Pacific Rim: A Trip Through Nostalgia for a Review I Can’t Write

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My introduction to anime was through Robotech. In hindsight, I learned I’d seen earlier programs along the lines of Voltron, The Littl’ Bits, and Grimm’s Fairy Tale Classics, but these were largely bowdlerized kiddie fair which didn’t stand out from the typical cartoons of the 80s. On the surface, Robotech seemed to belong to that ilk, with its toyetic assortment of transformable vehicles, giant playset battleships, and heroes in various states of uniform and armor. And it was brought over to market a toyline, although the high-quality die-cast figurines were largely only available in hobby and comic shops, and it would take a few years of syndication for the typical plastic figurines and vehicles to come into being.

The first segment of Robotech is adapted from the series Super Dimension Fortress Macross, where a giant dead ship of alien technology crashes into the earth and kills hundreds of thousands of people, but instead of this being our main plot, we instead pick up a decade down the road, as civilization has dusted itself off and formed a world government, mostly focused on an international drive to study and reverse-engineer the monolith. As luck would have it, on the day they get the thing in working order, a fleet of alien battleships arrive in search of what was taken from them all those years ago. What begins is a war, and unlike the pew-pew laser beams of G.I. Joe, which never quite hit what they were aiming at and triggered the automatic release of parachutes and unscathed pilots whenever they’d make contact with a vehicle, this was a show which didn’t shy away from the bodycount per episode that realistic war is. When a ship blew up, chances were more often than not that the person inside went up with it, and this caused a steady decline in the main cast as both hero and villain tallied on the losses chart, and those left behind were constantly dealing with the guilt, grief, and anger at what continued to be taken from them.

Not only was it a show which introduced 80s tv kids to the horrors and numbness of war, to a constantly shifting political spectrum, to villains who were still sympathetic despite being guilty of genocidal atrocities, and to realistic relationships and romances which don’t always go the way one plans them to, but it was a testament to human innovation. Unlike Voltron or Power Rangers, they weren’t just given magical alien technology that lets them smite all foes, but rather came across this broken wreck of a thing which still had some secrets buried in it, but it revealed enough new ideas that our scientists went off in exploring the myriad ways in which this could be fused with existing technologies, constantly innovating in the face of a daunting yet stagnant enemy. The technology of transformable machines came from the aliens, but we stuck it in our planes and tanks. The giant SDF-1 had an ability to transform, but it didn’t take on a humanoid shape until we welded a couple of battleships to either side for it to punch with. Even up to the very end, it was humanity’s ability to pull together and innovate in the face of constant disaster which allowed us to triumph. They have the power, but we have the spirit, and while they also have the knowledge, we’ll be damned if we give up before we figure it out as well.

I never actually caught Robotech on television, but rather discovered the entire Macross Saga (the first of three “seasons”, each comprised of a separate anime series lightly retooled by Carl Macek to exist in the same universe) on videotape at the local blockbuster, probably somewhere around 1990-91. It was one of the few television series to be released in its entirety on home media at the time, and I’d pick up a new volume each week, then spend the rest of it squirming in anticipation of what horrors and wonders the next installment would provide. My dad was an organizer of local comic book conventions, venues which provided the foundation for where much of the early anime industry in the US would arise, as people would put together their own subtitle translations for bootlegs swapped in screening rooms and boxes beneath tables laden with comics. So while not a fan, he’d heard of Japanese animation (widely called “Japanimation” at the time, as Macek was just starting to get “anime” to stick and spread with his Streamline theatrical roadshows) and recognized the style.

It kinda blew my mind that I was watching a cartoon from the other side of the world, and scanning tapes at Blockbuster and other shops, I started coming across more and more. There were the dry but serviceable Just For Kids and Celebrity Home Entertainment releases of stuff like Lock the Superpower, Defenders of the Vortex, Space Firebird Phoenix, and Battle for Moon Station Dallos. ADV gave me my first animated boner when I found Devil Hunter Yoko mistakenly tucked in the kids section. Animego, US Manga, and Central Park Media started bringing out uncensored, and often subtitled, stuff like Project A-Ko, Dominion Tank Police, Madox-01, Record of Lodoss War, MD Geist, Gal Force, etc, etc. And Macek struck again as he got first the Sci-Fi Channel, and later Cartoon Network to run weekend-long marathons of Streamline releases like Vampire Hunter D, Robot Carnival, Lensman, Twilight of the Cockroaches, and Casshan: Robot Hunter. This was an entire world of pulp adventure, visually striking scifi and fantasy, and spectacular collections of wonders and horrors impossible for live-action entertainment of the time to convey.

