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.
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
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.
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.
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