by Joe Locastro | staff writer
What’s the best in big robot action anime has to offer? Let’s break it down.
Time to define a mecha show:
Mecha shows typically involve a world where constructs (robotic, fantastic or othewise) play a role in or around the central plot of the show.
This is a fairly generous definition, but what it boils down to is pretty simple. Is there a robotic vehicle in this show? If the answer is yes, you’re most likely watching a mecha show. There’s tons of them, it’s a whole sub-genre in and of itself and it stretches from live action to anime to manga. The genre ranges from the tear-jerkingly emotional to the absurd. Compiled here is a list of what I consider the ten best mecha in anime history.
This list is entirely subjective. The subject is me, a man with a robotic right arm tattoo. Mecha is in my blood, and this list is meant to represent an eclectic collection made entirely of personal experience-derived reasons to love these robots. I hope it’s entertaining, but if you’re at all a fan of anime, check out one of the shows you may not have seen yet, and please buy instead of torrenting. Everyone loves a big robot– gotta keep’em coming, right?
This list is in no particular order, but I do have a favorite. It will be listed last. The shows I list under each robot are the primary shows I’ve seen that feature the robots.
Shows: Getter Robo Armageddon, New Getter Robo
I was introduced to Getter Robo through my buddy Sam Weller, with the thirteen episode series Getter Robo Armageddon. Getter Robo itself is a robot made of three separate fighter jets that can combine to form three different robots. Each robot has a specialty (flight and melee combat, drilling and high speeds, long twisty arms and super strength…etc), and each jet pilot takes control during their turn as the “head” of the robot.
The show moves fast, little is explained about how it all works but the mysterious Getter Rays are a central focus to the series. Getter Robo is known for it’s simplistic appearance, red cape, and twin tomahawk weapons.
There have been several “main character” Getter Robos, but the ones features in Getter Robo Armageddon (Shin Getter Robo and the Black Getter) are my favorite. From the mind of Go Nagai, the same creative force behind Mazinger Z and Cutie Honey, Getter Robo had been around for a long time before I found it. But I found it violent, awesomely dubbed, and full of twists and one-upsmanships that kept pace all the way up to the end.
The enemies are larger than life, and the protagonists are full of character. Though the show makes no apologies for it’s twisted plot at times, the energy never falters. Getter Robo Armageddon is a fine example of a show that was able to capture the strange power of an original work and power it up for a modern retelling.
Shows: The Big O, The Big O II
That big black robot is so beautiful to me. Produced by the team behind Batman: The Animated Series at Sunrise Studios, The Big O is the story of Roger Smith, a professional Negotiator and part-time Megadeus pilot.
Big O can be called by speaking into his special watch, and it destroys city blocks as it rises to the street. Few mecha shows have so classy a rogues gallery or main character, and the opening theme is a fantastically strange rendition of Queen’s “Flash Gordon”. There’s a lot of mystery in every plot twist of the show, and the robot action is classic kaiju. Big-O stands alone in its attention to style and delivery, but its legacy on anime history goes even deeper.
The Big O is a perfect example of the power a fan community has. It was cancelled halfway through production, ending on a massive cliffhanger at thirteen episodes. Cartoon Network, who had been airing the show on their Toonami block, listened to the outcry of the fans for more, for an end to the story, and they financed the second half of the show (known as The Big O II). It’s one of the earliest shows to get the post death revival (before Family Guy and Futurama), and one of the best.
Shows: Gundam Wing, G Gundam, Mobile Suit Gundam
There have been quite a few Gundam branded series throughout the years. But the very first Gundam, the RX-78 model with Amuro Ray at the helm, battling it out with Char Aznable…that’s the one that everyone pictures. It looks a little thin compared to modern Gundams. It’s got a silly looking shield and a dinky little rifle/energy sword, but its got spirit. It’s got fight beyond its circuits, and its pilot was a force of nature in and of himself. Fight after fight, this fierce machine stood up against impossible odds, and began a legacy that lasts through today.
The image of the Gundam is almost synonymous with the mecha genre itself. The different series have all gone in crazy directions, one of my personal favorites being G Gundam, a story about young Domon Kashuu and his Shining Fingers Gundam against the world. I grew up watching Gundam Wing’s pretty boy crew duke it out, and I did my time putting together the model kits, but once I realized the breadth and depth of the Gundam franchise, I really felt enriched and in tune with mecha as a whole.
Shows: GaoGaiGar, GaoGaiGar Final
An old friend of mine introduced me to GaoGaiGar. It was a name I’d never heard of that he assured me was the best kept secret in mecha. He was right.