As Macek drove anime into mainstream exposure, people caught on and a hungry audience demanded more, leading to a rich expansion and diversification of the titles available. Whereas the focus had previously been limited to movies and OVAs (Original Video Animation), which could be spat out in little standalone nuggets, now entire television series and multi-media franchises were flooding the market, and one never knew how to keep up. This is when I started drifting away from anime, where it just became too much. Before, it was realistically possible for a fan to get ahold of everything out there. Now, with one having to pick and choose, the realization came that this medium I loved was far from infallible, and like any other medium, had far more stuff which was bad or mediocre than it did good or great. It was that sad crack of realization that this thing I thought was special really wasn’t anymore, and thus it just folded into the broader field of entertainment for me, neither better nor worse than any other medium or genre, and consumed right alongside everything else. And I did continue consuming, with favorites from the later half of the 90s being Tenchi Muyo, Ranma 1/2, Patlabor, and Serial Experiments Lain. And throughout this time, ADV had a trailer for Super Atragon on their dvds – a 90s anime remake of a 60s scifi film which included a kaiju – in which monolithic beings rise from the ocean depths and lay waste to our navy, until we assemble a high tech vehicle (a submarine, in this case) to fight back. It would take a couple of year for me to finally see the OVA, and it was a clumsy bit of melodrama with the moneyshots far too sporadically used. I still love that trailer, though.

And then there was Neon Genesis Evangelion. Evangelion is to giant robot anime what Watchmen is to comic book superheroes, in that it assembled all of the trademark tropes which came before it, then flipped them on their head, broke them open, drove them insane, crushed their soul, gave them a few extra kicks just for the hell of it, then puts the shattered shards back together in a way which completely redefined the genre as a whole and affected everything which came after. It told the story of a world just over a decade recovered from an apocalyptic and still largely unexplained disaster, which finds itself under attack by a stream of creatures from an unrevealed source, and has to assemble “robots” piloted by psychologically damaged children so as to combat the creatures.

Amidst all the mind-blowing action and striking designs was a deep exploration of the director’s own struggles with depression, as the lead was stuck with a father figure who ignored and despised him, another pilot puts on a cocky air but was completely devastated as she was forced to live a traumatic incident from her past, and yet another was so completely detatched from everything that the first time she plugged into the cockpit of one of the mysterious EVA units, it rejected her and went berserk, smashing into its holding gate before they could power it down. Human innovation was still the key, but after the half way point, all the clever ideas like training pilots to operate in synch or repurposing technology to be used as tools by giant “robots” were thrown out as the show suddenly reversed and ate inward, showing how the tech was a way to lord over the weaker sides of ourselves, chaining in the monsters, giving false victories, and unleashing nothing but destruction and despair.

Evangelion was a phenomenon. A lot of the old fans disliked how thoroughly its wake churned the iconic tropes they came up on, but others were spellbound, and it pulled in a new wave of teenage fans attracted to its themes of disaffection and detatchment. And it hit the internet at just the right time, and the ambiguous mysteries of the show and revelations that later episodes were just being released in Japan with restored “director’s cut” material packed chatrooms and forums with passionate, excited, and often furious discussion. Director Hideoki Anno was intensely aware of this fandom, and when he had the opportunity to “properly” conclude the series in the film End of Evangelion (the tv series kinda petered out near the end due to massive production cuts by the original network) he scoured the internet haunts and compiled lists of what people were most eager to see and what desires they felt were unresolved by the show. And true to his cynical, deconstructionist style, he gave it to them in ways many fans have yet to forgive him for, as the film took the dawning of the always looming Third Impact, and used it to completely fuck with the minds of the players involved to a degree the show often only teased it was capable of. It’s a masterpiece and I highly recommend it. Just expect to feel violated afterwards.

