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10 Iconic Anime Mecha

Machines that have defined the the genre

By John Rose     September 27, 2010

© Bob Trate
One of the areas where Japan  and America have diverged in their pop culture is in their approach to some of their fictional worlds they create. America has a long history of using superheroes where as Japan has used fewer super powered costumed individuals but far more giant robots than America. Due to the intricacies of the designs and stories many of these robots have managed to cross the divide between countries and have an impact on pop culture. Some of the ones that have made it to popular levels in both countries but did not quite make the cut for this list include the Escaflowne, the Big O, the Rahxephon and even the female story targeted Rayearth.

10. Gunbuster-Gunbuster
The second solo production of the new Studio Gainax and the first for new director Hideaki Anno introduced a rather classic concept with a brand new super powered machine capable of taking on a horde of invaders on its own. The Gunbuster features a combining vehicle design as well as an array of offensive moves that in giant robot fashion are used in conjunction with yelling out the move’s name the Gunbuster pays homage to the mechs that came before it. While the mech can be controlled to great effect by a single individual its true potential shines when both its components have skilled pilots working in tandem.

9. Zaku II-The Mobile Suit Gundam
With its single eye, giant size and armor that more closely resembles ancient warfare than future the Zaku-II casts illusions back to the earliest tales of the giant Cyclops. The Zaku-II struck such a nerve in Japan that any attempt to make enemy suits that do not resemble it in some form are often met with derision and criticism from fans. The popularity of the Zaku-II helmet in Japan is said to rival Darth Vader’s in America and the single glowing eye in the dark tends to speak to people’s darker recesses of memory making this suit hard to forget.

8. Tetsujin 28/Gigantor- Tetsujin 28/Gigantor
One of the earliest shows to hit the US shores it helped introduce a new audience to cartoons from outside their reference. Tetsujin was the first Japanese series to feature a giant robot which helped introduce what would become a staple of Japanese programming. While the series had a number of name and a time setting change to suit its US audience the animation laid down that the robot was going to continue to be a war machine that’s purpose was changed and it was now being used as an instrument for maintaining justice. The series introduced the idea of a robot being controlled by the young son of its creator which also came to be a mainstream in giant robot series for quite some time to come and still persists in series to more recent times.

7. Voltron/GoLion-Voltron/Beast King GoLion
Another series that makes the list due to its appearance on American TV which helped raise its profile immensely. While in Japan the original series came and went when the series was picked up in America the production team used the brand new technique of stereo recording which helped get it picked up by many TV stations looking to utilize the new broadcasting ability. While Voltron was a combination of two separate series it was the GoLion part that particularly captured the attention of its target audience. With its five colorful lions that combine to form one super robot with various weapons used to fight their giant monstrous opponents Voltron became a success in its adopted land that it had not found in its homeland.

6. Transformers-Transformers
Seemingly out of place on the list are the US cartoon creation Transformers until one examines their roots. The original Transformers robots were chosen from existing Japanese toys of three different lines (Diaclone, Microman and Macross) and then American writers formed their own stories for these sentient beings to exist in. Perhaps the most famous Transformer is Optimus Prime who was originally designed by Shoji Kawamori and Hiroyuki Obara. Without the work of the toy designers in Japan on the original mechs the world might never have had the start to the giant mechs that have captured the attention of many in its various incarnations from animation to comic to toys and even major motion pictures.

5. Getter Robo-Getter Robo
One of the hallmarks of giant robot shows is the ability for different vehicles to combine into one unit and in that respect Getter Robo was the pioneer. Go Nagai and Ken Ishikawa introduced to the world the idea of machines with different pilots who combine their forces to make a much more powerful weapon. Getter Robo even took this idea a step farther and introduced the idea that each of the pilot’s machines could take the lead for the robot which would dictate the form and abilities of the giant robot. Minus this concept fiction would have missed out on some of the great mech that span the gulf from sentai series to the Transformers Devastator.

