Breaking the American Mecha Curse

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Breaking the American Mecha Curse

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Postby El Squibbonator » Thu Dec 21, 2023 2:40 am

For one reason or another, the mecha genre never really took off in Western film and TV. There have been only a handful of attempts, none of which can truly be called successful. The first was Exosquad, which ran for two seasons and was cancelled at the beginning of a third. Later attempts included Megas XLR, Titan Maximum, and Sym-Bionic Titan, all of which were also cancelled at or before the end of their first season. RoosterTeeth's streaming series GenLock ran massively over budget and led to huge losses at the studio; it was renewed for a second season, but HBO Max had to underwrite it. The only notable live-action films in the genre have been the Pacific Rim movies, the first of which was decently successful but the second barely broke even, leaving the future of the franchise in doubt.

So it's obvious from this list that the mecha genre has struggled to find its footing among American creators. The question is, why? Is there some sort of cultural or historical aspect to the mecha genre that caused it to become popular specifically in Japan as opposed to anywhere else? We know that mecha stories are obviously popular outside of Japan, but for whatever reason that doesn't seem to have translated into movie and film studios wanting to invest in the genre.
Last edited by El Squibbonator on Thu Dec 21, 2023 1:12 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Breaking the American Mecha Curse

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Postby Blockio » Thu Dec 21, 2023 8:36 am

I think the main issue is the same that spawns the brand of chronic cynicism that passes for humor in hollywood these days: Things that are in any form whimsical or indulgent in a premise outside of established "acceptable" deviations from Hard And Gritty Reality™ without constantly making fun of themselves for it (see "would you rather have yellow spandex") are seen by large parts of a potential audience as silly and childish, something that you can only like """ironically""" (oh how much I loathe that notion), and if you actually take it seriously, you're just immature and don't know that a REAL story should be about XYZ played out trope in Game of Thrones that is totally not part of the problem.

Obviously a bit exaggerated for effect, but that very much is a sentiment that exists with many audiences, especially US-side, and it is only very slowly beginning to change
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Re: Breaking the American Mecha Curse

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Postby El Squibbonator » Thu Dec 21, 2023 11:03 am

That explains why there aren't any now, absolutely, but it doesn't answer why the genre never took off in the United States during its formative years. The idea that dark and gritty is what sells in American film and TV is relatively new, and seems not to pre-date the 21st century, at least as far as movies go. But the mecha genre and many of its defining works, including Evangelion itself, are older than that. So in theory there would have been room for American storytellers to embrace it.

What makes this especially confusing is the fact that the various collective "elements" of mecha stories do exist in American movies and TV. We have heroes who use mechanical powered armor (like Iron Man), we have stories where vehicles are treated and marketed as the main "characters", with their human operators in supporting roles (think Knight Rider or Airwolf), and of course, we have plenty of shows and movies about sentient, non-piloted robots. Yet for some reason, the logical convergence of these three things-- the piloted mecha story-- never emerged in American pop culture in any significant way.

Is there something peculiarly Japanese about the origins of the mecha genre? It certainly seems that way to me. But what is it?
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Re: Breaking the American Mecha Curse

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Postby Blockio » Thu Dec 21, 2023 11:53 am

I mean 90s Gundam and a few others did do decently well on Toonami; as far as I can tell from my outside perspective, it just seems like a lot of people kind of grew out of it, and after it shifted timslots to a much later and more infrequent one, there was never something that quite had the same mass captivity for the niche
I can see why Gendo hired Misato to do the actual commanding. He tried it once and did an appalling job. ~ AWinters
Your point of view is horny, and biased. ~ glitz2hard
What about titty-ten? ~ Reichu
The movies function on their own terms. If people can't accept them on those terms, and keep expecting them to be NGE, then they probably should have realized a while ago that they weren't going to have a good time. ~ Words of wisdom courtesy of Reichu

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Re: Breaking the American Mecha Curse

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Postby cyharding » Thu Dec 21, 2023 12:20 pm

This is going to be a bit of an incomplete thought, but I think it could be that Japan before World War II still had a 19th century view that technology can do everything while the West was focused on the deeds of men (both real and fictional). So during the war while Superman and Captain America were punching Nazis in their comic books, there were manga stories in Japan where a giant spider robot was laying waste to New York. There could also be other cultural issues at play that I might not even know about.
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Re: Breaking the American Mecha Curse

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Postby El Squibbonator » Thu Dec 21, 2023 12:35 pm

View Original Postcyharding wrote: there were manga stories in Japan where a giant spider robot was laying waste to New York.


