Image source: Gundaminfo on YouTube
NHK-G recently aired a special television program giving a broad outlook on a half century of robot anime.
The basic setup was that the celebrity hosts would introduce each decade of robot anime starting from the most recent and then head back into the past. They covered Gundam: Iron-Blooded Orphans for the 2010s; Fafner in the Azure, Code Geass, and Gurren Lagann for the 2000s; Neon Genesis Evangelion and The King of Braves GaoGaiGar for the 1990s; Armored Trooper Votoms and The Super Dimension Fortress Macross for the 1980s; the original Mobile Suit Gundam, UFO Robot Grendizer, and Mazinger Z for the 1970s; and finally Astroboy and Gigantor in the 1960s. This then led to the timely promo for the new series, Atom: The Beginning.
However, interspersed throughout, they also interviewed some professionals in the fields of robotics, artificial intelligence, and engineering. Here is where we find some interesting examples of life imitating art.
For example, Teriyuki Iwasaka, a high-ranking manager at construction company Maeda Corporation, describes how he is the leader of a project to simulate the construction of the famous, elaborate underground hangar from which Mazinger Z launches in every episode of the anime. (They even put out a book about it!)
His job is to accurately speculate how much it would cost for such a structure to be built if it were to function in the real world. Through the use of an elaborate working mechanical model (which is very similar to the diorama on display in Toei Animation’s booth at AnimeJapan 2017), he explains that—barring any unexpected attack by a mechanical beast, of course!—the construction would take six years and five months, and it would cost 7.2 billion yen. Note that in 2015, Maeda Corporation was speculated to have been contracted to build a real one in the Toshimaen attraction park, but it turned out to be an April Fool’s joke…
Also in the program, Professor Satoshi Kurihara, from the University of Electro-Communications in Tokyo conveys how he looks at the original Mobile Suit Gundam series as inspirational for his research. In his lab, he works with AI.
Upon observing the interface in the Gundam’s cockpit, he points out that there are only two levers for the pilot to use as controls. “This means that it cannot possibly move without a highly sophisticated AI system in place,” he explains. “Basically, sometimes a lever shoots the beam rifle, and other times a lever is used to jump.” He also points out that the interface changes and evolves with each later series. In Turn A Gundam, we see that there are individual finger controls for more complex user input. Meanwhile, in Gundam Unicorn, the machine is advanced enough to recognize the pilot’s brain waves. Kurihara therefore believes that the portrayal of hypothetical technology in Gundam and such SF robot shows is actually a great reference for developing similar things in real life.
Later still in the show, Professor Koichi Osuka from Osaka University, who developed the robot contained within the Hayabusa 2 spacecraft, is also interviewed. He argues that while AI is necessary for robots to handle the way they do in anime, it is in fact a synergy of the human mind and the robot body. He points out that the lyrics of the song “The Theme of Z” from Mazinger Z perfectly illustrate this point, expressing that courage comes when “the human heart” is added to Mazinger.
Around forty years after Mazinger and Gundam, the generation that grew up with them is now in a position to create something strikingly similar. This, according to robot anime director Ryōsuke Takahashi, is partly down to the Japanese attitude towards technology. “Japanese people have a stronger trust in science,” Takahashi posits. “In the West, even though they opened up to science earlier, they still have a more deeply-rooted trust in the human [than in the machine].” He goes on to explain that that is why in Hollywood movies it is not the robots, but the humans that are the heroes.
His analysis is not misplaced—one quick overview of the most prominent Hollywood properties featuring robots and machines illustrates his point very clearly: The Terminator, Robocop, even the new live-action Ghost in the Shell adaptation. In each one, the over-arching theme can be argued to be the sanctity of the human soul and its inherent compassion, while cold machines have no warmth, no moral judgement, and no heart. “It’s a cultural difference,” Takahashi concludes.
One of the program’s hosts, Japanologist Tristan Brunet adds some further insight to Takahashi’s comment, explaining how in America there are also a few giant robot stories—but invariably the robots are only used as tools. When the pilot gets inside, he is still just a guy in a machine. “When Amuro gets into the Gundam, however, he becomes a different person.” This is fascinating, because it sounds like Brunet is describing the henshin trope of many Japanese properties, where a character transforms into a powered-up version of him/herself.
The program ends on a little bit of a bittersweet note. Lastly, Professor Hitoshi Matsubara from Future University Hakodate is seen explaining how even though Astroboy is a strong robot, defeating the bad guys, he has concerns, and feels anxiety. But in his world, humans are forever looking down on robots as machines with no feelings. Atom’s attempts to see the beauty in fireworks, for example, prove to be failures, since all he can see is a series of explosions caused by precise pyrotechnics. Professor Matsubara thus says that his goal in AI research is not to create a slave or tool, but to create a robot like Atom.
Or in other words, a friend.
Atom: The Beginning is currently streaming on Amazon Strike.
Also, it was recently announced that the world premiere of the first footage from the new Mazinger Z movie will be shown on June 14 at this year’s Annecy International Animation Film Festival in France.