There comes a point during any conversations with my brother about the comics scene when he will declare “I’m not a comics fan. I’m a superhero comics fan.” He knows his little niche of fandom and he enjoys it without illusions about its tropes (and often quite silly) genre conventions.
A similar statement of qualification can be made by me vis-a-vis “anime” and “giant/real robo” stuff. For the better part of two decades, I considered myself an anime fan. It wasn’t until trends in the scene shifted that I realized that my affections rested more with the space opera and mecha battles which dominated the industry — or the parts of it that filtered over piece-meal to the States — during the salad days of my fandom.
Star Blazers was the ur-text here, despite the lack of giant humanoid death machines. Force Five and the Americanized line of Shogun Warriors robot toys figured into the mix, too, but they lacked the soapy epic melodrama which blew the mind of an eight year old raised on syndicated Hanna-Barbera drek. Each episode of Star Blazers built upon the previous ones, chronicling the Space Battleship Argo’s year-long (and poorly dubbed) quest to save Earth from irradiated extinction.
The visual style was just as important to Star Blazers as its serialized story of war, death, and noble sacrifice was The big-eyed, crazy-maned character designs were a critical component, but it was the painstakingly detailed vehicles which stole the show. These weren’t the generic “space ships” of domestically produced Saturday morning fare, but serious-looking masterpieces of implausible verisimilitude. The Argo itself was a space-worthy redeco of the real-life Japanese WW2 super-battleship Yamato, and the rest of the vehicle designs also took their cues from the realm of military hardware.
Their effect on a generation of budding artists cannot be overestimated. For a good stretch of my third grade year, the student art bulletin board at the Linscott-Rumford Elementary School was dominated by pencil-on-manila-paper sketches of sleek spacefighters and gun-bristled cosmic dreadnoughts.
The fad faded, but the seeds it planted bore serious fruit when America’s impressionable tykes were exposed to the next wave of re-branded Japanese imports — a little known franchise called the “Transformers.” I was already at an age when the Hasbro-proved backmatter meant little to me, but I was captivated by the toys. The mythos may have been cobbled together stateside, but the robots were pulled from a variety of Japanese anime and toy lines. The transformation mechanics of the robots were interesting, but I was more fascinated by their designs — geometrically-rendered cyber-knights/samurai/soldiers sporting all sorts of sleekly baroque flourishes.
In the wake of Transformers’ success came a flood of knock-off product, as toy manufacturers large and small rushed to fill toy aisles with their own licensed and bootleg carry-overs. Most of the offerings where shady as fuck, by they hinted — through cryptic, semi-coherent packaging references to “Dunbine,” “Orguss,” and “Dougram” — at an even bigger world of giant robo material awaiting discovery by budding American enthusiasts.
Then came Robotech, a syndicated package of three unrelated transforming robo anime series dubbed and re-edited into a multigenerational space epic. While coasting on the wake of the Transformers craze, the series had more in common with Star Blazers in terms of theme and content. The mechs were destructable war machines piloted by emotionally conflicted protagonists in a serialized story. It also cemented anime/manga fandom as a small but growing phenomenon capable of supporting a slew of fanzines, enthusiast clubs, American-market manga translations, and a con-circuit market for VHS bootlegs of unsubbed Japanese laserdisc releases.
Running parallel to this was the Japanese dominance of the videogame market, with mecha-centric games like Transbot, Side Arms, and Section Z making their way to American arcades and home consoles. It’s no wonder that anime and mecha became so inexorably linked in my subconsciousness.
Though my fascination with mecha has waxed and waned over the years, I’ve never truly let go of it. Every few months I’ll splurge on a new art book, toy, model, videogame, or DVD set to add to the pile of robo-phemera I’ve accumulated over the years. A love of mecha — specifically Robotech — was one of the common points of interest that brought Maura and I together. Our first summer together was spent watching her old VHS tapes of the series (including commercials for the Navy Reserve and My Buddy) and it has become an annual tradition ever since.
When I began writing this, I hoped that I’d be able to pinpoint the crux of my attraction to all things mecha, yet I’m still at a loss for a singularly specific reason. Maybe it’s a childhood nostalgia thing, wrapped up with a fascination for a particular strain of 1970s/1980s Japanese futurism. Maybe it’s a aggregate affection formed from the appreciation of a number of affiliated properties.
Or maybe, just maybe, it could be the visceral thrill that comes when I utter the requisite “SHH-SHING!” after making my import Alpha Fighter figure strike a badass pose.