There were?
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Re: Breaking the American Mecha Curse

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Postby cyharding » Thu Dec 21, 2023 11:34 pm

Yep, and illustrations of FDR as a vampire.
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Re: Breaking the American Mecha Curse

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Postby El Squibbonator » Sat Dec 23, 2023 6:56 pm

Interesting. So-- aside from the works I mentioned in my original post, all of which were prematurely cancelled or otherwise unsuccessful-- have there been any truly successful Western mecha-themed TV shows or movies?
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Re: Breaking the American Mecha Curse

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Postby Blockio » Sun Dec 24, 2023 1:43 am

I'd say Pacific Rim very much does count there. The amount of spinoffs and tie-ins that got definitely clears the bar for being successful
I can see why Gendo hired Misato to do the actual commanding. He tried it once and did an appalling job. ~ AWinters
Your point of view is horny, and biased. ~ glitz2hard
What about titty-ten? ~ Reichu
The movies function on their own terms. If people can't accept them on those terms, and keep expecting them to be NGE, then they probably should have realized a while ago that they weren't going to have a good time. ~ Words of wisdom courtesy of Reichu

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Re: Breaking the American Mecha Curse

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Postby The Killer of Heroes » Sun Dec 24, 2023 9:51 am

I think the movies suck but its hard to say the Michael Bay Transformers movies aren't a major cultural touchstone in America, far above that of Pacific Rim and the like. They may not be piloted mecha but they're still mecha.

So with that in mind I don't accept OP's premise that mecha never really took of in America. It did, just with movies that kinda suck.

This is also to say nothing of Americanized series like Power Rangers still be nostalgic property for a lot of millennial types and such. Sure that's based on Japanese property but I doubt most Americans even know that.

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Postby El Squibbonator » Sun Dec 24, 2023 8:01 pm

So with that in mind I don't accept OP's premise that mecha never really took of in America


Transformers is a bit of an odd case. I've seen it argued that the reason Transformers succeeded, where so many other American stories about giant mecha have failed, is that the titular robots are treated first and foremost as characters, not as machines. While something like EVA Unit 01 or the RX-78-2 Gundam might be a pop culture icon, and the main selling point of its show, there's no denying that the human characters are the ones who drive the plot, with the mechas simply being a tool for doing so. Compare that to the view many fans had of the Michael Bay Transformers movies, where a lot of them criticized the focus on the "useless human sidekicks" instead of the robot protagonists. What I gather from this is that Americans are, overall, cool with the idea of robots as characters in their own right (Transformers, The Iron Giant, WALL-E) whereas in Japan, mecha are seen as tools for human characters.

I'd say Pacific Rim very much does count there. The amount of spinoffs and tie-ins that got definitely clears the bar for being successful


Pacific Rim was a near-miss. An "almost". The first movie did decently well, but as I said, the second one barely broke even. We got a TV show too, but it was cancelled after two seasons and ended on a cliffhanger. After that, the franchise has more or less died out. This seems to be the fate of the majority of American mecha works, even the most "successful" of them. Exo-Squad made three seasons, but was cancelled after the finale of the third was clearly setting up a fourth. The Titanfall series had two games made, but since then every attempt to continue it has been cancelled.
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Re: Breaking the American Mecha Curse

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Postby Blockio » Sun Dec 24, 2023 8:15 pm

View Original PostEl Squibbonator wrote:We got a TV show too, but it was cancelled after two seasons and ended on a cliffhanger. After that, the franchise has more or less died out.