GaoGaiGar is the simple story of a boy who befriends a robot guy who transforms into a super hero who transforms into a giant mecha lion who transforms (with the aid of a stealth fighter, train and drill machine) into a giant super robot. And that’s where it starts. His best friends are mostly giant robots, all with their own gimmicks and personalities. You want two fire and ice robots? We got it. A robot made from police vehicles? Big Volfogg, he’s right over there. A robot who plays magic CDs that power up his allies, all while rocking so hard the enemy explodes? That’s Mic Sounders the 13th, and he’s my favorite. GaoGaiGar starts off hard, and never lets off the gas pedal.
Unfortunately, only the first half of the first show was ever dubbed in English (and GaoGaiGar Final has only been fansubbed), but that dub is AWESOME. Michael Sinterniklass KILLS as the main character Gai Shishioh. The show holds up after the dubbing stops, and the iconic gold and green box sets can be spotted easily at any convention. It’s clear to me that GaoGaiGar inspired future titles like Gurren Lagann, and GaoGaiGar deserves to be loved just as much. It’s got emotional twists and turns, some of the best characters this side of Transformers, and one killer soundtrack. GaoGaiGar is worth your time.
Shows: Vision of Escaflowne
The ability to blend the best things about mecha with the best things about shoujo takes a careful and nuanced hand. Escaflowne, the tv series, was able to take a fantasy show focused on a love stricken yet heroic female lead and throw in some truly iconic mecha encounters.
Van and his guymelef Escaflowne ensnared anyone who enjoyed epic battles, and the fact that it was a fantasy environment made it a truly unique genre combination. Easy on the eyes, exciting in execution, Escaflowne bridged a gap that few other anime have. Oh, and it could transform into a bitchin’ dragon. Everyone loves a dragon.
The producer of Escaflowne said this: ”If Macross was robotic mecha and love songs, why not a story about robotic mecha and divining powers?” That’s the main reason this show succeeds. It’s something strange that works, something we can almost all agree was a good idea. Like a new hit flavor of ice cream. This barely beat one of the runners up to make this list (Magic Knight Rayearth) because Escaflowne’s constructs feel separate from their pilots. That separation is a staple concern in most mecha anime, and Escaflowne manages to make the connection between man and machine meaningful.
Show: Voltron: Defender of the Universe
Tough to deny this guy. For a lot of us this was our first taste of mecha, airing on US television around the same time Transformers was getting its first generation of fans. The five space lions and their valiant, eclectic group of pilots was a lot like Battle of the Planets (Gatchaman in Japan) and the live action Super Sentai. By transforming together, the five lions became Voltron, Defender of the Universe! What a title! That massive, thumb-less, multicolored robot would form an equally fitting massive sword and slice through anything. It was animated sentai and it worked.
I was a fan of Voltron from the moment I laid eyes on it. The iconic music excited me, the different characters interested me and the bright colors dazzled my eyes. I could barely describe the show to you at this point, or its changes over time (to vehicle based characters…the show spanned a few different animes). But I do remember that Voltron could not be beaten, no matter what. He was a staple food of mine and many other people’s childhoods (I’m 25), and one of the first mecha shows any of us likely saw.
Show: Ghost In The Shell Stand Alone Complex
These fiesty, AI driven battle tanks are the staple high technology in Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex. They have grenade launchers, roller skates, machine guns, multiple sensors, grappling hooks and personalities. As far as battle machines go, they’re probably among the smartest, and certainly the most sociable. By the end of the series they’re a major plot point, and the conclusion of their story arc is very emotionally involving. Tachikoma are valued companions to their Section 9 counterparts, and have saved lives both on orders and on their own volition.
The Tachikoma host a little segment after each episode of Ghost In The Shell: Stand Alone Complex called “Tachikomatic Days“, where they discuss various aspects of the episode, what it’s like being a Tachikoma, and get involved in little adventures of their own. These little minute long cartoons are adorable and informative, and are a fun little way to cap off a great episode. It’s icing on the cake, really. The go-get’em attitudes and die hard mentalities of these little robots is beyond charming to begin with. Of all the mecha to have in the real world, it’s not hard to argue that the Tachikoma might be the best…if not at least the most fun. Or annoying.
Shows: Giant Robo: The Day The Earth Stood Still OVA and series
Giant Robo, the massive robot with the Egyptian hat controlled by a little boy named Johnny with a special watch. Giant Robo was seemingly indestructible, it’s massive metal body rebuffed most attacks and it’s powerful arsenal of weapons kept faster enemies at bay. Compared to most modern mecha, Giant Robo is simply a power house, a massive relic capable of terrible destruction that would still give any challenger a run for their money.
