Mecha design; Combiner Core

Combining and transforming has been with the mecha genre at least since Kouji Kabuto’s Hover Pilder turned its hover wings up and docked unto the head of Mazinger Z. This is the first major example in the mainline media that shows two separate individual mechanical objects combining and forming one cohesive being, as small act as it is. Nevertheless, a Pilder is an inseparable element of a Mazinger in a form of another. However, Mazinger Z is not the first combining mecha, unless you belong to the school of thought that mecha is an umbrella term for all mechanical like it’s original intended use is.

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Kouji Kabuto becomes the brain within the helmet of Mazinger Z

Many would coin Getter Robo as the first combining mecha, but that’s not exactly correct either. It certainly can be said to be the first mecha that is formed by using three individual components that share equal amount if importance and space in the formation. Getter’s selling point was that all three fighters used to form a Getter had their own form in the lead. One Getter Robo thus has four configurations; three separate fighters, one for airborne fighting, one for land based and one to fight in water. This essentially translates into balanced, fast and strong forms. However, this power balance is not emphasized, as the balanced form gets the best attacks and most face time. The third form is most often wasted and almost practically useless.

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I love using this .gif, so sue me

Often a forgotten, and probably the first example of combining robots in how most think it as, is Gadem from Tetsuwan Atom. Gadem was a giant mechanical centipede formed from 47 individual androids. The reason Gadem doesn’t trump Mazinger Z is that Gadem’s a Monster of the Week, something that’s interesting for that one episode and then passed on. You don’t seem Gadem combining in the opening every single time.

The original Tetsuwan Atom is so much fun

The reason I wanted to go through this very short history of combining mecha first is to portray that much like with other things when it comes to designing mecha, there is no set rule as such. There are trends and styles that one prefers over another, and if you were to design your own combiner, the best way is to look what has been done, and then research real world mechanics how things are fit together. However, the real world doesn’t exactly have the highest amounts of combining war machines, e.g. there are no tanks that can form a big supertank, and thus we’re “limited” to our imagination and what we know of real world mechanics.

As with transforming mechas overall (most often a mecha needs to transform in order to accept other components of the combination), the design can be done so that it looks somewhat realistic in the sense that it could be realized e.g. in toys. The above example of Mazinger Z and Pilder combining is incidentally relatively realistic, despite being coined as the first Super Robot. There is no warping or the like. It’s a craft docking, landing, combining, whatever word you want to use, with a surface designed to hold the Pilder in place. We can question the design and all that, but it might as well be a spacecraft docking with a station or helicopter landing and locking itself down unto a carrier.

Getter Robo’s combination and subsequent transformation (the fighter are required to transform in order to take the shape of the robot) are no-sense kind. There are some indications what part ultimately becomes what, and we’ve gone this over before.

From here we can roughly split combining mecha into three styles. First would be vehicle combiners, where a giant robot is formed through combination of vehicles (or animals). Super Sentai tends to favour this the most above all. Second would be humanoid combiners, where humanoid shapes are first transformed into appendices or similar in order to complete their gestalt form. Despite Transformers having two forms most of the time, I would drop them into this category due to the fact that their main form, in the end, is their humanoid one. Their Alternative mode is the one they disguise themselves into, after all. Lastly, there is non-humanoid gestalt, where either vehicles or humanoids form up a combination result that isn’t a giant robot but something else.

Of course, there is also equip-combination, which is more or less one whole mecha gaining an extra pound of equipment of on top of itself. This is separated from the the aforementioned because it doesn’t create a new whole in itself; it’s just a mecha putting a jacket on, if you will. An example of this would be Sonic Convoy from Transformer: Galaxy Force.

Is this some new level of geekiness from this blog now that I’m referencing Japanese original version of Transformers Cybetron?

Each of these approach really would garner its own post with examples, as one combination style has quote a lot of stuff to go into. As such, maybe this post is best to take as a prepper for possible future expansions.

One thing that the designer of combining robot has to keep in mind is that it needs to be cool, no matter the approach.

A combination that has no tension behind it, no emphasize or meaning, lacks impact. Within fiction combination shouldn’t be treated as something trivial. Even in Getter Robo the combination plays important role with switching between forms and dramatic evasion manoeuvre. Even when combination becomes a common occurrence within fiction it has to leave some impact. Transformers has made offence of this few times over, but as long as the gimmick of combination is treated with respect, it works well as a dramatic device.

