Nothing says anime more than giant robots. The mecha genre has been making waves for years and is so important to the medium as a whole.
Technology-based storylines are nothing new but nothing is quite like mecha anime. Shows like Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann, Code Geass, and Gundam have been fan favorites for years. In this edition of #AnimeEncyclopedia, you’ll learn a story brief history all about the world of mechas!
What Is A Mecha?
This is a genre that, unsurprisingly, has a heavy focus on machinery. It is anything from robots to cyborgs to androids. The term “mech” has almost become synonymous with giant robots. Most mechs are represented as humanoid in someway.
The genre can typically break down into two subcategories of “super robot” and “real robot.” Super robots usually have an almost magical element to them. It can link them to ancient civilizations or a mythical power source. On the other hand, “real robots” are more based on science rather than magic. Their depictions often aim to be more realistic and gave justifiable reasons for existing within the story.
Following the end of World War II, Japan began to experience huge economic and technological growth. A side effect of that was larger access to television within the population. People like Osamu Tezuka and Mitsuteru Yokoyama could tell stories related to their experiences with WWII through these early animes. Both Tezuka’s Mighty Atom (1963), or Astro Boy, and Yokoyama’s Tetsujin 28-go (1960) centered on the importance of intent and technology. They imagined what life would be like with advanced innovations and how that would combat injustice.
Astro Boy came out in 1952, a few years after WWII. It takes place in a world where robots co-exist with humans. Astro is an android that was created by scientist Umataro Tenma after the death of his son. Eventually, Astro ends up as an unwilling performer in a robot circus but is saved by a man that goes by Professor Ochanomizu. It’s soon clear that Astro has amazing powers like super strength, flights, super hearing and more. He uses these abilities to fight against evil humans, malfunctioning robots and even the US Air Force in one case.
Astro Boy might not exactly come across as a mecha but it lay the groundwork for later series. The connection between humanity and machinery showed here is prevalent in most mecha series. It certainly makes its way into Tetsujin 28-go.
The First Mecha Anime
Tetsujin 28-go, also known as Gigantor, has the honors of being the first actual mecha anime. Funnily enough, Tezuka’s earlier work, Metropolis, inspired Yokoyama to become a manga artist.
Much of mecha’s genre-defining aspects peak through in this series. It’s about a robot the Imperial Japanese Army developed called Tetsujin 28-go. The remote-controlled robot ended up in the hands of a young boy named Shotaro Kaneda. This story had a direct link to military and war themes. In fact, wartime events directly influenced the series. We see the same robot battles, politics of war, and the effect of technology on humans that appear here in works that followed.
According to “Japanese Animation Guide: The History of Robot Anime,” both Astro Boy and Tetsujin 28-go were extremely popular. Both were top titles in Kobunsha’s weekly comic magazine “Shonen” for ten years. These stories reflected Japanese post-war anxieties and that resonated with its core audience. However, they were also widely well-received abroad. At this point, it was clear how profitable the genre could be.
The Rise of Super Robots
The 1970s didn’t slow down with the mecha content. In fact, Go Nagai’s Mazinger Z did something no other mecha anime had done before – it put a pilot in the robot. This came to be a defining aspect of the genre as a whole. Now when we see a mech, we expect to see someone controlling it from the inside. Before this, the mechs were externally controlled or had minds of their own.
The focus of the plot is a huge super robot built by Professor Juzo Kabuto as a weapon against evil – the Mechanical Beasts of Dr. Hell. The doctor was part of an archeological team that discovered the ruins of a lost civilization. They found an army of gigantic titans that could be remote-controlled. Dr. Hell sees the potential for destruction gets the entire team killed except for Professor Kabuto, who escapes. To fight against him, Kabuto makes Mazinger Z and functions as its pilot.
This premise also jump-started the super robot trend. The Japanese Animation Guide notes that his era of mecha can be defined by their giant size, the fact they have pilots and their ability to transform and/or combine.
Who is the Monster of the Week?
For a while, every mecha show followed the same formula – the monster of the week. Every episode, a new villain would show up and the hero would defeat it. It’s a simple but effective way to keep a show going. This trend even shows up in other genres like magical girls.
