What is Mecha? [Definition, Meaning]

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The term mecha is taken from the Japanese way of shortening “mechanical,” and is a sub-category of the Science Fiction genre, which centers around giant robots. In a real life Japanese language use, however, it could refer to anything mechanical such as your vehicles and/or your smartphones. Due to the numerous mecha titles that have been on the airwaves for the past 40 years, a good number of anime fans acknowledge it as its own distinct genre. Not only does mecha have a great presence within anime, it has expanded into video games and other forms of merchandise.

Roots in Super Robot

Try to think of the Super Robot branch of the mecha genre more as a superhero comic by being very gimmicky, and was considered outdated (but not forgotten) by the 1980s in favor of real robot anime. If any elements of Super Robot are alive today, they are mostly expressed through the mechs Super Sentai shows, which in turn become Power Rangers outside of Japan, where they are renamed as zords. Super Robot shows are exciting as they are over the top. While the mecha genre as a whole started with Tetsujin 28, or Gigantor on international shores, it was controlled only be remote control. If there is any granddaddy that paved way for the mecha genre as it is now by having a pilot within the robot, it would certainly have to be Go Nagai’s Mazinger Z.

Mazinger Z

  • Episodes: 92
  • Aired: Dec 3, 1972 – Sept 1, 1974

In retrospect, Mazinger Z took a more relatively cartoony approach to how a good majority of mechs is done today. In this series, all the attacks such as the Rocket Punch are voice activated for dramatic purposes and to get the audiences more invested. Twenty years later, G Gundam would serve as a parody/homage to the Super Robot genre by having gimmicky robots and having their attacks verbalized. The character designs would take influences from the time periods with the thicker style of the outlines, the puffier hairstyles, sideburns, and pilot suits that feel look like disco suits.

Mobile Fighter G Gundam (Kidou Butouden G Gundam)

  • Episodes: 49
  • Aired: Apr 1, 1994 – Mar 31, 1995

In addition to Mazinger Z, some elements of the Transformers franchise, especially later Japanese exclusive releases such as Headmasters and Super-God Masterforce serve as another unique example of the Super Robot genre. With Headmasters, a subgroup of Transformers known as the Headmasters that are human size in robot form can transform into heads and merge with bigger bodies known as Transectors (a Transformer body that is like a mech) in order to become the same size as regular Transformers. In Super-God Masterforce, the Godmasters are humans who can merge their consciousness with a Transector.

G Gundam trailer

Transformers Headmasters

  • Episodes: 35
  • Aired: Jul 3, 1987 – Mar 28, 1988

In today’s world, making Super Robot anime in the footsteps of Mazinger Z for today’s audiences is mostly used as a foundation for parody, but enough to respect it in tribute. In addition to G Gundam, audiences can also check out Gundam Build Fighters or Gurren Lagann as homages to the Super Robot branch of mecha. While Build Fighters uses a modern day setting with a modern style of character designs, Gurren Lagann pays respect to the animation style of the 1970s, along with it's over the top characters and gimmicky action sequences.


The Rise of Real Robot

Mobile Suit Gundam Iron-Blooded Orphans Season 2

  • Episodes: 25
  • Aired: Oct 2, 2016 – Apr 2, 2017

For most modern-day audiences, a good majority of their exposure to mecha is through the Real Robot genre, which started at the end of the 1970s and made its progressive rise shortly after. While Super Robot was more about fighting a monster or enemy mecha of the week sent by an evil organization, Real Robot is more about war and politics. These particular qualities are most featured in the Gundam and Macross franchises. Real robot anime is more of a critique of the human condition of the time it broadcasts, but even after re-visiting it in the future, sometimes the themes back then apply in the present. In addition, both franchises take into account real life physics or find ways to invent their own physics that goes hand in hand with real life principles.

Mobile Suit Gundam Iron-Blooded Orphans trailer

Armored Trooper Votoms (Soko Kihei Votoms)

  • Episodes: 52
  • Aired: Apr 1, 1983 – Mar 23, 1984

While Super Robot shows have their mechs as the only ones of their kind, with Real Robot anime, they are about as common as planes and tanks unless it’s a special prototype or custom. This trait is most common in Armored Troopers Votoms, where there is no special mecha that Chirico uses throughout the duration of the series.

