Giant Robo and the Beautiful Nightby Nick Creamer,
“The future has shone upon us with its glorious brilliance! The time to seize our destiny and conquer all our fears is now! In ancient times, man rubbed sticks together to make fire. Then they slaughtered the whale and battled one another for oil. After that came the atomic age! In every chapter of our history we've danced with danger, but now it will be different! For the first time in the history of existence we will be delivered from fear! Finally we will escape the prison of our illusions, and the beautiful night will embrace us all!” - Franken von Vogler
Giant Robo's Franken von Vogler was many things, but you can't say he wasn't an optimist. In the violent clashing of man against man, in our pursuit of power and enlightenment at the cost of all else, he saw an escape from the darkness of our ignorance and pride. Helping to produce a new form of energy, his work ushered in an age of prosperity and enlightenment; but that victory came at the cost of great human tragedy. The Bashtarle Incident, a great catastrophe that plunged the world into terror, was the impetus for the age of the Shizuma Drive - now, Vogler's greatest invention doesn't even bear his name, and his memory is tarnished by blood and delusions of grandeur. “What a beautiful night,” the mysterious Ginrei whispers, staring out across the chaos of a new age. “Yet people always forget the dirty incidents of the past.”
Giant Robo presents a world in conflict, a near future on the brink of disaster. The show is a drama in the highest terms, an unrepentant melodrama, featuring towering villains, meddling scientists, and epic clashes between good and evil. On the one side stands Big Fire and his Magnificent Ten, scoundrels and rogues dedicated to taking over the world or destroying it in the process. On the other stand the Experts of Justice, larger-than-life heroes equipped with strange powers and tragic backstories. In their clashing, the two sides attempt to wrestle hold of a future guided by scientists with more ambition than sense, one where the light of progress and darkness of ignorance merge to define the lighthouse beacon of human experience. A show predicated on fights between Big Fire and the Experts of Justice doesn't have much use for narrative subtlety, but subtlety isn't a universal virtue, and Giant Robo finds its grace both in the layers of ambiguity it adds to its big questions, and the ways those questions are mirrored by its gorgeous and purposeful visual storytelling.
Giant Robo frames its dichotomy of light and shadow, violence and progress, in stark visual terms. Not only is the show “about” these questions in a narrative sense, it is defined by them aesthetically. The show constantly leans on the contrast of light and shadow, setting characters as pacing down long corridors that are either inconsistently illuminated or shrouded in darkness, with only a glimmering gateway shining at the far end. The presence of a guided pathway only emphasizes the encroaching darkness, ensuring characters always seem dwarfed the forces arrayed against them. Spotlights blink on one by one to illuminate a tower, but their presence only highlights the remaining darkness. Enemies loom as literal massive shadows, while small beacons are coded as symbols of hope, or are established in narrative terms as literal guides through the darkness (like when the monk Issei's lanterns lead his friends to safety).
At its most extreme point, the Bashtarle Incident (the framing “bomb” moment of the entire series) is presented entirely in black and white, a total darkness pierced intermittently by scientists making desperate stabs at progress or violence. The tower of Bashtarle rises as a great black monolith, and Vogler himself is lit from behind as he claims his victory, a symbol of darkness in the light. Then, as his moment of triumph arrives, Bashtarle is devastated, torn to pieces by a blinding beam of light. Vogler speaks of claiming “the beautiful night,” but does that mean being embraced by the darkness, as he does in his last moments, or mastering it with the light, as the great tragedy attempted? The constant inversion of light and shadow, and the ambiguity of darkness as an evil or light as a virtue, add nuance and beauty to the show's central questions. The idea of progressing blindly towards a brighter future, or struggling through inconsistently lighted internal fears, is coded into its visual language from the first episode to the last.
