10a. The Mechanical Beast – Nagai Gō’s Mecha Manga

One of the most frustrating aspects of writing about Japanese pop culture is that those who should know better don’t bother, because it’s a somewhat universally accepted principle in academia that, in the end, it’s better to be first than to be good.  In the 90s and even still today, there was/is a relative dearth of critical material available in English, so one can, more or less, just make shit up or give a highly limited view in effort to be the one who first steps onto the scene and who will be the one everyone calls to give lectures and what not, even if prior to writing your book on anime/manga/whatever, you had no previous experience with the material whatsoever.  You may even get a blurb from none other than Suzuki Toshio, the legendary Studio Ghibli producer, praising your book, but that doesn’t mean you know what you’re talking about.

Onward Toward Our Glorious Education! - Battle Royale vol. 1 p. 50

Onward Toward Our Glorious Education! – Battle Royale vol. 1 p. 50

I recall as well a conversation I had with a young woman at a conference in Toronto (which, it seems, is pronounced Tronto) who expressed a variety of frustrations with Thomas LaMarre’s The Anime Machine, frustrations that I myself agree with, but when I asked her why she felt the need to refer to it so extensively in her talk, she responded, “well, there’s not much else, is there?”  The woman in question was limited by language, and her interest in animation was more comparative than exclusive to Japan, so indeed LaMarre plus the unnamed above were (and still are) the go to texts for general academic criticism of anime.  I don’t mean to bag on LaMarre, whose work at least tries to be better, but to make the point that as a manga critic/teacher one often spends far too much time destructing (N.B. not deconstructing) a rather insular discourse that has already defined for itself a canon of texts intended to reify certain critical preconceptions (c.f. the over-emphasis on Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell films to the detriment of the manga upon which they are supposedly based) rather than lay out a genealogy of a particular genre, type, or theme.  Even this would be tolerable, if it weren’t a symptom of an ever-developing circle-jerk/cabal of genuinely good and remarkably awful critics who have something of a (thankfully not absolute) stranglehold on what can be published in academic circles about Japanese popular media.  As I noted last time, one of the few advantages of being a researcher (mostly) independent of academe is that the list of asses you have to kiss is quite short and the posteriors much less caked in poop.

Half Man, Half… Something

In the annals of articles rejected by editors I regularly take to task, I have tried previously to challenge what I see as a rising consensus about mecha, that ill-defined genre of manga/anime that somehow involves mechanical junk, to little avail.  It makes sense that the primary outlet for this consensus would not necessarily be amenable to its critique.  I won’t rehash for you now what that consensus looks like, for I will have plenty to say in the third installment of this series, when I turn to Masamune Shirō’s Kōkaku kidōtai (Ghost in the Shell).

What struck me in reading a variety of mecha manga, as opposed to anime series, is how common it is for artists/writers to explore not the divide between the organic and machinic but the arbitrary divide between animal and human.  The giant robots and cyborgs we assume to be mecha staples were figured not (or not exclusively) as machines or automata but as beasts.  To understand why this is, it is necessary to look back at one of the most influential mecha manga/anime of all time, Nagai Gō’s Mazinger Z (pronounced majingā zetto).

Nagai is responsible for some of the most iconic Japanese pop culture texts, which makes his relative absence from English language treatments a gross injustice.  Texts such as Mazinger ZCutie HoneyDevilman (and its precursor Maō Dante [Demon King Dante]), UFO Robo Grendizer, Violence Jack, and Harenchi gakuen (Shameless Academy) are staples of the otaku lexicon.  What’s most remarkable about Nagai’s extremely prolific career is its sheer variety, ranging from crass gag manga (Harenchi) to serious adaptations of classic literature (Dante shinkyoku [Dante’s Divine Comedy]).  Nagai is also want to mix what otherwise might be considered stylistic conventions particular to distinct genres.

Not Iron Men #'s 1-27

Not Iron Men #’s 1-27

The animal/human duality as mapped onto machinic/organic is, to my mind, a clear merging of the early giant robo manga tradition with the monsters of so-called tokusatsu or “special effects” films like the classic Godzilla.  In many ways, the giant robots of postwar manga already make possible this development.  Take, for instance, Sakai Shichima’s KAIROBOTTO or Yokoyama Mitsuteru’s Tetsujin 28-gō (Iron Man #28), where the divide between helpful servant and menacing monster is always an uneasy one, a take on the theme of Frankenstein’s monster, who could either be horrific or super-human depending upon how he/it is perceived.  You see this in tokusatsu as well, where Godzilla, for instance, is a monster of our own making (the result of nuclear detonation), who in the original Godzilla film is a menace but in subsequent films becomes a defender of humanity.  Godzilla was conceived of as a monstrous mix of gorilla (gorira) and whale (kujira), who, with a little nuclear catalyst, are combined into Gojira.

The tokusatsu origins of Mazinger are apparent very early on in the manga, when Kōji, compelled by his recently deceased grandfather to pilot the titular giant robot for reasons to be explained at a later date, is able to animate the machine/monster but is unable to control it.

Mazinger Z vol. 1 p. 49 trans. Dynamic Pro Scanlations

Mazinger Z vol. 1 p. 49 trans. Dynamic Pro Scanlations

Kōji pilots the hovercraft “pilder” that becomes Mazinger’s brain, a novel approach to the pervasive philosophical antagonism between mind and body.  This feature of Nagai’s text would later be converted into a metaphor for pubescent anxiety over one’s changing body, when Amuro first tries to pilot the mobile suit his father creates in another classic mecha media text, Kidō senshi gandamu (Mobile Suit Gundam).