A majority of the mechs in this anime share the same basic design but will have some slight differences to suit the battlefield (such as treads for sand, boosters for space, legs for general combat). Numerous times throughout the series, Chirico and his friends just use whatever mechs come their way and use their battle data to keep their mechs upgraded. A majority of this series is focused on the skills, experiences, and determination of the pilots as opposed to the hardware of the mechas.

Macross Delta

  • Episodes: 26
  • Aired: Apr 3, 2016 – Sept 25, 2016

With the original Gundam being a critique on World War II and Vietnam, recent Gundam installments such as Iron-Blooded Orphans take influences from real life issues such as economic oppressions due to unfair sanctions, and child soldiers. Through this series, audiences can learn what it’s like to have free will and wonder if the characters in their situations really do have a choice, or can they just walk away from it when that opportunity is put in front of them.

With Macross Delta, it deals with government corruption, complex relationships, and the realities of prejudice. Can you trust your government when they tried to cover up a big mistake? What if they tried to put the blame on someone you loved? Should we hold ourselves to a higher standard because of our ancestries? Whatever you may ask yourself, you can probably find those answers through Macross Delta.

Macross Delta Trailer:


The In-Between and the Exceptional

Space Runaway Ideon (Densetsu Kyojin Ideon)

  • Episodes: 39
  • Aired: May 8, 1980 – Jan 30, 1981

A small but good number of series do serve as an excellent balance between the realistic and gimmicky branches of the mecha genre. One excellent bridge between the Super Robot and Realistic is Tomino’s Space Runaway Ideon, which was released during a time when the mecha genre as a whole was still trying to establish its identity. The Ideon mecha itself isn’t even supposed to be acknowledged as a machine but as a god. It’s identity as a god would take influence from the Super Robot branch, while its war story would serve the realism.

Ideon, in turn, would influence one of the most iconic mecha animes of all time, Neon Genesis Evangelion. Evangelion also takes influence from the Super Robot genre by fighting a monster of the week, but also takes some inspiration from realism by using a military and political backdrop, but brings in their unique qualities by giving the EVA units some bio-mechanisms. Evangelion is also famous (and controversial) for dwelling into religious related themes, mental health problems within Japanese society, and complex relationships.

Aura Battler Dunbine (Sei Senshi Dunbine)

  • Episodes: 49
  • Aired: Feb 5, 1983 – Jan 21, 1984

And other exceptions to the basic trends of mechs by the geniuses of Yoshiyuki Tomino and Shoji Kawamori are Aura Battler Dunbine and The Vision of Escaflowne, in which they both go towards the realm of fantasy. With Dunbine being a Tomino creation, it takes more from his dark qualities fans would see in Gundam, which focuses on complex relationships and greedy governments. A good number of Macross qualities are present in Escaflowne with the complex love triangles with the characters, but its world allows viewers a very rare look into a steampunk approach to the genre by being gear oriented as opposed to being electronically oriented.

Aura Battler Dunbine Trailer


Common Qualities

A good percentage of mecha anime tends to use teenagers as pilots and as main characters. Though the stories of Evangelion, Macross, and Gundam have narrative reasons of establishing why the main characters pilot their respective mechs, there is more of a cultural reason why mecha anime and anime as a whole use teenagers as their heroes. Yes, it is a distinct way to make a connection with the audience but to the Japanese, they feel that teenage years symbolize freedom. Not just freedom to do what you want, but freedom to discover who you are and what you want to do in life.

While Americans have the freedom to choose a different path in life depending on their circumstances at any time during their adulthood, it’s not the same in Japan. Once a person is done with their education, in most instances, they have lifetime employment with a certain company, and women are expected to get married and become housewives. While many non-Japanese can naturally see this as a very outdated quality, it is still in practice to this very day and it is subliminally expressed in anime. Due to these cultural differences, Japanese writers and directors think that teenage characters are easier to establish and develop their leads.

