The act of an Artista

I’ve been recently on a slight nostalgia bent with giant robots, and I decided to revisit a franchise I didn’t really have any interest to check out outside its designs, the 1986 comic Five Star Stories, (which is still running) illustrated and written by in/famous Mamoru Nagano. Nagano is somewhat a divisive person, mostly known for his extremely flowy and detailed mecha designs. Outside his own works, he’s known for mechanical designs for Heavy Metal G-Gaim, but his career includes fashion designing, making music, directing and writing. He tends to rub a bit wrong with some people, as a person he is strong willed to put it diplomatically, and is overprotective of his works to a fault. He has his own publishing company to make sure he has reins on Five Star Stories, called Toypress. He sounds like a person who just wants to protect his rights as an artist, but the stories from the animation and comic industry paints him an asshole at times, sometimes obsessively hands on projects to the point of detriment. Nagano’s visual style has always been heavy on the detail, and whenever he can, he won’t budge on the quality. Nagano considers that his works on L-Gaim were never incorporated properly, mostly due to his style being rather different. For something like L-Gaim this isn’t really as problem, but with a show like Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam, you need to consider the existing motifs and design language, something Nagano understood only later on. Ollie Barder has rather extensive interview with Nagano Forbes that I warmly recommend reading.

Guess what time it is?

My nostalgia of course lead me to return to Nagano’s Gothicmade, an animated film he started making at least since 2006, perhaps even earlier. When it was announced, people were rather hype about it, as Nagano’s style and designs are still considered some of the best in the mecha genre. People were very eager to see what his new project would be like, with it taking to come out so long, when projects get stretched beyond their initial goals, people tend to find other things to occupy their attention. The movie finally debuted in 2012 in theatres, and has been rerun every now and then for limited time. As the first Japanese animated movie in 4K with D-Cinema 5.1, Nagano has stated that this movie won’t be leaving the theatres, because that is the only way he considers the proper form to experience his movie. As it happens with me, a lot of this kinda slipped out of memory, as things tend to do when you’re revisiting something you were hyping up over a decade ago.

Nagano isn’t the first artista, auteur, artist or whatever you want to name him to do something like this. All creators have an intended way for experiencing their production, which the consumer can break, much to the dismay of the creator. To use an old and worn out example, an elaborate set of dishes are often meant to be consumed in order and in particular fashion. Breaking the intended way of eating may, for example, produce the wrong taste due to incorrect order or because such. Similarly, a comic creator may only want his works to be read through printed medium, with specifically chosen paper and carefully curated choice of colours in order to ensure that not only his vision, but the accuracy of it, is best preserved for the reader. Then some slob just squirts ketchup from his hotdog and smudged shit up and glues the pages together. It happens. Some musician supposedly don’t like their music heard outside live concerts, and disdain recordings. That might be just the money issue, it’s a bit harder to pirate live concert in its best form than just ripping off a CD or music stream. Akira Ifukube didn’t want his compositions for Godzilla to be available separate from the movie until the 1980’s, as in his view the film and music had to be together to have the best effect; that the two complemented each other and both would be half as weak without the other.

Nagano isn’t the first one to argue for the sake of integrity of his work. While respectable, it could also be argued that home consumer technology has already passed Gothicmade. 4K image resolution has been passed some time ago with 8K screen being the new standard and we’re already seeing proper research and advancements made into 16K, with some production examples already being showcased, like Sony’s MicroLED display tech. When it comes to sound, home users can get fine sound, if not sometimes even better sound, from their home systems or headphones than what a theatre can offer. However, not everyone has the money, or want, to build themselves a home theatre to take full advantage of what they have. Screen sizes have become largely academical issue with screens and projects being able to throw image absolutely everywhere.

That is of course beside his main point. It’s not that home technology is well up to the task of showcasing Gothicmade to the home audiences, but that it is not intended to be viewed at home with any sort of system available there. You’re supposed to your way out there to get a ticket, then get into the theatre with other people of shared interest, sit on a cushion away from all the stuff you have at home, all the little mundane things that may scratch behind your dark unconscious mind, relax and take int the (supposedly) breath taking visuals on the screen, hear sound mixed as intended and proper volume and simply experience the marvel of the work. That is, if the work can actually deliver its intended effect.