To use an example from the aforementioned Transformers, Combiners are almost always stronger than any other single character within fiction. A Combiner is the sum of its parts in pretty much every regard, and thus can change the tide of a battle on its own. To see a Combiner parts on the field should fill a soldier with fear or anticipation. Perhaps the most proverbial Combiner (not to mention a sort of classic example of modern humanoid mecha combiners overall) Devastator is the poster child for what it is to be a Combiner in Transformers fiction. You let Devastator loose on a field and follow it from afar how things just get devastated. Afterwards Megatron can always command its components, the Constructicons, to build something new. Treating Devastator otherwise would cheapen the fiction, character and the concept. Incidentally, Devastator’s intelligence is not the sum of his components, but who needs smarts when you have strength?

A local question

Astro Boy, Gigantor and Eight Man are classic shows that have a place in American pop culture, even thou Eight Man is probably the most forgotten piece of the bunch. This was the 60’s, and a cartoon with robots flying in the sky, high-speed androids and robot boys fit the era fine. From what I’ve gathered from what people who grew up with these shows, nobody questioned their origin. They were entertaining shows on the telly and that’s all that mattered. I’d throw Speed Racer into the mix as well, thou it arrived just a tad later to the mix, but met with the same treatment.

Video and computer games have a similar history, all things considered. Nobody really cared where from arcade games came from, they just rocked the place. Not even the name Nintendo raised some eyebrows, it was just some exotic name cocked up in a meeting. Pretty much what Herb Powell did in The Simpsons.

Games had a shorter gestation period than robot cartoons when it comes to finding the source to some extent. US saw the mid-1970’s Shogun Warriors, a toyline that used wide variety of toys based on Toei’s show with some changed names to fit better the American market. The NES era is relatively infamous of its localised games, and much like how American reception of these Japanese cartoons ultimately was felt back in Japan, so was the localisations and changed made to games. Perhaps the best example of this would how Salamander became Life Force in its arcade re-release and effectively became its own spin-off from the base game.

This, of course, has been largely in America. Europe is a bit of a different thing, with France, Italy and Spain having their own imported animation culture to the point of Spain having a statue for Mazinger Z. I remember reading about a tennis comic that a French publisher continued after its end in Japan. This was done by hiring an illustrator who could replicate the original style and saw healthy sales for a time. Something that like probably could never happen in modern world, unless the original author has died and has made it clear that continuing his work is allowed. Somehow I can see titles like Mazinger  and Dragon Ball still gaining new entries to the franchise long after Go Nagai and Akira Toriyama have left for Mangahalla.

Sadly, I am not as well versed in pan-European phenomena when it comes to Japanese animation in the Old World, but there are numerous resources in both online and book format, often in native tongue. Perhaps worth investing time into for future entries.

While things like Robotech and Voltron made their names around the American landscape, the 1980’s saw a growing appreciation for the original, unaltered footage. This was the era of Laserdisc, and people were mail ordering cartoons solely based on the covers. Can’t blame them, LDs tend to have absolutely awesome covers. Whenever these shows were shown in a convention, a leaflet explaining the overall premise and the story would be spread among the visitors or a separate person would enter the stage and give a synopsis of the events on the screen. There were those who felt, and still feel, that localisation demeans the original work.

Similarly, game importing became a thing in the latter part of the 1980’s and in the early 1990’s with NES’ success, though it should be mentioned that Europe saw PC game importing across regions far more. The Nordic countries began importing NES games anywhere they could and specialised mail service stores popped up just to service this part of the population. It wasn’t uncommon to see Genesis and Mega Drive titles sold side by side in-game stores. Appreciation for the original game saw a rise, either because of it was simply cool to have shit in Japanese or from America, or because some level of censorship was present. However, more often it was because Europe was largely ignored when it came to releasing certain games. Importing unavailable games to a region is still relevant, perhaps even more so than previously now that companies are investing in English releases in Asian versions and region free consoles are becoming an industry standard.

The question I’ve been asking myself for a long time now, longer than I’ve been writing this blog, is that whether or not wholesome localisation like Space Battleship Yamato and Starblazers was a necessary evil of the time that we can be do without now, that we are grown culturally to accept the original work as a whole, or whether it’s just hubris of the people who are too close to their sub-culture and co-fans. A person who is tightly knit with music’s sub-culture doesn’t exactly understand the sub-culture of pinball or golf.