??????????
My brother in christ, it told the story that it wanted to tell. There was no cliffhanger, no cancellation: The plot of the Black was just over, a finished tale. I really don't understand how anyone can watch TB and get "incomplete" from it. It was ordered for two seasons, and got two season.

And the notion that PacRim with a sequel movie, two dozen books releases across multiple series, and several video games somehow does not count as successful is a notion that is just blatantly false; especially because we have outright confirmation that there is more planned, and a third movie fully written.
You do not need to be the MCU to be a successful media franchise.
I can see why Gendo hired Misato to do the actual commanding. He tried it once and did an appalling job. ~ AWinters
Your point of view is horny, and biased. ~ glitz2hard
What about titty-ten? ~ Reichu
The movies function on their own terms. If people can't accept them on those terms, and keep expecting them to be NGE, then they probably should have realized a while ago that they weren't going to have a good time. ~ Words of wisdom courtesy of Reichu

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Postby El Squibbonator » Sun Dec 24, 2023 9:37 pm

There was actually only one game, which was released in 2013 for the XBox 360 and the PlayStation 3. As far as my point about being "prematurely ended" goes, there was a third movie planned, but after the sequel movie under-performed, those plans-- along with pretty much all other hopes to turn Pacific Rim into a franchise-- were left dead in the water. Two movies, a TV show, and a game. That's pretty much it. But as far as American mecha franchises go, it's actually impressive.
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Re: Breaking the American Mecha Curse

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Postby Blockio » Mon Dec 25, 2023 6:22 pm

Well, no. There were five proper release games; one home console, two mobile games that ran for a long time, and two quite thorough browser games (alongside a third that I'm not willing to count as a full game). It also had a board game, a theme park attraction that is still ongoing, four figure lines for the original movie alongside a handful of more oneoff releases, two figure lines and a model kit line for Uprising with even more oneoffs; of particular note here being the Soul of Chogokins (for some reason listed under the Uprising tab?) and 18 inch figures: Those are high end, high prestige lines that do not see many releases.

That is significantly more than most Gundam shows ever got, on top of the almost half a billion dollars profit that the movies alone made (Wikipedia seems to be using net income here to mean revenue minus budget); I get your argument, but that is not the mark of an unsuccessful franchise.

I looked up the global box office revenuse of Gundam The Origin, a decently high profile Gundam theatric release of the same year; The first half is missing, but the back half having about 3.5m$ box office revenue between them; so being generous and extrapolating that to about 10m for the whole series, I'd say your movie franchise was pretty successful if you have seventy times the box office revenue of a highly marketed OVA series about the most popular character in all of Gundam.

Yes, Uprising being shit put a big dampener on future plans for the moment, but the amount of things that Pacific Rim got were not just impressive by the standards of western mecha, they were impressive by the standards of even major, globally successful franchises, and notably continued for several years after the release and relative financial failure of Uprising.
I can see why Gendo hired Misato to do the actual commanding. He tried it once and did an appalling job. ~ AWinters
Your point of view is horny, and biased. ~ glitz2hard
What about titty-ten? ~ Reichu
The movies function on their own terms. If people can't accept them on those terms, and keep expecting them to be NGE, then they probably should have realized a while ago that they weren't going to have a good time. ~ Words of wisdom courtesy of Reichu

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Postby El Squibbonator » Tue Dec 26, 2023 12:33 am

Discussions about its status as a truly successful franchise aside, Pacific Rim is still kind of an interesting case because it was created as a deliberate homage to classic mecha anime-- you can see references in it to Evangelion, Mazinger Z, Gundam and many others. It's worth noting that, despite its success, Pacific Rim actually didn't do all that well in Japan. A variety of reasons have been suggested for this, and one of the most commonly cited is the idea that, in general, it was just "too similar" to domestically-produced works in the same genre. The constant references to Japanese mecha anime and kaiju movies actually worked against it in this respect.

