Friday, June 27, 2008

On Mecha design and heroes

So The Animanachronism's recent post on the nature of mecha brought to mind a set of posts I did a while back on the role of the citizen solider and the Arthurian hero in anime (a set of posts I'm still a bit proud of.) It's got me thinking about what is the role of the mecha in mecha anime. Other than to sell toys and other merchandise to people who seem to like that kind of stuff. And sure there are shows that seem determined to do that, but even those the mecha has to play some sort of role in the show.

If it didn't, well there wouldn't be much of a show.

But the thing about analyzing the role of the mecha in mecha shows is that they're intrinsically tied to the characters who pilot them. I mean what does the cape clad, white Lancelot say about Suzaku. (Even beyond the moral questions that it raises.) Or what does the vague Escher-esque Big-O with its hammer of God message say about the role of Roger Smith. Honestly, I think there are some consistencies between these categorizations that I've seen.

A Tool of War

Now with the citizen solider, the mech is a tool of war. Now arguably the theme of war pops up in a lot of more Arthurian shows, but unlike those heroes the mech is rarely flashy. VOTOMS is an almost perfect example of a mech that is ugly, utilitarian and kills people. The same can be said about the mecha in Gasaraki. Now there have been some variations on this theme, but in general the mecha are also uniform. These people didn't just happen across some mech in an underground storage shed, or if they did then they aren't really any more special than the average toaster.

Now later shows have played off of this theme. The Arbalest from FMP is an example of an Excalibur like mech that is given to a citizen solider (Granted, I might be the only one who thinks it's strangely symbolic that a pale, wispy girl tossed a nearly magical machine out of a giant lake to land at the hero's feet.)

But even then it's still a tool. A handy tool, but the citizen solider doesn't rely on it to win his battles, unless it's the right tool for the job. And because it's a tool, the citizen solider mecha tend to be nearly person-sized. They're rarely more than 10 or 15 feet tall. It could be said that the man makes the machine and not the other way around.

A Magical Totem

Whereas when we look at Arthurian heroes, it is the machine that makes the man. In fact, the machine itself sometimes takes on a life of its own, becoming an extension of the hero itself. Gundam Zeta's various power-ups seem to fit into this category. And since the central question of the Arthurian hero is "What type of country do I want to create?" and the enemies have to get progressively harder (because otherwise the tension would drop) the totem also has to become more powerful.

Now there is some gray area here, because occasionally you do have an Arthurian hero who has to learn his machine better so that he can accomplish his goals. In these cases, the machine itself is as powerful as it can get, but the pilot has to unlock its secrets. (Escaflowne comes to mind here.)

And since it is a magical totem, the machine itself has to be impressive and unique. Generally these mecha are giants and tend to dwarf their pilots. They tend to range about 15 to 50 feet high (or at least from what I can tell.)

An Otherworldly Being

Adam's mecha provides the most difficulty in analysis, mostly because there are so few of them and there is a good deal of variation. But in general, Adam's mecha is the impetus of his epiphany. This is true in both Evangelion and RahXephon. It's even true in Gasaraki. But in most cases, they also tend to be reflective of both the tones and the themes of the story. Unit 01 in Evangelion is almost bestial when it slips loose of its traces. Reflecting back on the main struggle between how Shinji perceives himself and how he wants others to perceive him. RahXephon is almost majestic, but it's also alien and unpredictable. Reflecting back on the main theme of acceptance (both of the self and others.)

In general, what separates Adam's mecha from the Arthurian mecha is that in the case of Adam these mecha are alien and they're at best impartial, at worst possessed with motivations that the hero doesn't know anything about.

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