The Superversive from the East: Giant Robo – The Animation

Giant Robo is, as the linked article states, both one of the oldest of Japan’s comic franchises and the source of one of the best original animation series in the last 30 years. As such there’s some familiar issues that any franchise faces, starting with multiple continuities that often drastically reshape the premise into something very different from other versions. That’s why I’m specifying the OVA series: “The Animation”.

The reason for this specific incarnation’s enduring appeal is that this story is one of the most boldly Superversive stories to come out of Japan. Just take a good look at the trailer below:

That’s all you need to know, right there. The details that really deliver on the story’s promise aren’t in the trailer, but you will see that every element gets used–and used well–to tell a tale that uplifts the audience, inspires them to face great fears with courage, and press on even when you think you’re done for. That boy, Daisaku, is your protagonist and he gets put through the ringer over the course of this short series, but he does make it happen at the end–albeit with help (and a Pellenor Fields moment that is ridiculous, awesome, and (by that point) makes logical sense).

And it is thoroughly entertaining at all levels. The music is fantastic, the aesthetics are brilliant, and the production team did your Avengers or Justice League style of “heroes band together to stop a world-wide doom” story better than Marvel or DC have to date, in any medium. Daisaku’s the plunky youth you want to cheer for, Big Fire’s villains range from love-to-hate to completely despicable, and the other Experts of Justice may be rough around the edges but they are still heroes.

And, as for the necessity of virtue, the plot centers around two virtue-related matters: the origin of the Shizuma Drive, and the truth about the disaster that nearly derailed its introduction. Big errors got made, and everything about this story is a logical consequence of those errors, but there is no fixing it without fixing those errors- and that final bit shows this story’s value as a Superversive work.

The commercial availability of this animation isn’t what it once was, but you can get it at Amazon in a boxed set on DVD at a reasonable (for commercial anime) price. It’s not a long series: just under 6 hours, total. Agent Carter‘s first season ran longer. Recommended highly!

The Superversive from the East: Super-Dimensional Fortress Macross

Japan has several long-running science-fiction franchises, but few are truly global in reach. Mobile Suit Gundam is one. Space Battleship Yamato is another. Both got their start in 1979, but the third part of that era’s triumverate came in 1982: Super-Dimensional Fortress Macross, what many in North America may (unfortunately) know better as the most popular part of Robotech.

I won’t go into the details of what makes the original Macross great–you can read the TV Tropes article for that–so I’ll skip straight to why I’m marking this out as a Superversive work. First, and foremost, this is series is a counter-balance to the downbeat stories that the Gundam franchise often did; this was the era was “Kill ‘Em All” Tomino’s penchant for nihilism, despair, and audience-unfriendly narrative decisions were at their worst. While tragedy and loss are present in Macross, they are Things To Overcome and not You Suck Forever elements.

The story, despite the massive warfare going on, ends on a hopeful note that’s borne out before the credits roll for the final time and expanded upon in the many franchise expansions ever since. Brotherhood is rewarded, faith in things greater than oneself key to victory, beauty and culture are explicit superpowers (but that is not enough; Right Needs Might), and real love is not narcissistic delusion.

The transformable fighters and the Space Opera story are what many remember, but what gives Macross its heart is much like what we see with Gurren Lagann: an earnest, relatable hero who struggles to do what is right while doing what is necessary, overcoming his losses by keeping faith with his people (which is also difficult at times for him to do), and in time he becomes a leader in his own right. Maturity, marriage, and the embrace of responsibility are shown to benefit him and make him into the hero he saw in his big brother.

This theme persists across the series: those who embrace the elements necessary to build up a healthy culture with concern for the future are those that succeed, whereas those that embrace nihilism and succumb to despair are those that fail. Not only does this persist throughout the series, it persists throughout the franchise.

While not perfect, Macross is a beloved classic for good reasons- and if “Superversive” was a part of the vocabulary of the culture then, you would’ve seen it used prominently. Recommended.

