Robotics Notes

Andrew Osmond tries to build his own robot…


Robotics;Notes could be called You Can Build Your Own Giant Robot! It’s about geeks engaged in a preposterous project; building the mecha they’ve seen in anime for real. The show’s aimed at viewers who might think they really could. After all, they’d probably heard of otaku who have built oversized robots for real. More on that below.

The anime’s a mix of geek comedy and conspiracy thriller. The robot-building stuff is presented semi-believably, but then a crazy mystery starts to emerge, involving cute-girl ‘ghosts,’ radio waves, lost anime episodes and world conspiracies. Interestingly, the main setting isn’t Tokyo – though the show goes there at times – but Tanegashima, a small southern Japanese island (a bit below Kyushu, but much nearer the mainland than Okinawa). Tanegashima is notable historically for being the place where firearms first arrived in Japan, but also for its space centre which launches satellites, firing the imagination of youngsters as much as the anime they watch. Makoto Shinkai fans know Tanegashima; both the island and its space centre were featured in the middle part of his film, 5 Centimeters per Second.

Times have changed since the innocent days when robot anime were just about selling toys. In his book Anime: A History, Jonathan Clements suggests early robot shows – in which the boy heroes often pilot mecha given them by their dads – had a hidden message for real Japanese fathers, when they glanced up from their papers to see what their tots were watching on telly. The message: my father gave me a robot, my father gave a robot. Lucky there were toy tie-ins to buy, eh?

Hayao Miyazaki, bless him, hated the idea of kids being given robots. You have to work for your mecha, whippersnapper! In his essay collection Starting Point, Miyazaki complains about anime where “the protagonist jumps in a giant machine he couldn’t possibly have created on his own, battles the enemy in it, and then boasts about winning. For me, in a truly successful mecha show, the protagonist should struggle to build his own machine, he should fix it when it breaks down, and he should have to operate it himself.”

Miyazaki wrote that in 1979. When Robotics;Notes was broadcast in Japan (it ran from 2012 into 2013), a new generation of fans was already inspired by stories of otaku creating anime-style robots for themselves. We all know about home-made little robots – British viewers may remember Robot Wars, first presented on the BBC by Jeremy Clarkson. Early in Robotics;Notes, the characters compete in a similar event in Tokyo, using a mini-robot of their own, though their contest gets weird.

But otaku are already thinking bigger. According to a story on Reuters, an anime fan named Kogoro Kurata spent two years building a four-metre, four-tonne robot called the ‘Kuratas.’ You climb in and drive it; it even fires (harmless) rockets. You can see the Kuratas in action in this ‘training’ video, while the website is here. If you’re interested in buying one, Reuters reports the most basic model costs a cool $1.3 million, a bit over £750,000.

There are comparable fan projects, of course. Miyazaki fans know about the ongoing quest to build a real version of Nausicaa’s jet-powered ‘mehve’ glider (report and video). Outside anime, Star Trek fans have sunk more than £100,000 of their money into reconstructing the sets of the original 1960s Trek, from actual series blueprints. They’ve then used those sets in brand-new Trek adventures, comprising the non-profit fan film series Star Trek Phase II, aka Star Trek: New Voyages.

Of course, such grandiloquent projects are the extreme end of fan activities you see at any convention. Even the incredible Kuratas robots could be called a radical kind of cosplay. And Robotics;Notes feels real thanks to its otaku spirit. Its characters are very recognisably otaku of the kind we know, showing the best and worst of the label. Some of the characters are sad shut-ins; others are as passionately go-getting as any Shonen Jump hero.

Notably, the strongest examples of each type are girls. A lot of Robotics;Notes is ruled by Akiho, who’s manically committed to getting her giant robot built. Meanwhile, the character “Frau” (as she calls herself) is a hilarious shut-in, drooling over boys-love and speaking in nethead acronyms which the viewer must race to decipher. The stress on female geekdom takes Robotics;Notes surprisingly close to the live-action US gamer comedy The Guild, the acclaimed web series by Felicia Day. (If you don’t know it, it’s online and on DVD.)

For most of the first half of Robotics;Notes, the geek comedy-drama is on top, along with the obstacles, the frustrations and heartaches that await budding scientists. There’s a beautiful episode toward the first set’s end, called “The Fruit of All the Blood, Sweat and Tears.” In it, the team must finally display their mecha to the public. What follows is a lovely piece of robot drama, of the kind we rarely see in anime, as relatable and universal as Charlie Brown.

Meanwhile, the weirder, more Fortean stuff in the show – the radio waves, the conspiracies – slowly rises in importance. The split storytelling is similar to the time-travel show Steins;Gate, which is no surprise. Both anime are based on a loose line of ‘visual novel’ computer games, called the Science Adventure series. Steins;Gate flipped its story at the midpoint, foregoing comedy for a much darker, intense adventure. Yet it stayed true to its otaku heroes, to their ideals and yearnings. Hopefully, Robotics;Notes will do the same, challenging the characters to look at their obsessions anew.

Okay, whippersnapper, so you’ve built your robot, a whopper. Now ask yourself honestly: what for and what next?

Robotics;Notes, part one, is out on UK DVD from Manga Entertainment.

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