Full Metal Panic

  • Episodes: 24
  • Aired: Jan 8, 2002 – Jun 18, 2002

The Full Metal Panic saga does a very great job of parodying this quality in its own way through the main character, Sosuke Sagara. He is a natural born soldier but due to his assignment guarding Chidori, he is required to stay at her side by attending school. Even though he is clearly a soldier first, the series shows he is still in a position that he can still make a change in his life while he’s still a teenager. The series also finds a way to make him relatable to his peers who only think of him as a military otaku, which is not unheard of in real Japanese schools. While Sosuke’s interactions can come across as comedic, the series still finds a way to make him genuinely likable as a lost innocent kid who still has a chance at a life beyond being a soldier.

Full Metal Panic trailer

For a large majority of realistic robot anime, they tend to use outer space and the future as their settings. By using outer space as a setting, it is not only effective storytelling it is easier for animators to focus on more diverse action sequences thanks to zero gravity conditions, the staff won’t have to use so much money by avoiding detailed backgrounds such as urban setting. The outer space setting is also used to address the human condition. Can humans change if they migrate to outer space? Will they still be at war with each other like in Gundam? Or will they do battle with other galactic races like in Macross? Transformers, on the other hand, takes a very unorthodox approach by having the mechs as sentient aliens from a far civilization. In the end, can humanity truly learn to coexist with each other if we are to co-exist to the ends of the universe?


Video Games

Cyber Troopers Virtual On: Oratorio Tangram

  • Platform: Arcade, Dreamcast, Xbox 360
  • Developer: Sega
  • Publisher: Sega (Japan), Activision (US)
  • Release Date: Dec 9, 1999 (Japan), Jun 1, 2000 (US)

Last, we cannot deny that mecha has a great presence in the video game industry. With technology rapidly evolving we went from Virtual On to Gundam Senjo no Kizuna in Japanese arcades within less than 20 years. While Virtual On is like your typical racing arcade cabinet with two joysticks to pilot your mech, Gundam Senjo no Kizuna allows players to enter a pod and feel like they’re piloting a real mobile suit! So if you ever find yourself at a Japanese arcade, feel free to pilot one. And recently in some VR places in Tokyo such as in the shopping malls of the Odaiba district, players also had the chance to play a VR game based on Armored Troopers Votoms. With VR now available in our homes with PS4 VR and the Oculus, hopefully, fans can get home versions of mecha games based on their favorite anime.


Final Thoughts

For every mecha fan, we have all probably thought it would be cool if mechs could be real. Allegedly, that could happen in August 2017 considering there is supposed to be a mecha battle between two robots made by an American engineering team and a Japanese engineering team. The American team (or MegaBots Inc.) is making their challenge with the MK II and the Japanese team (or made by Suidobashi Heavy Industry) is sending their robot known as Kuratas.

Arthur C. Clarke once said that science fiction is something that could happen (but also disclaimed that you usually wouldn’t want it to) and with this upcoming battle, he is right. Considering what mecha anime has contributed and influenced, maybe mechs can be used to help us migrate to outer space, or become a weapon of mass destruction. Either way, what was fiction yesterday could become reality tomorrow. Many physicists and engineers in Japan have recently been interviewed on their thoughts on mecha by NHK, Japan’s equivalent to PBS. Of course, some shared it would cost billions and more than five years to develop a mecha that is the size of a Gundam.

One AI expert shared that when he looked at the setup of the Gundam’s cockpit, he pointed out that two levers were not enough and said in order to have the Gundam operate with two levers, it would have to require a highly sophisticated AI installed considering the numerous functions with only two levers. Other experts agreed that in order to make a mecha like what you see in anime, an effective AI is going to be required and suggested that Gundam could be a good reference to this technology.

Justin

Writer

Author: Justin "ParaParaJMo" Moriarty

Hello, I am originally from the states and have lived in Japan since 2009. Though I watched Robotech and Voltron as a child, I officially became an anime fan in 1994 through Dragon Ball Z during a trip to the Philippines. In addition to anime, I also love tokusatsu, video games, music, and martial arts. よろしくお願いします

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