Looping back for a second wind, the early 90s was also when my interests in Japan extended to live-action works. I was an avid fan of the Power Rangers franchise, even though it was just as heavily sanitized and reworked for American consumption as the pre-Robotech anime had been. It was still an inspiring and exciting story of the can-do spirit, and did have some striking scenes like the beginning of season 3, where our heroes have to watch as these shiny giant robots they’ve operated with flashing moves and signature phrase triggers were torn to pieces and collapsed into rubble, or the season 6 finale of the original continuity, where every monster they’ve ever fought gathered and attacked en masse, swiftly overcoming our heroes and conquering the entirety of Earth, and the Rangers only just barely save the day through rallying the populace and the man who first gave them their powers making the ultimate sacrifice. As the series went along, it would occasionally defy the mold, with several seasons (S.P.D. being the best of them) where the Rangers became a public arm of the government, with identities known to all and everything operating both through and in spite of political bureaucracy.

In those early 90s, I fell hard for the Godzilla movies. Not the early stuff as, aside from the striking debut, most of the 60s and 70s films are nonsensical kiddie fare deservedly mocked for pathetic productions values and casts and crews who visibly stopped giving a damn. No, I fell for the Heisei era which ran from 1984’s Return of Godzilla to 1995’s Godzilla vs. Destroyah. This is a series which upped the game in terms of kaiju blockbuster spectacle, with elaborate sets, meticulously detailed rubber suits, CG effects which were spectacular for the time, and, most importantly, a singular narrative. This entire series was one extended saga chronicling the rebirth of this walking force of nature to the day he died and passed the mantle on to his son. Godzilla wasn’t evil, but he was always angry, and it was all about finding ways to steer this anger away from where it did the most destruction. Through this, we returned to the theme of human innovation as the Japanese SDF steadily escalated and innovated the technology and procedures it used to deal with kaiju attacks. 30 years had gone by since the initial event, and complacency set in, so when Godzilla not only returned, but brought an increasing cast of creatures to both fight alongside and against, we saw this world spend the next decade reshaping itself into one where kaiju were as frequent an occurrence as hurricanes, and infrastructure and social planning had been refined and experimented with so as to better cope. And what started as tanks and lasers and increasingly bulky fighter craft gradually became Mechagodzilla, as humanity figured the best way to deal with a giant monster was to create a monster of our own. Which would be further refined in the segmented and mele weapon laden Mogera, which almost succeeded in killing the big G.

During this time, I explored beyond Godzilla, with the 90s Gamera trilogy upping the game even further with spectacle and dazzling effect (and blade-headed monster foes), the 60s Daimajin trilogy which showed the game had already been significantly upped back in the day, and even oddities like Gunhed, where society was still recovering in the wake of a Skynet-style machine uprising which had only just finally been defeated, and a hero has to jury-rig a massive machine of war so as to combat the reawakened menace.

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Last week, I agreed to write a review of Pacific Rim. As you can see, I’m over 2000 words in and have yet to even mention the film. Why? What was the point of all this ramble? To illustrate just how deeply entrenched in my pop cultural life’s experience this film is set, and thus how I don’t really think I’m capable of reviewing it. Even when I love a film which hits my nostalgia straight in the taste buds, I’m usually able to objectively separate myself from that giddiness to give it a proper and fair evaluation. Here, it’s too deep, too thoroughly saturated in the essence of the types of stories and entertainment I sought out, while I was growing up, while I was learning what cinematic storytelling is, while I was developing my ability to analyze and express through words. I can’t really separate myself from who I am, and so any thoughts I have for Pacific Rim are going to be beyond biased.

As most of us know by now, the film is set after the disastrous emergence of Kaiju (which has been used to describe the giant monsters in their Japanese films for decades) through a portal created by unknown forces in the ocean floor. Humanity has rallied and created Jaegers – manned giant robots assigned to punch said Kaiju in their Kaiju faces. It is, for lack of a better word, everything I could ever want a movie to be. Alongside the many similarities the film has to the various works I’ve already mentioned, there’s the barrel-chested design of the robots, which resembles both Tetsujin-28 (or Gigantor, as it was know as one of the first anime to successfully air in American in the 60s) and Mazinger Z (less successfully released Stateside, briefly, as Macron-1); or how Idris Elba’s commanding officer Stacker Pentecost is the spitting image – with his powerful, suited built, mustache, and crewcut – of Colonel Shikishima from Akira; or how the female lead Mako is given a blue-trimmed bob of a haircut which evokes so very many anime characters, including Major Kusanagi, lead of the entire Ghost in the Shell franchise; or how each country being represented by its own giant robot and celebrity pilot resembles the arena battle flick Robot Jox.

