Mecha is a Japanese fiction genre that focuses on giant humanoid machines called mecha. Most mecha series is science fiction and larger than life. The mecha are mechanical warriors built for defending Earth, military force, or secret weapons. The pilots are usually youths who are subjected to battles that would decide Earth’s fate. There are two types of subgenres within mecha: Super Robot and Real Robot. Super Robot is fantastical and implausible science fiction. Real Robot, meanwhile, is grounded in reality.
Some examples of popular mecha series over the decades are Mazinger Z, Super Electromagnetic Machine Voltes V, Mobile Suit Gundam, Blue Comet SPT Layzner, Aura Battler Dunbine, Panzer World Galient, Space Runaway Ideon, Neon Genesis Evangelion, The Vision of Escaflowne, The King of Braves GaoGaiGar, Zoids, Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann, Genesis of Aquarion, Code Geass, Valvrave the Liberator, and Knights of Sidonia.
Mecha (メカ) is a wasei-eigo word from the English word mechanical (メカニカル) or mechanism (メカニズム). Mecha exclusively describes giant robots piloted by humans or automated by A.I.s.
A Brief History
Since ancient times, robotics has been a concept; Greeks idealized living mechanical beings called Automata, which utilized simple machines like pneumatics and counterweights. Fast forward to the Renaissance Period, and inventors built mechanical clocks. The components from clocks were implemented to puppets and dolls.
The concept of mecha is ingrained in Japanese culture. People during the Yayoi Period practiced Shinto, Japan’s indigenous animist religion. According to Shinto, every inanimate object from nature and man-made can have consciousness or soul. Shinto is still practiced even today, and even foreign religions arrived in Japan. Practitioners of Shinto pray on inanimate objects’ “kami” or spirits. They worship local Gods of industries and bless everything made by hand. It is not surprising that Japanese people would peacefully commune with both natural and man-made objects. The ideals of Shinto apply with mecha as craftsmen and engineers would create life-like beings.
In 1543, Portuguese explorers and Jesuit missionaries discovered the island of Tanegashima. The foreigners introduced firearms and mechanical clocks to the Japanese. The Japanese immediately studied the guns and clockworks. The Tokugawa shogunate enforced Sakoku (鎖国) or the closed country policy in 1639. Trade with foreigners was banned except on the island of Dejima. Only Dutch and Chinese traders at Dejima were able to trade with the Japanese. The Japanese meanwhile used the isolation period to develop the technology. Their local machinery was different from the West.
In 1662, Japanese artisans and technicians invented karakuri ningyou (からくり人形) or wooden automata. Karakuri are mechanical servants that would pour tea on guests. The other functions of karakuri were performing circus acts for the public. In 1796, Hosokawa Hanzo Yorinaou wrote the manual Karakurizui (機巧図彙) or Karakuri – An Illustrated Anthology. The karakuri manual depicted the complex mechanism of a karakuri.
Before World War II, Japan had a manga series called Tanku Tankuro (タンクタンクロー) or Tank Tankuro. Written in 1934 by Sakamoto Masaki, the first pre-war manga series depicted more lighthearted adventures of an automaton. Unlike fictional Western robots that harm people, Tankuro would protect the Japanese people from its enemies. Japan even used Tanku Tankuro for its military propaganda to strengthen public morale.
After World War II, Japan was devastated and on the brink of economic collapse. Under the supervision of the United States of America, Japan reindustrialized and took inspiration from Western machinery. Out of fear of the atomic bomb, Japanese authors would design heroic mechanical warriors or mecha. The ideology of militarism transitioned into peace as the war ended.
The world’s famous mecha series written in Japan was Tetsuwan Atom (鉄腕アトム), Mighty Atom or Astro Boy, written by Tezuka Osamu in 1951. His manga series was so popular, and it received several animated adaptations in film and television. Astro Boy is about the adventures of the titular protagonist. He rescues people from disasters, fends off criminals, and befriends both humans and robots. Tezuka took inspiration from The Adventures of Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi, “R.U.R.” by Karel Čapek, Metropolis by Fritz Lang, and novels by the “father of Japanese science fiction” Unno Juza.
The other popular mecha series that popularized giant mecha was Tetsujin-28. Tetsujin-28 is a manga series in 1956 by Yokoyama Mitsuteru. The series is about the titular mecha and its operator Kinta Shotaro. Unlike Astro Boy, Tetsujin-28 is remote-controlled, and anyone can control the gigantic machine. Shotaro’s job as Tetsujin-28’s owner is to fight criminal organizations and safeguard the robot’s controller from evildoers. Tetsujin-28 was adapted in the United States as Gigantor.
After the success of Tetsujin-28, more iconic mecha series were made in the late 1960s. The main idea of airing mecha anime at that time was to sell toys. Series like Getter Robo G, UFO Robo Grendizer, Ozora Maryu Gaiking, Wakusei Robo Danguard Ace, and SF Saiyuki Starzinger are later adapted as Force Five overseas. Mecha series soon added gimmicks like modular combining and transformations. Nagai Go and Ishikawa Ken introduced combining robots with Getter Robo in 1974. Kawamori Shouji was the pioneer of transforming robots in the 80s. He made mecha designs for Super Dimensional Fortress Macross and Diaclone.
In 1979, a groundbreaking series changed the mecha genre. Kidou Senshi Gundam (機動戦士ガンダム) or Mobile Suit Gundam was the first Real Robot mecha series directed by Yoshiyuki Tomino. Unlike earlier kid-friendly Super Robot series, Mobile Suit Gundam had realistic designs. The protagonists were civilians thrust into a war. There are no campy villains, only two factions at war. The morality of each side was grey so that fans would empathize with the characters. Characters that died were permanently dead instead of incapacitated. Gundam was at first a flop on local television, but the toy sales saved the series. This allowed the franchise to expand up to now.
Mecha is one of the Japanese fiction genres that reached audiences around the world. It depicted how the future would look like. The West eventually adapts to the Japanese mecha genre. Successful Western films such as Pacific Rim and Ready Player One took inspiration from Japanese mecha anime. The relationship of Japanese people and mecha is also inspirational as they dream of communing with technology. Shinto molded their manner of interacting with mecha. They treat mecha as if they have souls.
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