Introduction to Mecha Anime

What is mecha?

Mecha is anime with giant person-shaped robots. While it is a genre of narration-with all of the conventions, tropes, and clichés this implies-it ultimately transcends the realm of cartoons, influencing and derived from many aspects of Japanese culture. It's also incredible fun.

Think of detective movies. While detective flicks have their own set of narrative devices and visual cues, such as the noir style and the down-on-his-luck protagonist, these elements are by no means particular to detective films. They're ubiquitous throughout our media and culture; it's possible to allude to or even temporarily adopt for ironic or comic effect the trappings of detective flicks.

Mecha works much like that. There are comic mecha, tragic mecha, farcical mecha, and even shoujo mecha!

Some conventions of current mecha productions

Let's look at some of the general features of mecha, which could be considered part of an operational definition of the genre.

Simplification of Large-Scale Conflict

In the futuristic worlds of mecha, large-scale conflict takes on a different flavor. It is presented as a conflict between the Alliance and OZ in Gundam Wing - or a struggle between a loose jointure of humanity and invading aliens. Sometimes, as in Neon Genesis Evangelion, both types of conflict take place, with human organizations clashing as they decide how to best cope with the alien threat.

The viewpoint character is always aligned, at least nominally, with the organization that controls and uses mecha.

New Sources of Generational Conflict

Almost universally, children or young adults pilot the mecha, which is invented or serviced by older adults. Sometimes the relationship is truly familial, as in Evangelion, and the adult inventor-maybe downplayed as a mad scientist-but the relationship is always present.

Pilots generally have an intuitive, empathetic relationship with their mecha. Traditionally, this has been the kind of feeling one develops for the merely mechanical-our automobiles, Palm Pilots, and Gundams. More recently, some mecha have become more fundamentally animate, allowing for true relationship and sympathy between pilot and robot.

The adult world takes a different view, considering the mecha primarily as a tool--at least as far as the pilot can tell. This dynamic is often integrated with more conventional aspects of generational conflict within the story.

Ancient Technologies and Knowledge

The good guys in mecha are always at an apparent disadvantage. Knowledge is power, and often, that knowledge is derived from the distant past. The technology that allows for mecha is often recovered from an ancient or prehistoric source.

Also derived from this return to the discontinuous past is a concern for the moral or utilitarian purpose of the human race. This conflict can be political and social, as it is in Gundam, but it can additionally be philosophical, as in Evangelion.

Why They Look Like People

Anthropomorphism seems a pretty nonsensical approach in designing a giant robot. The sensible route would be, of course, to build a large, squat tank-at least if mecha were simply an advanced development in military technology.

A common device in mecha stories is for conventional military technology-missiles, tanks, air raids, and so forth-to be sent against the threat to no effect. After this approach fails, the mecha is sent out and ultimately destroys the enemy.

A mecha and its pilot-or sometimes a small team of mecha and pilots-are able to do what pure hardware cannot. The centrality of the human is reaffirmed. It is people who will succeed or fail-not their technology.

-Brian Kerr Click to learn more about Brian


Allison, Anne. "Can Popular Culture Go Global?: How Japanese 'Scouts' and 'Rangers' Fare in the US." A Century of Popular Culture in Japan. Ed. Douglas Slaymaker. Lewiston: Mellen Press, 2000.

Gill, Tom. "Transformational Magic: Some Japanese super-heroes and monsters." The Worlds of Japanese Popular Culture. Ed. D. Martinez. Cambridge UP, 1998.

Izawa, Eri. "The Romantic, Passionate Japanese in Anime: A Look at the Hidden Japanese Soul." Japan Pop. Ed. Timothy Craig. New York: Sharpe, 2000.

Tanner, Ron. "Mr. Atomic, Mr. Mercury, and Chime Trooper: Japan's Answer to the American Dream." Asian Popular Culture. Ed. John A. Lent. Boulder: Westview Press, 1995.

Astro Boy
Gundam Wing
Neon Genesis Evangelion


Gundam Wing




Every kid - even Astro Boy - wants to do this.


Dead Mothers? Dead Parents?

You may have noticed that in many stories, young characters are often without their parents, especially mothers. Absence of parents is a common theme; stories like Card Captor Sakura, Tenchi Muyo, My Neighbor Totoro, Jubei-chan, Kiki's Delivery Service, Grave of the Fireflies, Battle Athletes, and Neon Genesis Evangelion all involve characters whose parents are either dead or out of most of the story. This phenomenon, in extremely basic terms, is a common story-telling strategy used in fairy tales. Parents or other authority figures are eliminated from the protagonists' lives to put them a position where they have to be directly responsible for themselves.


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The University of Michigan Japanese Animation Group
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