4. Mazinger Z/Tranzor Z- Mazinger Z/Tranzor Z
Mazinger was the first giant robot to have the revolutionary concept of the controller of the robot actually within the mech itself as opposed to using some form of remote control. For Mazinger the mech uses a small vehicle that connects with the head which activates the super robot. Mazinger further establishes itself with having introduced the first female robot and also for the continuity established in the series by having successive robots built with similar color schemes and also possessing the attacking abilities of its predecessors.

3. VF-1 Valkyrie-Macross/Robotech
The original transforming fighter from Macross/Robotech has become an icon in many parts of the world thanks to the prevalence of both the original Japanese and reworked American version. Throw in a design that starts with a fighter that is based loosely on the F-14 Tomcat and a transformation procedure designed by Shoji Kawamori and Kazutka Miyatake and the Valkyrie captured the imagination of a widespread and diverse audience. Japanese viewers had an additional surprise as the first opening had different animation to leave the transformation as a surprise for them.

2. Evangelion 01-Evangelion
Probably the most famous work from studio Gainax and director Anno is their effort on one of the biggest series to come out of Japan. The mech had a number of unconventional aspects with its menacing appearance and mix of biological components and armor that served a purpose far darker than one might initially assume when seeing armor on a mech. The Eva also pays homage to Ultraman with its five minute time operational time limit which also serves to place limitations on the giant mech. With it’s AT field and Progressive knife the Eva unit spends more time fighting hand to hand than most mech and grants another level of being made in man’s image to the mech.

1. RX-78-2 (Gundam)-The Mobile Suit Gundam
From its head design which resembled the ancient samurai helmets to the attempts to make it as realistic as possible the RX-78-2 helped define what many of the robots that came after would imitate. Gundam set new grounds with the ideas that it was simply one suit among an entire conflict and incapable of being the sole defender of Earth. Also gone was the yelling out of a move name and the giant robot executing a special attack. Instead creator Yoshiyuki Tomino wanted to try to make his suits as realistic as possible and design weapons that while fantastic could conceivably actually be created based on existing weaponry (except of course the now apocryphal Gundam Hammer). Instead of having almost unlimited power the Gundam now had limitations of fuel and ammunition place upon it. The RX-78-2’s influence is still seen today in the current Gundam designs, a theme park ride, All Nippon Airways Gundam Boeing 777 and a life size mockup of the suit in Japan that was constructed temporarily as well. With its influence on the 30+ years of Gundam and other giant robot shows the RX-78-2 stands at the top of the giant mech mountain with the impact it has had on the genera.



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xenomorph 9/27/2010 2:33:40 AM

Nice list, but I would have liked Big O to be on here.

Darkknight2280 9/27/2010 4:19:48 AM

Yeah and also Patlabor!!

Dazzler 9/27/2010 4:41:21 AM

God I hope Robotech the movie gets worked on soon, maybe Michael Bay has an opening in his schedule?  Nah...

CastBroad 9/27/2010 5:30:59 AM

What?  No Giant Robo??? Check out Giant Robo - The Day The Earth Stood Still.  It is greatness.

wraith729 9/27/2010 6:37:55 AM

My buddy gave me Evangelion to watch. It was a pretty good series until the last episode. Talk about mind fuck.

snew929 9/27/2010 6:47:05 AM
  • Shogun Warriors anyone?  Maybe I'm dating myself and showing off my general lack of anime knowledge.......
gamemaster111 9/27/2010 9:37:21 AM

unit one rocks evangelion is awesome but i agree that last episode pissed me off

Rheul_home 9/27/2010 9:39:09 AM

What snew929 said...

Keith 9/27/2010 10:04:07 AM

I call foul on this list. The Gunbuster, Mazinger Z, Getter Robo, and Golion are all Super Robots. Tetsujin 28 is a giant robot, and Optimus Prime is just a robot. The only actual mecha on this list are the VF-1, RX-78-2, and Zakku II. Eva Unit-01 is can conditionally be considered mecha, but that's still a little gray.

momitchell7 9/27/2010 10:32:57 AM

What about the roots for the entire Battle-Tech / Mech-Warrior series of giant battle robots? - talk about a big impact on US culture!

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