Better know a Genre Part 2: Mecha Anime

A still from “Terror of Mechagodzilla” (1975). Toho.

If you were a child during the 80’s like me, watching the giant animated robots of Transformers and Voltron was a Saturday morning ritual. But did you know that Mecha is a genre that has been popular in Japanese media for more than 50 years?

Mecha Anime can be loosely defined as any series  involving robotic armor that battles. There are two main subcategories: Super Robot and Real Robot.

Super Robot:

This subgenre often disregards science and the laws of physics in favor of looking cool. Elaborate transformation sequences with mechas combining into an “ultimate final form” are common. Powered by the pilot’s sheer will and hunger for justice, these machines may have a mind of their own. Also, the pilots usually yell out their attacks.

Real Robot:

While not necessarily realistic, Real Robot anime is grounded more in science fiction. These mechs are very similar to real machines/military hardware in that there are limitations. There can be limited ammunition, and machines may malfunction and need repair. Real Robot mechas are generally tools of war, and the tone of these shows is often more serious and less super-heroish.

Sharing the complete history of mecha anime is challenging in both scope, and in the fact that it can be a fiercely-debated matter of opinion. Regardless, here are a few very influential Mecha series:

1956:     The first giant robot ever was Mitsuteru Yokoyama’s manga turned television series Tetsujin 28-go (lit: Iron Man #28), known as Gigantor to U.S. audiences.

The 1963 version of Tetsujin 28-go aired on Fuji TV from October 1963 to May 1966.

This giant mecha was remote-controlled by a young boy to fight crime. Tetsujin 28 is an iconic Japanese pop-culture character. The anime has had many sequels and remakes over the years. In 2009, a full-scale, 50-ton replica of Gigantor was constructed in Kobe (Yokoyama’s home city).

1967:     Also created by Mitsuteru Yokoyama, Giant Robo was the first live-action super hero robot on television, and has since been adapted into an anime. The robot’s master is again a young boy. He controls Giant Robo with a wristwatch.

Giant Robo (ジャイアントロボ). Also known as Johnny Sokko and his Flying Robot. Original run: May 1967-March 1968.

For this series, Giant Robo can not only fly, but has a slew of other powers such as: finger missiles, laser beam eyes, and an overpowered “Megaton Punch”. Giant Robo is influential to future Super Robot anime in that when controlling Robo, Daisaku announces the name of Robo’s special attacks aloud.

1972:     Considered to be the grandfather of the Super Robot genre, Mazinger Z was the first anime in which the mecha had a human pilot.

Mazinger Z (マジンガーZ) or Tranzor Z. Original run: December 1972-September 1974. Fuji Television.

The story centers around impulsive hero Kouji Kabuto as he fights against the evil henchmen of Dr. Hell to save Tokyo. A tiny hover craft that connected into Mazinger Z’s head allowed Kouji control of the robot’s motions and weapons. These included laser beam eyes, heat rays from his chest, and a “Rocket Punch”, which propelled the robot’s fist toward the enemy (influenced by Giant Robo).

The Aphrodite A’s “Oppai Missile System” attack.

Aside from the pilot, this show had the first woman Super Robot, “Aphrodite A” whose only attack was to fire missiles from her breasts. In 1985, Mazinger Z saw a run in the United States. However, due to the heavy censoring, it wasn’t very popular.

1974:  “So much for the laws of physics!”—Hayato Jin , Getter Robo Armageddon

When the few dinosaurs that survived extinction attack us with robotic Mechasauruses, a professor must convince three teenage pilots to combine forces and become the Getter Robo team to save mankind! Created by Ken Ishikawa and Go Nagai, Getter Robo introduced the concept of combining robots to the mecha genre. Although this idea was considered during the creation of the Mazinger Z series, it was realized in Getter Robo.

Three separate jets joined together to form three different robots. Each unit had its own special strength depending on the environment. Getter-1 was for aerial combat, Getter-2 was a ground unit, and Getter-3 functioned best in the water. This idea proved to be a very popular, and has continued to be used in the Super Robot genre ever since. Although Getter Robo was never brought to American audiences, Force Five (its sequel), was popular in the states during the late 70s/early 80s.

1975:     Raideen the Brave or Brave Raideen tells the story of Akira, a young boy who discovers he is a descendant of a lost continent called Mu. Thus, he is the only person able to pilot an ancient Mu robot called Raideen, in order to defeat demons attacking earth.

