Next June, robot enthusiasts from around the world will be treated to a spectacle unlike any other: a four meter tall mecha designed by Suidobashi Heavy Industry will face off against Boston-based-firm MegaBots’ Mark II robot in a knock-down, drag out contest to see which is the badder ‘bot. This was after MegaBots released a challenge video to the Japanese corporation that quickly racked up millions of views. While it is good-natured, both sides feel that they are representing an important part of their culture.
Japan have an overt association with mecha. While the definitions can fluctuate and there are a number of sub-categories, the term “mecha” usually refers to giant robots with humanoid shapes and a cockpit for a human pilot. They are usually presented as an extension of the pilot in some respect, unlike American robots which are seen more as tools, indistinguishable from others except in their potential destructive capacity.
The love of giant mecha has been a major driver of entertainment in Japan for over half a century, spawning such icons as Mobile Suit Gundam and the half-monster Evangelion. Part of what made the American production of Robotech possible was that the three animes it was cobbled together from had such similar concepts regarding transformable mecha fighting space aliens. Mecha were nearly anthropomorphized in many cases, such as the way characters discuss Voltron, Defender of the Universe, or how the giant mecha in Kyoryu Sentai Zyuranger actually was sentient and imparted wisdom to the characters. Even American imports might be given mecha they didn’t otherwise have, such as the live-action Japanese Spider-man who could call upon his mecha Leopardon for help battling villains.
The US is much more wary of robots. From 2001: A Space Odyssey to The Matrix, when they talk about machines it’s often with a sense of dread. Drawing from earlier Western traditions, robots are often a metaphor for humanity overreaching itself, such as in Chappie, or playing with powers that they were not capable of controlling like Ultron in the newest Avengers film. In some cases, robots are allowed to make small contributions, but let’s be honest – there is no way that R2D2 and C3PO were going to be getting medals at the end of A New Hope no matter how much they contributed. They’re machines. That’s their job. Productions like Pacific Rim tend to be the exception to the rule, and even that had to have a largely-international focus.
In the case of Japan, their love of robots may be related in some ways to Animist Shinto beliefs that all things, even man-made objects, have a spirit. The Japanese are able to see mecha as creatures that can be benevolent helpers whereas Western monotheistic beliefs are more prone to view the creation of something with a “soul” as a usurpation of the role of God.
That being said, it doesn’t prevent Americans from taking pleasure in a high tech war machine destroying another. Since robots in the US are often portrayed as fighting machines, Americans can realign their views to see them in the same way they do guns: tools in the hands of the good guys to fight the bad guys.
In many ways it can be argued that the Japanese love robots while Americans fear them. For example, compare two 2015 movies focused on robots: Japanese-inspired Big Hero Six and American Ex Machina. In the first case, the robot is presented as a loveable medical bot repurposed into a non-lethal fighting machine that sacrifices itself for its owner. In the second, the robot is alien and inscrutable, learning about humanity through a series of lies and manipulations.
Unsurprisingly, American robots are generally developed with warfare in mind and are often just suits whereas the Japanese robotics industry is focused on a wide range of applications to help make life easier in a number of ways for its citizens. However, it isn’t to say that each country is confined to this general assumption. Many Americans have developed numerous amounts of smart technologies to help people live comfortable and convenient lives, including the use of robot-assisted surgery to perform procedures remotely and home security systems to keep families safe. And Japan is stocking up on the newest warfare tech in the event that they have to defend themselves against China and have also had a history of developing secret weapons during war-filled years.
It will be hard to predict a winner in June’s robot fight. The Japanese bot is made with all of the love that country puts into its mecha, but the American one comes with that country’s intimate association with warfare. In either case, it should prove to be an incredible battle.