Japan Builds Such Awesome Robots Because of Anime

The history of anime robots reflects the development of real-life tech.

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Mar 24 2014, 4:20pm
A Gundam figure. Image: Flickr/Zhao!

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.

Perhaps the most interesting facet of the relationship between anime robots and IRL technology, however, is the suggestion that anime doesn’t only reflect technological advancements, but in some cases inspired them. There’s a reason Japanese robots tend to look so cute and humanoid, and robot anime could well be it.

The report doesn’t shy away from drawing a correlation between Japan’s robot anime heritage and its scientists and engineers, suggesting that many were motivated to pursue careers in mechanical engineering thanks to animations and toys.

“This trend is particularly pronounced among the ‘First Gundam’ generation, currently in their 40s,” it says, referring to a long-running anime series featuring giant humanoid robo-vehicles. “As such the robot anime genre has exerted a great influence on the real world, inspiring its fans to study space technologies, or to enter the automotive industry to bring their designs to life, or to even create actual bipedal robots.” 

The Honda Asimo robot. Image: Flickr/Gustavo Amorim

The authors have a point. By the 1990s, things quite literally got real for robot anime as Japanese companies announced real-world humanoid robot projects, which are still something of a trademark of the Japanese tech scene. You don’t have to look too closely to see an anime influence on actual serious works of Japanese robotics: Kirobo the robot astronaut, PaPeRo the telepresence robot, Valkyrie the six foot humanoid, to name just a few recent offerings from Japanese companies and research groups, are all suspiciously Power Ranger-looking. Honda's ASIMO robot is unabashedly inspired by Astro Boy

The report argues that the enduring popularity of robot anime among children and adults is down to the fact that it values originality. “The sense of exploration and vitality inherent to the medium of robot anime is a reflection of the Japanese psyche,” it says. 

Now the phenomenon is coming full-circle once more, with contemporary tech like smartphones popping up in newer robot anime series. A genre that was originally based solely on sci-fi fantasies is becoming closer to real life than ever. “As fiction increasingly mixes with reality, a new generation of dreamers will undoubtedly spark new advances in robot anime culture along the way,” the writers state rather whimsically.

Those advances are worth keeping an eye on, because if history is anything to go by, they may one day end up a lot more real than their animators originally expect.