Gothicmade was in the works for some six years because it was handled by Nagano himself and other small group of people. Nagano of course took the bulk of most tasks, and I recall jokes how he and three others worked the movie in his basement, which probably isn’t too far off the mark. Budget has never been revealed, but working in 4K in 2006 probably cost an arm and a leg, and then some. For all the reviews I’ve read throughout the years, Gothicmade has had the same criticism; it’s rather badly animated outside vast, spanning shots of the environment, it has pretty music and good voice acting, but action is very much lacking despite the detailed robot designs. The story is described something between trite and interesting, but ultimately dull. All this really shows in the trailers we’ve seen thus far as well, though most of them try to get around this and show the best bits.

Note how the trailer faps at the pretty robots by hammering home with the line How beautiful robot

There has been numerous theories why Gotchimade was kept in such a small team. Most often it’s assumed that Nagano doesn’t exactly like his works being adapted, after he was disappointed in the 1980’s movie adaptation of Five Star Stories, despite that movie has praised to heaven and back how beautiful it is. Incidentally, that movie will last the test of time better, as digital video dates itself extremely fast. Five Star Stories, for being on film, will ultimately find itself being remastered in higher resolutions as long as the original masters are intact, and even then magic can be made happen to up the quality. Unless Gothicmade‘s raw material is done on something that scaled at will, for example if everything was done with vectors. Somehow I doubt that. Five Star Stories was criticised to be pretty to look at, while light on story, but if we believe the reviews, Gothicmade fares no better, if not stumbling worse.

Then again, maybe Five Star Stories looks too detailed and overtly animated for its own good. Boatloads of cash and cocaine went into making these scenes, probably killing an animator or two. Nothing in Gothicmade‘s trailer comes even closer to this in terms of quality

Nagano probably is well aware of the criticism he has received from the viewers. I doubt any of that has affected his view on the work, as he has retconned Gothicmade as a major part of Five Star Stories comic, which some have found detrimental while others take it as a breath of fresh air, renewing the IP’s vigor. Part of me can’t help but wonder if Nagano is not willing to let his movie out of theatres because he knows of its value, or the lack of it, but wants to keep it as closely guarded secret as possible. Something that is kept limited from others has more perceived value after all, it makes people want it more. This of course ups the perceived value, and the holder of course gains more vertical value in eyes of others. This sort of thing can be seen on the Internet in various communities. Someone might have an image of a rare game and is refusing to share it, as that want adds value to the holders and others in the community. The same applies to scans and other materials, licensed, copyrighted or not. Perhaps Nagano knows that Gothicmade is rather lacklustre movie, but holding it at bay will keep its value up. Perhaps I’m blowing shit out as usual, maybe he really believes it to be a masterpiece and simply doesn’t want anyone to experience it the wrong way, though I am sure there would be licensing firms willing to simply sub the movie and have a limited run in local theatres or festivals.

Then again, Gothicmade‘s music and artwork has been released for home consumers with CDs, books, magazines, model kits and toys. Nagano is willing to license the work for other products, but home release is denied seven years after its initial debut. Hey, it gets asses into seats and apparently makes money that way, no reason to pay further distributors. You might argue that it’s not about the money, but it’s always about the money. Artists are just shit with finances by default and often won’t admit it or can’t even ask the proper sums before learning lack of finances the hard way. Does this serve the product itself to any significant extent? Perhaps it’s not about the movie experience. Considering how worshipping Nagano’s fans can get, perhaps Gothicmade would be best treated as some architectural painting you can’t see elsewhere but on the spot, a painting on the wall or a building itself. Something worth a mundane pilgrimage, or to be checked out when you’re around the neighbourhood.

Exogularity; F-47 Ishkur

To celebrate Muv-Luv Alternative hitting Steam, let’s talk about the future of Tactical Surface Fighters. Namely, the 8th Generation Tactical Surface Fighter F-47 Ishkur.

Needless to say, this be spoiler country.

 Ishkur is the Sumerian name for Hadad, the god of rain and thunderstorms of spring. A fitting name for mankind’s latest weapons against extraterrestrial threats: the BETA and their Silicon creators pose. While the previous generation of TSFs were defined in their G-Generators and system made possible through them; a decade of operation time without replenishment, TSF sized particle cannons and advanced Rutherford fields that could withhold Fortress-Laser Class’ barrage for fifteen minutes. Tactical Surface Fighter development became stagnant after the introduction of the 7th Generation due to mankind-wide civil wars. With the global unification of 2043, a project to face the creators of BETA was launched a year later, with a need for the 8th Generation following in suit. Three years later, the F-47 would meet with abilities such mission would demand.