Light and darkness mean more in Giant Robo than simply the search for enlightenment, or the ambiguity and danger of progress. In addition to the quest for a “brighter future,” Giant Robo is about shadows in a very different sense. Giant Robo is also a story about legacy, how we move on and act properly within the shadows cast by our fathers. The hero Daisaku exists inescapably within the shadow of his father, bearing his legacy in the form of Giant Robo itself. A tool created for destruction, it is his father's parting gift and Daisaku's central question. How is he supposed to wield this awful thing? “Using this, you have to save the world” he is told - but in a world of flickering contrasts, using a great nuclear destroyer to push forward into a brighter age is a loaded proposition.
Obviously you could draw specific metaphors out of the core divide Giant Robo presents. The existence of Giant Robo as a symbol of nuclear power inescapably centers this story on the advent of the nuclear age, and living on in the shadow of Bashtarle could easily mean living on in the shadow of the bomb. But divided by half a century from that looming event, Giant Robo's combined reverence for animation's past (demonstrated through its dynamic but archaic storytelling tropes) and nuanced ambiguities make it feel essentially timeless, as applicable to living on in the shell of an ambitious failed economy as to the atomic fear of the twentieth century. From Astro-Boy to Evangelion, there will always be fathers whose reach exceeds their grasp, there will always be children who must live in their shadows. Daisaku is surrounded by father figures, offering encouragement or scorn or advice or dismissal, but he must find his own path towards that great question, “can happiness be obtained without sacrifice?” In Giant Robo, fathers exist to pass on the tools to build a future, but the gifts they leave are violent instruments, ill-suited to the task. Their mighty beacons shine in the darkness, but all great works cast heavy shadows.
The villain Genya also exists within his father's shadow, the shadow of Franken von Vogler himself. His life becomes a process of attempting to unravel his father's last words, and find the true meaning of seeking the “beautiful night.” Genya takes this very literally, manning a giant black sphere and casting darkness wherever he goes. The darkness he creates is violence, the light he seeks is truth - the truth of his father's legacy, the redemption he knows is owed. But in the end, we learn Vogler's quest was not for revenge, but for the sake of the future. Having misread his father's last words, Genya stands in the same ashes that bred his anger, having now lost what future he might still have made. “Why tell me all of this now?” he bitterly shouts, crumbling in the wreckage of his own awful legacy. “Why couldn't you have told me what you wanted me to do?” We must learn from the past, but we can only learn so much.
Giant Robo is a constant study in contrasts. Light and darkness, stillness and progress, happiness and sacrifice. The need for reflection, but also the need to move forward. The power of the Shizuma Drive as well as its danger - and those dangers reflected in microcosm, in the beautiful, terrible gift that Genya's sister Ginrei was given, a power of teleportation that destroys her as it saves them all. How can we avoid the mistakes of the past, and move forward into uncertain light without repeating our fathers' sins? Does the pursuit of happiness necessitate the sacrifices of scientific ambition; and if so, are those sacrifices justified? How do we grapple with an uncertain future when even our past can rise up to betray us?
Vogler's answer is “with honesty, and without bitterness.” In spite of the people condemning him for a false history, Vogler ends his life humbly, ready to forgive and move forward. When he learned of the Shizuma Drive's completion, his first thought was not for his legacy, but for the safety of a future he would never live to see. Acknowledging danger without forfeiting ambition, he revealed that the Shizuma Drive as it was conceived would cause great tragedy, but that he could still prevent it. He urges his son to forgive the other scientists, waving off his poisoned legacy with an offhand “besides, it is in the past.” It is not violence, but charity and the continued pursuit of progress that redeems him - meaning is ambiguous, but as the hero Koshin says, “to seek out the truth gives it meaning and value.”
Daisaku comes to accept his father's shadow, and see Giant Robo not as a burden or weapon, but as a living partner. Genya is brought low by his pursuit of vengeance, but his ambitions unwittingly end up saving everyone, as it is his refusal to hide from the past that uncovers Vogler's last secret. We truly grow up when we accept both our past and our future, taking responsibility for yesterday's mistakes but not letting them hobble tomorrow's journey. The path forward is always unclear, meaning we must both walk steadily in the darkness and not let ourselves be blinded by the light.
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