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Nobunaga the Fool was one of the anime I cut my teeth on as a critic, during the winter season of 2014. It was a piece of historical fiction wherein Oda Nobunaga, Queen Himiko, Mitsuhide, Hideyoshi, and Kenshin teamed up with Joan of Arc and Leonardo da Vinci, to fight Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, a female Hannibal, Machiavelli, and King Arthur. Also, Europe and Japan are two separate planets, and they all have giant robots. It’s the kind of anime you watch for the sheer spectacle of its existence, and the joy of knowing that no other medium could even imagine such a scenario.

So clearly everything is logically sound here. I mean, what critic or historian in their right mind could find fault with this depictions of Leonardo:

Nobunaga the Fool Leonardo

He should be left-handed. In this show he’s right=handed.

But, I supposed if pressed, there is one thing that slightly bothers me; Why is this robots? This shouldn’t have been robots.

Throughout its long run as one of the things most identifiably “anime”, mecha and mechs have largely represented three things. Technological advance and/or warfare; power fantasy; and (typically male) adolescence. While there are cases of good mecha ignoring or even explicitly defying these themes (Evangelion Shinji is made more powerless; Full Metal Panic Sousuke doesn’t even understand teen angst), it is always either done for subversion, or in exchange for a different kind of story that makes good use of its mecha designation.

In the case of Nobunaga the Fool, while its cultural potpourri could be used to say something about the intercontinental inspirations for mecha (German tanks and artillery, the B-29 Bomber, the cultural significance of battleships Yamato and Musashi, Frankenstein, nuclear weapons/Godzilla, Astroboy and Superman, and even traffic congestion), it doesn’t. It doesn’t do anything new or unusual with its mecha designation, and it doesn’t fall back on any of the three common themes.

While the technology and warfare is there, nothing is really said about them, just “my robot is bigger than yours; I win.” There is no power fantasy to it because the key pilots are already strong, confident fighters and leaders, and the only obstacles the mechs overcome are other mechs. And while Nobunaga himself has some coming into his own, and out of his father’s shadow, to do, he starts off too grown up (and too old) for adolescence. What I’m trying to say is, there is absolutely no need for giant robots in this show.

But that’s not quite the same as saying that there shouldn’t be giant robots. To explain that, we need to go more into Nobunaga’s character.

Nobunaga the Fool 2wedding

One of the things that hooked me on this show was the contradictory nature of Nobunaga. In the very first episode we see him laughing with tears running down his face. Throughout the first season he dismisses the idea of himself as leader and acts independently, but his independent victories are what inspire others to follow him. He’s a warrior poet, and a flamboyant stoic. He’s the kind of character that, in a better show, I really like. More importantly, he’s the kind of character with a lot to express, but very little of it in words.

Nobunaga is the kind of character who fights his opponents eye-to-eye. Who would execute very smooth, fluid swings of his sword. Who’s footwork would almost be dance-like. Who’s noblest moments are brought out in the heat of battle, and who would express all of it in his fighting style.

So why did that have to go and put him in this?

Nobunaga Gif

While Nobunaga the Fool’s mechs movements are a lot more fluid and human-like than most, they still never stop feeling like mechs. They’re still too slow to fight like actual people, and their presentation of weight and mechanics makes it impossible for them to have the subtle gestures of human dramatic combat. This is just not the way I want to see an angsty, bishounen, armoured-leather-jacket-wearing Nobunaga fight. It’s not even the way I want to see mechs fight.

All of this is accentuated by the boring design of the robot, the poorly directed action in general, and the fact that, believe it or not, this show kinda sucks. But I think the worst part of it all is that early on we do get brief glances at what could have been memorable, imaginative, exciting action sequences. In this shot, form episode one, we see Nobunaga riding a dragon.

dragon rider

Yes, that’s supposed to be a dragon. That’s another thing that could have been improved.

We see him ride into battle on this creature in episode 3, taking down mechs with a bow and arrows. It’s not the one-on-one, warriors’ duel, but it’s something that shows off his skill and style as a fighter, rather than just how big and tough his robot is. There’s more character, and more fantasy, in it. Of the entirety of Nobunaga the Fool, that was my favourite action scene, and it was only intended as the buildup.

Would abolishing the mechs and making this a more traditional samurai show save it? No, of course not. Everything else would still suck, and then it would just be dumb, generic samurai show, rather than a dumb, generic robot show. Nobunaga sucks, that’s all there is to it*.

But it’s not the only show that sucks. A lot of anime seem to have the mecha tag thrown on for no better reason than, because it’s popular. After all, the mecha genre does get a disproportionate amount of coverage, and is probably the only genre to have a fanbase, and a dedicated one at that. But making shows mecha is often done with little to no consideration of whether the show should be mecha.

I’m reminded of Evangelion, which repeatedly asked one question of its major characters, “Why do you pilot?” In Gurren Lagann, Simon is repeatedly questioned (by the village chief, Kittan, himself, Nia, Genome, Rossiu, and the Anti-Spirals) over whether he has the right to pilot, and following [major spoilers] he has to start answering them. These are important questions not just in the story, but also in keeping the writing on point. If I ask about a series, “Why is this robots?” and the best answer is essentially, “Because they’re cool,” then that series is probably missing the point.

Shoehorning in cool elements works to a point, but when you’re taking on an entire genre’s worth of history, symbolism, and expectations, you need to write a story that appreciates that. Defying those expectations isn’t a bad thing, in fact it’s the first step in deconstruction. But pretending those expectations don’t exist, without offering anything new or unique to the genre, will only leave viewers confused and asking, “Why is this robots?”

Don’t Lose Your Way

*That’s not all there is to it