When someone says “giant robot,” what’s the first thing you think of? Probably Mobile Suit Gundam with a side of Neon Genesis Evangelion. But as they say on TV: “Wait, there’s more!” The mecha genre (Japanese shorthand for “mechanical” and now with its own meaning of oversized robotics) has been part of manga since the ‘50s and anime since anime on TV has existed. That’s a pretty long time for such a niche genre of entertainment.
Innovation in the giant robot space (not to be confused with giant robots in space, of which there are plenty) has come about in many shapes and forms over the decades, much like the robots themselves. Mecha isn’t any more a genre than “catgirls” or “anime that take place in high school,” leaving infinite room for interpretation. The only requirement is the inclusion of at least one cool, oversized mech. So what can you do with that? As it turns out, just about anything.
Note: mecha and giant robot are not exactly synonymous, but they’re very close to being so and will be used interchangeably for most of this article. Impassioned discourse about the difference may be directed to your choice of Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.
A short digression on giant robot history
We’ll be focusing on anime simply because it’s a (slightly) smaller pool of titles and because while giant robots look cool on the page, they look even cooler animated and in color. Unlike most other anime genres, popular mecha series are anime-original more often than not, with manga tie-ins coming after, not before. There are plenty of exceptions, of course, starting with the first giant-robot anime, Gigantor (Tetsujin 28), which was based on a popular manga.
Gigantor debuted in 1963, the same year as Astro Boy (about a boy-sized robot) and 8 Man (about a man-sized android). (Coincidentally, all three titles would later be licensed by Right Stuf.) Giant robots and their mecha cousins have been a fixture of anime ever since.
Series and dates from the Anime News Network Encyclopedia. Note the bubble in 2007.
Looking at that graph, you’ll see anime started off with the three aforementioned robot series, but then petered out for the rest of the sixties. Kids were busy watching kaiju shows like Ultraman for their giant robot and monster fix, not anime. In 1972, however, a little show called Mazinger Z graced the airwaves. Mazinger Z was responsible for the key innovation of the giant robot anime world: making the robot a vehicle that was piloted from the inside by a teenager. The secret to robot success discovered, not a year has gone by since that didn’t see the debut of multiple mecha titles.
Popular tropes weren’t all Mazinger Z gave to the mecha genre, however. It sold boatloads of toys, too. Very quickly, the anime and toy industries realized that an anime could also be an effective commercial. The first robot anime made with the foremost intention of selling toys was Brave Raideen (Yusha Raideen). It was not the last.
The key innovation of Brave Raideen was making sure that whatever the robot could do (transform into a plane, for example), the toys would also be able to do. Although it seems crass to consider merchandise before, say, story and character, this led to some very interesting design choices for robots. The robots on screen now had to be plausible in “real life,” and as we all know, one of the best ways to spur creativity is to put restrictions on it. (Source: every season of Project Runway.)
Giant robots intended to be toys had to consider things like scale and exactly how many missiles was a feasible number for one vehicle to carry. Unlike Superman, who might have “super-hearing,” “super-swimming,” or “super-whatever” as the plot required, the robots needed to largely stick to their toy gimmicks. That’s right, realism in the giant robot genre came about because kids wanted toys that looked like what they saw on the screen. Bonus: as long as the toys sold, the toy companies didn’t care too much about the plots, giving the writers freedom to come up with surprisingly serious and thought-provoking storylines. It was in this environment that Gundam was born.
The name is important: Mobile Suit Gundam. These were not “robots,” they were (giant) mobile suits - pieces of machinery created for waging war. This was the introduction of the “real robot” genre, or robots that were, if not perfectly realistic, at least much more realistic than what had come before. Unfortunately, the planned toys didn’t do so well – they were meant to be able to combine, something not featured in the show. But after the show ended, Bandai decided to announce a series of model kits that accurately reflected the mobile suits. To say the kits were a success is to severely understate the case. Mobile Suit Gundam was re-released as a series of movies and became an unqualified success, spawning spinoff after spinoff and model kit after model kit.
From there, the history of giant robots becomes one of a mature genre, with successes, failures, deconstructions, and remakes in constant succession. “Mecha designer” became a real job someone could have, with notable names like Kunio Okawara and Hajime Katoki achieving real success. Gundam has been specifically cited for inspiring new technology. It’s difficult to guess where exactly mecha will go next, but it’s certain that it will be around for many, many decades to come if not more.
For more details on the history of giant robots in Japan, I recommend Japanese Animation Guide: The History of Robot Anime, which was commissioned by Japan's Agency for Cultural Affairs, or one of the many anime resource books available from Right Stuf Anime.
Why mecha resonates
Toys by themselves are well and good, but why does mecha resonate so strongly across so many demographics? Perhaps it’s because they’re not a genre but a trope, and that trope is “robots are really cool.” There are few people in this world who don’t enjoy seeing a giant robot fight, playing with a robot toy, and/or contemplating the consequences of giant-robot responsibility suddenly thrust upon impressionable teens. Robots cross barriers of language and culture with the ease of a Gundam shooting down the first person to note its presence (life tip: never yell “it’s a Gundam!” where they can hear you).
