Episode 6: Fist of the North Star and The Road Warrior

northstar

It’s Mad Max and the Musclemen on this month’s post-apocalyptic podcast! In this episode, the PodCastle crew takes a look at two of the 1980s’ most extravagant pieces of end-times fiction with George Miller’s 1981 sequel The Road Warrior and the 1986 anime movie adaptation of Tetsuo Hara’s manga, Fist of the North Star. The narrative mysteries of spontaneously exploding tables, spooky men on stilts, and so much more are explored, so find a parking space for your skull-laden Doom-Buggy and listen along.

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Giant Robots and Why We Love Them

A quick glance at the lineup of a typical anime season will reveal a large number of shows featuring giant robots. In the recent winter season alone we can count among giant robot anime the series Mobile Suit Gundam: Iron Blooded OrphansSchwarzesmarken, Macross Delta, and probably a bunch more I’ve overlooked. Point is, giant robot anime are like cockroaches and herpes – they keep coming back.

But what’s so great about giant robots? Yeah, I know, to ask the question is to answer it. Giant robots kick ass. I mean, have you seen Robot Jox?

Or Pacific Rim too, I guess.

Fine, but why giant robots? Why not, say, giant tanks, like in Heavy Object?

I think it ultimately comes down to power fantasies. A giant robot perfectly embodies the juvenile dream of invincible domination that a tank cannot. Realistically speaking, a tank is a better weapon. It’s smaller, so it’s harder to hit; it’s cheaper, since manufacturing tank treads is easier than a bipedal walking machine; and it’s safer, since it’s easier to knock over something on two legs than a machine that rides low to the ground. Tanks are pound for pound the deadlier weapon, yet they don’t feel that way.

Consider that riding in a tank is akin to being jammed into a broom closet. Who feels invincible when the walls are pressing in everywhere?

Michael Peña driving a tank in Fury
Michael Peña driving a tank in Fury

Even were they roomier, though, tanks are fundamentally more like a heavily-armoured house on wheels. It’s a place to hunker down and hide in. One feels safe by virtue of being enclosed.

Melinda of Heavy Object holed up in the perfect otaku bunker
Melinda of Heavy Object holed up in the perfect otaku bunker

Look at the image from Heavy Object above of a tank driver in her native environment. It looks like a shut-in’s dream room – no windows or doors and ample monitors to watch TV and surf the Internet. The outside world might as well be just another program on the computer screen. It’s a perfect metal womb to hide in.

Feeling safe, though,  is not the same as feeling powerful. By contrast, a mecha is more truly worn than ridden. It’s human shaped and therefore more of an extension of one’s self – like the perfect battle armour or a second skin, or a new metal body that replaces vulnerable flesh.

It’s also important to remember that the heroes in giant robot anime are all teenagers, even the ones who aren’t. The modern iteration of the giant robot subgenre tends toward the melodramatic and the angst-ridden (as opposed to the gleefully consumerist giant robot shows of the 70’s and 80’s). There’s usually a sense of persecution and oppression being unjustly visited on the protagonists, whether it’s the outcast mercenary troop of Mobile Suit Gundam: Iron-Blooded Orphans or the underdog defenders in Argevollen.

But who are the villains who bedevil our heroes so? The enemies are often generic imperialists who fight for poorly-articulated and nonsensical political objectives. They aren’t fighting for anything specific because ultimately their goals aren’t important to the narrative. They’re just there to be roadblocks, to harass and  obstruct the hero and provide them something to punch.

The enemies of giant robot anime are so generic as to be universal. Look at the nickname bestowed upon the protagonist of Valvrave: The Boy Who Fought the World. This says it all. The enemy of the giant robot anime is no one specific, but rather everyone. Parents, teachers, bullies, rivals, friends, classmates, adults – which is to say, the generic “they” that persecutes the suffering hero of the show – are all the bad guys. They’re who he’s fighting against.

The giant robot pilot is like the Incredible Hulk – he wields incredible power but is misunderstood by the world. In the end, Hulk, like a surly and emo teenager, just wants to be left alone.

hulk

And here we come to the ultimate answer. The giant robot anime is the perfect teenage fantasy, for it’s a metaphor for the teenage condition: an innocent hero is possessed of unwanted new abilities which cause him to be unfairly beset on all sides by powers desperate to control or crush him.

This is the secret of why giant robot anime is so eternally alluring. Even adults who have their shit together will still occasionally feel like the world is picking on them for no good reason, and wouldn’t it be great if you had a magic wand that could make everything disappear? That could stop the world from pissing on you for just one damn second?

Why do we love giant robots? Because we all wish we had one of our own.