Brave Raideen (勇者ライディーン). Original run: April 1975-March 1976 on TV Asahi. Sunrise, Tohokushinsha Film.

Raideen’s weapons include missiles, a shield, a sword in his forearm, a boomerang, and a bow with giant arrows. As a finishing move, this mecha was able to transform into a “God Bird”, a jet plane that had even more special attacks. Brave Raideen became the first anime to reach a mainstream audience in America, and was also a first in that Raideen was a sentient being whose origins were mystical rather than scientific. Lastly, Raideen was one of the first transforming giant robots. Transforming mechas were not only merchandising genius, but also paved the way for other Super Robot series to have “more than meets the eye.”

1979:     The popularity of the indestructible Super Robot came to an end with Mobile Suit Gundam, a franchise that literally created the Real Robot genre.

Mobile Suit Gundam (機動戦士ガンダム) or Gundam 0079. Original Run: April 1979-January 1980 on Nagoya Broadcasting Network. Sunrise.

Gundams are shown as realistic war machines in a universe where good and evil aren’t absolutes, and our heroes don’t always win. This franchise has seen numerous spin-offs, and has become an icon of Japanese culture.

1982:     Created by Shoji Kawamori, Super Dimension Fortress Macross debuted. In this series, human mecha pilots battle in a war against aliens, and there is arguably more human drama than in any previous mecha anime.

The Super Dimension Fortress Macross (超時空要塞マクロス). Original run: October 1982-June 1983 on Mainichi Broadcasting System. Studio Nue, Artland, Tatsunoko Production.

Love triangles, an excellent musical score, and space opera elements are characteristic of the Macross franchise in general. Macross: Do You Remember Love? (1984), is a notable retelling of the original series that was very well received. Below: My favorite song from Macross in general–the opening tune to Macross Plus. “Voices” by Arai.

1985:     Robotech introduced American audiences to the potential of animation as a sophisticated medium with the ability to target an adult audience.

Robotech (1985). An 85-episode anime adaptation. Produced by Harmony Gold USA, Tatsunoko Production Co., Ltd.

Robotech had a larger influence than many would give it credit for with some uncommon themes to U.S. animation: Interracial relationships, the terrors of war, and the death of major characters. Ironically, Robotech led to a desire among early anime fans for producers to show original, uncut Japanese productions. Also, if it weren’t for Robotech, the Macross Franchise may not have developed such a strong following.

1995:     Neon Genesis Evangelion deconstructs the mecha genre and is a runaway success. This series is anime canon. It contains mature themes, religious symbolism, and deep psychological elements.

Neon Genesis Evangelion (新世紀エヴァンゲリオン). Original run October, 1995-March, 1996 on TV Tokyo. Gainax, Tatsunoko.

Evangelion pushed the mecha genre with its revolutionary exploration of the human condition, and one’s relation to others in society. Since Evangelion, other series such as RahXephon, Eureka Seven, and Bokurano have adopted similar story elements with varying degrees of success.

1996:     Martian Successor Nadesico premieres. Using Macross as a template, Nadesico was the first mecha anime to lampshade the genre in general.

Martian Successor Nadeshiko (機動戦艦ナデシコ). Original run: October,, 1996-March, 1997 on TV Tokyo. XEBEC.

In space opera style, this series reveled in being a parody. Also, with the character Ruri, this anime was an early example of “moe” in mecha. Nedisico was influential to future mecha comedies such as Full Metal Panic!

Currently, Mecha as a genre shows no sign of diminishing. There are many great series that have come out in the 2000’s such as: Code Geass, Eureka Seven, Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann and the latest Gundam Unicorn (to name a few).

From Left: Code Geass, Eureka Seven, Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann, Gundam Unicorn.


About Anne's Anime Blog

I am an astronomical anime fan. I enjoy watching it, collecting figures & merchandise, assembling models, and attending conventions. California burrito glutton. Let's be friends:)

Posted on July 9, 2012, in Anime and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Interesting article. I grew up watching Transformer (not that I liked it) and I was put off the mecha genre (apart from Robotech) and so I ignore it for the most part. That said I really like Evangelion, Gasaraki, and Patlabor.

  2. Really liked the article! I’ve always loved the super serious mechs, the Gundams and Evangelions and such.

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