The 8th Generation is redefines the role of a TSF to the point that it’s no longer “Surface;” Space is its main field of operation, but the F-47 has been designed to function from Zero-G to 3-G environments. Movement is attained by manipulating gravity, and as F-47’s main role is to function as an envoy to the space fleet aiming to contact the Siliconians, it boasts an impressive long-range particle cannon as its main weapon. Furthermore, the F-47 is able to engage in limited ranged warps and contains regenerating life-support systems, giving the unit ability for independent interstellar travel.

The name Ishkur represents this aspect of F-47 being able to rain down storm and thunder on whomever the pilot chooses to strike.

This rough design shows where we’re going. One thing that I didn’t include in the above description of the unit, is that Ishkur would be able to purge its damaged sections to continue to fight unhindered, at least according to Ishi Sho. Notice that the melee blade below is attached to the F-47’s right arm here, it’s not a lengthy cannon.

While the F-47 Ishkur sounds overpowered, the mook it is from, exogularity 01, hints that BETA tactics have evolved as well. Despite this, it does carry more traditional weaponry.

We can already see from these roughs that the two familiar weapons seem to be a mainstay still. The Assault Gun boasts rather functional design, probably to give emphasize how it has to function in variety of environments an interstellar mission might have. The Close Combat Sword we have here seems to have taken the handle idea from BWS-8 Flugelberte as it is arching to the wrong direction, but I’ll let that pass, as we’re talking about a giant robot and not a human hand. The lowest one is 8th Generation multi-purpose additional armour, a shield of sorts, though it is rather small for that function alone. It is missing from Strike Frontier render of the unit, and may have been dropped from the design for now.

As the F-47 is a completely new design, not based on any existing aircraft, its Jump Units are based solely on Tactical Surface Fighters’ own design language.

If you look too long at these, you may end up seeing a skull of sorts. That may just be me.

To summarise all this, F-47 Ishkur is what Tactical Surface Fighter line would naturally evolve into when materials, sudden surge in advanced technology and necessity for interstellar warfare all come together. It was Yoshimune Koki himself who jokingly said that it’s not longer “Surface” and that TSFs have now entered the realm of Super Robots, but he isn’t half wrong. Perhaps calling F-47 Ishkur Tactical Space Fighter would be more appropriate, even when it could function on Earth-like bodies. Tactical Multi-Environmental Fighter doesn’t have the same ring to it. I’m not ready to agree that this mecha fits in the Super Robot category straight away. It certainly is a compact and hi-performance mecha all things considered, but in a world where technology is being combined with extraterrestrial material that allows bending dimensional barriers through the sheer power of love, I’m reminded of Third Clarke’s Law; Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

The design itself is combination of two things; the designer Ishi Sho’s own taste and view how the TSF line is to evolve, and cues from Mamoru Nagano’s Mortar Hedds from Five Star Stories. However, I would also argue that there is an influence from Tomohiro Shimoguchi’s illustration works, namely Linebarrels of Iron. Furthermore, some elements, like the shoulder armours, do remind of Gundam AGE‘s Vagan designs, thought this is probably just my eyes tricking me. F-47 Ishkur is probably the first properly modern design in the franchise, as even the 4th TSF Generation still has visible vestiges of the early 2000’s mecha design. If I can be frank about my own view for a moment, Ishkur’s design does please the eye and probably does good to the franchise in that it is far removed from any real life fighter jet.

This mecha, Ishkur, represents what will probably be the future of the franchise, if it has the chance to go that far. Things have certainly changed, with âge now more or less servicing as the brand and front for ixtl, Avex Pictures acquiring ixtl itself and both Muv-Luv and Muv-Luv Alternative being officially released in English. However, with both Total Eclipse and Schwarzesmarken being largely failures all around, the staff at âge/ixtl are in a position very few people would wish to be in. Whatever comes next has to strike true. Of course, with Avex Pictures now being the upper management, an adaptation of Muv-Luv and Muv-Luv Alternative itself isn’t far too far-fetched. However, it would have to be an adaptation that would aim to expand the audience, something the core fans probably would not prefer. It would be necessary for the health of the franchise and companies involved.

But for now, let’s enjoy what we have.

