Monday, August 29, 2011

something i did for my thesis which needs honing. at this point i'm not sure how this piece factors in, but it works as a proposal of sorts. sorry if it comes off as rambly. comments and corrections are encouraged, and any links related to this study is very much appreciated! 

Scale Model Photography-  The Dynamic Philippine Gunpla Scene.

There are two terms related to this study that have resonated in the past few years between participants in the growing local  plastic scale modeling scene; PlaMo and Gunpla, the former is a portmanteau or shorthand for Plastic modeling while the latter is an offshoot genre of the parent activity, and is shorthand for Gundam Plastic Models, which has through the years grown to become the definitive standard for all other lines of the Mecha narrative, be it in fiction or in the physical scale models built. Growing up in the 90s I am almost positive that at least once in my generations’ childhood all the boys bought and built a gundam kit, either through exposure to the animated show on local networks or through simply being attracted to the aesthetic design of the models. Some may have outgrown these things as quickly as they built them, others may have been stimulated by the complexity and myth (and I use the term in a general sense) that makes up the background of the models that they pursued them through each successive series put out, in some ways I am part of the latter, and there are several individuals (whom I shall talk about further into this research paper) who have made this series an outlet for their creative energies.

 By and large the manufacture and the propagation of these kits and their accompanying series has become one of the symbols of Japanese pop culture (Tatsumi,2008), often meriting it’s own grand events overseas with events like the Gundam Caravan touring the local malls in the Philippines showcasing the works of Filipino modelers or contests like the BAKUC (Bandai Action Kit Universal Cup) which pits these modelers and their works against others from Singapore, Hongkong, Japan and other Asian countries.
As a genre, Mecha and consequently Gundam contains several appealing aspects to it that make it attractive, namely I include: design and technological sensibility (Tatsumi, 2008), Narrative power and Masculine symbolism (Lunning, 2007), and Branding / Brand Nationalism (Iwabuchi, 2010). All of which factor into my study of Filipino Gunpla modelers and how they attempt to integrate or circumvent these  aspects when bringing their own vision into the mix, in terms of presentation.

Post-War and Fictional War Narratives

Mecha as a genre emerged in the 70’s with shows like Mazinger Z, Voltes V, Daimos and many others, with narratives centered around a war between man and monsters or usually aliens,  many times character driven as well, with the robots only being there to attract the attention of the children with their vibrant colors and many gimmicks. Indeed, it can be said that these shows had with them a toy mentality in mind, with the ulterior aim of making profit from the shows through merchandising, but towards the end of the 70’s and throughout the 80’s into the 90’s mecha began to focus heavily on narratives of war, and politics as well, still just having the robots in the background serving as indicators of a technologically advanced (while politically contemporary) society, and consequently grounding them as plausible machines of war, between nations of human beings fighting other human beings, as was the case in Mobile Suit Gundam (Tatsumi, 2008).
Narrative aside, when the design aesthetics of giant robots changed from colorful gimmickry to something plausible, as a platform for engaging in warfare, consequently shifting from something almost fantastic or whimsical to something found in “soft” science fiction,  Tatsumi favored it as something that appealed to the sensibilities of the time,  “ Tired of agonizing over the abstract problems with no solution or conclusion, people were entranced by a technology that symbolized such stylish agility--the mobility to outflank any opponent”(2008).
My take on this statement is that the design of it attracts in a way that mecha technology at least in fiction is treated as an assimilation and extension of the human body, elevating its physical capabilities and giving an overall advantage to the soldier-pilot which to me is a very appealing humanistic fantasy, and this fantasy is reinterpreted, or rather recaptured through the scale model, and consequently retold in model photography, bringing into the single frame the political climate, technological milieu, and majesty of the future war narrative, re-telling an event that never happened and making it seem real. Interestingly and more often than not, the protagonists of these series have no explained nationality in them, often implied to be white Caucasian or if not, part of a genetic mix. Considering these narratives were made in a post-war Japan that has since opted to embrace an identity no longer having roots in tradition but rather defined by their cultural outputs (Iwabuchi, 2010), this in turn can open up the appeal of Mecha and Gundam to about almost any nationality, seeing as it is set in a future where the national boundaries of today aren’t as prevalent,  yet seemingly familiar. As Margaret Higgonet put it, “Toy Narratives are always set within a play of simulation or mimicry that is highly social…toys in war stories are often likenesses of humans that invite us to see humans as likenesses of toys, as automata.”  These models give us a glimpse of a world that is hopefully not to come, both attractive in their visual appeal and yet horrifying as simply being another tool to harm others with.

