A Beginner's Guide to Mecha

By Amanda Pagan, Children's Librarian
April 4, 2019
Stavros Niarchos Foundation Library (SNFL)

What is Mecha?

Astro Boy

Mecha is a genre of Japanese manga and anime that heavily features or focuses on mechanical innovation. Robots, cyborgs, androids, and space stations, for example, all fall under the wide umbrella of mecha; however, robots are usually the primary focus.

The type of robot may vary from series to series, ranging from giant robots used for battle—such as those featured in Yoshiyuki Tomino’s Mobile Suit Gundam—to more humanoid robots such as Osamu Tezuka’s Astro Boy. Although heavily influenced by science fiction, whether the robots are produced through scientific or magical means also differs from series to series.

A Brief History of Mecha

Mobile Suit Gundam The Origin book cover

Mecha became a popular genre in Japan following the end of World War II as the country began to experience rapid economic and technological growth. Starting in the 1950s, two series emerged that would come to define the foundations of mecha: Osamu Tezuka’s Mighty Atom (introduced in 1952), and Mitsuteru Yokoyama's Tetsujin 28-go. Both series are more widely known by their English titles, Astro Boy(1952) and Gigantor (1956).

Astro Boy follows the adventures of the title character, an android with human emotions. Gigantor revolves around a 12-year-old boy who inherited a giant robot from his late scientist father. Both series featured robots battling either other robots or giant monsters in order to save the day. This battle robot format would become very popular for mecha, as would the anime series adaptations of Astro Boy and Gigantor, with big fan bases in Japan and abroad.

Mecha reached the height of its popularity in Japan during the 1970s and 1980s starting with Go Nagai’s Mazinger Z in 1972. Just like Gigantor, this series feat,ured a giant robot doing battle; however, it was the first series to have a protagonist pilot the robot from within an inner cockpit rather than through remote control.

The "Monster of the Week"

The Transformers The Movie 30th Anniversary Edition DVD cover

Up until that point, most mecha series featured a "monster of the week" scenario, in which the giant robot would battle another robot or monster, win the battle, and then do it all again in the next episode or volume. But in 1979, Yoshiyuki Tomino’s Mobile Suit Gundam anime changed the genre forever by foregoing the "monster of the week" plot in favor of an epic space saga involving intergalactic war, genocide, and legendary battles between giant robots called gundams.
In the decades since its original anime debut, Mobile Suit Gundam has been adapted multiple times, in both anime and manga form. The series’ impact on Japanese culture is so great that there is currently a life-sized Unicorn Gundam statue in Tokyo’s Odaiba district.

Popularity in America and Mecha Into the 1990s

Voltron The Legend Begins DVD cover

The rise of mecha in Japan also had an impact on American culture. Model kits of popular mecha series were extremely profitable, and toy lines featuring robots were very popular in Japan. Japanese toy company Takara Tomy’s Diaclone and Microman toy lines introduced the concept of robots that could transform into other objects, such as a cassette player or car. Their products caught the attention of American toy company, Hasbro who, in 1984, rebranded the Japanese toys into their American counterparts, The Transformers.

The popularity of mecha has waxed and waned since its heyday in the 1970s and 1980s with breakout series popping up here and there such as Hideaki Anno’s Neon Genesis Evangelionin 1995. This series turned many of the genre conventions on its head and introduced a much darker and psychological story than previous series. The 1990s saw a rise in popularity of the cyberpunk and dystopian genres, which often crossed over into mecha.

Types of Mecha Robots

Battle Angel Alita book cover

For the most part, robots featured in mecha anime and manga can be split into two categories: super robots and real robots.

Super robotsare often unique, one-of-a-kind robots with pseudo-mythical powers or abilities that are usually products of ancient civilizations or gifted scientists. These robots can often be combined with other robots to become a giant, super robot such as the titular super robot, Voltron, from Voltron: The Legend Begins (1984).

Voltron: The Legend Begins was an American animated television series released in 1984 that was a rebranding of several Japanese mecha anime. The popular 1990s live-action series Mighty Morphin Power Rangers also featured the use of several weaker robots combining together to form a giant super robot named the Megazord.
Like Voltron, Mighty Morphin Power Rangers was an American television show that used stock footage from a Japanese program, Kyōryū Sentai Zyuranger. Both series were extremely popular and are probably the most well-known American examples of a super robot being formed from several weaker robots.

Real robots are more "realistic," science-based, mass-produced (usually for war) robots, such as the war suits used in Hiroshi Sakurazaka’s All You Need is Kill. Yukito Kishiro’s Battle Angel Alita (1990) and Shirow Masamune’s The Ghost in the Shell(1989) are both excellent examples of manga featuring cyborg mecha and "real robots," in stories that follow cyborg protagonists in dystopian/cyberpunk settings.

Much like science fiction, mecha anime and manga serve as embodiments of the relationship between humans and technology during each era. Mecha of the 1950s viewed technological advancement with hope and eagerness, an extremely different approach from the often dark and bleak mecha of the 1990s.

Regardless, mecha anime and manga have influenced cultures beyond Japan. In 2013, director Guillermo Del Toro released his big-budget Hollywood blockbuster, Pacific Rim (2013), as a love letter to the Japanese mecha and monster genres. In 2014, Hiroshi Sakurazaka's science fiction mecha novel, All You Need is Kill, was also given a big budget Hollywood adaptation called, The Edge of Tomorrow, starring Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt. 

Below is our list of recommended mecha manga and anime, so if you love giant robots, check these out!

Completely new to Japanese manga? Then check out our manga beginner’s guide!

Completely new to science fiction? Then check out our beginner's guide to scifi!