‘Mecha’, as a genre, is odd: there’s nothing obvious inherent in our humanity which makes us hungry for titans of steel beating seven kinds of coolant out of each other in the same way that, say, people are prone to falling in love and so we hunger for stories about love. Mecha appear to be very much styling - however inextricably bound up with substance style is – in that most of the time you could replace them with some other weapon; you wouldn’t have the same show, but the character conflicts and action sequences could still remain in place. And indeed, it’s not unheard of for mecha to be inserted at the sponsors’ insistence.
(There are legitimate questions about the idea of things being ‘inherent in our humanity’. Maybe comedy and tragedy are just traditions like giant robots – but if they are, they’re still rooted much deeper in our minds. Mecha is at least as arbitrary as pastoral: there’s no pressing need to have stories about shepherds in an idealised countryside, but for some reason we developed a tradition of pastoral writing. Though if you have a society where only rich, landowning people patronise the arts you may get pastoral poetry, and if you have a society which fetishises technology you may get mecha . . . now we’re slipping towards the conflict between determination by social forces and individual action.)
At this point I suppose I have to mention the distinction between supers and reals. It’s useful sometimes (when, say, you’re designing a game around mecha selected from a very broad church of anime) and, though it’s often attacked for being as arbitrary as mecha themselves, it describes some very real differences in approach. But it’s not an airtight distinction. Still, I’m going to spit out a baroque image to try to grasp the (unequal) relationship between the two, disregarding their fuzzy boundary.
First, let us go then, you and I, to the genre that Mobile Suit Gundam was born from. We have intelligent robots. We have giant metal humanoids controlled remotely, which push the definition of ‘robot’ at little, but we’ll let that pass. Piloted (from the inside) giant metal humanoids arrive with Mazinger Z, which for convenience’s sake I’ll take as an epitome (I’m suspicious of ‘Legacy’ and ‘Influence’ sections in Wikipedia articles, but Mazinger Z‘s does at least sound convincing). You can get the gist of what I’m talking about from the show’s first opening: mechanical monsters attack, normal powers cannot prevail against the monsters (the fighter planes being shot down), and the hero’s mecha saves the day.
I’d hesitate to accuse this genre of being necessarily simple (that would be shooting myself in the foot) but I don’t doubt that a lot of it can seem formulaic and empty; s-CRY-ed takes a well-aimed jab at a childlike reliance on heroic robots (and at acting in bad faith in general) in its tenth episode.
Anyhow, imagine super robot shows in the Mazinger Z vein as a tree. Now imagine Mobile Suit Gundam as a man tied to the tree with a long piece of elastic. Mobile Suit Gundam runs away from the tree, into the territory of more convincing warfare, but at the show’s heart there’s this great big reservoir of potential energy, a massive tension from the Super Robot tree always pulling the RX-78-2 backwards.
At first MSG seems to have got pretty far (it’s a good show for hard sci-fi fan speculation: ‘I have a problem with the depiction of the Lunarians [. . .] they’re too healthy’), but later on, with the Newtype Weirdness and some of the wackier, larger Mobile Armours (like the Big Zam), the elastic becomes a bit more obvious. Everything else in the Gundam franchise has a subtly or not-so-subtly different relationship with the tree: G Gundam, for example, doesn’t bother running away from it – instead, it climbs to the top of the tree and strikes a martial-arts pose.
But there’s no need to restrict ourselves to Gundam here. Neon Genesis Evangelion grabs an axe and tries to cut the tree down. GaoGaiGar spits in Evangelion‘s eye, and works to grow the tree as big as possible. Full Metal Panic! grafts other plants onto the tree, and temporarily unties itself entirely for Fumoffu. Infinite Ryvius travels around the tree in circles while reciting passages from The Prince. Nanoha pretends to be attached to an entirely different tree, but if you look closely you’ll see it’s lying. The Super Dimension Fortress Macross climbs into the lower branches of the tree, and delivers an impromptu concert. Space Runaway Ideon fertilises the tree’s roots with the decaying bodies of dead children . . .
What I like about mecha is what is in the roots of the tree, and it’s also what MSG can’t – and doesn’t want to – escape from: turbo-charged and armour-plated physical heroism. Heroism has proved pretty resilient in the face of the apathy which is supposed to mark this age. And, as fun as it is to look at the old through the new, sometimes it’s just as much fun to look at the new through the old; Foucault on Homer is interesting – but what would Homer (if he existed) have thought of Foucault? (Victor Davis Hanson thinks the answer is ‘not much’ – I hope linking to The New Criterion doesn’t tangle me in US politics.) Now it’s true that nearly everything plays with the idea of heroism to a greater or lesser extent – but to do that you need the concept in the first place.
Mecha anime resurrects personal combat for a science fiction setting. Mecha are like lightsabers: they permit you to deposit THE FATE OF THE UNIVERSE, &C on the shoulders of two people fighting. Better still, mecha are humanoid, which means that, to the eye, very little separates a Gundam taking on a mechanical monster from the stereotypical man-with-a-sword fighting a dragon – a situation so stereotypical that it’s almost never played straight in normal fantasy writing.
I’ve mentioned how cyclopean Zakus are before, and there’s not as great a difference between (for example) Kira Yamato leaping into the sea to fight a monstrous ZnO, and Beowulf diving into a lake to kill Grendel’s mother as their chronological distance might suggest. (Although – going out on a limb here – I’d say the Beowulf poem is better than Gundam SEED.) Mixed in with the man-and-monster element is the fun of two men in armour fighting – something dealt with literally in Escaflowne and Code Geass, in which mecha pilots are knights. Perhaps there’s a little of this in Space Runaway Ideon too: I’m thinking of the eighth episode, when Gije launches an attack to prove his status as a samurai. (Pleasantly, it’s Ideon‘s aliens, rather than the human characters, who use the concept of ‘samurai’. That eighth episode really is an interesting study in several flavours of masculinity.)
Mecha anime is a niche for the world-saving action hero outside of your standard shounen action saga which, while not necessarily bad or stupid (see, for example, coburn’s examination of Soul Eater), is not my cup of tea. And the ‘real robot’ is an excuse for adding some speculative / science fiction into the wish-fulfilment mix – mecha as a fig leaf, yes, but a very cool fig leaf with a very big gun.