RX-78-2 in all it's glory.
But I disagree, building mechs is not "Despite logic, physics and economics all pointing to the impracticality of giant humanoid fighting machines" because they are way more mobile.

Unless you look at Mech Warriors hilariusly retarded mechs.

I'm going to avoid writing the 2,000+ word essay here about the sheer weaknesses of bipedal mechanical designs - I'll save that for later. I will note, however, like KDR_11k, that bipedal designs have so many disadvantages over a tank that they completely outweigh the advantages. Weight, mechanical complexity, an inefficient drivetrain no matter how you look at it, problems with surface area, a high profile that can't be taken hull-down... the list goes on.

Mecha are interesting and exciting machines, but anybody with an ounce of engineering credibility wouldn't call them practical - the only reason you'd build one is because of that excitement factor. Thus, a statue rather than an actual working mecha.

* * *

Kudos to you, Mr. Funk, for an interesting and well-rounded article, looking into the psychology of the Japanese populace. Robots do, indeed, represent technological advancement and superiority, and the Japanese were certainly at the forefront of robotic design when they realised the utility of them. The Western world wrote of the robot, while Japan made it practical and useful. In the West, I suppose that function followed art, while in Japan, art followed function.

As notable as the Japanese attraction to robots is their specific attraction to giant robots. A country possessing such scientific fervour surely would have realised the impracticalities of bipedal robotic design, particularly when it comes to gigantic designs as in the context of mecha - look at the problems that Honda have had with their ASIMO robots, which have the distinct physical advantage of being small.

As notable as that is the common use of these designs in military combat. As I believe I have pointed out on the Escapist before, the neutrality of Japan in modern warfare has perhaps inclined them towards a mindset where they aren't forced to keep up with the evolutionary trends in the development of tools of war. It's interesting that you included a mention of the voyage of Commodore Matthew Perry, because it would appear that this trend has a precedent. Before Commodore Perry's journey, the Japanese people had isolated themselves from the world, falling back in military developments. When it transpired that Perry's ships could annihilate the Japanese fleets without the crews even working up a sweat, they were forced to establish themselves once again on the world stage.

Finally, I'd like to look at the fact that the culture of the Western world never picked up the idea of the mecha in as much of a fashion as the Japanese. If you look at our current recreational trends, particularly in computer gaming, we see a lot of gritty games with a veneer of realism. Perhaps, unlike the Japanese, whose neutrality allows them a certain amount of leeway when considering "military" designs in fiction, the Western culture has been somewhat consumed with the necessity of our militaries to keep up with the evolution, and in fact, to do the evolving when it comes to military designs. The trends towards realism don't worry me - I'm a scientist and a fan of accurate depictions even within fiction. However, there's a certain amount of opposition from a proportion of my gaming peers, who would probably be more suited to the Japanese model.

I suppose it explains the upturn in popularity of anime and manga that we're seeing over here.

Good piece. Few cover the cultural effect of Gundam properly these days, so it's nice to see someone do it right for a change.

I'm not here to debate the reality of mecha...so I won't.

I'd just like to add in a QI kind of way that another reason for Japanese liking of robots can be traced thorugh their religious practices. Since basically any object can/is in possession of a kami (a spirit) that means that even a robot has feelings and soul in a much different sense from what we Westerners are used to. This argument goes over into the "electric-soul" article as well, where I think that Robo as a chrono-trigger character held a much different meaning to the Japanese audience. More in the lines of ones devotion to ones own "place in the world" and the rebellion against such. As well as the concept of allegiance, a very hot-topic in many Japanese tales and modern mangas.

I love that Yoshiyuki press conference because during the Q & A he illustrates how working under constraints can actually help the creative process. Because Gundam was sponsored by toy manufacturers, they wanted to sell a lot of giant robot toys. So they set the series in space where gravity wouldn't be such an issue. They wanted to release new toys regularly, so you need to have large, prosperous industrial governments regularly researching and building new mecha. If these robots are fighting in space, there must be space colonies and assets, etc. It gave Gundam a sense of realism most mecha anime lacks.

I like some of the earlier Gundam series--the writing was good and there was some concession to realism, even if some of the characters came off as irritating. To this day I consider Gundam 0083: Stardust Memory one of the best animes of all time. When things seem really cliched and run of the mill in those early series, it's easy to forget that Gundam helped invent most of those genre conventions in the first place.

Falseprophet:
I love that Yoshiyuki press conference because during the Q & A he illustrates how working under constraints can actually help the creative process. Because Gundam was sponsored by toy manufacturers, they wanted to sell a lot of giant robot toys. So they set the series in space where gravity wouldn't be such an issue. They wanted to release new toys regularly, so you need to have large, prosperous industrial governments regularly researching and building new mecha. If these robots are fighting in space, there must be space colonies and assets, etc. It gave Gundam a sense of realism most mecha anime lacks.