It's actually hard to envision a mecha story that doesn't borrow from anime to some extent, and I think this has to do with the very specific cultural tropes that must have led to it becoming popular in Japan. I have no idea what those cultural tropes are, but I have a hard time imagining a mecha story that doesn't rely on any of them. For example, what would one written in the United States-- one that draws from the culture of the United States, as opposed to simply aping the tropes found in mecha anime-- look like?
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Re: Breaking the American Mecha Curse

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Postby Blockio » Tue Dec 26, 2023 7:22 pm

El Squibbonator wrote:one of the most commonly cited is the idea that, in general, it was just "too similar" to domestically-produced works in the same genre. The constant references to Japanese mecha anime and kaiju movies actually worked against it in this respect.

that's quite ironic, given that, as far as I understand, Del Toro specifically instructed his staff to not draw that heavily from mecha in terms of aesthetics, with the Jaegers being designed from WW2 airplanes and buildings more so than from preexisting mecha.

As for the larger discussion - since mecha as a genre was largely coined by Japanese properties, any attempt at removing the underlying cultural influence is likely to gut the genre of its core identity as colateral damage.
Mecha, I posit, is part of a larger supergenre that I tend to dub "combat avatars" that also encompasses magical girls, tokusatsu, power armor, and others like those; the aesthetic and thematic core of the story is the presence of a physically powerful fighting body, partially or fully separate from the much more fragile person in control of it. There's obviously some leeway to the pilot part; a combat avatar story can very much feature one where the pilot never really was in control, so long as the story frames it as if they were; it's what, in my eyes, makes Eva and other sapient robot with the nominal pilot only giving suggestions count where Transformers, Megaman or Astroboy are a different genre; that discussion of identity in relation to physical presence is one that I tend to not see much in domestic US culture.

I suppose the closest thing to a recognizable trend of truly non-Japanese mecha would be the Power Loader or the Tripods, more as a mass produced tool than having individual significance - I think the main difference in approach is that of mecha being heroes compared to mecha being tools. There is obviously a lot of examples that don't fall into that roster, between JP properties like VOTOMS, 86 and the like, as well as how some iterations of Iron Man probably do count as American mecha under the points of being a combat avatar, but I think the general notion does hold some water.
I can see why Gendo hired Misato to do the actual commanding. He tried it once and did an appalling job. ~ AWinters
Your point of view is horny, and biased. ~ glitz2hard
What about titty-ten? ~ Reichu
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Re: Breaking the American Mecha Curse

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Postby El Squibbonator » Wed Dec 27, 2023 1:30 am

Mecha, I posit, is part of a larger supergenre that I tend to dub "combat avatars" that also encompasses magical girls, tokusatsu, power armor, and others like those; the aesthetic and thematic core of the story is the presence of a physically powerful fighting body, partially or fully separate from the much more fragile person in control of it.


I agree, but I'd argue powered armor isn't part of that category. Powered armor tends to be seen as a natural extension of the character/wearer, akin to an article of clothing or a prosthetic limb, whereas a "combat avatar" (gonna have to snag that phrase for myself) is explicitly a bigger, more powerful projection of the user that is fully separate from their human identity. From a narrative standpoint, Iron Man's armor has more in common with Batman's utility belt or Spider-Man's web-shooters than it does with something like a Gundam or an EVA unit. Japanese fiction is replete with variations of the "combat avatar" concept, ranging from spirits that can be summoned (think JoJo's Bizarre Adventure) to magical girl transformations, to, yes, mecha.
A broad look at western, and more specifically American, fiction, shows that superpowers-- whether they be magical or technological-- are treated more like tools to be wielded than as larger-than-life combat avatars. This seemingly leaves little room for the mecha story as envisioned in Japan to arise, at least not in a truly home-grown fashion independent of Japanese influence. But where did this cultural difference come from, and what specific aspects led to it? And more to the point, what would a mecha story rooted in western cultural tropes look like?
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Re: Breaking the American Mecha Curse

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Postby Blockio » Thu Dec 28, 2023 9:03 am

View Original PostEl Squibbonator wrote:I agree, but I'd argue powered armor isn't part of that category. Powered armor tends to be seen as a natural extension of the character/wearer, akin to an article of clothing or a prosthetic limb, whereas a "combat avatar" (gonna have to snag that phrase for myself) is explicitly a bigger, more powerful projection of the user that is fully separate from their human identity.

