A boy’s greatest desire is to become a man. This theme therefore permeates virtually all boys’ manga and anime – only the execution varies. Especially robot anime feeds on this desire, where the robot represents the man that the boy admires, wants to learn from, fight alongside with, and eventually become. The robot is an externalisation not only of the boy’s desire, but of his potential: Eventually, all boys will become men, but this is a complicated process, a process that engages not only the boy himself but all of society. Hence the focus on male coming-of-age rituals in virtually all cultures and eras: The boy must be guided to manhood, and watching a semi-disguised version of that process in anime is what keeps us glued to the screen year after year. Probably it provides us with solace to see new generations of boys being fostered into men, thus implicitly convincing us that the world will continue to exist.
This process is beautifully captured in the transformation sequence of robot anime. That’s where the magic happens, and isn’t the boy’s transformation into a man a kind of magic? The boy’s greatest desire logically receives the greatest care in the form of an advanced animation sequence, a real treat for the eye, accompanied by powerful music. The sequence often includes the boy summoning the robot by throwing a magical token, ejecting or ejaculating a piece of himself if you will, like a seed that gives birth to something greater, outside of himself – the man he will become. The boy is then shown (as in Wataru below) ascending into the inner core of the robot, from where they will control its huge limbs. Boy and robot – boy and man – have become one: Only so can they fight the enemy and save the world.
This process includes overt symbolism. Most obviously, the boy always sports a long and powerful sword (in Granzort we even see it grow), the swinging of which to eliminate the enemy marks the “orgasm” of each episode. If you haven’t got it yet, the sword of course symbolises the boy’s penis, or phallos with a fancier word.
Once you’ve understood that, the story makes more sense, since all boys and men are obsessed with their penises. So whether they “get it” or not on a conscious level, seeing a boy swinging a long object fills male viewers (maybe female too, in a different way) with satisfaction. We’re not only seeing the slaying of a villain – we’re watching the supreme victory of our own sex! And it’s big. Very big. And so it taps into the fascination and desire of every single boy out there: The fascination with the growing capability of their own body part, and the desire that it will one day grow bigger than the little miniscule appendix they are stuck with as boys. Or in short: That they will one day become men.
The desire fueling the imagery of boys with swords is evident in anime 30 years apart: Here cuts from Wataru (1988), Granzort (1989) and Boku no Hero Academia (2019). I’m not much of an anime buff, so you can probably find many more examples:
Shaman King (1998–2004, by Takei Hiroyuki/武井宏之) is not a robot manga, but is fueled by the same manly desire: 13-year-old Yoh-kun merges with various men in the form of ghosts, who enter his body. Instead of controlling the robot, the boy’s body is here controlled by the man whose spirit has entered it. This frame with the boxer was cut out of the anime but well captures the man/boy dynamic of this idea:
The fact that several men can take advantage of Yoh-kun (or “have some fun with his body” as one of them put it) seems to be at odds with the idea that a boy should only have one man who guides him, but after a while the samurai Amidamaru accepts this role. Beyond the obvious symbolism of man-on-boy action (or man inside boy even), the manga also sports several phallic objects, most evidently the sword which Yoh-kun holds in the same iconic way as Wataru above:
There are lots of other phallic objects that are held and pointing in various suggestive ways throughout Shaman King, but whereas metal pipes and wooden planks are symbolic, the ihai (位牌), or “spirit tablet”, almost perfectly represents the size of a boy penis and is held in a way that reminds of masturbation:
Some frames are suggestive in a way that makes you wonder if you’re a pervert who sees “signs” everywhere. But seriously. The wooden stick in the bucket in this frame is simply a bit too perfectly positioned, don’t you think? Just squint your eyes …
Quite early on, Yoh-kun gets a rival in the form of Ren. Ren is equipped with a long halberd. You may want to squint your eyes again …
It’s amazing to see when Ren gets going. He swings his halberd in such a confident and powerful way that my thoughts go to Murakami Takashi’s legendary sculpture My Lonesome Cowboy. This piece of art is brilliant in that it captures exactly what I have been trying to describe in this post, namely the underlying phallic desire in mainstream boy culture. The boy’s self-image of being an omnipotent, sperm-shooting demigod on his way to manhood is epitomised in Murakami’s sculpture. But look closely and you will be able to see the sperm of the lonesome cowboy running as a common white-greyish thread through so many manga works.
It should be mentioned that this is most probably not a conscious thought process in the creators of manga and anime. Although there are cases where shota and loli artists also create mainstream, non-sexual works, in most cases the desire that results in all these symbols probably works as a motor deep down, under the hood so to speak. It’s a societal desire, and creators are part of the society.
When I studied literary analysis at the university, someone (maybe it was me) asked: “But why do we have to interpret so much? Can’t we just ask the author what they meant, if they’re still alive?” The teacher replied: “No, because it doesn’t matter what the author intended. Our job is to analyse the work and find things in it that not even the author is aware of.” So that’s what I’ve done here. Tell me what you think and please contribute with your own observations!