This blog post will discuss, or at least raise the question, of what exactly is a Mecha Anime, and raise the argument that most anime where mecha appear are in fact not Mecha Anime.
China Miéville, for those who don’t know him is a British sci-fi/fantasy author whom I am quite fond of, and who is to put it succinctly, an “Urban Author”. China Mieville wrote King Rat, which also deals with London, and the city’s feel, and environs. China Mieville writes in a word called Bas-Lag, the first book deals with the city of New Crobuzon, and the politics of the city, its ethnic (of races) make-up, etc.
His book from 2009 (which I am dearly waiting to acquire) is titled The City & The City, and I assume you can see how cities stand at its core.
The point I am trying to make is, that while in most stories we have cities, in most of them these cities are a backdrop to the action, and don’t figure heavily into the narrative. They are not major characters in the story, and far too often are not even truly supporting characters.
Not so in Mieville’s books, where the city is often as important a character as any of the protagonists and antagonists who make up the story, and while it often doesn’t show itself in any concentrated manner, it appears in small ways interweaved with anything that occurs.
So, this is the point from which I wish to discuss mecha in anime. Just like in many books and series, the city is just a backdrop, or even glossed over completely, in many anime series, including ones that bill themselves as “mecha anime”, the mecha are not a core part of the story, and even if they supposedly are, it’s not often in the “right” way.
First, we have shows where the mecha are weapons, and the characters are pilots. But aside from the techno-babble that means nothing, we could have just as easily had the characters pilot airplanes, space-ships, etc. The mecha are what in the role-playing community we call “Colour”; like a movie’s set, it’s something we dress the story in but could easily replace it with something else, as its contribution is not unique, and often not that influential.
I think most shows fall into this category.
This is something that perhaps we may want to split into two parts: The first is shows where the mecha don’t really matter, and their usage is often small and quite minimal (I might argue that Code Geass will be put here). The second is where it’s a military and combat focused show, where the mecha have a lot of screen-time, and the characters care for them, etc. but they are weapons, and as outlined above they could be airplanes, magical dragons, or even Poke’Mon.
Then we have series where the mecha figure heavily, or so it seems. We have characters address the mecha, the mecha we are given to know have thoughts and/or emotions; they are more than just tools. However, most of this is one-sided, and as such, the mecha are characters, but they are supporting cast, whose role is to illuminate aspects of the main characters’ personalities. Often, you could replace them for a mirror. That shoots big missiles.
Eureka Seven‘s Nirvash is like this, where we just have Eureka sort of monologuing to it. Much of Neon Genesis Evangelion is also like that.
And then we have stories that are truly Mecha Anime, where we have combat, where we have characters spend time and thought regarding their mecha… a lot of it does fall into combat anime where you could probably replace the mechas, but then again, I guess that means all those mecha/jetfighters/whatever anime is just combat anime. War anime.
And then, we have the other group, where the mechas make a large part of the story. You could still replace them in many cases, but they are mecha, and they are a significant part of the story. I think the best cases are where them being mecha is in itself important. Mecha are transgressive, mecha are liminal. What this means is that a mecha blurs the boundaries between human and machine. After all, we do need a reason to not use a tank and go with the mecha’s shape.
In a way, much of what I say of mecha here is also true for robots, or androids (do go and watch Eve no Jikan/Time of Eve. Or better yet, go and read Asimov on which it is based). Mecha stories in this way have mecha appear in roles where they blur the lines, where it’s important that our protagonists pilot mecha and not something else.
This is where we truly return to Neon Genesis Evangelion. The mecha are not really mecha, which the new movies really make clear when we see the innards, the skeleton, etc. The mecha are people. Of course, such revelations can occur in one of two ways, but for both you need the concept to be there from the get-go. Either you reveal it in the first couple of episodes as part of the way the world works (has magic, has Poke’Mon, has space-travel, etc.), or you reveal it at the end for people to think back of the series up until the moment of revelation and reformulate their thoughts.
Of final mention of something that sort of straddles the line is the mecha as a metaphor to something else, which could often be replaced with something else, but sometimes not. Take Gurren Lagann, where the mecha is a supporting character that serves to emphasize, and is itself a metaphor for the spirit of Shonen.
There are many anime with mecha, but most are not Mecha Anime. And go and read China Mieville ;-)