. From that era, Martian Successor Nadesico is one of the more interesting but also mostly forgotten series, and in a way it represents a road not taken, which might have lead the genre to a better place.
Fans have for a long time divided mecha shows between "super robot" and "real robot" shows. Of course, realism is not very high in either, but "real robot" shows (like most of the Gundam franchise) treat mecha fights as an actual war, and the robots as an important but destructible parts in a semi-realistic military. The "super robot" genre functions more like a superhero or sentai show, with the robot being a god-like force for justice piloted against superhuman evil. These are generalizations, of course, but they generally show the two approaches to the genre: as childish fun or serious social commentary.
As easy as it is critically to say that "real robot" shows are better, these have a tendency to devolve into melodrama and are no less reliant on fan pandering, as can be seen by most of the recent Gundam iterations. There have been a lot of recent attempts to reclaim the naivete and energy of super robot shows, but most of these attempts end up insular and retrogressive, only attracting a fading generation of older fans. Even when successful, these shows indulge in a nostalgia that doesn't really take us anyplace new. The mecha genre is at a similar place to superhero comics: its attempts to be darker and grittier have grown tiresome, but it's not possibly to go back to the four-colour either, and artists seem split between their attempts to revisit the 90s and the 70s.
Nadesico is from the 90s generation, and is very much of its era, but it's a little different than Evangelion and its imitators. For one thing, it splices together the morally-ambiguous real robot sub-genre with the kind of broad relationship-based comedy that was also very popular in anime of that era (e.g. Slayers, Ranma 1/2). Like those shows, it subsists off its constantly blossoming cast. Even if most of these cast members only have a few jokes, between them there's enough variety to suspend a series seemingly indefinitely. We're very early on, but there are still a whole host of background characters who will obviously be expanded in later episodes -- the purple haired ex-voice actor, for instance, is obviously not going to spend the whole show simply shouting technobabble.
Just to give you an idea of the size of the main cast, here's the cover to the DVD box set.
Anyway, the comedy here is generally very typical for its genre -- there's a lot of walking in on people in the shower, for instance -- although it avoids its worst impulses. It's really most notable for its self-awareness. This episode sees the introduction of Gekigangar, the show-within-a-show, a hot-blooded giant robot anime of the old school. The heroic simplifications of Gekigangar are often placed in stark contrast with the complicated realities playing out aboard the Nadesico.
However, Nadesico is never entirely dismissive of its legacy in these types of shows. A lot of pivotal works that break with their genre traditions do so in a totalizing way, explicitly or implicitly castigating the genre for leaving out the real world (which often amounts to graphic sex and violence, plus swear words) -- think Watchmen or, again, Evangelion. This is fine -- these types of works need to make a complete break with the past. But in Nadesico, Gekigangar acts as a kind of inspiration for the characters, who strive to uphold its values even in a more complicated world. When Gai and Akito pull off a move from the show in battle in this episode, it's a pretty cool moment, and Nadesico is okay with us enjoying its coolness.
Gai, a slavish devotee of Gekigangar who tries to mimic the heroism of four-colour characters, is sort of a buffoon but he's also a kind of mentor for Akito. When they watch Gekigangar together, he tells Akito to "accept it for what it is" -- which is not especially deep or new, but I think it accurately sums up Nadesico's position to its forefathers.
(Of course, this is partly because it's still quite early on in the series, and so there's still a level of naivete allowed here. In later episodes -- hell, by the end of the very next one -- the bloom will come off the rose and we'll start to see where old mecha anime don't provide an adequate framework.)
"Leave the Blue Earth" in particular is part of the early arc in which the Nadesico has to escape the earth's orbit despite the interference of the hostile government. The Jovians (the aliens at war with Earth) also appear as a strange, inhuman threat. The Nadesico and its crew are thus positioned between two opposing forces in war, just as the show is between two opposing forces in the genre. While this freedom is uncomfortably identified with the private sphere, it still suggests a capacity to stand outside of titanic struggles between two opposed but pretty similar factions -- and with election season coming up, that's an important thing to remind ourselves of.
The major surprise of this episode is Yurika, who goes from being a ditz who somehow wound up as a starship captain to at the very least a Miss Marple-style ditz savant. In this episode her seeming dimness is what allows her to get important information regarding Akito's past from the government forces. She then manages to escape their ship after revealing that she did have a back-up plan after all. Crucially, Yurika's happy-go-lucky personality isn't a complete facade -- she really is bubbly, and has no-bones-about-it affection for Akito. But she's shown to also be able to deploy that ditziness for strategic purposes. The big-eyes-small-mouth style, as maligned as it frequently is, is perfect for Yurika's oversized displays of emotions.
(Not to go back to the same idea over and over again, but I could compare this to how Nadesico is able to at the same time be the silly robot show it appears to be and use that appearance for strategic ends. There's a definite balance being struck here between self-awareness and self-enjoyment.)
Akito, on the other hand, seems to embody Nadesico's ideal reader, someone who is able to navigate his way between two monolithic ideological sides without fully joining either, as well as someone who can enjoy and participate in genre tropes while at the same time not letting them define him (witness his constant insistence that he's just a cook). Gai gets the upper hand in this episode, but in the long run Akito's method of reading, recognizing cliche and construction without condemning it, may prove to be the better one.
It's still early going in Nadesico, at the very start of its serialized narrative (they haven't even left Earth yet). The quality is a little patchy, especially when it comes to the humour, and it'll take a while to see the long game of the themes that the series is starting to develop. But looking back over it, there are already the seeds of a refinement of the mecha genre into something that can engage with its tradition constructively instead of deconstructively or nostalgically. The only series which has really embraced this approach since was Gurren Lagann. As I mentioned above, this is very much a road not taken, which probably makes it more attractive than the ones we did take. But there's no denying that it makes me wistfully wonder "what if".
Next week: "And when you're over there in the jungle, and they're shooting at you... remember that you're not dying for me. Because I never liked you."
The 90s were very recent, and I will never stop thinking of them as such.