Gundam and the Future of Japanoid Art
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Gundam and the Future of Japanoid Art

When I saw the Kubrick-conceived, Spielberg-directed film AI in the summer of 2001, I immediately thought of the Japanese mecha tradition from Gundam on down to Evangelion. AI is full of images that look like live-action realizations of anime’s ideas—from the setting two thousand years hence, in a world emerging from the threat of nuclear weapons, to the submarine city in the final scenes.

In the same year, I wrote an afterword for the new paperback edition of Tsuki ni mayu, chi ni wa kajitsu (2000, Cocoons on the moon, fruit on the earth), a Gundam novel written by the popular fiction writer Fukui Harutoshi.1 It was an assignment I eagerly accepted: Fukui had already gained acclaim as a talented new writer after winning a series of fiction prizes, including three prominent awards for his third novel Bōkoku no iijisu (Aimless aegis) in 1999.2 But his reputation derived less from science fiction than from espionage novels centered on international intrigue. His books frequently addressed the justification for and latent power of Japan’s armed forces in the context of the U.S.–Japan Joint Security Treaty. Still, it is not so surprising that a young author with an interest in military affairs would turn to Gundam, and Fukui puts his characteristic spin on the Gundam world, [End Page 191] highlighting issues associated with Japan’s self-defense forces. (For example, it is in exchange for lunar technology necessary for self-defense that Gwen offers use of the battleship Willgem and the Turn A Gundams.)

About a month after the publication of the paperback edition of Tsuki ni mayu, the terrorist attacks of September 11 and the ensuing Iraq war renewed controversy over the role of Japan’s self defense forces, and Fukui became a hotter property than ever. In sum, the anime imagination of future war, with its emphasis on mecha, meshed closely with the emergence of the war on terror and even seemed to anticipate its dynamics.

We can trace the history of the mecha back to Robert A. Heinlein’s 1959 novel Starship Troopers, which introduced the concept of the “powered suit.” The novel spawned a stormy ideological debate about whether Heinlein’s ideas were fascist. In Japan, too, a violent dispute erupted between Yano Tetsu, the translator of the 1967 Japanese version, and the critic Ishikawa Kyōji. Needless to say, the impact of Heinlein on Japanese prose science fiction is complex and will continue to change. But Starship Troopers had another legacy: in 1977, Hayakawa publishers issued a paperback edition with a cover illustration of the powered suit drawn by Studio Nue (Figure 1), and this image would have a profound impact on the design of “mobile suits” in Japanese robot anime, starting with Gundam.3

Heinlein describes the suit as making its wearer look like “a big steel gorilla.” The suit is compact enough to fit inside a small space capsule, but powerful enough that a single soldier can wipe out a tank division. Although it weighs two thousand pounds, the suit’s advanced feedback and amplification technology do not require special training to use: it can sense what the wearer’s body is trying to do and magnify it. The novel describes this as “controlled force . . . force controlled without your having to think about it. . . . that is the beauty of a powered suit: you don’t have to think about it.”4 This idea of power without conscious thought surely had great appeal after the turmoil of the 1960s, during a new decade in which design philosophy gradually replaced political ideology, and the postwar emphasis on a politics of perseverance (manifested particularly in sports manga) gave way to an interest in cuttingedge aesthetics. Tired of agonizing over abstract problems with no solution or conclusion, people were entranced by a technology that symbolized such stylish agility—the mobility to outflank any opponent. [End Page 192]

Figure 1. Powered suit illustration by Katō Naoyuki, one of several Studio Nue covers for the Hayakawa bunko edition of Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. These illustrations exerted an important influence on the visual tradition of Japanese mecha beginning with Gundam.
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Figure 1.

Powered suit illustration by Katō Naoyuki, one of several Studio Nue covers for the Hayakawa bunko edition of Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship...


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