Monday, February 29, 2016

Analysis: Mobile Suit Gundam


Mobile Suit Gundam is, to put it bluntly, the Japanese Star Wars. It's an absurdly popular franchise built on the core premise of "World War 2 in space", starring young men with mystical psychic powers defeating Nazi-themed empires using cool vehicles and laser swords. Eventually the quasi-realistic aesthetic is replaced by unrealistic CGI and over-the-top ridiculousness and everything goes off the rails.

The biggest difference between Gundam and Star Wars is that Star Wars was designed around optimistic good-vs-evil works like Flash Gordon, while Gundam was designed by depressive nihilist Yoshiyuki Tomino. Tomino essentially kickstarted the "Real Robot" genre (which I mentioned in the last article) so it only makes sense to talk about him. It's also something I can tie into my overarching views on morality and realism.

Premise

The basic premise of original, "Universal Century" Gundam is simple. Humans have left Earth and pushed out into space, building massive cylindrical colonies in the orbital Lagrangian points. Tension arises between terrestrial humans and "spacenoids" due to the proselytizing of Zeon Zum Deikun. Zeon's philosophy was that the Earth was sacred, and humans would have to move into space in order to avoid polluting it. His ideology led to an independence movement, creating the Republic of Zeon. Zeon himself died shortly thereafter and the mantle of leadership was taken up by the Zabi family, who declared war on the Earth Federation in the name of colonial liberation.

Three major concepts define the Gundam universe. Firstly, the "Minovsky Particle", which jams long-range sensors, and is necessary to justify short-range combat in a space environment. Secondly, the "Mobile Suit", an agile weapon that can be used in space or on land. Compared to spaceships, Mobile Suits are ostensibly more maneuverable and versatile, especially in the short range battles created by the Minovsky Particles. Thirdly, the "Newtype", a key component of Zeon's vision. Newtypes are psychic individuals predicted to be the evolution of humankind in space. Their ability most commonly manifests as a vastly superior piloting level.

Conceptually, these concepts justify the idea of short-range mech combat where "unusual" characters (primarily "untrained teenage boys") are able to triumph over experienced adult veterans. In short, the Gundam series is designed to facilitate that dynamic first and foremost. For this reason, the later series abandon the pretense of realism or consistency and become far more about teenage boys with psychic powers destroying entire armies. The idea that "bigger is better" is pushed heavily, and Gundam goes from a series where the main character must fight seriously to defeat even basic opponents to a series where thousands of enemies are killed with barely any effort.

Morality, Or, "War Is Bad"

The biggest problem I find with people who write fiction about war is that so few of them are really interested in understanding it. The best you usually get is a contrarian "You think combat is good? Well, actually, it's BAD" sort of take, without any real effort to examine why. You could say that the reasons war is bad are obvious, but it's pretty remarkable how few people manage to get the idea. This is my problem with Spec Ops The Line, for example, and it's also applicable to Tomino's handling of the Gundam series.

In Gundam, war is bad because it's scary, and people get hurt. That's about it. The fact is, Gundam is a series where "bad guys" exist who will destroy the world and kill millions if they aren't stopped. Gundam purports to be a morally grey setting where war is not about good vs evil, yet at the same time even the low-level spinoff 08th MS Team ends with a boss battle against an omnicidal lunatic. In the original Gundam, the Republic of Zeon commits massive war crimes against civilian targets and their soldiers dress and act like Nazis. In the followup Zeta Gundam, the new enemy faction takes up that same behavior - unstoppably hostile cruelty that must be resolved with violence. It goes on like this.

Here's the thing about characterizing war as "scary" or "bad": that's not the problem. People talk a lot about how hard it is to create a truly "anti-war" film, because depicting war inevitably leads to a Death of the Author situation. Depictions of the "horrors of war" are often positively received by audiences because they think that stuff is cool and awesome, and conversely, many people excuse glorification of violence because "that would happen anyways". Here is what it's important to understand: heroic suffering is a major component of Ur-Fascism. That might sound like it came out of nowhere so let's work our way back to it.

In Umberto Eco's "Ur-Fascism", the author describes the traits that create fascism as a concept - hatred for dissent, hatred for weakness, love of militarism, love of masculinity. Look at #11: "the Ur-Fascist hero craves heroic death, advertised as the best reward for a heroic life. The Ur-Fascist hero is impatient to die." The components that are used to say "war is bad" do not work, and this is the cause of the aforementioned difficulties. If you have a masculine society that praises stoicism and enduring suffering, and you tell people "war is suffering", then people are going to respond "good, war gives me a chance to show that I can endure suffering".

