Gattai! : A History Lesson on Giant Robots

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Gattai! : A History Lesson on Giant Robots

Travis DeSimone.


The world of Anime and Manga is a large and twisting place filled with all sorts of of genres for different audiences. There is Anime marketed towards young children, teenagers, boys, girls, and adults too. This can be a harrowing universe to traverse if you have no prior knowledge.

Aside from the demographic audiences there are formulas in which stories are represented. Harem shows, usually involve an adolescent boy evading the advances of multiple women ( e.g. Tenchi Muyo ). Shonen Jump series typically involve  a group of fighters or adventurers going on a quest and overcoming enemies along the way ( e.g. Dragonball ). Shoujo anime is geared towards girls and is more “slice of life” or romantic in narrative ( e.g. Paradise Kiss ). Some films or shows defy these conventions and even manage to break into a Western demographic, like the films of Hayao Miyazaki ( e.g. Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle, Princess Mononoke ).

In the West Anime is a misunderstood form of story telling often associated with children or perverts. With shows for everyone about all sorts of subjects, there is most definitely a series for almost any lover of fiction.

Now that I have got all that out of the way, it is time to get down to business. There is one genre of show that beats out the rest. The manliest type of show, about a man’s determination and his beautiful blazing soul: Mecha Anime.

This genre’s first iron giant appeared in a 1956 manga Tetsujin 28, later adapted to the 1963 anime of the same name ( Americans may know him as Gigantor. ). The protagonist of the show Shotaro Kaneda pilots Tetsujin by remote control to fight criminals and evil robots. Tetsujin 28 has a very child like feel and seems very innocent in tone, but the origin story for this robot is very sinister. Tetsujin 28 is the last of a series of prototypes developed as a super weapon to fight for the Imperial Japanese Army during World War II by Shotaro’s father, Dr. Kaneda. Kaneda is disgraced because he finishes the weapon of mass destruction after the war has already ended and dies of heart failure. His son, left with a super weapon that was built with mass murder in mind uses the robot to protect the people of Japan.  The premise is almost Freudian in nature, aren’t we all just kids left with killing machines our fathers willed us? We never asked for this life, but we have to live it to the best of our abilities.

Then in 1972 a new show developed by Go Nagai premiered on Fuji TV called Mazinger Z. What makes Mazinger Z so special is that it is the first internally piloted giant robot in Anime. Mazinger Z is also the first robot to fire his fist as a weapon, creating the famed “Rocket Punch”. These are tropes that will continue in new shows presumably forever. Dr. Juzo Kabuto and the aptly named Dr. Hell discover a horde of large mechanical monsters in the ruins of a Greek island. These “Mechanical Beasts” are like the legend of Talos in Greek mythology. Of course Dr. Hell goes crazy and decides to use the beasts for evil, so his colleague Dr. Kabuto must build a robot powerful enough to stop them. On his death bed he informs his grandson Kouji about his life’s work, Mazinger Z and Kouji uses the powerful “Super Robot” to defend the world against the forces of Dr. hell. Mazinger Z is a symbol of courage and righteousness.

In 1974 Ken Ishikawa got together with Go Nagai to create a new type of “Super Robot”. Getter Robo is the first transforming giant robot on the scene. The Getter Robo is composed of three Jets flown by separate pilots that can combine in three different combinations to form three different types of robot, each one excelling in a different area, such as speed, power, and the type of terrain it can traverse. Having three pilots also allowed the writers to introduce character drama, so the show wasn’t as focused on “The Monster of The Week”. Ryoma Nagare, Hayato Jin, and Musashi Tomoe pilot the Getter Robo to fight the forces of the Dinosaur Empire, a group of reptilian humanoids who have come from the center of the Earth to reclaim the planet. The Getter Robo is powered by a very volatile source of energy simply called “Getter Energy” discovered by the man who built the robot, Dr. Saotome. Getter Energy is often depicted as corrupting, making the pilots insane and sometimes mutating their bodies to interface more directly with the machine. One of the major themes in the various Getter Robo arcs is fighting battles that seem impossible to win. There are times when the Getter Team fights even the gods themselves.

