Let’s kick things off with the progenitor of the whole genre. In 1956, Mitsuteru Yokoyama created Tetsujin 28-go, the first giant robot manga to find wide success. Young Shotaro Kaneda inherited Tetsujin, a remote control robot, from his father. Tetsujin was originally built to help Japan fight the Allied forces during World War II, but since Japan surrendered before Tetsujin’s completion, I guess the second best option was passing it on to a kid. Anyway, after receiving Tetsujin, Shotaru used it to take on a variety of evildoers, including Professor Shutain Franken, nefarious creator of the rival robot, Black Ox. Seven years later after the manga’s release, it would be animated, then become one of the first anime shown in the United States as Gigantor. Names were changed – they kinda had to, since “Tetsujin” directly translates to “Iron Man,” and you know Tony Stark’s got those good lawyers – but the quality was still there, helping to build America’s first otaku.
Manga legend Go Nagai grew up a fan of Tetsujin 28-go and Astro Boy and wanted to do his own take on the mecha genre, when inspiration struck after he saw a traffic jam. His idea? A giant robot that could be controlled from inside. And thus Mazinger Z was born! Built from the mysterious Super-Alloy Z, Koji Kabuto would fly his hovercraft into Mazinger’s head and pilot it in battles against the sinister Dr. Hell and his Mechanical Beasts, weapons of an ancient empire. Mazinger Z would go on to establish many of the tropes that mecha anime still follow to this day. The 1972 anime would eventually arrive Stateside 13 years later as Tranzor Z, once again shuffling names. But Mazinger would make an impact elsewhere as well – the city of Tarragona, Spain was going to add a suburb called “Mas del Plata,” and a Mazinger Z statue was built to welcome visitors. The suburb never arrived, but Mazinger still stands to this day, and if you go in through the secret door in the back of his leg, you can get a look at Koji’s view from Mazinger’s head!
We’re breaking out of the chronological run we had going by checking out this oddball of a series from 1999, but it’s one of my personal favorites. Produced by Sunrise in the wake of their animating of several episodes of Batman: The Animated Series, The Big O borrows a lot of the setting to provide its own unique spin on the mecha genre. Roger Smith is our stand-in Bruce Wayne, serving as a Negotiator in Paradigm City, a partially-domed metropolis isolated by wastelands, the sea, and most importantly, a wave of amnesia that struck 40 years before. Roger works for hire, doing a variety of jobs from courier service to hostage transfer, but when necessary, he summons his Megadeus, the Big O, to strike down other ancient mecha and other giant threats. The Big O’s beam attacks and sledgehammer punches were devastating attacks that few enemies could withstand. This series also has a unique history, as while the first season struggled in Japan, its success on Cartoon Network’s Toonami block led the American cable channel to co-produce a second season in 2003, bringing a sort of closure to the mysterious history and machinations that led to the creation of Paradigm City.
Of all the Japanese series heavily adapted for American audiences before the 1990’s, this one easily found the most success. Based originally off of the 1981 anime Beast King GoLion, the adjusted plot revolved around 5 human pilots drawn to the planet Arus, which was beset upon by King Zarkon and his Robeasts from Planet Doom. The pilots then discovered 5 giant robotic lions, which combined to create the mighty Voltron, Defender of the Universe. Voltron stole the hearts of many a kid in the ‘80’s, between its iconic transformation sequence (“And I’ll form the head!” still gets me pumped up) and the awesome toys that combined to make a gigantic Voltron in your own home. The franchise is still a powerhouse to this day, thanks to DreamWorks’ recent Netflix adaptation, Voltron: Legendary Defender, which ran for 8 seasons between 2016 and 2018.
We’ve seen a lot of the massive, super-powerful mecha so far, so let’s get back down to earth for a bit. Originally launched in anime form with an OVA in 1988, the Patlabor franchise focuses on a police squad in Tokyo in the far-flung year 1998. The construction world has been revamped with the help of piloted mecha called Labors. Of course, Labors could always easily be used for nefarious purposes, so that’s when you send in the members of Tokyo’s Special Vehicles Unit 2, or SV2 for short. With a selection of their own Patrol Labors, or Patlabors for short, they would do their best to neutralize any threats. The main workhorse of the squad would be the iconic AV-98 Ingram, whose everyday tasks and relatively diminutive size (only 8 meters? Come on!) brought the mecha genre to a much more relatable level. You didn’t expect the Ingram to save the world from an invading force, but you could definitely count on it to wrangle out of control Labors that were still a major threat to a smaller area. The Ingram was definitely your friendly neighborhood giant robot.
