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.


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.