I don't think I agree that size is the deciding factor; a magical girl transformation does not change that, either.
It should be noted that my definition of power armor here is very broad - could be something purely mechanical like the Starship Troopers gear or a Warhammer Space Marine, over Kamen Rider and Sentai to a fully sapient being that takes the shape of an armor worn by someone else, such as DxD's Scale Mail.

From a narrative standpoint, Iron Man's armor has more in common with Batman's utility belt or Spider-Man's web-shooters than it does with something like a Gundam or an EVA unit.
[...]
A broad look at western, and more specifically American, fiction, shows that superpowers-- whether they be magical or technological-- are treated more like tools to be wielded than as larger-than-life combat avatars. This seemingly leaves little room for the mecha story as envisioned in Japan to arise, at least not in a truly home-grown fashion independent of Japanese influence.

Like most things comics, I feel like that deoends on the specific version; I'm not deep enough into Marvel or DC to remember any precise names, but I do remember reading and watching a few stories where both the Batman suit and the Iron Man armor felt fairly close to a proper combat avatar, an ideal that went beyond simply Bruce or Tony wearing it; it's not quite the same, but I'd argue the underlying concept aims at a similar enough thing to count.

And more to the point, what would a mecha story rooted in western cultural tropes look like?

Hmm. I'm going to limit this to just the US for a moment, because anything more will turn this into an exponentially larger can of worms of trying to find a universal "western" set of tropes that may or may not exist; for the US specifically, I'd say that three very archetypical fix points of action-oriented US pop culture would be Captain America, Top Gun and... honestly any movie with anyone who was ever in The Expendables in the main role.
So a larger than life idol with a military background, doing violence for an ostensibly just cause, depending on the era either following orders to the best of their ability, or trying to be better than the system they are serving, and not following orders that force them to be worse.
Or Star Wars and Star Trek, both of which are not too far away from that in most points.

Dialing back the machismo a bit, I'd therefore posit that the founding hypothesis of a "true" US mecha would be that it is possible to be good and upstanding even in a time of severe strife and injustice, and the necessity for violence must not eclipse that ideal.
That's pretty straightforward and workable as a thematic core; the aesthetics are a bit harder to nail down definitively, but would likely follow that in most cases. I wager that the scifi hardness scale would have a much more distinct split between super robot and real robot with a lot less middle ground entries than JP mecha has, and probably would look and feel a lot more industrial than the sleek and elegant heroic designs that a good chunk of JP mecha has.
Beyond that? Who knows. Would be interesting to see, however.
I can see why Gendo hired Misato to do the actual commanding. He tried it once and did an appalling job. ~ AWinters
Your point of view is horny, and biased. ~ glitz2hard
What about titty-ten? ~ Reichu
The movies function on their own terms. If people can't accept them on those terms, and keep expecting them to be NGE, then they probably should have realized a while ago that they weren't going to have a good time. ~ Words of wisdom courtesy of Reichu

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Re: Breaking the American Mecha Curse

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Postby El Squibbonator » Sun Jan 21, 2024 4:48 pm

So I just found a discussion on Reddit about this exact topic, and what one of the commenters had to say was pretty interesting. I'm going to post it here:

1. There are two major branches of Mecha shows. "super robots" like in Gurren Lagann, and "real robots" like in Gundam.

2. Whatever interest the USA had in "super robots" generally got devoured by transformers/power rangers/superheroes as a genre.

