There’s a lot of good hype behind the film Pacific Rim. This is mostly due to the fact that it’s being directed by one of the seminal directors of horror of our time, Guielmo del Toro, and the fact that it’s got Michael Bay shitting his fucking pants in terror that there’s someone out there poised to actually do a giant robot film justice in the west. I’m serious, there is a legitimate rivalry forming over this.
And while you can argue that certain Del Toro films may not always be their best you can’t disagree that whatever the man takes on he does so with an innate understanding of the subject matter that he presents. So, in this case, while it is possible that Pacific Rim might not excel at what it does I have no doubt that Del Toro will be one of the few western creators who innately understand how Mecha (the popular term for pilotable giant robots) works as a subject of artistic medium. Though, until that movie comes out the undisputed kings of this are Jody Schaeffer and George Krstic the creators of Megas XLR.
That said, you might be looking at your screen and asking questions like “Why should there be any effort in writing sci-fi stories with giant robots? The concept is easy to understand! Just strap a guy into a robot and have action.” Well while that’s kind of true it doesn’t explain why giant robot aren’t more prevalent in media. If that statement were true then we would have a lot of sci-fi films with giant robots going back years within our film, comics, video games and cartoons. Now if you look far back, the only two really successful western franchises with giant robots were Transformers and Power Rangers. These are both shows that had their origins in Japan and Japan is the mother of giant robot shows.
So why a concept that is this easily identifiable as marketable success received so little traction in the west? You could try and argue special effect limitations but keep in mind that only limits film and really if that were the case you still can’t explain how Japan pulled it off and not North America.
The answer came to me, interestingly enough, from an argument I heard previously about the nature of first person shooter games and why they were developed in the United States first. It’s done by the fine folks at Extra Credits and addresses some of the unique philosophical differences between how weapons are viewed between the US and Japan. Here’s the video but I will drastically summarize some points from it.
You see, in the US a weapon is viewed as a tool that can enable. It allows an everyman to become a force of self-actualization which is represented by the American Revolution. In Japan though, there exists a more spiritual philosophy about weapons not being a means by which a person gains strength but seen as an extension of the person itself. Their intent and capacity.
The giant robot is the logical progression of that.
Now you can just as easily argue that giant robots are just as much about gaining power from a tool as they are about becoming one with them. Heck Go Nagai, the man who created the first pilotable giant robot Mazinger Z got his idea from watching gridlocked traffic and imagining a robot that could simply walk over the cars.
But if you’ve seen any giant robot cartoons or shows from Japan you might start to appreciate where I’m coming from. A lot of my argument stems from the most visual example I can find: The very form of the giant robot.
Most, if not all, giant robots are a representation of the humanoid form. Regardless of how their cockpits and control schemes are laid out (some bafflingly so) they all are designed to mirror human form. Most technicians and engineers will tell you that the bipedal (two legs, not more) robot is mostly impractical due to the nature of shifting balance between steps. It isn’t that it’s impossible but the inertia from bipedal movement of anything that large would make most pilots vomit. Let alone the problems of retaining balance while operating and being bombarded by heavy artillery.
But look at the nature of the mecha story. Every one of them is about the pilot learning to use his machine to the optimum level, and those that don’t have a hot blooded pilot who yells out attacks. It might seem silly unless you realize that much like the oft parodied Dragonball Z the energy attacks are a representation of the pilot’s own emotional reaction to a situation taken to physical form. That is why in anime character personalities tend to match their mecha types. In a more military based series where tactics and speed are favored in combat, the pilots that exhibit a cool head and fast reflexes are better pilots. Their equipment does not give them power, their own innate nature makes the mech superior. That holds true for more fanciful giant robot series; those robots with heavy firepower and energy beams have hot blooded and energetic pilots to match the machine.
This means that the pilot is the emotional core of his machine, its spirit if you will. Because the robot is basically a face that has no expression the pilot must voice that expression for the machine and thus become one with it. Any story where the pilot doesn’t match his robot usually is a tale describing how this is a problem and often the pilot learns to become better at controlling his machine. This happens in all mecha anime. Mazinger Z had Koji go from being an average sportsman to a hot blooded hero able to overcome any tactical disadvantage, Gundam turned Amuro Ray from a shut in to a calm mature pilot whose skills were so incredible that they allowed his mecha to surpass its own limitations and even Evangelion had Shinji continually become unstable in combat as a representation of the torture his own machine was going through as it was converted into an Eva.
There’s a lot of merit to this technique beyond just remaining loyal to one’s cultural roots as well. For one thing it gives the machine the illusion of having a personality when, in reality, it’s just an extension of the pilot’s. It also means that the pilot of any mecha must have a distinct personality, maybe not strong or even likeable, but distinct all the same. Thus there’s something for the audience to rely upon, how that pilot acts within a moment of tension. Also, unlike a gun a giant robot is a massive, expensive machine. It is not a disposable tool like a gun, sword or even tank! There may be one of that type in the world. Because of that there must be an effort to show how important and singular it is. By having the pilot appear as its spiritual core and emotional center (a pilot that matches the machine aesthetically as well, say a large stern figure for an imposing robotic form) it seems as though the robot itself is a character and becomes much more memorable.
I won’t go so far as to say that there is no theme of a character being empowered by a tool. In fact I won’t say that one is more prevalent than the other in most works regardless of culture. I do feel, strongly, that the philosophy of the tool being the extension of the man is at the heart of Japanese fiction works and especially in their Giant Robot stories.
I’m sure Del Toro understands this, or at least has a sense of it. The question of it translating well is really where the movie’s success hangs. We’ll have to see for that though.
So too does this work exist.