If you're an anime fan, you've probably watched at least one mecha show in your life. Even if you're not into anime, you might be familiar with mecha—the term used to describe robotic suits or machines that are utilized by a human pilot—from the live-action movie Pacific Rim.
Mecha (also called "mech" or "mechs") are a staple of anime, but what makes them so popular? Do humans just love big robots? Sure, that's part of it. But I'd argue that a large part of mecha's enduring appeal is the genre's exploration of the fraught relationship between humans and machines.
Mecha, and the humans that pilot them, represent the push and pull between humanity and technology. Will technology remain something we can control, just like a pilot manages their mech? Or will it grow untenable? Anime shows with a focus on mecha also often explore the identity of post-World War II Japan, asking how much of Japan's traditional culture can be preserved amid the demands of a much more futuristic world.
If you're looking to get into mecha anime, and want some ideas for where to start, below are my personal picks for six series that explore our evolving relationship to machines—and feature a lot of big robot hijinks along the way.
Mobile Suit Gundam Wing
Mobile Suit Gundam Wing has probably become a cliché on lists like these, but it belongs here for a reason—when it debuted in 1995, this series helped create the gold standard for mecha space operas. It's arguably the most popular show in the wider Gundam franchise, which focuses on an intergalactic civil war fought on the frontlines by mecha called "gundams."
Although the relationships between Gundam Wing's human characters are undoubtedly part of the series' appeal, I feel that the gundam robots themselves are what make the show so compelling. The series' mecha are some of the coolest-looking ever—they have complete articulation, can fly in space, and some even come with elaborate robotic angel wings.
But Gundam Wing also highlights how war propels technology, and asks which is more important—having advanced weaponry, or striving for peace and ending the need for gundams altogether? Obviously, these questions aren't just relevant to the sci-fi setting of Gundam Wing; they unfortunately apply to our own world, as well.
The Vision of Escaflowne
When The Vision of Escaflowne premiered in 1994, it jump-started the trend of outlandishly elegant mecha. For instance, some mecha in Escaflowne have capes. Do mech suits need capes? Absolutely not. Do capes make mecha look super-cool? You bet.
Unlike many other mecha shows, The Vision of Escaflowne also introduced mecha to the world of fantasy. After having visions of another world and a prince, a girl named Hitomi is taken from her normal life to the planet Gaea, where warriors use giant robots to fight dragons and demons.
Escaflowne is the greatest of these mecha, and is powered by the heart of a dragon that the pilot Lord Van Fanel killed in battle. Van and Escaflowne have a truly symbiotic relationship. Van literally binds himself with his own blood to Escaflowne, and sheathes himself into the mech’s inner workings, much like putting on a second skin. This physical connection represents dependence on technology at its height, and is a great example of how mecha anime explores our anxious, evolving connection to tech. Watching the relationship between mech and pilot develop made me feel both disgust and awe at how closely humans could come to resemble our machines.
Armored Trooper Votoms
The plot of 1983’s Armored Trooper Votoms is straight out of a classic espionage story: amid a galactic war, Armored Trooper pilot Chirico Cuvie is tracked down by his own troop after being framed for treason. Chirico works to prove his innocence, and gets closer and closer to the dangerous truth of why he’s been targeted.
The mecha of Armored Trooper Votons are more nondescript than the winged and caped machines in Gundam Wing and The Vision of Escaflowne, and resemble armored tanks with legs. Armored Ttoopers are pure machinery, designed only to protect the pilot and shoot at enemies.
But in many ways, Armored Trooper Votoms was the prototype for shows like Gundam Wing and The Vision of Escaflowne. Its mecha aren't glitzy or glamorous, but they proved what a hard science show about mechs in space could achieve.
Mobile Police Patlabor
1989’s Mobile Police Patlabor is widely considered a classic, and with good reason. It has all the hallmarks of the great anime shows of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s: lovable characters, exciting action, and a sense of humor. Patlabor also has the added bonus of mecha.
The mecha of Patlabor have a more realistic role than those in Gundam Wing or Escaflowne. The show presents a world where the police force uses robotic suits to combat a crime wave spurred by rapid technical advancements. Mecha called “labors” were initially created for the construction industry, but with the development of these suits, criminals soon found a way to use them for nefarious purposes. In response, police developed the “patlabor,” or Patrol Labor.
The show itself is light in tone, but the ideas it presents are sobering. What kind of ramifications would this increase in police power have? In the first episode, a grandmother prays at a Shinto shrine while her infant grandchild plays with a toy mech nearby. The grandmother’s old-world ways fly in stark contrast to the high-tech world she and her grandchild inhabit—a truth that is underscored when she and the child are suddenly nearly run over by a mech piloted by a drunkard. This small scene represents a theme present in a lot of real-world-set anime: how can traditional Japan grapple with its technologically advanced present?
On the surface, this might be one of the silliest entries on our list—at least by Western standards, since in some way 1999's Big O seems like a Batman knock-off. But the show also explores complex ideas through its characterization of Roger Smith (or, in the original anime, Mitsuru Miyamoto), a Bruce Wayne-type crusader who uses his mech Big O to fight crime.
With the help of Big O, Roger acts as the superhero of "Amnesia City," saving it from villainous megadeuses (the name for mecha in the world of the show). The city's unusual nickname refers to a catastrophic, mysterious event that occurred 40 years ago and inflicted all residents with amnesia.
As the series progresses, Big O becomes a meditation on what it is that actually makes us human. One of the main characters, R. Dorothy Wayneright, initially believed herself to be the human daughter of a scientist. Eventually, however, it's revealed that she's actually an android who is capable of human emotion. Roger's only real 'human' connection comes from Dorothy, his butler Norman, and, strangely enough, his mech. The presence of mecha in the city also provide clues to Roger’s past; throughout the series, he has visions of a time when domed cities or mechs didn’t exist.
Big O is a unique take on how the mech suit can facilitate discussions about humanity, consciousness, and the extremes of technology. Through references to "The Event"—which may be an allusion to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki—the show also explores the post-World War II impact on Japan's culture. The appearance of mecha have complicated the lives of the city's residents, and Big O ultimately operates on the notion that rampant technology can only lead to horrible consequences for humanity and culture as a whole.
Ghost in the Shell
Like Mobile Police Patlabor and Armored Trooper Votoms, Ghost in the Shell strives to take a grounded look at how technology can integrate into real life. However, Ghost in the Shell goes even further by showcasing how technology can become truly human.
The show's hero is Major Motoko Kusanagi, the cyborg leader of a counter-terror task force — and compared to the Major, the show's Tachikoma mechs (or “think tanks” as they’re called in this universe) are somewhat low-grade. Tachikoma are blue, spider-like robots that can pilot themselves or be driven by a human pilot. Although they're arguably not as high-tech as cyborgs, they're also highly intelligent and capable of forming their thoughts and opinions.
Ghost in the Shell takes the concept of mecha to a whole new level: what if mechs became self-piloting, semi-conscious beings? People can pilot tachikomas, but in many ways they're essentially piloting an autonomous brain. If mecha can think and reason, then where do fully biological humans stand? These and more questions are what make Ghost in the Shell such a celebrated addition to the mecha genre.
Featured still from Gundam Wing via Sunrise Studios