I Done Fucked Up

Ranma 1/2 as Rose of Versailles

Yeah, sorry about that. We had a pretty good discussion last weekend about Rose of Versailles and Marie Antoinette but none of that was recorded due to mysterious technical reasons. I, Jesse, as the person in charge of recording, offer my full and heartfelt apology to you, our fans. We decided not to redo the episode since a large part of our podcast’s appeal lies in the spontaneity of our discussions, which means you will never hear our unrehearsed thoughts on these media products. In an attempt at redress, herewith follows our conversation as pieced together from my memory:

roseofversailles

Both the show and the movie treat figure of Marie Antoinette ambivalently
-based on contemporary historical consensus that Marie Antoinette was not a malicious figure but neither was she actually a good co-ruler
-To what extent does one hold her responsible for her own, real or perceived, ignorance and excess given being raised in a highly structured and ritualized world
-Marie in Rose has a clearer arc of tragedy and descent into excess born of sadness and malicious hangers on, Marie in the film is surrounded by an enabling entourage but is largely a creature of stasis and ignorance, film has less overt ‘fall from grace’ narrative

Marie Antoinette as indie movie – exchange between Marie Antoinette and husband as being out of Wes Anderson movie: “I hear you enjoy making keys?” “Obviously.”
Marie Antoinette as Hollywood product – hard to disambiguate actors from role; i.e., Rip Torn as King of France? “Dialogue is contemporary with period elements”

Insularity of show and movie
-nothing exists outside of Versailles and Paris
-jarring in Rose of Versailles when Fersen suddenly leaves to fight in American Revolution
-sudden reminder that other countries exist
Marie retains its insularity up through its final moments, Rose starts similarly so but gradually expands its viewer’s understanding the show’s world and the plight of its people alongside its characters, namely via Oscar

Marie Antoinette as slice of life drama
-barely any conflict in movie
-French Revolution does not happen until movie more than half over
-film is about boredom of being in ruling class. Coppla’s general thematic interest in isolation
-Film received some criticism for surface level depiction of aristocratic life, but film does contain some pointed satirical elements (Marie’s country estate and ‘back to the countryside’ lifestyle there representing an idealized and sanitized vision of rural life clearly at odds with the reality of abject poverty, Amber compares it amusingly to modern artisanal/organic hipstery affectations
-no boredom in Rose of Versailles, characters always obsessed with personal dramas and intrigues

Rose of Versailles treats du Barry issue as great crisis, but treats character in more nuanced way than the film
Marie Antoinette treats it as minor snag at Versailles, Du Barry viewed entirely through the intentionally narrow lens of Antoinette’s coterie and du Barry’s outsider status

Amber: do not personally like aesthetic of 70’s anime due to cheesy music and general aesthetic, but quickly adapted in the case of Rose
Jesse: agreement and do not normally watch older anime as well, Rose of Versailles is on personal Crunchyroll queue but kept passing it over for contemporary, watchable crap like Konosuba

Rose of Versailles is like Forrest Gump
-Oscar keeps showing up on edges of historical events
-because Oscar is not real historical figure then her accomplishments are all inconsequential
-common factor in historical dramas with fictional characters

Rose of Versailles is like HBO show Rome
-world historical events reduced to personal conflicts between small group of people
-international politics was part of consideration in real world Austria-France alliance
-big deal in world politics back then as alliance to counter Britain and Prussia but Britain and Prussia never even mentioned in show

Oscar Francois probably based on Julie d’Aubigny, La Maupin
-duelist and opera singer who lived openly as woman
-had romantic affairs with men and women

Women have always participated in men’s roles in European history
-long history of women disguising themselves as men

Hardly any working class characters died in Rose of Versailles
-perhaps Jeanne counts as working class
-all of main characters were in nobility
-the working class characters who died (Jeanne and Andre) were caught up with nobility

Oscar’s heroic death in storming of Bastille
-cannons blazing, sword in air, she can never top this moment
-as show mentions, Oscar dies before excesses of Revolution revealed
-had Oscar survived might still have died in Terror or even participated in it, then served in wars and even under Napoleon
-dying early allowed Oscar to remain pure in ideals

Oscar allowed to exist within two worlds
-Not forced to choose at story’s end between becoming a ‘traditional’ woman or abandoning all her femininity and sense of romance to simply ‘become a man’ (though she takes this approach earlier in the story) and instead grows to discover she can be both a romantic feminine woman and capable warrior and leader alike, not mutually exclusive
-Contrast to many similar works throughout literary history in which woman abandon all traditionally ‘womanly’ traits in order to truly succeed as a valuable/contributing member of rugged modern world (Fyodor Gladkov’s Cement, story progression of masculinzed ‘new woman’ Dasha versus the well-meaning but girlish Mekhova, who by the end is too weak/vulnerable to continue revolutionary work and stave off predations of less noble comrades)
-Comparisons made with female doctor character in recent television drama Versailles, set during the reign of the Sun King

Tuberculosis as cliched tragic setback for Oscar
-military protagonist with tuberculosis always dies heroically
-tuberculosis diagnosis as being out of left field
-clearly set up to provide tragedy to character, not out of organic growth in story

No Hitchcock film to mention this episode
-Hitchcock hated so-called “kitchen sink dramas”, or social realist depictions of the burdens of ordinary life
-In general, fictional depictions about peasants living their lives hardly exist
-Authentic depictions of ‘peasant’ life in fiction and cinema rare, contemporary viewers often find aristocratic lifestyle inherently less foreign (despite obvious divides in wealth and status) due to the democratization over time of elements of the ‘cultured’ lifestyle ala the arts and literacy, and in pseudo-secularized enlightenment era conceptions of the world resembling our own more than that of rural peasantry (Anna Karenina etc referenced, depicting the unknowability of authentic rural peasant life even at the time)

Everyone agrees Rose of Versailles tells a compelling narrative with fine artistry and memorable characters. Marie Antoinette has its flaws but is nevertheless a visually lush and satisfying depiction of the highly irregular and ritualized world Versailles and the isolation of the ruling elite.

Next time on PodCastle in the Sky: Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior and Fist of the North Star (the 1986 film)