Imagination is infinite within the mecha world. What kind of world would support giant robots? Is it a dystopian future? A future full of promise? Do they fly in space? Or are they relics or a more advanced past? Maybe they run on magic and have a special bond with the pilot. Who maintains the robots? Who invents new versions (and their corresponding new toys)? What kind of support do the robots have, whether as part of an army or the local parks and rec department?
There’s room for stories not just about pilots but mechanics, inventors, commanders, civilians, and enemies. In many cases, the robot is a vehicle for character development (see what I did there?). Robots allow us to be bigger than we are, both literally and figuratively. Mecha: come for the robots, stay for the humanity.
CGI: the best thing to happen to giant robots since model kits
Once upon a time, animated robots had to be drawn by hand or, if you had the patience, time, and budget, built at small scale and carefully photographed moving across Tokyo with stop-motion animation. (Interestingly, stop motion is much more popular now for robots than ever before thanks to hobbyists). In the 1980s, however, that changed with the advent of computer-generated images (CGI).
Giant robots and CGI were tailor-made for each other. Computers are best at drawing nice, straight lines that don’t look organic. Giant robots are (usually) made of inorganic metal with clearly defined edges. Robots move in predictable patterns. Computers make animating predictable patterns a cinch. It’s difficult to hand-draw a giant robot perfectly at any angle every time. Computers just need to change the camera coordinates to show any angle of a robot you want.
People can be difficult to animate due to their clothing, facial expressions, hair, and other messy bits that subtly change in each scene. Robots might have a cape if you’re trying to show off, but otherwise it’s all about those solid pieces of metal and plastic. There’s simply no more ideal use case for CGI than giant robots.
Recommended titles and rhetorical questions
I firmly believe there’s a giant robot out there for everyone. If you haven’t found yours yet, you just need to keep looking. This list contains some of the biggest hits in the US over the last few years, but as I hope you’ve realized by now, giant robots contain multitudes. Take some time sifting through the tag and see if you can’t find something that sparks your interest. Who knows? Maybe you’ll fall in love with giant-robot basketball (Basquash!). Stranger things have happened.
- Does the inclusion of Gainax’s smash hit go without saying? Of course. Are there anime fans in this, the year 2019, who actually haven’t seen Evangelion and don’t know its influence on not just mecha but anime as a whole? Who weren’t even born when it debuted in 1995? Also yes.
- You could argue for half a dozen Gundam series on this list, and they’d all have merit. But if I’m restricting myself to just one (and I am), then I gotta go with the Gundam that first went mainstream in the US and brought Gundam to the American teenage masses: Gundam Wing. With a huge cast of characters and a complicated political plot, Gundam Wing deliberately appealed to multiple demographics and succeeded wildly.More
– Did you know Gen Urobuchi (of Madoka Magica fame) wrote a mecha show? And it wasn’t horribly depressing? And it had some pretty interesting commentary about the merits of using technology to adapt to life? All true! Plus, it features a cute girl saving the day by riding on a hang glider. What’s not to love?
– Code Geass is a clear example of a show not needing giant robots to tell its story, but using them to make it way cooler anyway. Ever seen a giant robot make a giant pizza before? Now you can! Just watch out for the rollercoaster of emotions as Lelouch’s many victories are offset by equally many catastrophic failures. Oh, and CLAMP did the character designs, which is a fun touch.
– Gainax returned to the mecha world a decade and a half after Evangelion with Gurren Lagann, and they were determined to infuse every aspect with style. Eminently quotable (“Believe in the me who believes in you!”), it also tackles the question of just how big a mech can be. That big? No, bigger. Bigger than that. No, still not big enough. Look, just watch the show, okay?
– Japan’s most enduring J-pop group meets giant robots by way of Footloose in a galaxy where peppy entertainment is forbidden. For the viewer who wants to get their idol fix and their mecha hit at the same time.
- Mecha classic Macross is sadly unlicensed at the moment in the US, but you can still get your hands on the American '80s series Robotech, which combined Super Dimension Fortress Macross, Super Dimension Cavalry Southern Cross, and Genesis Climber MOSPEADA to make one American cartoon. Thanks laregely to story editor Carl Macek, Robotech proved a surprising success.
– Did you know mecha can be practical and yet still interesting? Most people didn’t until Patlabor came out! I recommend starting with the movies since they’re an easy entry point, but the OVAs are excellent themselves – in fact, the original Patlabor: The Mobile Police series set the standard for how to make a successful OVA.
– Am I just listing my personal favorites at this point? Yes I am. But does your favorite mecha series have a giant robot that can turn into a dragon and incredible music by Yoko Kanno and Maya Sakamoto? No? Then go watch Escaflowne
Sources include: Anime News Network, Benjamin Wright and Animerica, Wikipedia, Anime Nostalgia Bomb and Lance Heiskell, and Japan's Agency for Cultural Affairs.
-Lisa Marie Cooper
Lisa is happy to have made it past her teenage years without being conscripted into a mecha war, but admits piloting a Jaeger would be pretty cool. Long-time Right Stuf fans may recognize Lisa as Marie from the Anime Today podcast or as the OG RightStufSpecialsMinion on the Anime News Network and Fandom Post forums. Her non-anime articles can be found at PositivelyEditorial.com.