I watch a fair few super robot shows. As sub-subgenres go, it’s probably my favorite. This being the case, I probably should have thought about it sooner: Man there are a lot of different kinds of things that fuel these robots. I’m not talking about bullshit pseudo-scientific elements that power the engines, like Getter Rays or Minovsky Particles. No, I’m talking about what really runs these things, what elevates their performance to unheard of levels, what pushes them to evolve. I’m talking about the psychological states of their pilots.
In this post, I examine the psychological states that power the mecha of Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann, Super Beast Machine God Dancougar and Neon Genesis Evangelion. I then illustrate how the choice of mecha fuel contributes to the advancement of the themes of each show. Each of these series is a prime representative of a distinct species of power-to-theme relationship, though the list of such relationship types is by no means exhausted at three.
“But,” you might say, “these are just super robot shows. They’re just a big pile of crazy shit that isn’t meant to be taken all that seriously.” While I grant the genre’s tendency toward the absurd(ly entertaining), I nevertheless believe that analysis of super robot shows is a worthwhile venture. The power fantasy that the robots themselves represent as well as the metaphysical explanations often invoked by the series’ writing invite, I feel, this kind of analysis of the genre.
Suggested Soundtrack for Reading – Dirty Elegance “Dark Psychology”
Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann
The one path you choose for yourself, that is the truth of your universe.
The mecha of Gurren Lagann are powered by spiral energy. This power emanates from beings with the ability to evolve, so any creature with DNA has spiral energy. Though every DNA-based life form possesses spiral energy, not every such being has the same amount of it. Individuals with a strong will to live and presumably to pass on their DNA for the purposes of evolution,which is often manifested in the discarding of common psychological limitations (kicking logic to the curb, pushing aside common sense, etc.) have a greater share of spiral energy at their disposal. Thus, the psychological state of the pilot is paramount. The amount of spiral energy exerted by a mecha pilot can wax and wane depending on her psychic state. In addition to powering the mecha, spiral energy has such potential for destructive power that alien beings without it have feared the “spiral race” for thousands of years.
Spiral energy is represented most effectively in the object of a drill, a spiral that breaks through rock as it turns. Gurren Lagann uses this physical symbol to accentuate its thematic foci on both the individual human being as well as the human species. Each person should overcome their own mental limitations, should choose to ignore their doubts and believe in their ability to break through obstacles. Gurren Lagann tells us that this is the only way to move forward and to avoid stagnation and paralysis. With every revolution, the drill pushes forward a bit more through the rock. The idea is that, with every generation of DNA-based life forms, the double helix spiral will push forward a bit more and advance the species an inch close to that place “with no walls and no ceiling.”
Super Beast Machine God Dancougar
Be reborn as God’s warrior!
-Unknown voice to Shinobu Fujiwara
The titular robot, Dancougar, is the result of the combining of four separate machines: the Eagle, Land Cougar, Land Liger and Mammoth. Each of these machines has a vehicle, beast and humanoid form, and each runs on conventional fuel. Now, to combine and form Dancougar, they need a little something more than crude oil. The first time Shinobu Fujiwara, the pilot of the Eagle, inputs the code to initiate the transformation, he hears an unearthly voice commanding him to move beyond the anger of beasts and the hatred of human kind. It tells him to forsake the material world. To receive the ultimate power, Dancougar, the pilots must deny themselves; no, they must empty themselves (though not necessarily forsaking embodied life). In denying the material, physical boundaries are circumvented and unity on a spiritual level is attained, or so says Dancougar. Only then will they be reborn, united as god’s warrior.
Throughout the Dancougar TV series, there is a tension between giving yourself over fully to something and retaining autonomy. I’m not entirely sure that the show provides any definitive conclusions on the matter, but it is clear that it supports that total self denial, pouring yourself into something else to the degree that you’d give your life up for it, is one possible mode of living a good life. Like much anime, though, Dancougar also presents the self that is fully realized as meritorious. Alan Igor, an undeniably good character, promotes the finding of one’s own reasons to fight and looking within one’s self for strength as opposed to finding it in the act of giving oneself. Perhaps he found an acceptable synthesis of the two ideas (or he comes to believe that his claims are not fully correct) because the final victory in the TV series is built upon the foundation of his sacrifice. This is a major theme in the show’s last act. Sacrifice empowers those whom it is for, and those brave, sacrificial souls live on in spirit, united to the hearts of those they love.
Neon Genesis Evangelion
Even though a hedgehog may wish to get close to another hedgehog, the closer they get the more they injure each other with their spines
The Evangelion pilots are under the impression that, in order to control their EVA Units, they must match or exceed a certain degree of synchronization with their respective Units. However, what they are actually syncing with is the human soul (heavily implied to be the pilot’s mother’s) inhabiting each Unit. Though Shinji, Rei and Asuka are unaware of it, their ability to pilot effectively hinges on the depth of their connection with another human soul. Interestingly, the sync ratio gauge records ratios that fall below zero, indicating the possibility of not only the non-connection of pilot and soul, but the formation of an adversarial relationship between the two.
Evangelion is steeped in the opposing themes of how important human connection is but also how difficult it can be to truly connect with others on a deep level, especially for those who have depression, anxiety or other mental illnesses. The above quote from Ritsuko seems especially poignant here. I am also reminded of Shinji’s insistence early in the show that he “musn’t run away” and abandon his nascent connections. This difficulty we have with connections (not to mention all of its resultant consequences) is perhaps a chief reason why Gendo is pushing the Human Instrumentality Project, the disembodying and merging of all individual human consciousnesses into a single unity. Without the need to attend to bodily concerns, the matter of your soul’s connection with the unity comes to the forefront. It is loaded with fresh immediacy and new importance.
There is much, much more than can be said about this sort of thing, but I don’t claim to be an Evangelion expert.
We have seen three different kinds of psychological states that serve as fuel for super robots: the will to survive, self-denial or self-sacrifice, and connectedness. Each of these power elements serve to reinforce the thrust of the main themes of their respective series. As I previously stated, these three types of power-to-theme relationships do not represent an exhaustive list. What others come to mind? I hope to see some additional ones discussed in the comments.