3. real robots" have always been strictly speaking, anti-war in tone. Gundam very much was/is,/always will be loaded with anti-war messages. Macross? Anti-War, pro the arts. Neon Genesis Evangalion? Debatable whether it's on the super robots, or real robots side of things, but it is very anti-war.

Oh, and as far as anti-war western franchises go, theoretically, Star Wars was anti-war when it started. Kinda stopped being anti-war after a certain point, but at least in the OT/Prequels eras, it was theoretically, mostly anti-war.

next bit. let's look at the big sci-fi/fantasy franchises that have caught on in the USA.

For one, superheroes have been huge in the USA for a while. As is often mentioned, Superheroes (as a genre) is copaganda (as in, propaganda praising the police) and, is likewise into a concept called "perpetual war." More on that later.

Star Wars, for whatever it used to be, is more and more skewing into the perpetual war narrative, as the SW cycle is locked into endless conflict as Disney trys to wring every last dollar out of it. That being said, a lot of that endless conflict in SW started before disney got their mitts on it, so it's not all on them.

ST, from TNG on, is all about armed conflicts with giant spaceships. Starfleet pretends to be enlightened, and not a military, but both of those things are a lie. And yeah. Starfleet, is basically never not fighting small-scale undeclared wars, if not full-scale declared wars.

Are you noticing a trend? Rather than compact stories, with a beginning, middle and end, where we all learn the lesson "WAR==BAD", in the USA, mass media stories about warfare skew towards sprawling, endless meandering stories, with endless conflicts across multiple generations.

And uh, well. Mecha actually don't suit that form of narrative very well. What makes Mecha stories good for anti-war narratives, is the fact that mechas are strong, and powerful and kewl (adding some spectacle to the story) but the pilots of said mechas, are just as human, failable, and mortal as anybody else.

Actually vulnerable heroes hasn't been much of thing in US pop media for quite some time. Every now and again, we will get a shot of noir pumped back into popular consciousness, but overall, America is in love with the idea of invulnerable, unstoppable exceptionalism. Which can work somewhat with super-robot shows like say, power rangers, but is foundationally incompatible with real robot shows, that are more about the vulnerability of the pilots, thanthe power of the mechas.

It's almost as if the difference between US and Japan's mass media is heavily influenced by the fact that the USA won WW II, and imposed a unconditional surrender on Japan, and said unconditional surrender included the USA forcibly disarming Japan, forever, and occupying them, and that having had two nukes dropped on major cities, has made Japan rethink how cool mas murder via overpowered engines of war is, wheras the USA has had no real need to consider the idea "war is bad", to the same degree Japan has.


If this is true, then I suppose you could argue that the reason we don't get more mecha stories in America is because our history doesn't really allow for them. Japan suffered a devastating loss at the end of World War II, and so many elements of its modern-day culture can be traced back to that, but America is a culture of winners. The only element of modern American culture that could be compared to Japan's trauma about losing World War II is, unfortunately, people in the South who think the Civil War isn't over. And the less said about them, the better.
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Blockio
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Re: Breaking the American Mecha Curse

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Postby Blockio » Tue Jan 23, 2024 1:43 pm

It has the right idea, but takes some of the conclusions a lot farther than they like to be stretched, I feel; it also broad strokes a number of things to better fit into a nice and clean binary.
There is definitely an argument to be had about how specifically action fiction reflects on a culture's stance towards conflict, but I think OP at minimum misidentifies the root cause there; Japanese fiction and its audiences, speaking in very broad generalizations, tend to be more accepting of separate timelines than Western, especially American audiences, so the trend in one goes to many smaller stories, while the trend in the other goes to large, interconnected universes; the intent of both is for the company owning the IP to make money from it until they can't anymore, but I don't believe the way they go about it is directly indicative of what the audiences perceive the nature of war as.
That is, of course, also ignoring the elephant in the room that is UC Gundam and Macross as two of the most influential works of Japanese scifi, both of which are massive, generation-spanning timelines with near-constant conflict, so that kind of flies in the face of the thesis that this phenomenon is innate to one culture or the other
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