The super robot genre and its audience

Cover of the first volume of Mazinger Z

There is something that disturbs me about the super robot genre, and to a lesser extent real robots. Others have talked of wars made kid-friendly, or the exultation of a certain type of masculinity; but what I pick up is a distorted relationship between the pilots and the robots.

These robots are, universally, powerful. Yet it is common that they depend entirely upon the pilot, not only for guidance but also for power that comes from their fighting spirit. It is not a symbiotic relationship; the robot is just a tool, and on its own is reduced to an empty husk.

Astro Boy volume 1 and 2, Dark Horse comics

As with his art style, Osamu Tezuka's robots were an inspiration but not a model for Japanese visual culture.

Not a problem by itself, but look at another aspect of these machines: they look, and move, like humans (okay, supehumans, scaled up). This is probably why the genre never appealed to me; I love technology, but not when it is implausibly shoehorned into an atavistic anthropomorphism. But leave aside realism and consider what it implies for the target audience.

No fan would deny that Super Robots is wish fulfilment, but there is one aspect of this that they seem not to realise. You have a machine that is totally dependent on a human to do remarkably human things. Nowhere (even among the antagonists) are there intelligent, independent computers that might pose a challenge to the pilots or even offer a different way of doing things. While this can be explained as relatability to the audience, it seems to me that the otaku who most prize these shows and their merchandise do not have a healthy relationship with real machines.

These shows are referred to as “healing-type”. Healing for what? Maybe from a day of driving a car that moves in a very un-human way, and working with a computer that thinks in a very un-human way, and using any number of appliances doing things we can never do. By contrast, a giant manlike robot has incredible power, but it is a subservient, familiar power. And when Evangelion subverted that aspect (ironically making them more human, in the wrong way), it struck a chord of fear and horror in the audience.

Scopedog Berkoff Squad model, 1/20

Much as I like the gritty, real-looking robots of the VOTOMS franchise, it never ceases to bother me that they have legs yet mostly move on unseen wheels.

So, I guess what I’m trying to say is: appreciate your labour-saving devices for what they are and not fear them for not being human.

30 thoughts on “The super robot genre and its audience

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