By that I mean that pop-culture in general doesn’t give jackshit whether or not panties are censored in a video game, it’s irrelevant in macro-scale. Even in a localised form a product can impact pop-culture in ways that the original couldn’t, the aforementioned Speed Racer and Robotech being highly impacting examples in American pop-culture. I guarantee that these shows would not have their impact without the localisation effort.

Is it a necessary evil then? Perhaps this is the subjective part with no answer. Those who value original, unaltered product without a doubt will always prefer the “purest” form of the product, whereas someone who doesn’t have the same priorities will most likely enjoy the localised version just as fine. It would be infantile to assume that people who don’t know better can’t appreciate the original piece or lack in intelligence somehow. It is merely a matter preference, and like assholes, everyone has one.

If it matters, I personally vouch for unaltered products whenever applicable for the sake of keeping the integrity of the product and the intentions of the creators intact. However, also see complete localisations having their valid place in e.g. children’s cartoons. While it would be nice to have two or more versions of everything for the sake of options, that’s not always an option for budgetary, marketing or some other reasons.

Perhaps that’s what could be argued; when it comes to Western culture, we are more acceptable to unlocalised products more than previously, but total localisations still have their place. Even without knowing much about the source, we can appreciate the intentions and look past the cultural difference.

Or at least we should be able to, and appreciate the differences and intentions without resorting to raising a hell for nothing.

Old metal will always be replaced with something new

Recently a question was thrown out there; why isn’t the giant robot genre more popular in the Western markets? The answer to this is both simple and complex, depending how deep you want to go, but also reflects the overall way of things when it comes to popular things in pretty much anything in any given era.

To use the giant robot genre as an example of this, almost every body of work is seen as science fiction. While science fiction itself has always been largely popular, the emphasize on giant robots, or mecha if you want to use just one word, has few stigmas to it that it simply can’t escape due to how world works. Using the Transformers as an example is a very straightforward one; despite it being a franchise that has rather sophisticated stories to it, ever since its inception it has been vehicle to advertise the toys and that dictated to what audience in what way those stories would be told. The genre has been vastly catered to children across in its modern form since the 1960’s, with each show in Japan getting slew of toys. This of course has always reflected back to the US with each of its localised show. Johnny Sokko and his Flying Robot, Gigantor, and even Astroboy all were localised shows that were hits, but were children’s television. For adults (and for the whole family really) you had Star Trek and the Twilight Zone, shows that were more than just about robots beating each other or aliens, and Twilight Zone offering other sort of stories to boot.

There is a stereotype of Japan being a nation of technological marvels, and there was a time when it seemed to be absolutely true. The industrial growth Japan experienced after the World War II, and the economy bubble it experienced in the 1980’s, supported the admiration of technology. Cold War pushed technological advanced in both West and East, and man travelling to the stars had become an evident thing. There was a moment in history when science fiction flourished both in US and Japan, which lead the 1980’s to have more adult sort of stories concerning giant robots with the adults who had grown up with Ultraman and Mazinger Z. Similarly how we have people doing things like Pacific Rim with the people who grew up with Voltron, Robotech and Star Saber. Robotech were the first proper taste of 1980’s robot anime in the US, which would lead way to further ventured, and without it things like Gundam Wing would not have seen on US television. Europe was largely a different beast, Spain enjoying Mazinger Z, others enjoying the likes of Grendizer in form of Goldorak, and we Nordics were stuck with Balatak and Starzinger. UK always had its own thing going on and influencing its cultural scheme with Stingray, Thunderbirds and the like, which also were rather popular things in Japan. Hell, if you check UFO’s opening and compare it to how Evangelion’s opening was cut, you’ll see a lot of similarities.


 UFO is pretty damn good show, you should watch it

With the 1990’s rolling in Transformers had died out and would see a sequel with Beast Wars in 1996, but it wouldn’t be similar cultural impactor despite it being rather good show and how the toys drove toy engineering and design forwards. The Brave series continued as its spiritual successor, but in the West we saw none of it at the time. Evangelion, despite how much people love to hate it, came around the right time to make one last impact on global cultural consciousness, and when giant robots were to become passé.