This all changed in 1979 with Yoshiyuki Tomino’s Mobile Suit Gundam. This series ditched the popular format and instead went directly for a story concerning a huge space war. Based on “A Beginner’s Guide to Mecha,” this series was an “epic space saga involving intergalactic war, genocide, and legendary battles between giant robots called Gundams.” Most importantly, the mech was no longer the hero here. Instead, it was a weapon whose sole purpose was war. The antagonist was just as human as the protagonist as well. Usually, the villain was another robot or an evil alien. Gundam took the break from that a step further and gave plausible justifications for each side of the war.
Unlike its predecessors, it’s mature in its content and is intended for an older audience. “Japanese Animation Guide: The History of Robot Anime” notes that Gundam created a completely new “era in which ‘realism’ would reign supreme. This is why Gundam is the very first entry in what we would soon know as the ‘real robot’ genre.”
Gundam opened the gates for even more types of experimentation with mecha series. Shoji Kawamori’s Super Dimensional Fortress Macross came out in 1982. It wasn’t only about huge robots in an intergalactic war. There were idols and romance too! Interestingly enough, this series is also where we get today’s meaning of the word “otaku” – an obsessive anime fan.
The 1980’s was a true golden age for this type of anime. There were also hits like Mobile Police Patlabor, Galactic Cyclone Bryger, Fang of the Sun Dougram, Gunbuster and so much more.
Moving into the 90s, the mecha genre didn’t follow a particular pattern. This decade boated even more creativity and experimentation than the last. Gundam got new series, and The Vision of Escaflowne mixed mecha elements with isekai. However, one of the biggest hits is Hideaki Anno’s Neon Genesis Evangelion.
Despite the difficulties surrounding its production, Evangelion became a show that has influenced the entire medium of anime. The 1995 series was more than a mecha show. It was chock full of heavy themes like abuse, abandonment, depression, anxiety, and loneliness. Evangelion was less about the robots as much as it was about the struggles of the characters. The mechs here felt like an added bonus.
Evangelion is hard to explain with how much lore and worldbuilding there is. The main gist is that it’s about a young boy named Shinji Ikari who is summoned by his less than loving father, Gendo Ikari. Shinji ends up piloting an Eva – a huge robot with supernatural abilities – in order to defeat aliens called Angel. His life eventually intertwines with other pilots, Asuka and Rei.
They are all forced to put their livelihood on the line in order to stop literal world-ending events.
Many consider this series to be a deconstruction of the genre. It flips common anime tropes on its head and criticizes the idealized version of what it means to be a hero in war. However, there is still the presence if its ancestors in this series. For example, we have the monster of the week format. Evangelion definitely put a spin on what people expect from mechas, though. Battles with enemies turned into fights with oneself.
Starting Off The Decade Right
The genre continued to produce a lot of great content. In the early 2000s, there’s everything from the Evangelion rebuilds to FullMetal Panic. We can’t forget about the success of series like Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann and Code Geass. The two are a great callback to the idea of super robots and real robots. They were also great for anime fans that might not necessarily have an interest in mecha.
Gurren Laggan takes place in a world where people live in isolation underground and are under constant threat of earthquakes. There are people called diggers whose job it is to expand the underground. A digger named Simon hangs out with his older brother type friend, Kamina. Kamina wants Simon to join his gang, Team Gurren, to help him visit the surface world. One day, Simon finds a drill-shaped key and a small mech. Right after, another mech starts attacking the village. In the midst of battle, Simon and Kamina meet a girl named Yoko. All of them end up getting into all sorts of trouble.
Mechs here play a big role but pales in comparison to the powers of the protagonist, Lelouch. He accidentally becomes involved in a terrorist attack where he meets a girl called C.C. She saves his life from soldiers by giving him a power known as Geass. It has some limits but the power allows him to command anyone to do whatever he wants. Lelouch uses this newfound ability to destroy the regime that killed his family.
Mechs Now and Beyond
The history of mecha anime has a huge connection to the history of anime itself. It’s hard to touch on everything since it’s so information-rich. Every time the genre seems to slow down, there’s a new release that boost interest. More recently it’s studio Trigger’s Darling in the Franxx. Next year, we can (finally) look forward to the next installment of the Evangelion rebuilds – Evangelion: 3.0+1.0.
The genre has proven again and again to be widely profitable in terms of viewership and merchandise. Due to the experimentation of earlier mecha animes, we now see that mecha can skirt the lines of other genres and also be successfully targeted at more mature audiences. With a new decade right around the corner, it’ll be interesting to see what new shows arise!