Listen, The wind is still, And far away in the night — See! The uplands fill With a running light.
Open the doors. It is warm; And where the sky was clear– Look! The head of a storm That marches here!
Come under the trembling hedge– Fast, although you fumble… There! Did you hear the edge of winter crumble
-Mark Van Doren, 1924

Mecha design; Artisanal mecha

Visual representation of giant robots widely vary, and they can’t be put into two or three distinct categories due to the amount of that very variety itself. Industrial design is very simple to grasp, just look at war industry. However, organic design is not as simple as I’ve previously showcased with Dunbine, because Dunbine, while more organic than a Scopedog, is not exactly organic per se. Sure, it smooth lines, but that doesn’t exactly make itself organic. It’s more like a handcrafted work, a unique piece that a master craftsman designed. Dunbine’s not the most stellar example of this, as it really mixes this artisanal and industrial in a nice combination, so let’s look at a design that’s more to the point.

escaflowne

Escaflowne is a mecha that is without a doubt one of the better examples of handcrafted, artisanal mecha design. It’s ornate, smooth and royal in its design. Certain level of excessiveness is in there, and it being artisanal does not exclude means of war in there. Unlike some Five Star Stories mechas, which in reality have no sense of function, Escaflowne works in a nice balance.

If we want to get into the whole mecha thing, the best way to think of them really is as knights. In the end, a super robot story is about a person in armour, just in a more technical one. Especially when it comes to Japanese media. Fantasy mechas tend to emphasize this, as with Escaflowne above, and this really applies to all guymelefs in the series. None of them are organic, but neither are they industrial. You could say that artisanal is in-between the two extremes.

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Nabbed this Scheherazade off from Pixiv. While not as ornate as Escaflowne, it is nonetheless an example of artisan craftsmanship in mecha, especially with its head. After all, knight armours, especially those of in high position, were designed to be visually striking, a tradition pretty much all mecha follow. An armoured knight has stuck to our global consciousness and many of these artisanal mechas derive their core designs from that idea

What then is the main difference between organic and artisanal in mecha? The main difference of course really is all about the nature of the beast. Iczer Robo and Iczer Sigma are grown in an artificial womb with mechanical built into them. They are, in essence, biomechanical from the get go and largely wear an armour, that may or may not be their outer skin. The jury’s out on the still. Artisanal on the other hand would be fully or at least mostly mechanical in its nature from the grounds up.

For Western mecha the artisanal approach rarely applies. They are made to be machines of war, and even when they are crafted carefully as unique pieces of craftsmanship, they tend to look militaristic and industrial as all hell. I remember someone telling me how Battletech’s mechs were unique pieces for each of the faction or family, which they keep in priced condition and such, much like Mortar Headds in Five Star Stories.

It is not the shape curve that determines what the style is. Industrial mechas can have bulbous, very round parts to the  and still be completely inudstrial. An organic on the other hand can have cutting straight lines to them just as well. It is the nature of the line and overall shape that ultimately determines the look. Think the difference between a bone claw and a metal claw. Artisanal claw would be somewhere between the two, and be more ornate.

Ornate is the keyword in all this. Mamoru Nagano’s design are perhaps most known for their elaborate designs and details.

led81

While LED Mirage could be thrown into industrial design if we were to use just two categories. However, it doesn’t fit there completely because of its multitude of angles and complex natural shapes thrown into the mix. LED Mirage has a lot of numerous smooth curves to it, accented with harsh and sharp angles in combination to flat and curved surfaces. All this combines a very unique look and style that can’t be copied very easily at all, unlike say a Gundam design that’s somewhat genius in its simplicity. LED Mirage’s artisanal side is especially evident on the close-ups, which reveal further detail that’s painted on the Mortar Headd.

led-face1

You can see above that the detail here is not present is not included in the above. Nagano went through many revisions, some of which surely are lost to time by now. You can read all that at Gears Online.

As mentioned, these three classifications I’ve proposed don’t exclude each other. Often you can find elements of at least two different styles in a design, like in how Metal Gear Ray combines organic and industrial design together very well, but is not artisanal. To contrast to that, all the rest of main canon Metal Gears are outright industrial in their looks. Evangelion units and Iczer Robos share the same base idea of organic beings wearing an armour, which doesn’t exactly strike industrial in looks at first, but they are supposed to be form-fitting after all. Industrial mechas sometimes include artisanal effects to them, but generally machines of war don’t tend to do that. The most ornate spot a Gundam has, for example, is its V-fin, and the most crafted V-fin out of them sits on none other than RX-121-3C Gundam TR-1 Hyzenthlay.

It's less elaborate in-magazine
It’s less elaborate in-magazine

In the end, I would recommend reading further on all three aforementioned styles outside the mecha genre and from actual design literature for a better view of this. There is a fourth wild-card classification that I would like to coin out there, but that’ll be another entry.