As I hinted at when introducing Mazinger Z, all the above shows titular robots are what we call “Super Robots”. Meaning they are over powered, with a huge arsenal of weapons, and only seem to sustain damage to drive the plot. Typically, Super Robots stand alone. Yoshiyuki Tomino introduces the “Real Robot” genre with his highly praised show Mobile Suit Gundam  in 1979. Before creating Mobile Suit Gundam Tomino worked on a multitude of super robot shows like Brave Raideen, Invincible Super Man Zambot 3, and Super Electromagnetic Machine Voltes V. The tropes of super robot shows still reared their head in MSG, but there were inherent differences. The Gundam was a prototype unit that was used amongst a large variety of infantry in a war between The Earth Federation and The Principality of Zeon. The Gundam was the show’s titular mech, but it didn’t stand alone and was far from invincible. The pilot, Amuro Ray, is an inexperienced teenager who hates war and is scared of combat. He is clumsy and often loses in battle, barely escaping with his life. Furthermore, the Gundam has a realistic stock of ammo that can be extinguished and can sustain damage in battle that needs on screen repair. The Gundam universe itself is very large and I could write an article on that alone, so I mainly wanted to illustrate the distinction between real robots super robots.

In 1982 another “Real Robot” show aired that made a huge impact on animation at the time. Super Dimensional Fortress Macross is a show with military themes similar to the Gundam franchise, but there was something that set Macross apart. The show didn’t have a titular mech. All the pilots in the show used either a Variable Fighter or a Destroid. The Variable Fighter known as the VF-1, or Valkyrie is a jet that can extend legs and arms to go into what is called Gerwalk Mode, This allows the Valkyrie to act as a ground unit, giving it more versatility. The Destroid is a bi-pedal heavy arms unit that acts as a support force for the Valkyrie fleet. Often in the Macross series the aliens that the protagonists come up against are overwhelmingly stronger, and in a very feel good fashion the miracle of love and music provides a miracle victory for the heroes of the series. On a side note, you may recognize some elements of this series. In the West it was mashed up with several other shows and bastardized into what you may remember as Robotech. The rights to the VF-1 Valkyrie toy was sold to Hasbro by Bandai, this eventually became Jetfire from the Transformers franchise. When Robotech came out in America they couldn’t tie the toy line in because Hasbro owned the rights, leading to some strange Robotech merchandise like doll houses.

Neon Genesis Evangelion aired in 1995 and became the definitive Mecha show for many fans. The show centers around the paramilitary organization NERV and its conflicts with other worldly beings called Angels that had recently caused an apocalypse. In the year 2015 Shinji Ikari is picked up and brought to NERV headquarters to pilot Eva 01, built by his father Gendo Ikari. Shinji starts out as a cowardly, self entitled, brat, but as the series progresses he learns to take responsibility as a pilot. The show touches on a lot of dark psychological themes, but for the sake of anyone who hasn’t seen this show I wont drop any spoilers. Even if you don’t like Mecha anime this show is a must see. The manga is still ongoing and the popularity of the franchise has spawned several films, the third of which comes out later this year.

While a lot of other great shows came out in between, and I neglected a few I want to skip forward to 2007. Mecha anime had been on a downward spiral at this point, the new generation just din’t seem to care about Mecha. Entries into the Gundam series and Macross series still premiered, and occasionally a new Mecha show would debut, but the frequency was sliding. Then Gainax released Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann. TTGL’s release brought a renewed interest to Mecha anime. The titular Mech is a combination of two “Ganmen”. The creators of the show cited Getter Robo as an influence. Simon and Kamina live under ground, with the rest of humanity in scattered tribes. One day a Ganmen crashes though the roof of their village and with the small Ganmen Simon finds on a digging expedition, they fight their way out and finally reach the surface. When the sun comes out on the surface world, creatures called Beastmen hunt down any humans and kill them. Kamina finds a Ganmen of his own and they combine ( Gattai! ) forming Gurren Lagann. Using Gurren lagann Simon and Kamina fight the Beastmen to unite the tribes and bring them to the surface. The show is stunning graphically, with a very stylized form of animation, and with a very slapstick and parodical humor the show managed to garner a large fan base. At times heart breaking, at other times very comical TTGL is a classic piece of fiction.

I would also recomend Armored Trooper Votoms, Gasaraki, Martian Successor Nadesico, FLCL, Giant Robo, and Big O.

Mecha anime is about self actualization, doing your best, blazing your own path. What is not to love?

If you think I missed something, or have a suggestion leave a comment.

BONUS: Gekiganger 3