Mechas: Disassociation from Science Fiction

Caution: this article may contain some spoilers to specific anime in the mecha genre.

The word “Mecha” is an abbreviated version of the English word “mechanical”. Mecha has long been considered one of the most famed subgenres of anime. Generally, the subgenre features giant robots that are used for battle. It’s a subgenre that is often coupled with other genres such as comedy, drama and most commonly, science fiction. The mechas are categorized into four types sentient, remote-controlled, wearable, and piloted. The mecha genre is split into three sub-categories Super Robot, Real Robot, and Hybrid Robot.

Mecha Types

The four type’s of mecha are sentient, remote-controlled, wearable, and piloted. Sentient mechas are self-aware, capable of thought and emotion, such as in Gargantia on the Verdurous Planet (2013). Remote-controlled mecha is controlled from a distance. Gigantor is a good example of a remote-controlled mecha. Wearable mecha, like the ones found in Bubblegum Crisis (1987), is worn like armor and controlled by the human’s mind or body. Piloted is the last type. The pilots control the mecha internally like a vehicle, the mecha in Armored Trooper VOTOMS (1983) are controlled in this way.

Super Robot Genre

The “Super Robot” sub-genre represents giant mecha as creations of mad scientists. How the mecha is constructed, equipped and funded is usually unclear. The mecha is generally fantastic in nature, armed with super-powered weapons and are piloted by young heroes. Many Super Robot anime feature the pilot verbally calling out attack names. These pilots are usually ordinary in every way except in their uncanny abilities to pilot mecha. The controls are often simple and they psychically move like humans. Super Robot series follow the “monster of the week” format and the enemies usually aren’t human. The Super Robot subgenre typically focus on the themes of love, courage, and idealism. Super Robots are the most important weapon against evil.

Gigantor (1964) is a Super Robot anime, considered to be the first anime to feature giant robots. Mitsuteru Yokoyama created the manga Tetsujin 28-go from which it was adapted. The series is set in the year 2000, the main protagonist is a boy named Little Jimmy Sparks. Jimmy is 12 years old, he controls Gigantor with a remote. Together they fight crime, fending off villains who attempt to steal Gigantor. The Mazinger Z, a manga created by Go Nagai further defining the genre. It was the first series to have a pilot inside the robot. The Super Robot genre has fallen out of favor with the creation of the Real Robot genre.

Real Robot Genre

Victory Gundam from Mobile Suit Gundam

A clear counter to the Super Robot subgenre, the Real Robot subgenre, focuses on more realistic environments. The Real Robot subgenre combines military science fiction with the use of giant robots as weapons. As with tanks, planes or guns, these Mecha are mass-produced by governments or corporations. Unlike Super Robots, Real Robots always have a realistic explanation for their existence. The way they function is often thoroughly explained, as is their primary purpose and who can pilot them. Real Robot anime often have to take into account fuel usage, complexity in piloting, financial cost, the need for repair, and ammunition limits. Real Robot pilots are usually well-trained. However, these pilots can still be extraordinary. The enemies in the Real Robot subgenre are often other humans. Real Robots are considered just another cog in the war effort.

Mobile Suit Gundam (1979) is considered to be the originator of the Real Robot subgenre. Mobile Suit Gundam is set in the year 2079, during which the Principality of Zeon has declared its independence and launches war against the Earth Federation. The war has an effect on civilians and nations on Earth, as well as on space colonies and lunar settlements. Zeon has an advantage due to their use of mobile suits. A Zeon reconnaissance member massacres civilians and crew on a Federation warship. Amuro Ray a mechanic on the warship uses a Gundam to fight Zeon. Utilizing the Gundam unit, Amuro manages to aid the Earth Federation in defeating Zeon.

Hybrid Robot Genre

The newest subgenre of Mecha is “Hybrid Robot.” Hybrid Robot subgenre combines elements from Super Robot and Real Robot subgenres. Hybrid Robot series often exist in worlds like those of Real Robot series, but feature mechas that are similar to those of Super Robot series. The Hybrid Robot subgenre is gaining in popularity–the Evangelion series and Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann series are prime examples. The Neon Genesis Evangelion series of 1994 follows child pilots, Shinji Ikari, Rei Ayanami and Asuka Langley Soryu. Together they fight off giant beings called “Angels” who threaten humanity. These pilots are trained in difficult and sometimes cruel simulations to master the use of their Evangelion units, called EVAs.

The EVA Units are created from the Angels, Adam and Lilith. Using elements from Real Robot subgenre, the Evangelion Units are funded and created by the government agency NERV. The pilots of the EVAs are linked while sitting in a capsule called the “entry plug”. EVA don’t have armor–they have forced fields. The units are often limited by batteries or umbilical cables.

Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann Final Mecha

The Super Robot subgenre is present in the form of the psychic link, between pilot and EVA. This link allows the pilot to control the unit with his or her mind and has the unfortunate drawback of sharing the pain experience between them. EVAs can sometimes gain sentience and go” berserk “. During this berserk period, the Super Robot elements are on display as the EVA units gain great power, showing off super-powered weapons and abilities. The Evangelion series seamlessly incorporates elements from Super Robot and Real Robot subgenres together to create a different type of mecha.

Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann takes place on a fictional Earth ruled by the Spiral King, Lord Genome. The Spiral King forces people (Spirals) to live underground in villages. Simon and Kamina, citizens of the village dream of heading to the surface. They find a small mecha resembling a face and name it Lagann. Simon and Kamina then use Lagann to reach the surface. Together they both inspire humanity and grow their fleet of mecha. As spirals grow in population, the Anti-spirals use “Spiral life-form Annihilation Devices” to kill the spirals.

The Anti-spirals are a species of humanoid beings who stopped their own evolution by purging themselves of “Spiral Power.” The Gurren Lagann series uses Super Robots for Spirals and Evangelion-inspired Hybrid Robots for Anti-Spirals in the second half of the series. The series takes the giant robot to an extreme, gaining in size from the smallest mecha (Lagann) to the universe-sized (Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann). The Spirals manage to defeat The Anti-spiral, killing the entire anti-spiral race in the process. Instead of combining Super and Real Robot elements to create a new type of mecha, Gurren Lagann separates Real Robots and Super Robots and pits them against each other.

The mecha subgenre remains one of the most popular genres in anime. The mecha subgenre often is coupled with science fiction. The Super Robot subgenre allows for human characters to show their humanity while becoming extraordinary in the cockpit of a mecha. Super robots pilots single-handedly become heroes capable of defeating massive enemies. The viewers identify with the pilot’s humanity while enjoying the astonishing abilities they gain.

On the other hand, Real Robots exist in a more complex, realistic world. The Real Robot subgenre focuses more on the human condition, the psychological effects of war and trauma. Mecha exists with humans in day-to-day scenarios. They are used as tools of war, for policing and manual labor. The viewer gets to imagine a world that feels closer to reality. Hybrid Robots take the best elements of Super and Real Robots and fuse them together. The Hybrid Robot subgenre takes more of the fantastical features of the Super Robot and grounds them in Real Robot worlds. With large threats and humanity’s limited ability to combat these threats, giant robots become a bridge to help humans in overcoming those limits. Watching human characters struggle under adversity only to emerge victorious is always compelling.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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  1. Evangelion #1 show of all time. It revolutionized and set a new standard for all mecha anime. A good example would be Eureka Seven.

  2. Old anime never looks outdated.

  3. I’ve never watched much Gundam, but I bought and built my first Gunpla over the weekend. The designs are just brilliant looking and they’re so relaxing to put together.


      Same here. Bought my first gunpla before I started watching Gundam.

  4. There’s so much wrong with this article I don’t even know where to begin.

    First off, super robot and real robot aren’t sub genres that are opposite to each other. Each show was just building on top of each other. It’s an evolution.

    How can Tetsujin (gigantor) be called a super robot show, when it wasn’t even the one that invented the word? Not to mention, Tetsujin 28th had no super weapons, unlike Mazinger. The word super robot came in Mazinger’s OP and that became its selling point. Many shows tried to replicate Mazinger with varying degrees of success.

    Monster of the week? Do you realize that this was more due to the time these shows were produced, rather than the fact that it was a “super robot” show as you call it? Shows were episodic back then, because you didn’t have a way to record them on tv as they played.

    Heck, even the earlier Gundam shows were episodic for the most part. No, it’s not because it was influenced by “super robot”‘; rather it’s because of how most tv shows were structured back then.

    Real robot pilots are usually well trained? Huh? What about Tetsuya from Great Mazinger? He was literally introduced as an orphan who has been trained from birth to pilot it, and considers himself a pro.

    In the end, real and super don’t make sense as genres. They were marketing terms that were used by producers to sell their shit to kids. Gundam wasn’t even the one to come up with the “real robot” term. That was Votoms.

    • Jiraiyan

      The super robot and real robot genre’s are considered to be opposites. While the two genres surely have had influences on each other as I explained in the article. What makes them distinct from one another is the level of realism they present.