The question why giant robots are not popular in the West can be answered simply with Times change. The genre has not innovated itself as visibly as since Evangelion, and as such has served in the role of being the last of mecha shows. Sure, there has been slew of revivals, competitors and imitators, yet none of them have done anything new. Living robots, robots that transform, robots that combine, robots than combine with humans, humans that are robots, robots that aren’t robots at all and so, it all has been done and the storytelling regarding them has not advanced. The best examples of mecha as a genre have always been about the people, but they fall in the same category as any other niche genre within its mother genre by being very specific in their contents. Something like Muv-Luv might’ve been a huge success in the 1980’s or even in the early 1990’s, but in 2000’s and 2010’s its story doesn’t carry have any punch behind it. The same applies to a lot of other franchises, and while you see the occasional show that becomes very popular for a time and may leave catchphrases floating around, like Gurren Lagann did, they’re still in the same old mould.

The people who grow up with mecha, even in the 1990’s, have grown old and so has the genre. It doesn’t attract new blood from the young ones, because there are other, better things out there. Just like Pokémon and Pikachu have become a thing of the adults and has been replaced Yo-Kai Watch and Jibanyan in Japan, these newfangled things have taken mechas spot in the niche spotlight. This is reflected in the West as well, with Edge of Tomorrow enjoying better ratings than Pacific Rim. Pacific Rim itself showscases all the elements a hardcore fan of monster smash flicks wants to see, and almost everything a general audience thinks are petty and childish. Why Tranformers movies have seen the success they’ve had is both because of nostalgia and that they hit that certain cultural spark, and are largely unapologetic about what they are.

The few old franchises that still kick around in the West are for children only. Hasbro still pushes a lot of Transformers toys out, accompanied by cartoons and comics, while Japan has mostly chosen to cater the ever older otaku audience with Schwarzesmarken, Macross sequels, Valvrave and the like. It doesn’t help that outside Africa, Middle-East and certain parts of Asia birthrates have been dropping, significantly so in Japan, which means less quality children’s robot shows outside the few that have been running for an eternity and will most likely run at least to the end of this decade.

It doesn’t help that the current cultural climate also takes technology at its face value. We lived in a time when every single technological leap made a difference in our lives, but nowadays it seems even the greatest findings, like the recent news about over 1200 newly discovered planets that could sustain life, goes to largely deaf ears. Space travel is mundane. Even the miracle machine in your pocket is mundane, everyday item. No, not your vibrator, your smart phone. There is no more marvel in a giant walking robot when Iron Man’s latest suit in Civil War makes them look absolutely archaic? How can Macross hope to impress with its designs when it still uses the same basic shapes and concepts since its inception? Of course Macross was never about the robots first and foremost, yet that’s the first things you’re always shown, the first things that pop to you.

Children wish to stand apart from their parents, each generation does. Admiring technology, and by extension, the fiction using technology to a miraculous degrees, is a thing of older generations. When you have a thing that people have tired of and regard it something worn out, you begin to cater something new, something colourful (or in case of Apple, something black and white) and something that would replace the old. However, as things cycle, we may arrive in an era where things like space travel is of interest again, and we may relive a sorts of new renaissance of giant robots in fiction, but I doubt it’ll happen in my life time.

As a sidenote, if you’re a âge fan, you should head to kiminozo.life and check out Evan’s Kimi ga Nozomu Eien Drama Theatre Vol.3 translation. It’s a good piece.

Of silhouettes and robots

First, as a side note, I’ve put up a separate page that lists all mecha and robot related posts I’ve made. You can access it from the list of pages above the changing header image.

Silhouettes are important and overly visited point in character design. To go directly to the point, a silhouette needs to be uniquely recognizable. This has gone to the point that we all recognize a ball with two smaller balls on top of it side by side as Mickey Mouse’s head, and that silhouette cannot be replicated and sold. This applies to giant robots as well, and if you’re into robots, the following ones should look familiar.

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It’s not hard to decipher the distinct look from the three above. Roundy, blocky and organicy. We recognize Mazinger Z because of its overall body shape, but it’s head and Breast Fire panels is what makes it stand out the most. For RX-72-2 we see the usual Gundam V-Fin, the shield and that rifle. Proportions, beam sabres and legs also give it away. A lot of Gundams share a very similar silhouette and people can make a mistake, but that’s one thing that makes them a Gundam. For EVA-01 the overall shape stands apart from the previous. Those shoulder pylons are a dead give away, as are the legs and the overall lanky pose. The horn is also another element that gives it away, even thou the overall head shape would be a better signifier, but this image hides it into the left shoulder pylon.

