Mech Cadet Yu (Vol. 1)
Greg Pak (writer), Takeshi Miyazawa (artist), Triona Farrell (colorist), & Simon Bowland (letterer)
January 10, 2018
Mech Cadet Yu is an homage to any manga where big robots fight bigger danger, a heartening story about friendship and coming of age, and a glowing look into writer Greg Pak’s inspirations and origins as a creator. It follows the story of Stanford Yu, a janitor’s-kid-turned-cadet at a futuristic training facility that grooms teenagers into pilots of enormous, semi-sapient mechs called robos. This first volume (covering issues #1-4) does everything I loved about shonen manga as a teen with—thus far—none of the horrible sexism that eventually pushed me away from the genre.
I was a Toonami child, and then a shonen teen. I loved the sense of adventure and the characters’ almost irreverent bravery in the face of absurd stakes; I loved the deep importance of friendship and bonds between the young protagonists. But as I got older, I began to see a trend regarding female characters in these stories: even if they were incredibly powerful, they were also treated incredibly poorly, if they were around at all.
Mech Cadet Yu lays the foundation for my favorite of all shonen tropes, The Power of Friendship, from the very jump (hah), showcasing the bonds between Stanford and his mother, Cadet Park and her father, and even the giant robos and their chosen cadets. While the friendships between Stanford and his fellow cadets feel relatively weak right now, this was only the first volume, and I can only imagine there’s more to come. The relationships, thus far, don’t feel gendered the way that the male-led shonen manga of my youth did. Mech Cadet Yu has navigated the gendered tropes of shonen stories by, as far as I can tell, simply ignoring them.
Of the four cadets in Stanford’s year, two are women, and the chief mechanic at the compound is an older woman with absolutely incredible hair. Women and female cadets appear en force in background scenes. Cadet Park, who takes the role of Stanford’s rival, is cold and conflicted but not unsympathetic; Cadet Sanchez is competent and efficiently friendly. The book makes no outright acknowledgement or commentary on their gender outside of simply treating them as characters, and the basic decency of it is tragically refreshing.
Takeshi Miyazawa’s artwork infuses the story with youthful energy, and Triona Farrell’s vibrant colors bring the story to life. In more stationary scenes, Miyazawa does an incredible job characterizing the robos through body language. Unfortunately, some of his action sequences can be hard to follow even on a second or third read. Similarly, while all the cadets’ character designs are easy to tell apart even in hectic sequences, I often found it difficult to distinguish General Park, the antagonistic head honcho at the compound, from Skip Tanaka, the distinguished war hero who serves as the cadets’ trainer and ally.
Beyond his relatively average middle-aged-man character design, Tanaka frequently felt like the weakest part of the story. Despite being lauded as an exciting hero, he ultimately felt like your standard square-jawed soldier-slash-mentor type. He serves as a foil to General Park, but Pak hasn’t yet shown him to be special beyond a vague anti-authoritarian streak, which other characters have simply told us he is. There’s also a jingoism to his attitude towards the Sharg (the giant, crab-like, aliens that the cadets and their robos are training to fight) that concerns me, especially due to the book’s emphasis on his heroism.
That said, my concerns about Tanaka are completely outweighed by what I loved about the book. From it’s complete refusal to treat its female characters as enigmas or jokes, to Tanaka’s resonant mid-volume speech about how unity and hard work on all fronts—even less glamorized support jobs—are what we need to “win our future,” Mech Cadet Yu was inspiring to read. I put the book down wanting more, and I’m thrilled to be able to recommend it to any kid who comes into my comic shop looking for an adventure.
Whether the narrative will double down its message of unity or lean into Tanaka’s warlike tendencies remains to be seen, but Mech Cadet Yu is just getting started. I, for one, am extremely hopeful, and I’m excited to go along for the ride. If you like big robots and stories about good friends, I absolutely invite you to join me.