By Brett D. Rogers, Edited by Kris Kleckner, 2003
So what is mecha, anyway? Mecha can mean many things, but for the purposes of this article, let's define mecha as a term - short for mechanical - that refers to the robots, machines, and cyborgs that permeate anime. Often, mecha denotes the genre of anime that features the use of giant robots, mechanical suits, and cybernetic implants.
Boasting its own fervently dedicated group of fans, mecha has become its own sub-genre in anime.
Mecha is a pillar of anime that boasts fervently dedicated fans of its futuristic battle scenes, intricate robot designs, complicated human characters, and dark, dystopian plots. The humans associated with mecha can be heroic or cow¬ardly. Mecha can be superheroes or threats. Mecha can represent the hopes and fears of humanity without being fully human.
THE WEST AND WORLD WAR II
In the post-WWII aftermath atmosphere, Japan was ready for a change. Having seen its technological failures during the war, the country was forced to come to terms with its archaic practices. Frederik Schodt, manga researcher, wrote, "The emperor, in a letter to the young crown prince at the end of World War II … wrote that Japan has lost the war because ‘our armed forces put too much emphasis on the spiritual side and forgot science."
Even pacifists such as Osamu Tezuka, one of the founding fathers of modern anime, "realized very clearly that Japan lost the war because of science and technology … While the U.S. was dropping atomic bombs, the Japanese military were trying to light forest fires in America by sending incendiary balloons made of bamboo and paper over on the jet stream. We developed an inferiority complex about science and technology."
Taking their lessons to heart, Japan emerged from the post-war din with a new constitution and a new perspective ready to embrace the use of technology in industry and entertainment. The mastering of technology became an expression of Japan's new age, its ability to address and overcome the weaknesses that led to its defeat.
With the hope of technology on the heart of the Japanese people, but the fear of its deadly potential still weighting heavily upon their minds, the country was given a hero… Tetsuwan Atom.
IT ALL STARTED WITH AN ATOM: Mecha as Superheroes
Wielding an unwavering interest in the exploration of the relationship between humans and technology, Osamu Tezuka created the first weekly anime series on television in 1963 staring a heroic little mechanical boy, Tetsuwan Atom (Astro Boy).
Heavily influenced by translated copies of Karl Capek's "Rossum's Universal Robots", a 1920 play that coined the word "robot", the writings of Japanese science fiction author Juza Unno and Pinocchio, Schodt writes that "Tezuka … created Atom to be a type of twenty-first-century Pinocchio, a nearly perfect robot who strove to become more human (i.e., emotive and illogical), and also to be an interface between two different cultures - that of man and that of machine."
Filled with allegories of discrimination, racism and techno phobia, Tetsuwan Atom was a reflection of the times in which Tezuka lived and the hopes of combining these two elements for good. With a kind-hearted robot resembling a normal boy fighting against the evils hidden in a fantastic world of technology, the show quickly won the hearts of the Japanese. The show went on to enjoy success around the world and even nearly 40 years later, the mecha superhero that Tezuka created is still a deeply embedded cultural icon that heavily influences modern anime.
BIRTH OF THE GIANT ROBOTS: Mecha as super weapons
While Tezuka was busy creating a positive spin on technological for the good of human kind, much of the Japanese population still vividly remembered the effects of the technological monsters that had wrought their devastation on Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Juza Unno reflected that mecha could be used as much for good as it could for violence and evil, especially when it came to the might of Japan's military. While a deadly military weapon could be potentially dangerous in the wrong hands, when controlled by the enlightened post-war Japanese, mecha could also be used to uplift humankind.
A morally pleasing theme, the decision to use a technological advance developed by the Japanese military as a force for peace was a comforting one. In a polarized anime world of good versus evil, mecha super weapons were about to become superheroes with the birth of Yonehiko Watanabe's Tetsujin 28 (Gigantor) in 1963.
With plots thick with Japanese wartime themes, Tetsujin 28 took Osamu Tezuka's fascination with technology and super-sized it. By adopting from the work of Mitsuteru Yokoyama, the artist who created Tetsujin 28, Watanabe added elements to the designs seemingly based on samurai armor and made mecha distinctively Japanese.
The designs themselves had their roots in the technological devastation of the war. Mitsuteru Yokoyama drew his mecha partly in reaction to what he witnessed in the wake of WW II as a youth. In a 1982 interview with Yokoyama talked about what influenced his designs, "Everything as far as I could see had been transformed into scorched earth and piles of rubble… I was stunned by the destructive power of the war. [My second influence] was the V1 and V2 missiles that the German Nazis developed. I had heard that Hitler tried to use them as an ace in the hole to reverse his waning fortunes. The third influence was from the American movie Frankenstein." Like the secret Nazi missiles, Tetsujin 28 was conceived as a similar, eleventh-hour weapon that could bring Japan's military back from the brink of defeat.