Big O learned a thing or two from this show, you can probably already tell. Thing is, Giant Robo‘s legacy spans quite a few mediums. Originally it was a hit manga, than a live action TV series in the sixties (Called Johnny Sokko and His Flying Robot on US shores…yeah…), then it had two runs as an anime. Through it all, though, his image has remained iconic, branded as the new retro in mecha anime and welcomed with open arms into the fandom. Giant Robo may not have much steam these days, but it still has tenure in the world of mecha.
Shows: Robotech: The Macross Saga, Macross Plus
Swooping in at super-sonic speeds, the variable fighter is a formidable mid-air opponent. Give it a second though, and it’ll become a floating weapons platform ready for bombarding ground targets. Give it yet another second, and it lands on two legs as a walking battle mech, rifle in hand. Fighter jets that can take cover are a regular sight in the world of Macross, where floating cities can also transform into battlestations. The Variable Fighter (VF) is the X-wing of Macross: a trusty vehicle in trying times, and its special twist makes the pilots mavericks themselves. Pun intended*.
Macross ties themes of music into their plots fairly often, a unique element for a mecha show that otherwise might stand well on its own. From Sharon Apple’s hypnotizing melodies to Lynn Minmay’s catchy pop music, Macross gives music a front and center treatment that humanizes the world around the machines. People react to music, and mixing a performance with a battle yields some powerful visual and auditory results.
Show: Gurren Lagann
A little robotic head combines with a massive robot face that has legs to form the greatest mecha in anime history. Gurren Lagann is two robots: the first is the tiny, yet fiesty Lagann, piloted by the timid Simon. The second is a repurposed enemy mecha, known as Gurren (for it’s reddish color), piloted by the rambunctious Kamina. After combining into one machine, the result is an unstoppable robot smashing machine. Driven by pure willpower, the potential of Gurren Lagann is immeasurable.
By the end of the series, new universes are being created as the robot in a robot in a battleship in a robot in a robot does battle with negative energy itself. Rising with Simon’s will and pushing past the heavens, Gurren Lagann’s drills performed some feats of strength and daring unmatched in the mecha world.
Gurren Lagann is my favorite. There’s a loving reverence for older concepts at work in Gurren Lagann, that quickly give way to a style and delivery all its own. At the first combination of Lagann and Gurren, my jaw dropped. By the end of the show I was practically in tears. The scale of energy both in the plot and in the animation is palpable, and the struggle of humanity against its own evolution becomes a truly engrossing tale.
The mecha in Gurren Lagann are each larger than life, and more powerful than the previous, but the heroes tough it out through death and loss. Fan service episodes, great English and Japanese dubs, great action figures, cosplayers, music, ending, middle, beginning, movies, characters…It’s really, really, really as good as you’ve been hearing. Say what you will, but Gurren Lagann could take you all out. Case closed.
Magic Knight Rayearth/Bubblegum Crisis
So the girls of Rayearth almost beat out Escaflowne for my list. Why didn’t they? Same reason the girls of Bubblegum Crisis didn’t beat the Tachikoma. They both fall exactly on the line between transforming hero mecha show and big robot mecha show. The suits they put on are fantasy armor, or power armor in the case of Bubblegum Crisis, and just don’t have the same degree of separation as the larger robots of other shows. Sure, many include Kamen Rider and other transforming hero shows in the mecha genre, but in this list I tried to stick to purely anime, and purely big robots. Climbing into a big cockpit and waging war on another scale is a valuable detail in mecha.
Neon Genesis Evangelion
Spoiler alert for those late to the party: the EVA units are bio-mechanical. They’re big monstrous cyborg clones of various people mixed with alien DNA, surprise! So when the pilots get into the plugs and climb into them, they’re jacking directly into the control unit for a big monster, essentially. Not mecha! Similar, yes, but I’m sticking to my guns. Evangelion is a great, groundbreaking Sci-fi anime but it deserves other company (probably a room all to itself) if we’re talking mecha shows.
The exploits of Optimus Prime and friends are legendary. I knew the toys, watched the show, cringed through the movies and relived the nostalgia along with everyone else, so they’re still very relevant. But they’re not really mecha. Having complete autonomy, no immediate need for human interaction and colorful personalities made them characters in and of themselves. Humans were always second string players in the Transformers universe. No matter how much they were emphasized, we were there to see robots! In what I’d consider a proper mecha show, the constructs are an important part of the universe, but still tools. I dare anyone to call Ironside a tool to his face and see what happens.
Now you know our picks, what are yours?