Mecha Anime or Anime With Mecha? China Mieville to the Rescue!

ZGMF-X10A Freedom Gundam

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.

The Lancelot Knightmare Frame from Code Geass. Ready for Launch!

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.

Eva Unit 01, in friggin’ bandages!

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 ;-)

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7 comments on “Mecha Anime or Anime With Mecha? China Mieville to the Rescue!

  1. Yi says:

    That’s interesting. I have seen only a few “mecha” anime. In Kannazuki no Miko, the mecha is completely unnecessary and not at the core. In Full Metal Panic, I’d say it’s a typical piloting robots to fight thing (except fumoffu). Agreed about Eva and Eureka Seven, who both fall in your third category.

    “There are many anime with mecha, but most are not Mecha Anime.”
    I guess it’s the same with yaoi, yuri, loli, and other genres, simply because genres are not made to be exclusive of each other. Eventually, genre will cross, and I guess it’s up to us to decide what the main emphasis is.

    Anyways, I try to avoid mecha in general, both mecha anime and anime with mecha. Just not my thing.

    • Guy says:

      I think that Eureka Seven and Eva do not share the same role, or not all of them.
      We have the mecha as “Pseudo-characters” to whom other characters monologue, and help us understand characters better. But while Nirvash is more like an inanimate object, and all that it “does” can be attributed to either Renton or Eureka, some of what the Evas do can be attributed to the dead women – for instance, Yui Ikari.

      Furthermore, while there’s a role of supporting cast they share, a role whose purpose is to better flesh out the main cast, evas also perform the “reveal!” role. The truth about the evas is very transformative, of how you see the series. Furthermore, an eva does blur the boundary between human and non-human. In Eureka Seven, that is Eureka’s role, not the Nirvash’s.

      Finally, your claim about your taste is very telling, very common, very powerful, and also very odd. I covered it in a recent blog post on one of my other blogs.
      I find it weird, because the mecha are often quite insignificant, they’re just what is drawn instead of airplanes, or dragons, or magic in general. And yet, this choice of “colour” (the dressing of the series, which don’t really shape the progress of the story) often has a very deep impact on what we will pick up.

      Star Wars, the original trilogy that is, is a fantasy series set in a setting with lasers and space-ships. But that does not make it a “Science Fiction Story”. And yet, the dressing is often more important than the content for deciding whether we’ll pick it up or not. Until our friends who like the dressings will come and tell us that it’s not really what it’s about :)

      • Yi says:

        I’m not sure if it’s that odd that I avoid mecha so much. There are fans who avoid any hints of yaoi in a series, even it’s insignificant. There are those who hates Vampire Bund because of the loli factor, even though loli in that series is not core to the plot. Mecha just happens to be my particular poison.

  2. lovelyduckie says:

    I’m not much into series where combat takes place in mecha. Give me sword fights, gun fights, and fist fights! But there have been the occasional mecha series that have impressed me. The only series with mecha that has ever really hit a homerun with me is Gurren Lagann.

    • Guy says:

      I’m not surprised. Gurren Lagann is not a mecha anime, it’s THE Shonen anime, that happens to have mecha in it as a metaphor for the spirit of Shonen! :)

      Then again, it’s hard to make sweeping claims about “anime with mecha in it”, because it’s a genre. Just like anime. Anime is stuff drawn as anime. Anime with mecha is anime with mecha in it… it doesn’t tell you much, or even anything, of its themes, or quality.

      I don’t like all anime, for instance. I don’t expect people who like Mecha Anime to like all anime with mecha, or even all Mecha Anime! But this post might help them find out their distaste for some, and hopefully will begin some discussion on the issue.

  3. lovelyduckie says:

    Yi :I’m not sure if it’s that odd that I avoid mecha so much. There are fans who avoid any hints of yaoi in a series, even it’s insignificant. There are those who hates Vampire Bund because of the loli factor, even though loli in that series is not core to the plot. Mecha just happens to be my particular poison.

    I avoid all of the above in general (loli, yaoi, mecha, yuri). BUT if a series seems like it may be very entertianing I can learn to overlook my inclination to dislike a certain aspect and make an exception. I’ve been circling and debating trying Vampire Bund lately with that thought in mind.

    • Guy says:

      I’d comment on your comment and Yi’s that you quote here, at the same place.

      I can understand (if not agree with) people who avoid yaoi, loli, holocaust films. Some people find some sort of content makes them uncomfortable. Either for moralistic reasons, or for gut-feelings. What I mean by gut-feelings are not people saying, “Hm, homosexual relationships disgust me” when the cause is “moralistic”, but people who for instance have no moral issue with people eating meat, but can’t stand to see animals butchered. Or the common variety: Can’t see blood.

      I find it a bit weird, that people would dislike say, an anime with mecha, even if the mecha could be easily substituted for airplanes, and even then, those airplanes/mecha do not get much screen-time.
      Now, I know it happens, I do it too! I still find this to be intriguing, something I want to give more thought to. Now, it’s also understandable what Ducky does, or I did with that roleplaying game: Wait till someone tells you that the mecha, vampires, etc. don’t really play a part, and then watch it. I can understand putting it on hold till someone tells you the situation truly is that way.

      Then again, Ewen, who sometimes blogs here, can’t watch Zero no Tsukaima because of the way Louise treats Saito, with the whipping. I think Ducky, you said the same?

      It’s interesting.

      But still not the major point of this post, you could even replace this post’s examples and come up with the: “Not all stories set in the future, with futuristic technology, are science-fiction stories!” and I may yet write that entry.

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