With its wartime mission no longer applicable, these new giant technological superweapons created to insight terror, became superheroes that fought for all humankind.
SCIENCE NINJA TEAM GATCHAMAN: Mecha as the Enemy
The idea of a single invention turning the tide of a war stuck in the themes of manga and anime. With mecha, a single person or a small team could brandish much more power than their inferior numbers should allow. Through the power of mecha, success in battle becomes a matter of strategy, skill, and courage, not size or number. There was hope for tiny Japan to have a place in a world domi¬nated by larger, more powerful superpowers.
While Gatchaman is often recognized as an important step in the development of "team" anime, it also left its mark on mecha. Aside from its unique mecha design points - each team member had their own set of color-coded equipment and fought together in the Phoenix aircraft, which was capable of transforming into the Fiery Phoenix - Gatchaman used mecha as a foil for its heroes.
Each episode of Gatchaman featured a new onslaught from a giant mecha set to wreak havoc on Earth, the first major anime operate by this formula. Featuring more death and violence than many of its 1972 anime contemporaries, Gatchaman showed anime audiences that mecha doesn't just have to be the superheroic tools of virtuous scientists. Now giant robots can be the enemy.
DANGER! MECHA GETS A PILOT
By the 1970s, mecha was turning away from independent mecha and returning to its contemplations of man and machine. When Go Nagai's Mazinger Z first aired in 1972, anime took a major step toward integrating humans and mecha. No longer were robots' actions observed and controlled from afar. Mazinger Z needed to be piloted from inside of the robot. Positioned strategically in the robot's head, the pilot serves as the "brain" of the mecha and uses the robot as an extension of their own body. This development allowed a new breed of conflict to arise in anime as pilots now risked injury and death when the robot was damaged.
Adding to Mazinger Z's appeal was the robot's formidable arsenal of weapons and special attacks, which were triggered by calling their names aloud with enthusiastic slogans, an innovation that would be imitated countless times. While in the years to follow this became a Japanese cliché, Mazinger Z's battle cry-activated weaponry was not only entertaining to watch, it made for a very popular toy product. (Thus began the mass merchandizing of anime related mecha toys.)
GO FORTH AND TRANSFORM! Meta-Robos
Continuing his mecha trailblazing, Go Nagai released Getter Robo in 1974. Unlike the singular independent robots of previous shows, Getter featured three vehicles, Getter-1, Getter-2, and Getter-3, which each specialized in travel by air, land and sea. Using a stroke of genius that allowed for more interesting battles (not to mention more intricate toy designs): combining multiple mecha together into a single Meta-Robo!
After Getter's breakthrough, the concept of transforming and combining mecha was adopted in countless anime including many shows that became popular in the United States, such as Voltron (1981), Macross (1982), and Transformers (1985).
GUNDAM: The Mecha Revolution
Now that mecha had learned to combine and transform, it was about to undergo a major transformation of its own. Rejecting the superhero robot and with it the formulaic good versus evil plot devices of previous mecha anime, Yoshiyuki Tomino, a veteran of shows such as Tetsuwan Atom, Space Cruiser Yamato and Combattler V, introduced Mobile Suit Gundam in 1979 and changed the way anime thought about mecha forever.
A sharp departure from the previous approach of giant robots and small teams of heroic pilots fighting for the forces of good, Mobile Suit Gundam favored a more realistic war scenario that set human against human. The strength in mecha was no longer bestowed by solitary, genius scientists or supernatural sources. Rather, the power of mecha was now created by ordinary humans: mechanics, soldiers, and manufacturers. The indestructible giant robots of anime past became mobile suits that were subject to pilot error, weakness of construction, and total destruction at the hands of more powerful mecha or more skillful pilots, be they good, bad or indifferent.
Mobile Suit Gundam, while not an initial success, won fans because of its engaging plots, incredible mecha, and mecha toys. Gundam eventually became an anime juggernaut and a pillar of mecha that has spanned decades and spawned countless anime based on alternate scenarios within the sphere of Gundam (see below).
Incarnations of a GUNDAM
Mobile Suit Gundam
Mobile Suit Gundam: Soldiers of Sorrow
Mobile Suit Gundam: Encounters in Space
Double Zeta Gundam
SD Gundam Mark II-IV
SD Warrior Gundam
Mobile Suit Gundam 0080
Mobile Suit Gundam 0083: Stardust Memory
Mobile Suit Gundam: 08th MS Team
Gundam Wing: Endless Waltz
SEARCHING FOR HUMANITY: The Mecha Soul
While much of the focus on mecha evolution seems to have been on giant robots battling it out for world domination, mecha anime is, and always has, been about more than just fighting robots. It's an exploration of human themes and the reflection of who we are as a society. What does it mean to be human? What is real and what is artificial? Where is the line drawn between man and machine?
While the giant-robot set often hesitates to accept android and cybernetics as ‘pure' mecha, anime that explore the relationship between technology, body and spirit contribute as much to the genre as the big robots.