Here’s another convoluted origin story for you! In 1980, Takara Toys released the Diaclone line in Japan, featuring mecha and tiny pilots. In 1982, they introduced Diaclone figures that could change into modern-day vehicles like jets and trucks. And in 1984, American toy company Hasbro and Marvel Comics teamed up to adapt the Diaclone line and other shapeshifting toys into one shared universe. And with that, the Transformers were born! With a storyline spanning millions of years, the noble Autobots fled their dying homeworld of Cybertron to escape the tyranny of the sinister Decepticons. Optimus Prime led the Autobots, both on the battlefield and in toy sales, with a combination of battle prowess and integrity. He led his allies with a message of hope, acceptance and coexistence, and his name became iconic both in America and in Japan, where he would keep his original Diaclone name of Convoy. Throughout the decades, Transformers has been adapted into numerous media, from anime and CGI to comics, video games and blockbuster movies, but at the center of almost all of them stands that big red and blue semi truck cab, standing by the credo that adorned his Tech Specs back in 1984: “Freedom is the right of all sentient beings.”
From small places come incredible things. Simon and Kamina are two young diggers in the subterranean Giha Village, but once they discover the head-shaped robot dubbed Lagann, their whole world changes. The ceiling of their city is shattered, they discover the Beastmen and their Gunmen that enforced their isolation, and with Kamina’s theft of a Gunmen he names Gurren, the two combine their forces (and robots) and set forth on a path that will send the entire galaxy spinning. The series itself is so over the top, never missing an opportunity to shock you with a “just far enough to be crazy” design. And Gurren Lagann is the perfect mecha to carry the series’ name, dripping with cool from its monstrous torso-based grin and gigantic pectoral sunglasses to its barrage of drill-based attacks. This series rarely backs down from its constantly ratcheting intensity and scale, while never giving up on Simon and Kamina’s dream to pierce the heavens.
Shoji Kawamori is someone we can’t go on without mentioning. He is one of the modern masters of mecha design. He made his name by building the Macross franchise - the Valkyrie/Veritech fighter is easily at the top of my honorable mentions list, so please don’t hate me for that – but his touch goes much further than that. Transformers, Patlabor, Outlaw Star, Eureka Seven and so many more series – Kawamori’s impact is seen just about anywhere you’ve seen a giant robot in the past 40 years. With his series The Vision of Escaflowne, he wove mecha, fantasy, and isekai into one magical combination. Hitomi is a girl training for track, when she gets whisked away to the land of Gaea after witnessing a boy fight a dragon. Hitomi and the boy, Van Fanel, join forces to keep the Zaibach Empire from absorbing the peaceful neighboring lands. Van pilots the guymelef Escaflowne, an 8-meter tall suit of magic armor with a flowing cape, a massive sword and the ability to transform into a dragon. With his mental link to the Escaflowne, Van was an unstoppable force in combat, serving to prove Kawamori right – giant robots and fantasy worlds are two great things that go great together.
Hideaki Anno rocked the anime world with Neon Genesis Evangelion in 1995. The tale he wove revolved around Shinji Ikari, a boy who moves to Tokyo-3 to reluctantly defend humanity from the onslaught of the Angels, nearly invincible otherworldly beings. The tool he would use would be the EVA Unit-01, an enormous mecha. From the outset, Evangelion seemed like a standard mecha show, but one with a lot of style. The EVA-01’s sleek, lanky build and unique purple paint job made it stand out from the giant robots of the day. However, the sheer brutality of its offensive output quickly set the tone for the series, and as it would go on, fans would learn that Unit 01 was no mere robot, and Evangelion was nothing like the simple mecha shows that came before. The thick symbolism, psychological study and multi-layered plot would go on to influence many anime afterwards, but with its arrival to streaming and modern movie series, Evangelion’s impact is still being felt to this day.
We’re a little bit biased around here, but you can’t fault us for putting the OG mobile suit at the top of our list. Yoshiyuki Tomino’s 1979 creation built an entire subgenre of mecha anime with Mobile Suit Gundam: “Real Robot.” Until that point, mecha anime focused on super-powered robots leading absolute good in a battle against absolute evil. Gundam added shades of grey and moments of vulnerability. The titular mecha, Amuro Ray’s RX-78-2 Gundam, was a gleaming, top of the line piece of machinery for sure, but it was in no means indestructible. The Gundam needed constant repairs and reconfiguring to stay on the battlefield, and was often overwhelmed by the forces the Principality of Zeon could muster. But that tinkering led to a wide arsenal of tricks and armaments. Beam sabers, javelins, rifles, bazooka launchers, a 10-ton shield, even a spiked ball on a chain – Gundam had a weapon for any occasion. And if things took a turn for the worse, the pilot could always eject the Core Fighter at the heart of the suit and fly away. The Gundam may be more fragile than some of the other mecha on this list, but its design just screams “never say die.” And that makes sense, seeing that what was originally a cancelled toy commercial is now the launching point of a mecha franchise going strong for over 40 years. So in this writer’s opinion, you’ve gotta put the Gundam at number 1 on our chart.
All of these series have something on our site, so if I’ve helped find a gap in your mecha knowledge, check it out yourself! In the meantime, I’ve gotta get back in the robot. LAUNCHING!