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This is a film which proudly wears its influences on its sleeve and doesn’t give a rat’s ass about the word cliche as it plunders all the cues and references it can as a love letter to anime and giant monster/robot films. And like any great love letter, it doesn’t merely recreate the things which came before – I can’t tell you how much I squirmed with glee as image after image was lured from my nostalgia to play out in big-budget, lovingly crafted glory on the big screen; in marvelously used 3D no less – but it finds new ways to apply and weave together the tropes so as to make them feel inventive and fresh again. This is best illustrated by the concept of “drifting”, where the multiple pilots of a giant robot (a fixture since the Super Sentai pantheon began) are explained through a neuro link which is too much of a strain for one pilot alone, so they each take a hemisphere of a unified brain. And this is where Guillermo del Toro shows his true skill as a filmmaker as he uses this tricky scifi device to make this all a story about human connection, about how we have to trust one another and work together if we’re going to pull through this nightmare and persevere. As with so many of the works I cited, it’s about innovation, about the human spirit to pluck new ideas from the aether, fighting back whenever pushed into a corner, and the strength of unifying towards a single goal.

It’s not a film without problems. The male lead, Raleigh, is typical to a fault, with a blonde studly blandness which never lets him nor his character arc be anywhere near as interesting as all the colorful stuff he’s surrounded by. And it doesn’t help that Brit Charlie Hunnam is wrestling his American accent for the whole film (including voice overs!), which became so distracting that he would’ve instantly been improved by just making the character a Brit. Also, it’s an unfortunately male-focused movie, where there’s not a single main female in the cast beyond Mako (the Russian female pilot is only on screen for about a total of 3 minutes and has, what, a single line? Maybe two?), and even she is presented as someone unable to make choices unless prodded on by the men surrounding her. Even after she and Raleigh team up, he’s the one coming up with every strategy and calling out every battle move, with her acting as nothing but support beyond that one time she points out they have a sword. Given the wave of interest and positive response towards the film I’ve seen from my friends of the female persuasion, I’m a bit disappointed this caters so much to the “boys and their toys” mentality. Also, there’s so much time spent with the shenanigans of hyperactive scientist Newton Geiszler (Charlie Day) and black market Kaiju organ harvester Hannibal Chau (Ron Perlman) which could have been better spent further developing the more central cast and plot threads.

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While these are issues I have with the film, they aren’t issues which particularly bother me, as I was still swept away by the visual spectacle, the booming score, Elba’s side-eye, and a rich tableau of little moments that would have had me cheering in my seat had I not cared about being “that guy” who does such things in a movie theater – the robot punch ending in a desktop set of clacking balls, the jury-rigged Kaiju drifts, the backstory of Mako which openly defies the upcoming Godzilla reboot to do it better, the hero shot of our lead Jaeger marching down a street with a massive trawler in tow which it then hefts up and swings as a baseball bat, the constantly escalating climax which never quite goes each minute how I expected it to the minute before. This is a movie which blew my mind and rocked my nostalgia to its core, and is something I never expected would actually get made during my lifetime. Even when I heard early mention of it, as the studio project del Toro took on to keep himself busy while At the Mountains of Madness was once again trapped in limbo, I never expected until I saw the first trailer that this was the film he was brewing.

I don’t know that I can say much more at this point without branching further down nostalgia lane, and I’ve done more than my fair share of that already. I love this film. People I know who share similar pop cultural histories to mine have loved it, too. People I know who don’t share that history seem to be enjoying it, as well, so I guess the film is succeeding at reaching beyond those of particular fandoms. Which is a good thing, and maybe it’ll inspire them to take a look at some of the influences I’ve cited here. I know I’m certainly curious to revisit a few.

And now it’s time to talk about my deep and abiding love for Digimon and tentacle porn….

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