This is the problem with Gundam. Gundam says "war is scary". Gundam says "war is hard". Gundam says "war is hateful". But it also says that war is necessary, and that's what people are listening to. The conflicts in Gundam are not presented as pointless, they are presented as aggressor and victim. The protagonist doesn't like piloting the Gundam, but he has to, and when he whines he's slapped until he gets in line. The villain starts it, but the protagonist has to finish it, and if he doesn't innocent people are going to get hurt. It's the same with every other form of "heroic violence". This is true of Death Wish. It is true of Mad Max. It even true of Spec Ops The Line, because if you stop shooting, the enemies are just going to kill you. War is "bad", but it's necessary, and if you don't do it you're a failure who's condemning millions of innocents to death and suffering. That is the lesson.

If you want to dismantle the cult of "glorious war", if you want to defang toxic masculinity, you have to address the actual problems. People propagate the myth of inhuman superpredator thugs because it's something they can think of as "realistic" that justifies their worldview. Are there bad people in the world? Of course there are. ISIS is real. But even ISIS is made up of human beings, not psychopathic robots. As hateful as they were, even Nazis surrendered - in pretty substantial numbers, too. Most "anti-war" media shows suffering, but not humanization. Without empathy, "anti-war" is a meaningless concept. Without negotiation, "anti-war" is an ineffectual idea. I hate to keep bringing up Rorschach and The Punisher, but there's a reason comic fans were drawn to their methods, and it's because the "non-violent" methods don't work. If violence is constantly pushed as the only real solution to a problem then it doesn't really matter how unpleasant it's depicted as being, because it works. People complain about the Gundam fandom only caring about robot fights and not actually getting that "war is bad", but the fact is, Gundam is a series in which cool robot fights are the thing that solves all the problems. Violence achieves goals, negotiation fails. Period.

Yoshiyuki Tomino

I'd like to take some time to talk about Tomino himself, since he's a pretty important component of the moral aspect of the series. Rather than doing an overarching analysis of him, though, I'm just going to post some snippets about things that he's done.

Yoshiyuki Tomino's original novelization of Gundam ended with the main character dying randomly in the middle of a battle.

Yoshiyuki Tomino thinks video games are "evil" and contribute nothing to society because of a lack of creative vision.

Yoshiyuki Tomino, despite being famous for the "real robot" concept, mocks the very idea that Gundam is realistic or worth taking seriously.

This entire interview deserves its own sub-heading. In it, Yoshiyuki Tomino:
- Reveals that he doesn't think space elevators are possible, and used his most recent Gundam series to express contempt for the idea.
- Discusses how he intended to depict war from two viewpoints, to show both sides of the conflict.
- Admits "since anime is something people usually watch at a younger age, if you only tell about the principles and the position of one side, you will inevitably end up influencing their thoughts in a sense".
- Says that the whole "adults slapping children to convince them to fight" thing was something he viewed as positive ("children need you to show them a clear example")
- Says to his fans: "If there are those among you who started thinking about something because of Gundam, it’s time you broke out of it."

The reality of anti-war (or pro-war) media is that it's often the blind leading the blind. People with no experience of war commenting on war in order to teach other people with no experience about war what war is like. When an auteur like Kojima or Tomino shows up and says "this is what war is like" in a decisive voice, it's easy for ignorant people to look at them and go "yeah, I guess it is". And now even Tomino himself has admitted it - that Gundam is a limited model, and people need to worry about real information.

Anyways, apropos of nothing, here's a list of nonfiction books I assembled a while back.

16 comments:

  1. That last one reminds me of his interview with the author of Wrong about Japan. He did the same thing - talked cynically about it was to sell robot toys, about how he argued with the company about the size of the robots and battles set on Earth because it only made a preposterous situation even more preposterous, and so forth.

    He's probably right about the space elevators and Gundam-style colonies, too.

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    1. I think it's kind of disingenuous of him to spend so much time plotting out the details of the space colonies and so on only to go "actually none of it's important". Why did you waste time writing about it, then?

      I also think it's pretty silly of him to dismiss space elevators as a concept when he is by no means an engineer.

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    1. I have 119 articles on this blog and I refuse to believe you've read all of them. I don't think *I've* read all of them.

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    2. Yeah well I have. And I liked all of it.

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    3. That's clearly ridiculous because there's a lot of articles that I wrote when I was real fucked up and they're bad and meandering. Let's not get silly here.

      Anyways, do you have any topics you'd like me to cover? I ran out about a year ago and I've just been commenting on whatever I'd watched recently since then.

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    4. I don't watch anime, so you being a guide to anime and anime-styled games is pretty neat imo

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    5. Sorry, Gundam & Princess Mononoke are basically the limits of my knowledge. Here's a brief analysis of 95% of anime: it's fucking garbage. There you go.

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  3. I just played Metal Gear Solid (god I forgot how tedious it was at the end with the card stuff) and I'm definitely feeling your point as I go through Snake talking about how killing is terrible and war has ruined him as he marches forward killing everyone and successfully completing his mission and solving all problems by just killing all the bosses and saves Meryl by virtue of being MANLY ENOUGH to resist torture. Actually I think the Meryl thing sums it up rather a lot. Whether or not Snake "gets the girl" is directly related to whether he is able to resist suffering like a REAL MAN. He doesn't even have to take action in any way. He just has to BE STRONG ENOUGH not to give in and woman is earned. Of course I don't think you of all people need convincing that Metal Gear is dripping in rubbish machismo and war porn.