It makes sense that these conventions would pass on; after all, Nagai is credited with creating the first human piloted giant robot, something now considered standard within the realm of mecha science fiction and fantasy.  But what becomes clear is that this human/robot or human/monster struggle is just one facet of what is a varied treatment of divided beings in Nagai’s text.  The mechanical beasts, for instance, are both an animal/machine and mediation between super-modern and ancient technologies, for Dr. Hell (Dokuta jigoku), the primary malevolent force trying to take over Japan, is only able to create them after having discovered the remnants of giant metal beings the Myceneans, according to this particular mythos, used to defend themselves from invading Dorians.

vol. 2 p. 10

vol. 2 p. 10

Even the beasts themselves are, in a sense, much more divided than beast/machine would first suggest.

vol. 1 p. 172

vol. 1 p. 172

Moreover, this doubling/dividing even pertains to human characteristics themselves.  The two primary “good” robots, Mazinger Z and Aphrodite A, are clearly gendered male and female, respectively, with “physical” traits, like, y’know, boob rockets, that reflect their respective “sexes.”  More than that, Sayaka and her Aphrodite are depicted as slightly weaker but more controlled than Kōji and his Mazinger, because, as we all know, once young [male] robots hit puberty, all hell breaks loose.  Even robots can be outlets for rank misogyny.  To be fair, Nagai is not exactly what you would call a feminist, when you consider how Cutey Honey has to have her clothes explode into what could only be described as pseudo-rape exposure of her naked body (iya da mon!!!) every time she transforms.

Even Dr. Hell’s lieutenant, Baron Ashura, who, incidentally, does most of the actual work of “being evil,” is a divided creature, half man, half woman.

vol. 2 p. 17

vol. 2 p. 17

What becomes clear in Nagai’s work is that the encounter between machine and organism is merely one facet of a complicated divided-ness of any creature’s nature, a theme just as important to his non-mecha manga such as Devilman, a recurring theme in which we are reminded that the human/organic side of the divide may not always be struggling for control but rather struggling against it in eerie parallel to the pilot and his/her machine.

vol. 1 p. 158

vol. 1 p. 158

vol. 1 p. 159

vol. 1 p. 159

A Text Divided Against Itself Can[not] Stand

Something else that has always struck me about Mazinger Z is its relative ease with combining melodramatic action/adventure with low comedy gags.  I noted earlier the breadth of Nagai’s range, so perhaps this is not so remarkable.  Yet, it means that Nagai’s characters range in visual terms from more detailed, “serious” figures such as Sayaka’s father, Dr. Yumi,

vol. 1 p. 107

vol. 1 p. 107

to the grotesque cartoonishness of Kōji’s classmates and teacher.

vol. 1 p. 20

vol. 1 p. 20

What is remarkable is how mecha anime, in its tendency, after Gundam, toward very serious seriousness, has largely dropped the comic relief of Nagai’s text, whereas mecha manga have by and large retained it.  One does see glimmers of this tradition, say, in early Evangelion episodes, but it is quickly and quietly dropped in favor of inexplicable ruminations on Kabbalah and human subjectivity.  Next week, I will try to show how much of this very srs bzns mkay has not only to do with the legacy of Gundam but of another divided text[s], Miyazaki Hayao’s feature length film and multi-volume manga Kaze no tani no Naushika (Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind).  In the week after, we’ll take a look at another problem of anime/manga adaptation, Ghost in the Shell, particularly with regard to how the later adaptations for the big and little screens have largely eclipsed the manga from which they “originate.”

Stay Tuned!

Ba Zi

contact me: uahsenaa@gmail.com



  1. Yes, you finally discussed Uncle Go.

    I am moved to tears by your passion….

    (T_T) <—-me

    But yeah, Nagai does love him some nudity, doesn't he? Though he apparently loves amazons alot to (see Iron Virgin Jun).

    Btw, I once read somewhere that the first giant robot 'manga' was a cartoon published in a war-time magazine entited "The Science Warrior Arrives In New York." You have any info on that?

    I mean, I know Tezuka also pionerred some of the giant robot tropes in Astro Boy (right around the time Yokoyama was doing Tetsujin 28-go. But I know they got their inspiration from somewhere else….

    1. I’m not familiar with “The Science Warrior,” but I can look into it. At any rate, I tend to put little stock in the idea of simply chronological origins (i.e. what comes first in time = original), but prefer to think of origin[s] as a function of how later artists/writers draw from and allude to earlier work. This makes “origin” more a function of latter day interpretive gestures than a strictly chronological genealogy or line of descent. Thus, any one observed phenomenon can have several different origins from different points in time/cultural history. In fact, this is precisely the kind of argument Otsuka Eiji makes when pointing out how in military/war stories from the pre-war period (which are generally taken as the important precursor of giant robo stories) artists would combine two visual styles: the high detail of mechanical/scientific draftsmanship for machines with a cartoonish/caricturistic style for animals and human characters. You can see a little of this in Nagai’s manga, though it’s harder to tell given his, admittedly, rather poor drawing skills early in his career.


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