Celebrating the birthday of anime's original troubled teen robot pilot
In the early 1970s, teen robot pilots had a pretty constant personality: loud, hot-blooded, and always ready to punch a monster in half. Koji Kaburo of Mazinger Z and Ryoma Nagare of Getter Robo may have had rough starts at the controls, but there was no question that they were all in when it came to saving the world.
Then in 1979 came Mobile Suit Gundam and the beginning of the Real Robot genre: a take on mecha that focused less on the sheer power of the robots themselves and more on the battles they fought. The plot was more political, the villains no longer mutated monsters but human beings with human thoughts and opinions. The robots were leaner, quicker, and more about tactical fighting than rocket punches. And at the controls of one was a teenager hero in the making who, rather than being hot-blooded and raring to go, had a whole lot of issues.
Unlike his super robot brethren of the early 1970s, Amuro wasn't a tough guy looking for a fight, or even the sort of person who needed to be warned about the power that comes with piloting such an amazing weapon. Instead he was withdrawn, antisocial, and occasionally a real jerk. His story wasn't about taming a fiery personality, but filling some very big shoes. It's a story we see much more, especially in real robot (and the occasional super robot) anime. But at the time, it was something largely unexplored. Since November 4 is Amuro's birthday (though he won't be born for another 144 years!), we're celebrating by taking a look at how he changed what it means to be an anime hero—especially when it comes to piloting a giant robot.
Hot Blood vs. Cold Shoulder
The early days of a super robot pilot are filled with action. Punching a bully. Rescuing a kid. Backflipping out the window of their second-story window onto their motorcycle. But for Amuro Ray, who would eventually become the most iconic pilot in the entire Gundam franchise, things were a lot lower key.
Amuro is more like... well, let's be real, like us. You're more likely to catch him in his underwear tinkering with something mechanical than out doing something daring. Before his involvement in the One Year War, Amuro was standoffish and antisocial, forgetting to eat and requiring constant babysitting from his friend Fraw. In other words, he's not the sort of person you'd expect to jump into the cockpit of a robot and take control—and yet, as with all great giant robot anime beginnings, that's exactly what he did.
His skill points are also sunk firmly into intellect, rather than charisma or strength. He's a smart person, but other merits take a back seat. Fortunately for him, intelligence wasn't all he had: his status as an evolving Newtype gave him powers that placed him above and beyond where he'd normally be. So his smarts aren't the only reason he could pilot the RX-78-2 with a quick peek at the manual... but they sure don't hurt.
The Family You Choose
One thing Amuro has in common with a lot of anime protagonists is his broken (and missing) family. With his father killed early in the series's setup thanks to a mistake on Amuro's part, he now needs to find a place to fit in. His time with White Base as a Gundam pilot leads to a severe personality clash—plus one of the most intense "tough love" sessions in the history of anime.
As a character, he evolved drastically over his run in Mobile Suit Gundam, its sequel, and films. In the beginning, Amuro piloted the Gundam to save his own skin; his natural talent for it was a surprise all around. Those talents and abilities are needed in the war against Zeon, but Amuro isn't interested in being told what to do or being forced into using skills he didn't ask for. But his time with Bright Noa and the rest of the crew of White Base slowly brings him around... sometimes more forcefully than he would like.
By the end of the series, Amuro knows where he belongs, and understands the responsibility he has, even if he didn't ask for it. His family may be broken at best, gone at worst, but he has ties that bind alongside the people he fights with. Moreover, these are the people who saw him through at his worst times, and not by going easy on him.
A Rivalry for the Ages
When we think of great anime rivalries, we don't just think of a good guy and a bad guy squaring off. The best face-offs are between equals, or a champ and a rising underdog. Better still is when, despite the animosity between the pair, there's some degree of mutual respect.
Amuro Ray and Char Aznable are two of the most legendary rivals in anime history. The trained tactician and the upstart Newtype with his special robot. The loss of an innocent life cements their animosity forever. Despite that animosity, their rivalry carriest an undercurrent of respect. Char, for all his experience, fights Amuro as an equal, be it robot-on-robot or in a literal sword fight. And as Amuro evolves as a Gundam pilot and a Newtype, the battles become fiercer, more even... and let's not lie, more exciting.
Rather than saying Amuro Ray changed what it means to be a hero, it might be fairer to say he gave a new type of character the opportunity to be a hero. Brash, headstrong fighters who believe in the them that believes in us will always be a classic archetype. But thanks to Amuro, so will the unwilling underdog who grows into his role. He's a classic for the ages—not just as the first Gundam protagonist and first Newtype, but as a whole new take on heroism in giant robot anime.
What's your favorite thing about Amuro Ray? Let's celebrate his birthday in the comments!
Kara Dennison is a writer, editor, and interviewer with bylines at VRV, We Are Cult, Fanbyte, and many more. She is also the co-founder of Altrix Books and co-creator of the OEL light novel series Owl's Flower. Kara blogs at karadennison.com and tweets @RubyCosmos.
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