 The Mecha as the Masculine

Going back to the narrative appeal of mecha, it is almost always a staple that the protagonist is a young male, often inexperienced whose parent or parents took part in the development of the machine he is almost destined to wield for his faction, whether he has clear political identifications with it or not. The mecha then in this case becomes a right of passage for the child, a crutch for him to deal with the bigger world before him (Lunning, 2007), something that is best seen in Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann (Gainax, 2007).  In the context of Gundam though, which can be said to have began the trend of the unsure child-hero, there is still that small element of proficiency with the protagonist, implying a quality akin to a prodigy, that has yet to meet his fullest potential, and through continual use of the mecha and exposure to the harsh world at war, they become hardened, and more mature, entering the machine as children and leaving it as men, giving the mecha a transformative aspect, as far as character is concerned.

Briefly looking back at design though, Lunning posits its conventions as usually masculine, designed in a way to be an exaggeration of the male physique, exhibiting tremendous strength and mechanical capability, contained within a streamlined metal shell, housing the heart of a child and child-pilot (2007) interestingly as a contrast of my own personal observation of female mecha aesthetics as overly sexualized and curved, as close to the ideal female form as possible in opposition to the exaggeration, hard-lined and battle worn aesthetic of “male” robots.  This brings into consideration it’s appeal to the (usually) male scale modeler, who in several stages builds up this image of overcompensation, from build, to composition to photography, always seeking to position the model in its most dynamic and masculine, striving to make it exude as much fantastic power as it merits in its narrative depiction.
How I view it is another form of posturing in the context of the modeler, in a way showing off and trying to appear as someone with great creative and technical skill (which often rings true anyway), but expressing it in a forum that is composed of fans or, “Otaku” attempting to either break away from the stereotype or positively reinforce it, with the genre they’re practicing in being riddled with ironies; the show (gundam) and franchise was considered a failure as a children’s show and instead was saved by older  male viewers in japan (Galbraith, 2010) and in a way here in the Philippines as well, becoming a niche for modelers with an otaku sensibility, in a hobby that is often considered mature with its cars, planes and battle tanks. Where the often considered awkward individual steps up, steps into the mechanical shoes, and emerges as an entirely different individual, just like in the show, masculine symbolism and tropes in tow and exhibited for all to see, behind large acrylic cases.

Brand Nationalism
In brief, the third aspect of this genre that I am presenting in this paper that helps sell Mecha in the Philippine setting is derived from Koichi Iwabuchi’s concept of Brand Nationalism. When he speaks of this he means it in terms of japan’s banking on a new cultural identity not found on tradition (while it does play a part in it) but instead in its impact on global pop culture (Olmos Titos citing Iwabuchi, 2008).  Iwabuchi’s term of Soft Nationalism entails with it a culture of vanity found in the cultural exports of Japan, making it a means of “—uncritical, practical uses of media culture as resources for the enhancement of political and economic national interests, through the branding of national cultures” (Iwabuchi 2010). Local Otaku celebrate and know Japan through whatever Japanese products the find in stores or watch on their televisions or read in their manga volumes or computers, using Japanese phrases in their group gatherings and generally loving this “Cool Japan” phenomenon (Iwabuchi, 2010).Gundam and Gunpla is considered part of the “Cool Japan” phenomena—part of the Japanese “Brand” and lauded for it. Thus, with these standards set before him the Filipino modeler has two options at hand, the first is to follow the sensibilities of the Brand Nationalism of Japan in terms of making his or her model, or to break the norm and reinterpret the model in their own cultural terms and sensibilities.  These are the positions which this paper seeks to explore,  and eventually document as a practice that explains how the Filipino modeler alternates from or permanently transcends the mimicry and uniformity inherent in Scale Modeling.

Works Cited

 Galbraith, Patrick W. "Akihabara: Conditioning a Public "Otaku" Image." Mechademia 5 (2010): 210-30. Project Muse. Web. 6 July 2011.
Higonnet, Margaret R. "War Toys: Breaking and Remaking in Great War Narratives." The Lion and the Unicorn 31.2 (2007): 116-31. Project Muse. Web. 10 Aug. 2011.
Iwabuchi, Koichi. "Undoing Inter-national Fandom in the Age of Brand Nationalism." Mechademia 5 (2010): 87-96. Project Muse. Web. 10 Aug. 2011.
Lunning, Fenchy. "Between the Child and the Mecha." Mechademia 2 (2007): 268-82. Project Muse. Web. 6 July 2011.
Olmo Titos, Antonio. "Considerations about the Nature of Japanese Cultural Exports." Birkbeck, University of London (2008): 1-6. Web.
Tatsumi, Takayuki, and Christopher Bolton. "Gundam and the Future of Japanoid ArtResponse." Mechademia 3 (2008). Project Muse. Web. 6 July 2011. 

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