In university I took a fascinating course called “War, Peace and Society.” We always used to joke that the class should just be called “War,” as we never made it through the “war” part to talk much about “peace and society.”
In retrospect I realize the thing about peace is that it can’t really exist without war, in the same way that light can’t exist without darkness. We had to talk about war to even begin to understand what peace meant, what society looked like or could look like.
All of the news lately about Paris, Beirut, terrorists and refugees has got me thinking about war, peace, society… and space robots. Gundam, to be specific. Gundam is the pre-Transformers Japanese media franchise about giant fighting space robots.
I can explain.
The creator of Gundam, Yoshiyuki Tomino, recently said something very interesting in an interview with overseas media:
“Everything real is my motivation.”
The guy who invented giant fighting space robot stories says he is motivated by reality. How could that be even remotely possible?
What makes it possible is not the space robots themselves, but the stories that they help Tomino tell, the world that they help him to portray.
It’s the future and the world – not surprisingly – is at war. There are several different blocks of allied powers simultaneously working together and competing with one another for dominance of resources and access to space, all the while insurgent groups and terrorists wreak havoc on the ground and in the skies above.
Enter the Gundams. The Gundams are a new type of technology, mobile suits piloted by unlikely heroes – are they heroes? – superior to any military technology the world has yet seen. They have a mysterious origin, are allied with no one, and are on a mission to disturb the current messed-up order of things and bring about a new one. A better one. Maybe.
One of the things that struck me when I watched a Gundam series through for the first time was how the stories rang true in that vaguely familiar way that good dystopian stories do, that makes one think “I can see this happening.” If you can suspend your disbelief about the giant fighting space robots, everything else about the story seems very possible. Very human. Very real.
More than anything else, though, what makes Gundam so real is the points of view from which the stories are told. The Gundam pilots are protagonists, but not the only ones: the viewer gets to know people in all different parts of the conflict, gets to see all sides through the eyes of these people, learns to empathize with people from different factions, sees enemies find common ground and friends find themselves on opposite sides. As a result the viewer comes to understand why the conflict is so complicated and why it’s unlikely be resolved in any simple manner.
In short, there are no “good” guys and “bad” guys, there are only people: people with different stories, different origins, different traumatic life-altering events, and often very similar reasons to hate their enemies; to hate one another.
When you think about how a battlefield is made up of a few hundred or a few hundred thousand people amassing on each side, if it weren’t for both sides standing up for their justice, such a thing as a battlefield probably wouldn’t even come into existence.
“Everyone is standing up for their justice.”
By portraying this idea in Gundam, Tomino shows the messiness of war from an overhead view – and gets to the heart of why peace is so difficult to come by in our society, or our societies. Peace evades us because understanding is so illusive, when all one sees is one’s own side.
We are all human; we can’t so easily remove ourselves from our situations, from our affiliations, from our histories and biases and traumas and experiences.
But we are ALL human. Even if it takes giant fighting space robots to teach us that.