To hardcore robophilist, recognizing silhouettes across the genre is not too difficult. Some are head scratchers. To a person who is just glancing at these, RX-78-2 looks like a Transformer.

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There are thousands of giant robot designs out there, Transformers hitting several thousands. All franchises with numerous designs and have run for years, like Gundam, most likely are hitting well over thousand. I’m just throwing these as guesstimates, but it illustrates a problem; not all designs can be completely unique from each other, and often within a series there is a pre-existing elements that dictate certain elements of a design that makes it instantly recognizable. For Gundam, it would be the face or the V-fin, and exceptions do exist. This is also why TSFs look so similar to most people, as they see the silhouettes better than the detailing. A Gundam has colours to make it look different because of their toyetic aesthetics, but a TSF is very mundane in colours in comparison, and due to many factors a lot of them share a similar silhouette by design.

An idea and purpose can dictate the look of the design just fine, but that’s just one initial approach. A method I’ve seen car designers use is start with a scribbled blob of non-descriptive nothing and see what’s in there for them.

 

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Facing left, with a long horn swept towards back. Can you spot what looks like a Robot Bunny and an Orbital Frame to me? There’s also a skater, I think, and what I can only call a mechanical hummigbird

I’m not terribly good at this myself, but it does give some good ideas. A friend of mine showed me this some years back, and he can do some nice sketched renders. Do check his Twitter for neat stuff. Out from all those blobs, I lined out one that could be a neat starting point for a head design. This may seem stupidly easy and nonsense, but it does not negate the points of learning how mechanics works. This is a very useful method to test out shapes, and while I didn’t have no rhyme or reason to these, you can make sharper corners, more cubic or whatever tickles your fancy kind of shapes. Whatever suits your needs. Essentially, this is sidestepping the need to look for a shape, when you allow your subconscious to vomit out everything, and after that you just see what you have on paper. Of course, everything from this would need a large amount of detailing, but that’s later when you’ve locked down what way you want your piece to look in overall terms.

You can apply this to one part alone, or the whole damn thing you want to make. However, do keep in mind that this is just the very barest of starting points, as you’d still need to collect the shapes together into a cohesive whole and make them look right. That head design, if I were to create a whole linework just based on that, it would have swooped main curves with sharper angles to accent it. You can do as many shapes as you want, and often only a handful can give you some idea what you may want to go with. Much like everything else, you train this as you do it, and you can see I’m not the master of this approach due to preference of scribbling lines from whatever visual image I in my head. However, I do see this a more useful and easier way to approach of How do I get shapes?  I guess I’ll use Gundam as an example how to approach a design where there are set rules, thou you could just read the rules in TSF design posts for that.

Try this out if you’re in a block and can’t find the right shape. Sometimes what you need isn’t strict shape and form, but splattered scribble to give you a hand. Y’know, see the forest from the trees.

Happy Birthday Mazinger Z

Some forty years ago a man named Go Nagai was sitting in a car. He was stuck in the traffic, unable to move anywhere. There he imagined to have a giant robot to control and most likely to step and throw all those assholes to the side of the road. Well, he liked this idea quite a lot and decided to make a comic out this idea as well as use it as a proposal for a TV-series to Toei. They took the idea and the rest is cartoon history.

The comic itself served as an escape route to Uncle Go himself, as he intensely drew another small body of work known as YouTube: Devilman.

You might ask why this matters. Well, Mazinger Z has affected pretty much every robot series that came after it either directly or indirectly. Mazinger Z has all the archetypical super robot weapons; rocket punch, chest beam and eye beams. It created the old tested and tried story of a boy getting a giant robot from his relative and fighting against evil forces and more. Modern animation does continue making references to Mazinger Z, mainly in Japan, but sometimes few European works have a hidden Goldorak somewhere in there. Granted, that’s a bit of a stretch but let that slide for now.

Mazinger Z has a place in the history among as such works like AstroBoy (or Tetsuwan Atom if you want to be a prick) and I do hope that you’ll support the official English release next year from Discotek.