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    1. MGS has a huge number of mixed messages. I mean, you've seen me get upset at series that waver between "realism" and "unrealism", and this kind of stuff is why. Games that say "realistically, war is bad" but don't talk about why. MGS chastises the player for killing, but the enemies behave like simplistic robots instead of human beings.

      I think people like to throw out the "I'm no hero" trope because humility is also part of being a STOIC MANLY BADASS. I remember someone trying to argue that Max Payne 3 was totally subverting the action hero mold because Max is a drunken loser with no skills besides killing people. The problem with that, of course, is that such a description also aptly describes the protagonists of "Die Hard" and "Lethal Weapon", and both of them are depressed losers in their movies as well. And like Payne, at the end of their story they've gotten better (by killing people).

      That sort of thing is just a placebo to make people feel like they're learning something from a totally normal action story.

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    2. The funny thing is that MGS (or some games in the series) is significantly better at treating the guards less like single minded killbots than almost every other games.

      In MGS2 the soldier's first instinct is to call for backup rather than throw themselves at you and when significantly injured they will disengage and run off the map to escape. And once the guys in riot shields show up it's actually incredibly difficult to try and confront them directly.

      Of course they kind of throw that away at the end of the game when you get to slaughter dozens of them with a sword as well as for the whole making them half blind and deaf so the power balance is still tilted significantly towards the player.

      The (comparatively) complex guard behaviour is the biggest thing I like about MGS2 but it may say more about the low standards for simulating humanity in games than it does for MGS.

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  4. Man, I didn't even see you posting because I've been caught up in this Democratic Primary. There's something wrong when choosing between candidates feel like choosing between two cults.

    Sorry for the tangent.

    I'm getting pretty uncomfortable with how many of these concepts you're mentioning is popping up in this primary, especially with Trump. A lot of supporters are seeing other groups as an unreasonable, unthinking enemy to overcome possibly violently. And the machismo fueling this.

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    1. That's not a cult thing, that's an ideological thing. This election marks the first time that we have actual distinct values in play instead of "slightly left" vs "extremely right". In essence we have a four-party election - Sanders' socialism, Clinton's imperialist neo-liberalism, the RNC's usual conservatism, and Trump's populist-fascism. People are passionate because there's actual worthwhile differences to consider, and there's a lot on the line. That's how real politics works, in comparison to the milquetoast status quo of the American two-party system.

      And things probably will get violent, because people's lives are on the line. Oh, they've always been - this candidate supports a war, that candidate supports drones - but now people feel there's a way to do something about that. If you look at Donald Trump you see a lot about American politics. Any time he feels he's in danger he cringes like a coward, but when he's not personally in danger he boasts about how strong he is and how many people he's willing to kill. That's an important part of the equation. "Violence" has always been part of American politics, people are just concerned now because it's internal instead of external.

      So yes, there is a political tie-in to what I'm saying. But I don't think it's about how people are seeing this election, I think it's about how Americans see violence in general. When it's not happening near them, they don't treat it like it's real. When it's near them, they do.

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  5. Thanks for your posts and your blog in general. The posts about female characters already influenced me in what I write, and there's still a lot more to absorb. And I'm not even much of a video game player!

    After reading this, I became curious of your opinion on something: despite its problems, like the ones you present here, watching Gundam Wing made me reflect on war and its effects. I believe this is a merit it has, instigating this concern and curiosity in me, which resulting on seeking to learn more about it. I also believe that some of the fiction you deride can also do this, despite the problems with their message and consistency. What do you think?

    PS: you mention a lack of topics to cover above. How about a review of Deadpool? Or perhaps exposing more of your views on Evangelion?

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    1. I think saying that Gundam Wing made you reflect on war is like saying that the Transformers movies made you reflect on robotics.

      Yes, it raises the topic. Does it add anything to the discussion? Not really. Not anything of substance, at least. There is a difference between an educated opinion and an uneducated one, and the problem with fiction is that it's easy to present the latter as the former because the writer controls the entire frame of the argument they're making.

      Deadpool: Not really worth talking about. All I really have to say about it is that I'm amazed people still consider "breaking the fourth wall" a hilarious and unexpected thing.

      Evangelion: If you strip away the religious metaphors and forced "adult" situations like Shinji jacking off on Asuka's unconscious body, it's an incredibly plain and boring story. Really the only thing separating it from its forebears is how aggressive it is about being "edgy". Seriously, replace all the biblical terms with made-up monster names and it loses half its mystique.

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    2. "I think saying that Gundam Wing made you reflect on war is like saying that the Transformers movies made you reflect on robotics."

      I may have a more unbelievable example. What the Bleep do we know made me interested in physics. Three weeks later I already understood how utterly shitty and manipulative the movie was, but the interest remained.

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