Sunday, August 25, 2013

2007, Part 1: Seven for Seven: Three Robot Tales

Owen writes copy for a living, and has been known to occasionally extend that ability to anime, although it's a while since he did so. When he's not attempting to finish his backlog of games on Steam, he can be usually found on Twitter, trying to break language 140 characters at a time.

Everyone knows how this list ends. It's the beginning, however, that makes the most of what it really is: an unbridled look at nostalgia barely six years old. That's kindergarten age! How do you tell Nostalgia that they have to get out of the house, put on a uniform, and play nice with the others? One week at a time, I think.

For this year, I decided to focus on seven original, made-for-anime works. No adaptations, please; we try to keep the riff-raff out. The emphasis on "made for anime" here was a no-brainer; the problem with adaptations, inevitably, lies in how the original's vision has to be molded to fit into the target medium, and in this case anime. In this the premise of an adaptation is usually flawed; the arcs in a manga are either ignored or overtly drawn out, the sparse text of a light novel becomes a plodding 25-minute exercise in animated dramas, and the less said about visual novel adaptations, the better.

"Original", of course, tends to be usually tenuous, but was defined here simply as "a story that did not exist in any form or medium prior to the anime." Filtering with this criterion was mindboggling--there was no Baccano, for instance. No Bamboo Blade. Not even Gakuen Utopia Manabi High, which, to my surprise, actually existed as a manga by ufotable before it was an anime.

By the time I was finished, there was one problem: the ones that were original weren't good, and the ones that were good weren't original. Shigurui? A straight-up adaptation; possibly one of the best around, but an adaptation nonetheless. Dennou Coil? Didn't sit well. Towards the Terra was a manga, albeit one decades old and entirely changed from its origin, as were Bokurano, Hitohira, and Hidamari Sketch. Gigantic Formula felt too mecha-heavy by way of visual references and homages, while Sky Girls was relatively simplistic.

In the end, I decided to separate the seven works by the tentatively fragile genre trappings they employed: mecha, romance, and vignettes. Mecha, of course, deserved no further explanation. Romance explored the age-old question of love, and all its trappings. Vignettes told short stories that explored a greater whole.

This week is dedicated to exploring the first of the three: Mecha. Because everyone loves a giant robot or ten.

Heroic Age is a clever pun. There's the obvious reference to what is the sum of its phrase, a heroic age, and then there's Age himself, human and a unwitting party to one of the Tribe of Heroes--a gargantuan, organic, distinctly mecha people of which there were five--and it all unravels from then on out rather rapidly, like a kitten on a fraying carpet. Most certainly heroic in deed if not in feat, the labyrinth-esque way in which the author chose the title lends itself to wordplay for good reason.

And what an author! Tow Ubukata, long-time novelist and author of anime-friendly works such as Mardock ScrambleSoukyuu no Fafner, and Le Chevalier D'Eon, shows off his writing chops with his handling of original work Heroic Age. It's the simple touches and care for which he builds this world where psychics, espers, and clairvoyants vy for the same space as spaceship bridges, organic mecha, and elaborate galactic battles--where the aptly named "psycholine" comes to rest, an aptronymic interfacing of astral projection-cum-clairvoyance-cum-empath with the ship's system.

The Hyperion Cantos comes to mind. A tetralogy comprised of the novels Hyperion, Fall of Hyperion, Endymion, and Rise of Endymion, those with any familiarity with Dan Simmons' beleaguered tome of a series will find swift comfort in Heroic Age, and with good reason. Unlike anything a straight-up adaptation could constrain within the medium, Tow reassures you that you're in good hands. The conflict is swift, merciless, and ever escalating. The genres lie between space opera, mecha, and soft science fiction, with a wealth of reference to Greek mythology if you care for it.

The story itself is majestic, within reason and given the constraints afforded it. I like to think that the bulk of Heroic Age is carried, as it were, by the music. It's a score of triumph, the epic, the wreck and clash of beauty in war, the hideousness of destruction and defeat. There's a leitmotif you'll come to recognise with time, a familiar theme you'll learn to anticipate and dread in equal measure. There is much cause for rejoicing. There is hope.

