Written By: François-Noël Vanasse
Film has a language. Early directors had to teach audiences how to interpret what they saw on screen. Pans, zooms, close-ups. Together, both audiences and editors both learned what a cut could mean. As film came into its own as a medium, audiences no longer needed to be taught the basics, and directors and editors became masters of their craft. Suddenly it was possible to play with conventions. To upend them. To challenge audience expectations. This wasn’t only done with the technique but with the subject matter. Good guys didn’t always win. Bad guys didn’t always lose. Breaking from convention is hard to do. Not the least because it requires the convention to exist in the first place. Luckily folks have been telling each other stories for as long as there have been people. Globally and locally we as a species and a culture have amassed a massive amount of tropes, and few genres are as dependent upon tropes as anime and manga.
There are a number of ancient southeast Asian literary traditions from the Chinese romantic tragedies, the Japanese creation myths, and the Korean martial arts epics to name drop a few, but anime is a decidedly post-war phenomenon. As a genre, however, manga remains shockingly indebted to pioneering works. Other literary canons build upon past works, but the speed with which the Asian comics industry builds upon itself is astonishing thanks to its breadth.
As all anime owes a debt to Astro Boy, the martial arts fantasies rely upon Dragon Ball and the frequently remixed and enduring popular magical girls owe their existence to Sailor Moon. The West only recently became aware of these works but as modern and future video games will exist in the shadow of Minecraft and Dark Souls, modern manga is now in the shadow of Naruto, One Piece, and Bleach. New genres are also continuously being created and adopted with an enviable speed. The Isekai or “another world” genre in which main characters are reincarnated or transported to parallel dimensions (usually ones with fantasy or video game elements) spread with such alacrity that it was banned from writing competitions. Once the province of web novels and light novels, it has now been adapted into manga and anime. It is a cheesy, self-indulgent genre full of cheap power fantasies. Nevertheless, Isekai is the dominant force in the medium right now, but once upon a time it was Giant Robots.
Gundam, Escaflowne, Evangelion, The Big O. Gentlemen of a certain age will recall it used to be you could not swing a cat without hitting a mech animé. Even older shows like Voltron, Grendizer, and the Zords from Super Sentai/Power Rangers or its spiritual successor the Zoids from Zoids padded out the convention. It’s also intimately tied with the giant monster genre. As the popularity of gigantic robotic superheroes grew they were pitted against alien creatures and even famous Godzilla was assisted by the metal marvel Jet Jaguar.
The genre might have dipped in popularity as many of its conventions originated as budget-saving methods but it remains alive and well for hobbyists. Like train sets and model airplanes collectors can buy, construct, and display beautifully carved, painted, and now 3D-printed models of their favorite robots, many of which don’t even have a manga, anime, or tv show to belong to! This, at last, brings us to Pacific Rim.
Guillermo del Toro was fluent in anime when he directed Pacific Rim (2013). It is a love letter to a bygone era for every little child who grew up pumping their first when the giant robot turned to face the camera as the evil monster blew up behind them. So few Eastern imports and adaptations succeed. The martial arts boom in the 70s and 80s has been on life support ever since thanks to superstars like chow Yun fat, jet li, and Jackie Chan. The horror genre quickly fizzled out nearly a decade ago and anime adaptations (when not stuck in development limbo) are plagued with uneasy production studios and rampant accusations of white-washing and thematic dilution. It is downright astonishing, then, that the most successful attempt at an anime inspired franchise in decades is an original IP about big robots punching bigger monsters.
I adored Pacific Rim‘s original blend of emotion and action spectacle. Seemingly in the vein of a number of lazy destruction porn action flicks like Battleship San Andrea or Battle Los Angeles (2011) Pacific Rim in fact chose to delve deeper. Yes much of the film was fist-pumping nonsense that would turn American Pulp beet-red but my inner 10 year old was jumping for joy.
Pacific Rim: Uprising (2017) turns this up to eleven. It is the perfect sequel to Pacific Rim. It is so deeply full of genre tropes that I’m not even sure if it’s possible to view this movie as anything more than a formulaic pastiche without this appreciation. There are scenes in Pacific Rim 2 that should arguably fill an audience with dread. That sinking feeling in your gut when things have gone wrong, when the good guys are failing. Instead these moments had me gobsmacked that a studio was bankrolling this lunacy. It takes more than half of the film for Ramin Djawadi’s iconic score from the first film to kick in, but by then I was so fully invested that if sent me through the roof.
John Boyega is pitch perfect as Stacker Pentecost’s (Idris Elba) delinquent son. Never mentioned until now, the long lost child of the last story’s hero is a genre staple. We’re used to it too, in our stories and myths. This could easily be paint-by-numbers territory, but like painting and assembling a model toy there is an art to painting within the lines. Boyega brings his Attack The Block (2011) fire fresh off that Star Wars heat. He plays a character with a chip on his shoulder so large he practically sags under the weight of it. Somehow he’s outdone by his shining costar.
Amara Namani (Cailee Spaeny) is also a newcomer to the series. A child born into a world at war, while she did not lose her father to a noble decade-saving self-sacrifice, she did watch her family get Bambi vs Godzilla‘d (1969) right in front of her. Scrounging together a life in the abandoned ruins of Santa Monica, California Whatsherface has dedicated her life to constructing her own (tiny) Jaeger robot from spare parts out of fear that the city destroying and family killing Kaiju will return with the hope and determination that the next she will be far from helpless.
The two young rebels collide and butt heads with another almost immediately over the ownership of some stolen Jaeger parts and who is going to pilot the makeshift Jaeger that Amara has been secretly and illegally constructing. Failing to escape capture by the authorities the two are offered an alternative to jail-time: enlistment. Amara joins as a young cadet, a drift pilot in training, and Jake as an instructor who, at the urging of his adopted sister Mako Mori, returns to his previous position of Ranger.
Hijinks ensue at the academy as the two butt heads with little rivals. Amari meets a Russian cadet (Ivanna Sakhno) who sports just as titanic a chip on her own shoulder and cannot accept that someone was handed a spot she had to struggle to earn. Meanwhile, Jake is forced to interact and cooperate with his former partner Nate Lambert (Scott Eastwood) the straight-laced instructor. It’s a serviceable mixture of comedy and drama as the two recruits struggle to meet their own lofty expectations faced with unwelcome outside pressure.
Many lovely and clichéd plots round out this story including a nefarious shadowy mega-corporation trying to put the Jaeger pilots out a job, a bunch of Jaeger infested with Kaiju guts, the destruction of the fleet and casualty of most of the pilots requiring the cadets to enter the front lines, and three of the largest Kaiju ever recorded converging on Tokyo Japan where they are only hours away from destroying the world.
Pacific Rim 2 is a film about monsters and mayhem told with complete sincerity by its cast and crew. This weekend go see it and cancel the apocalypse!