Jean Baudrillard, a well-known French scholar of postmodernism, wrote in "The Automation of the Robot," about two types of artificial beings: the ‘android' and the ‘machine'. Baudrillard described androids as "a theatrical counterfeit, a mechanical and clocklike man. The [android] is an interrogation upon nature, the mystery of the existence or nonexistence of the soul, the dilemma of appearance and being…"
So in the search to uncover our own souls, we look to our own mechanical creations. Can something that's created have a soul? Anime scholar Gilles Poitras writes, "One link [between mecha and Japanese tradition] which I think is important is the old folk tradition that a doll that is loved will gain a soul." This tradition may have roots in the belief that even inanimate objects possess innate qualities of Buddha. It is possible, then, for even a robot to attain buddhahood. In an interview with Time magazine in 2000, two professors of mechanical engineering at Waseda University said some Japanese believe that, "even a small stone on the road has a soul inside. It's not a big leap to believe the same thing about a machine. In Japan, we don't distinguish between organic and inorganic things … we can find personality in animals and trees and mountains. So it is not surprising to find a soul or a heart in a machine."
It was the exploration of these concepts that continue to spur mecha creators to explore the ultimate forms of androids and what defines one's ‘human' soul. Ghost in the Shell, Armitage III, and Metropolis represent just a few of the large group of anime that doom unlucky androids to forever wonder how close they come to human. Do Armitage, Kusanagi and Tima owe their allegiance to other machines simply because they are told to or do they have their own soul which governs their actions? Or in reverse is Key the Metal Idol more of a machine because she believes she isn't human and doesn't have a soul?
In mecha anime we often see reflections of the main characters in water, sunglasses, glass, and mirrors. These images further emphasize the importance of the identity/Frankenstein narrative to cyberpunk and mecha anime and the ability of anime to present that message to viewers in a skillful manner. The mirrored surfaces reflect back the image of characters who are in search of who they are, because as it is said inGhost in the Shell, "For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as I am known."
THE BLURRED LINE: Mecha's Mental Impact
Jean Baudrillard wrote that a machine "is man's equivalent and annexes him to itself in the unity of its operational process." Machines like <Tetsujin 28 or Evangelion, when they are joined together, mecha and pilot can unite for good, evil, and everything between.
Susan Napier further describes the importance of the bond between mecha and human in her book, Anime from Akira to Princess Mononoke, "The fusion of human pilot inside armored machine leads to bizarre combinations of mechanical/organic violence in which huge machines combat each other in fantastic displays of mechanical agility while at the same time hinting at the organic bodies inside… The power and exaltation of the augmented body… is the dominant trope around which mecha plots revolve."
But over time, the focus of the union of man and machine has shifted from the use of brute force to win battles and save the day to something else entirely.
Evangelion fully rejects the commonly used anime allegory of passage to manhood through mecha piloting. Shinji's adjustment into the role of pilot isn't just difficult, it's tormenting. Shinji abhors the Eva and the suffering it brings him. In prior anime, the process of developing skills and winning victories on behalf of humankind using mecha was an exercise in building character, honor, and maturity. But despite Shinji's physical aptitude for piloting, seen by a high level of "synchronization", he doesn't adapt or grow into his role as an Eva pilot. In fact, the more he connects with his mecha, the more Shinji is thrown into self-loathing and despair.
His willingness to pilot the Eva is the world's only hope, but Shinji's sacrifices somehow don't seem heroic. As he becomes increasingly isolated and fragile, it's painfully clear that mecha is no longer a refuge for the powerless or an amplifier of inner strength. Mecha consumes the young, weak and pathetic, leaving them no stronger than they were before they entered the pilot's capsule.
Susan Napier writes, "The very ubiquitousness and popularity of the mecha genre makes Evangelion … peculiarly jarring. Through Shinji's self-questioning, the viewer is insistently reminded of the fundamental worthlessness of the power derived from the mechanical armor, thus undermining the whole basis of the mecha genre … In the solipsistic world of Evangelion, mecha are finally unimportant except as a means to know the self. Even the human body is less important than the mind that creates its own reality."
A great deal has been written offering various interpretations of this groundbreaking anime. Evangelion is construed as being everything from a dysfunctional coming-of-age story to a symbol of an economically shattered Japan's over-reliance on technology. Whatever your reaction to the series,Evangelion shows the heights to which mecha anime has climbed as a vehicle for narrative and symbolism.
NEXT STEP: Mecha Moves On
Mecha is so deeply ingrained in anime it's sometimes difficult to distinguish mecha as a sub-genre. Remaining incredibly popular since its first inception of the happy go lucky Tetsuwan Atom, whether small, big, transformable, or philosophical, mecha anime continues to grow and reinvent itself with time. As post-Evangelion mecha continues to take shape, watching it while keeping its heritage in mind may help you better understand and appreciate the genre. So check out a few of the classics and keep an eye out for the next one.