Mamoru Nagano – a name that inspires a lot of feelings in people who love the mecha genre. Known best for his long-running (and still as of yet unfinished) manga in Newtype magazine, The Five Star Stories, Nagano has also done plenty of work as a mechanical designer as well, most notably on Heavy Metal L-Gaim and Zeta Gundam. While most fans probably first think of his swooshing, dizzying, and out there mechanical designs that seem to evoke the worlds of fashion and interior design more than any machine, or his reclusive and idiosyncratic relationship with the public, musical crate-diggers will probably notice a few choice music references that have popped up in his work that indicate Nagano is something of a rocker himself.
The Five Star Stories being Nagano’s work where he has had complete creative control, is a treasure trove of music references. The mecha themselves are called “Mortar Heads,” the most obvious reference, to the English heavy metal band Motörhead. Within the naming of the Mortar Heads themselves, there are a few musical nods, too.
A Mortar Head named the “Ashura Temple” is an obvious reference to the krautrock band Ash Ra Tempel – but the name first appeared as another red robot in L-Gaim. There’s also a class of Mortar Head called the “A-Toll,” and two of its variants are musical references: The “Swans” type is a reference to the legendary experimental rock group Swans led by Michael Gira – the commander of the Swans unit in the manga is named “Michael Joy Gira.” A spikier variant of the same mecha is named the “A-Toll Scritti of the Scritti Polity Division,” which points to the English post-punk and new wave group Scritti Politti.
In one Five Star Stories story arc, the main characters find themselves frequenting a bar called Wax Trax, named for the seminal industrial and dance label based out of Chicago in the ’80s and ’90s (and the subject of a great film if you enjoy music documentaries). Nagano’s appreciation of electronic music even extends to the names of one of the planets of Five Star Stories, Juno, which is a well-beloved (and extremely pricey on the aftermarket) synthesizer made by the Japanese company Roland.
Contemporaries of Ash Ra Tempel, fellow German ’70s rockers Amon Düül got a mecha named after them in L-Gaim, and their guitarist John Weinzerl received a namesake as novice warrior “Jhon Weinziel” in Five Star Stories. Their keyboardist Falk Ulrich Rogner is clearly referenced in the barely-changed-but-for-one-letter character Falk U. Rognar.
Before Five Star Stories, Nagano made his mecha manga debut with a short piece named after one of the great boomer FM radio touchstones, “Fool for the City.” The plot of the manga is more or less Fahrenheit 451 with rock music instead of books. The manga’s characters play futuristic-looking instruments, and there was an early alternate version of the Falk Rogner character. The bad guy mecha featured in the manga is called the MDC, an abbreviation of “Mechanic Destroyed Commander” but likely a cheeky reference to ’80s punks MDC who used the acronym on several releases to mean various (but ominous) things like “Multi Death Corporations” or “Millions of Dead Children.” The reprint edition of the manga actually contained a brief forward that showcased a few instruments from Nagano’s personal collection – turns out in addition to being an artist, he’s also quite the bass aficionado and a big fan of Stratocasters.
Nagano has put his musical skills to use a few times and has released music with his wife (and Five Star Stories and Gundam voice actor) Maria Kawamura on vocals. Surprisingly, his musical output is very pop and accessible, despite his clear love for experimental rock. With Nagano’s musical tastes definitely out of left field (if he was listening to Swans halfway around the world in the 1980s, he was definitely tuned into some sort of underground), it’s unsurprising that his design work is so unique as well. It’s easy to imagine him putting on a record of some mustachioed West Germans playing the same riff for 12 minutes while he gets lost in drawing the intricate details of a robot that looks like it’s carved from translucent marble.
Heng’s Mamoru Nagano Playlist
Click below to listen to a carefully curated playlist featuring some of the music and bands referenced in this article.
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