I like some of the earlier Gundam series--the writing was good and there was some concession to realism, even if some of the characters came off as irritating. To this day I consider Gundam 0083: Stardust Memory one of the best animes of all time. When things seem really cliched and run of the mill in those early series, it's easy to forget that Gundam helped invent most of those genre conventions in the first place.

0083 is okay; I heavily recommend 0080: War in the Pocket if you haven't seen it. It's easily my favorite Gundam series and IMO the best six episodes of real robot anime I've ever seen.

Great article. I almost crapped myself the first time I saw that giant statue (even if it was only on a photo). Kinda like a testament to Japan's economy, isn't it?

I think we should thank the giant robot for influencing so much in our lives.

@RAK the Undead: Great post, nice to see someone take the time explaining the impracticalities. I never considered the reciprocating motion problem before, I always focused on the material limits and mobility.

RAKtheUndead:
Kudos to you, Mr. Funk, for an interesting and well-rounded article, looking into the psychology of the Japanese populace. Robots do, indeed, represent technological advancement and superiority, and the Japanese were certainly at the forefront of robotic design when they realised the utility of them. The Western world wrote of the robot, while Japan made it practical and useful. In the West, I suppose that function followed art, while in Japan, art followed function.

One of the resistances to robots in the western world, I think, is linked to a fear of being replaced. There's not a strong union movement in Japan as there is in USA which would inhibit the adoption of automation by companies. Workers don't react very well by anything which could replace them. Building a machine to perform one task is one thing, building a robot which can do many is a very hard thing to swallow if it's your job that's being made redundant.

The western view is that robots are tools, precise and cold. The mainstream view is that machinery is there to aid the person. The Japanese, on the other hand, have a different perception towards robots. They can see it as having it's own identity. A form of animism. It's not so much that the West didn't want robots as much as the Japanese embraced them.

As notable as the Japanese attraction to robots is their specific attraction to giant robots. A country possessing such scientific fervour surely would have realised the impracticalities of bipedal robotic design, particularly when it comes to gigantic designs as in the context of mecha - look at the problems that Honda have had with their ASIMO robots, which have the distinct physical advantage of being small.

[snip]

Finally, I'd like to look at the fact that the culture of the Western world never picked up the idea of the mecha in as much of a fashion as the Japanese. If you look at our current recreational trends, particularly in computer gaming, we see a lot of gritty games with a veneer of realism. Perhaps, unlike the Japanese, whose neutrality allows them a certain amount of leeway when considering "military" designs in fiction, the Western culture has been somewhat consumed with the necessity of our militaries to keep up with the evolution, and in fact, to do the evolving when it comes to military designs. The trends towards realism don't worry me - I'm a scientist and a fan of accurate depictions even within fiction. However, there's a certain amount of opposition from a proportion of my gaming peers, who would probably be more suited to the Japanese model.

I suppose it explains the upturn in popularity of anime and manga that we're seeing over here.

Look at it from a differnt angle. In Gundam, there is always the young idealist who ends up piloting one of the more powerful Gundams and uses this power for good. The mecha is a form of wish fulfilment, that the idealist has been given the means to achieve his dreams. In a country where samurai were held in high regard as being honourable and potent warriors, there is a chance to bring back that romanticism with the Real Robot genre which Gundam is a part of. This may be reaching a bit but consider how Japan lost World War 2. Beaten by a country with greater might, greater production and greater technology. Honour, belief in a cause, individual heroics, meant little in the grand scheme of things. Gundams allow for warrior duels, clashes of personalities and of ideals between two people, where belief in a cause and a kickass suit allows you to carry the day and win.

Personally though, that never really appealed to me. I'm more a fan of the typical western protagonist and storytelling.

A) Well, if any of you actaully read mechwarrior, they use tendon like myomers on all the joints. A memory material which naturally bends with current. Not mechanical at all. B)Most mechs in the gundam universe weigh btw 60 and 90 tons. heavy, but not ridiculous. C) ZEON/ZAFT developed them as space weapons first, so there weight is no longer a factor:) and D) WING SUCKS!! flame flame flame

Imagine the day when Gundam-like mecha are real. Imagine the day where mankind degenerates into the kinds of scenarios found throughout all the series. And imagine how people will be completely blindsided when the solution is there for them but they ignore it. Like the article said, it sad when humanity needs something like Newtypes.

That being said, totally signing up to be a pilot if it's in my lifetime. :)

Makes me want this to be their national icon. Sure, the US has the statue of liberty, Paris has the Eiffel tower, and Australia has the Sydney opera, but Japan has a 60 foot giant robot! Beat that!

What's with all the past tense?

Was it taken down or something?

Anyways, i've always seen this as entirely awesome. Though I've wondered something:

Why is, say, Gundam, arguably the most well known anime media franchise in japan, but Dragon Ball is most everywhere else?

Gundam is still popular and well known in other places, too, of course.

Moments like these are why I am reminded why you John are my favorite of the Escapist staff! And this statue is just a step for what the future will hold! Hopefully I can get a XXXG-01W in my lifetime now....

 

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