Real Robot Anime

Japan Builds Such Awesome Robots Because of Anime

Think of Japanese culture, and one thing might spring to mind above all: anime. And if you grew up in the West in the 80s or 90s, the kind of anime you envisage might very well centre on one particular genre, likely influenced by international collaborations like Transformers: robot anime.

Such is the cultural importance of robot anime (including the sometimes separate sub-genre of “giant robot anime”) that Japan’s Agency for Cultural Affairs recently funded a study into its history. Part of the report has now been translated into English, and gives a kind of official history to the relatively undocumented pop culture trend. As editor Ryusuke Hikawa writes, “This report was prepared with a sense of crisis as to the current lack of scholarship, methodology, and appreciation of Japanese robot anime culture in its home country.”

That might sound like a slight overreaction, but there's no doubting anime plays a huge role in modern Japanese culture, and robot anime in particular has been around pretty much since the dawn of television (thanks, Astro Boy). What’s perhaps most interesting, however, is how the history of robot anime tells the history of real-life technology, and how the two continue to influence each other in a continually developing and unmistakably Japanese robot culture.

By tracing the genre's history, the report effectively looks back at decades of innovation through the lens of robot anime, starting with its birth in the 1960s, when the international space race and Tokyo’s changing infrastructure made technology a symbol of hope and excitement.

“In this era of seemingly infinite advancement, humanoid robots emerged as symbols of scientific progress, ” it explains. “Animators designed robot characters with sleek, gleaming bodies, evoking the clean new roadways, the speeding bullet trains, and shining skyscrapers that were rising up all around them.”

Early Astro Boy. Video: Youtube/Manga Entertainment

While technology might have inspired robot anime characters and themes, it also threatened the industry at times, as consumer tech began to seem even more exciting than the fictional robots on TV. The report highlights the debut of Nintendo’s “Family Computer” (the NES) in the 80s as competition to anime shows.

But despite a few hiccups and changing trends the genre has endured to this day, with recent international robot anime-inspired works like Pacific Rim cementing its place in the contemporary sci-fi canon.

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