      Tetsujin is considered to be an early example of the super robot genre. However, it’s more known for being the first mecha series. Mazinger was considered the series that expanded on the super robot genre.

    • All great examples, but I’m not really sure what the disassociation you’re describing is. All of the anime you named are science fiction, even if some err on the side of science fantasy such as Tengen Toppa. Maybe you should look at anime like Maze: The Mega-Burst Space and Escaflowne. They are both examples of mech anime that are primarily fantasy based.

  5. Matlock

    I can name an interesting mecha show: it’s called Aldnoah.ZERO

  6. What actually started me on my infatuation with Anime was the original Bubblegum Crisis, and Akira. Both at the time top tier anime shows.

  7. Code geass is the best mecha anime

  8. I saw so much anime before i finally decided to give the Evangelion series a go and man it sucked. I watched the whole thing although i didn’t want to just because everyone was saying it so awesome. Such a waste of time, there are so many better anime out there. Just my opinion..

    • I remember watching the old evangelion long ago. (Neon Genesis Evangelion i believe it was called) and i thought it was ok… Twisted but ok

  9. practical

    00 or Gundam Wing. I think those are the two best ones made.

  10. classact

    This Mecha genre sounds nice.

  11. Donnie Mohr

    For mecha, there are 3 groups; Giant Robots (Like Tetsujin 28), Real Robots (like Gundam, Macross, Votoms, Patlabor) and Super Robots.

    In general, if the pilot is not riding the robot inside, it’s Giant Robots. Both Real Robots and Super Robots anime must have their pilots piloting inside the robot (Including pilots that fuse with the robot like Raideen). Super Robots are usually fantastic robots; giant sized, defies a lot of logic and physics. If the pilot shouts out the name of the attack, most likely it’s Super Robots. Real Robots will usually have more realistic features and often has mass produced version of robots. Like all the Variable Fighters in Macross are mass produced, Gundam have their mass produced version called GM. Some anime are easy to deduce which are super robots (Gurren Lagaan, XD) or not so obvious. Evangelions are obviously pretty fantastic. But they do not shout out the name of their move and there’s a mass produced version of the Eva (That appeared in The End of Eva). So some people called the Eva series as real robot.

  12. Well, the distinction between super robot and real robot is…really thin, if you are to classify them based on few traits. For example, some argue that super robot is super-heroish mecha that fight outside the army. But Dancougar is a robot under the army’s command with the super robot like gimmick like Beast mode. While considered the fine example of Super Robot, Mazinger Z had strangely many “realistic moments”, such as Koji worrying about being killed when Mazinger Z was dropped from high altitude or certain parts being unusable by enemy’s tricks. And Nu Gundam pushing the falling colony away from the Earth by gathering the wills of other people? The list goes on. Some even say Zambot 3(which is usually considered super robot) to be the first real robot type because it depicted the war(albeit against aliens) in realistic ways and deal with trauma and tragedy of warfare.

    There was a long discussion on 2ch regarding this, and they all gave up – there was no robot anime with purely super/real robot traits. Even if you want to have Votoms as the pure real robot…well, later the premise of the series becomes less “realistic”.

    I think all this “super” and “real” distinctions were made popular by Super Robot Taisen(or Super Robot Wars) series which classified the robots according to the category for the gameplay’s sake. It might be better to put these terms as “tendency” – those which lean closer to “real robot” tend to focus on reality of war rather than the power of robot, while “super robot” tend to focus on morality play etc.

  13. Lane Croft

    I recommend you take a look at linebarles of iron that is a great mecha anime and I feel like the main character while not being the most likeable person at first is a very much like a normal person. I just thought that if you were to make another one of these I think it should get a shotout

  14. gundam 00 is probably the best mecha anime: epic plotline (both season 1 and 2), detailed character development, creative action scenes from the very beginning to the very end, beautiful and not over the top animation style, every opening and ending themes are instant love, and just a cool shounen anime in general

  15. Gunbuster and Daibuster, make sure to watch those! Buddy complex! any of the gundam series, Gao Gai Gar!

  16. Macross is my favorite Mecha series.

  17. Sparkle

    I’d like to see giant robot on giant robot action. it’d be weird seeing pilots drive their fighting machines into awkward sexual action while in combat. Like Gundam meets hentai. That would be something of a weird curiosity.

  18. mecha/super robo forever the best genre!

  19. Marcie Waters

    A good introduction to a subgenre I knew little about.

  20. Good read. This is probably more informative to someone who’s not familiar with any of the stuff.

  21. Logan

    Thank you! I enjoyed reading this article and I feel as though it was researched well and very informative.

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