Naoki Sato, composer for works such as Blood-C and Eureka Seven, handles it with finesse and a certain degree of restraint. If you happen to be hearing impaired, it's unfortunate, but there's a slice of it you'll never be able to grasp, watching it--while it isn't essential to the understanding of this galactic legacy, this heroic age that the Iron Tribe has been compelled to grasp with both hands, it definitely is detrimental to your enjoyment of it.

Of note was the incredibly emotive debut of one Yui Ishikawa, who voiced Princess Dhianeila. Languishing for a couple of years in mid-tier works, she would (ironically) go on to voice the grimmer, much less emotive Mikasa Ackerman from Attack on Titan six years later, but that's a story for another day.

There is Age, and he is of the Heroic Tribe, and he is heroic. That's as close as you're getting to a complete and accurate description of Heroic Age, and I wouldn't have it any other way. It was, after all, a heroic age.

Gundam 00 is, aptly, Gundam for the 2000s. Even discounting the existence of Gundam Seed (and Gundam Seed Destiny), it was the first Gundam in the series to be aired in widescreen and high-definition, and suitably, it was my introduction to the series, a modern mecha for a modern age.

What a first that was. For someone to whom terms such as "Even my father never hit me!" "Red makes you go three times faster." "This is no Zaku, boy! No Zaku." meant nothing, Gundam was a mystery, a private joke the rest of the mecha fandom was in on that I had no clue about. (That cipher would unravel later, as I blazed through most of pre-Zeta UC). Oblivious as I was then, barely clued in to its long-standing tradition of war, and the mobile suits with which it used to express said theme--it didn't matter.

You see, it had giant robots, which appealed to my 21-year-old self then just for being cool.

It also had the added bonus of not being related to the Universal Century timeline which comprises the majority of Gundam to date. It had no baggage lore-wise, and it even used a real-world name, AD, or Anno Domini. But what's a baptism by fire? The mecha anime I had consumed up till this point were all mildly irrelevant, if not consumed with a purity of vision, hilariously unaware of the tradition that had started with White Base and Amuro Ray.

Gundam 00 was about making Gundam relevant again; on an intellectual level, with its almost three decades of consistently conceptualising stories about giant robots with finesse, it now made such themes both approachable and accessible to the newer generation of fans; the net generation, my generation. Undoubtedly it had possibly done so with Seed and Seed Destiny the years before, but if that was what Sunrise had set out to do, it passed with flying colours.

(On a utilitarian level, cynically espoused by long-time fans, huge bores, or even both, Gundam's bottom line never changes: Sell more plastic toys! I'm sure that factors into the business side of things at some point, even if it makes for dull writing, but I digress.)

If it wasn't the visual palette that was revamped and given a masterful coat of paint, it was the animation, with its elaborate space dogfights previously impossible with the original Gundam. Internecine worldwide armed conflict never looked so good. When the Gundam Meisters weren't in a cockpit, they were being human (although this statement is debatable post-hoc), and painfully so. Rather than focalise the viewer through the eyes of a singular protagonist, the four incredibly flawed and human protagonists with their otherworldly code names--Setsuna F. Seiei, Lockon Stratos, Allelujah Haptism, and Tieria Erde--felt instantly relatable.

Nevermind the battles that they were fighting on the field--oh so many of them--or how the odds were stacked against them and kept on increasing until several timely boosts on their end appeared; it was the battles within themselves, the battles in their hearts and with the hearts of others that captured what it felt like to be them, even if being "them" meant being a supersoldier experiment with a split personality disorder, or a distant figure orphaned by terrorist bombings.

More importantly, Gundam 00 speaks a language of terror and destruction all too familiar for anyone who's old enough to have seen the world change after 9/11. That the main character was couched in undoubtedly Middle Eastern terms, albeit in the fictional nation of Krugis Republic, didn't matter. His jihadist-esque beliefs that formed his dark past was something immediately recognisable to anyone familiar with post-9/11 narratives--it was just that, this time, we got to see it from the other side, from behind the seat of a mobile suit.

Gundam 00 may have screwed the pooch with some of its storytelling decisions in its second season (Surprise! A twin brother that looks, sounds, and fills the same role as him!), but it was Gundam all modern, shiny, and exciting once again, a Gundam for the new millennium.

Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann, which translates to "Heaven Piercing Gurren Lagann", remains one of the highlights of 2007. It charts the rise and fall (and rise again) of a nation and a people, all thanks to a drill.

So it's as high-concept as one gets: there is a drill, and it is a metaphor for everything in the show. Exploring the journey of one such individual called Simon, a lowly digger underground who drills each day, you could of course shoehorn the plot into that Western storytelling device otherwise known as "The Hero's Journey"--such things are rife within academia, or so I'm told--but that would be missing the point. This was no hero's journey.

Enter Taku Iwasaki, stage left. An established composer, he has arranged music for over a decade at this point, having works such as the two Rurouni Kenshin OVAs, Read or Die, and Witch Hunter Robin under his belt. Six years later, he will set to work on the second half of Jojo's Bizzare Adventure, and he will be bitter, expressing his frustration on Twitter at how much music he wrote that just wasn't used; for now, here he is, fulfilling orders on the sound menu for Gurren Lagann. It's an original work, another mecha by Gainax. He has no idea what he's getting into, but that's fine.

He writes some music; a rousing track rapturously titled "There's No Way Around It! I'll Flirt With You For 1 Minute and 20 Seconds!" followed by smoky, saxophone-led jazz tune brimming with nostalgia, then a simple piano chord played over and over, layered with electronic beats, and strings to finish. He garnishes with nu-metal. He pens a triumphant leitmotif. He dials it up to eleven, with a full-length rap song that repeats said leitmotif. He finishes with the same rap song, played over an honest to goodness opera.

In the end, Iwasaki didn't so much write music for Gurren Lagann as he did co-author it, making magic in the recording booth even as Gainax was animating their own.

One of the most significant soundtracks this side of the 2000's, it's a heart-pounding, stadium-rousing symphony of electronica, hip-hop, neo-classical, and rock. It's a work I listen to when I need to get things done, when procrastination's a-knocking and deadlines are threatening to break the door. It's a soundtrack of mighty gains and sobering loss, and the quiet things in-between. It lends you a glimpse of the overlooking view for a moment, a breathtaking one--the simultaneous sunset and moonrise--it helps you remember:

This isn't a hero's journey.

While the first half of Simon's journey follows a narrative familiar to all, the second half answers the unbidden, urgent question: What happens? What happens after the happy ending? What happens when you defeat the god-emperor, what happens when you're now leading a nation a million strong, what happens when you're about to propose marriage to his daughter who's now helping you run things...

…what happens? Like a gospel call-and-response, the antagonists react accordingly. Traps locked into place decades ago are set into motion. It exacts a heavy toll on all, and then it ends, but not before humanity makes its final stand. Dead people remain so, with nary a god from a machine to help, though Simon wields the power of one. The ending happens the way it did simply because that's how things were set up to be in the beginning. It was inevitable.

What I love about Gurren Lagann is how it manages to conjure up a plethora of feelings and emotions, each of them powerfully distinct. All I have to do is remember, and I am transported back to the first death, and the second. Between these deaths Simon grows up into his own, under the shadow of those before him; it’s a mantle he takes on reluctantly, and we feel it. There are the explosions, the transformations, and the breakneck pace with which the conflict ever escalates. There's the lotus eater's dream, the final temptation: "When the hell did you get taller than me?" "Looks like I was having a sappy dream too." Then there's the wedding's denouement, hope laced with sadness.

It isn't a hero's journey for many reasons. Unlike Heroic Age, there isn't much to Simon by way of heroism that's never echoed in the benevolent dictatorship of Lordgenome. Decisions are never so simple. Characters are never dichotomously good or evil, and amidst the cartoonish yet punishing violence of what was a Sunday morning timeslot, it's a balanced grey that we see eventually.

Throughout it all, there's a sense of immensity that threatens to eclipse everything else. It's a sense of scale, of being caught up in something larger than expected and being at a loss for words to describe it. Humanity, after all, has to reach for the stars, and--surprise, surprise--spiral galaxies resemble a drill. Gurren Lagann goes from low fantasy mecha to intergalactic space opera in the span of twenty-seven episodes, and it isn't a hero's journey you explore.

It's yours.

Our next installment for 2007: Two for Love.

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