The Superversive from the East: Legend of the Galactic Heroes

In the 1980s, one of the greatest works of science fiction ever to come out of Japan first hit the shelves as a light novel: Legend of the Galactic Heroes. It would later get adapted into a 110-episode anime series, produce two movies, and several side-stories mini-series. Unfortunately, only recently did the original light novels get licensed for release into the West. (You can fix that here)

Whether you read the novels or watch the anime, you’ll find a truly epic Space Opera that hits most of the things you want out of a Superversive work. While the moral clarity is muddled at times, as this story reflects the mood of its day, the protagonist and the deuteragonist (and their key allies) are clear heroes with heroic virtue and epic flaws.

There are no supernatural powers. There are no aliens. There are no giant robots, laser swords (save for those shown as part of an in-fiction feature film), transformable machines, or other tropes popular with the famous SF/F franchises arising in Japan at this time. The fantastic elements are confined to FTL travel, cybernetics, the many technologies implied by the fact that galaxy-wide human colonization occurred, and high-end medical technologies. Yet there are massive fleet battles only eclipsed by E.E. “Doc” Smith’s Lensman series, and cultural conflicts (with attendant political intrigues) that drive the plot overall (and thus many subplots therein).

What there is, however, is true love (but often filial instead of romantic). What there is, however, is courage against often ridiculous odds. Faith held against powers willing and able to destroy you and yours, and fortitude in times of struggle are what you will find here. And, while individuals can succumb to their tragic flaws, the overall conclusion is hopeful in both absolute and practical terms. If you can find a good playlist online, and you can deal with subtitles, the long-running series and its related works will bring you up without lying to you on what it often takes to climb that mountain to a better tomorrow.

Moreso than any other work of science fiction or fantasy out of Japan, I recommend Legend of the Galactic Heroes, especially if you like your key characters to be competent as well as their opposition. Victory here is earned, and therefore deserved- including the hopeful end.

The Superversive in Film: Char’s Counterattack

Today, I direct your attention once more across the Pacific to Japan. While I can–and do–recommend Hayao Miyazaki’s classic Studio Ghibli films, that’s not the man behind this film. The film is Mobile Suit Gundam: Char’s Counterattack, and the man is Yoshiyuki “Kill ’em All” Tomino.

The protagonist and antagonist are, once more, Amuro Rey and Char Aznable. This movie is the end of their story, which began with the original Mobile Suit Gundam series, and it brings their conflict to its conclusion. However, that doesn’t mean you need to watch that series (or Zeta Gundam, or ZZ Gundam) to appreciate this film; you’ll be fine going in cold.

The reason for me marking this out as Superversive is due to the root of the conflict: Despair-fueled egotism, expressed as fanatical terrorism. Char does what he does out of a deep-seated obsession with Amuro, whereas Amuro had moved on and began to–at last–find the possibility of happiness in a future of family and fatherhood as he serves Mankind as part of an autonomous elite unit. (This is mirrored in Bright Noa, the unit’s commander. He is married and a father, happily so, and has only gotten stronger as a character because of that.)

It is also because of that root of conflict that you need not see the previous series to appreciate this film; the root reveals itself early to the audience, as shown by Char’s behavior before executing the big villainous plot to force Mankind off Earth entirely. That root comes full circle in the end as everyone sees through to that root and Char gets his comeuppance in spectacular fashion in the climax.

The film’s theme of Hope v. Despair shapes everyone in the cast, for good or ill, and while the villain’s plot is ended it comes as a high cost. (Another regular Gundam trope.) You can see how each character’s embrace of hope, or succumbing to despair, leads to that character’s fate. Tomino has his status as a master for a reason, and you see it in action here.

Thus the ending is bittersweet, but overall a positive one, but not without leaving some matters unfinished and exposing others heretofore buried. (This would set the stage for Gundam Unicorn, which takes place three years after this film.)

And, for all the men-with-screwdriver sorts out there, yes there’s plenty of science in this fiction- the plot (as it often does for a Gundam title) revolves around dropping very big things on to very populated places on the surface of Earth. (Remember that this is the franchise that destroyed Sidney, Australia by dropping a space colony bigger than Babylon 5 on it.) The robots, even the psychic powers, are consistent if unreal (and have other purposes for their presence).

Recommended. It’s the final chapter of a classic saga of Japanese science fiction for a reason.