In the landscape of science fiction, mecha, short for mechanical, refers to a diverse class of robotic machines that are depicted in a variety of sizes, configurations, and purposes.
This term covers everything from man-sized powered armour to colossal robots and the entire spectrum in between. While mecha designs can differ dramatically, they generally have limbs, differentiating them from just souped-up vehicles.
Though the genre is mostly known for its appearance in Japanese anime and manga, the concept goes back decades in both the East and West and is featured broadly in movies, video games, books, tabletop games, and much more.
The term “mecha” has its origins in Japan and is derived from the English word “mechanism”. Though in Japanese, it refers broadly to any machinery and vehicles, in English-speaking contexts, it is often used specifically to refer to robots.
Japan and the West have a rich history of mecha in fiction, though their styles each have distinct features. In Eastern-style mecha, machines typically are humanoid, wield hand-held weapons, and exhibit agility despite their scale, such as those depicted in the ‘Gundam’ franchise. Conversely, Western-style mecha are mostly non-humanoid, equipped with fixed or turreted weapons, and prioritize heavy armour over agility, as popularly seen in the Star Wars franchise with the Walker series of mechs.
The Mecha genre’s roots can be traced back to early 20th-century science fiction literature, with works penned by big names in science fiction like Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. But it truly took flight in the post-World War II era when Japan experienced a period of rapid growth, and its newfound fascination with robots and machinery found its way into popular culture.
Mecha classics like Osamu Tezuka’s “Tetsuwan Atom” (Astro Boy) and Go Nagai’s Mazinger Z in the 1950s marked the genre’s humble beginnings, pioneering staples of the genre like giant fighting robots, humans piloting robots from inside, and combining smaller units to make a stronger robot.
Later works, like Gundam, Macross, Getter Robo, Gurren Lagann, and Evangelion expanded on the genre, deconstructing and reconstructing it, testing the wide range of possibilities for storytelling.
While mecha stories did get made in other parts of the world, the genre has been largely dominated by Japanese media, with even the biggest mecha franchises outside of Japan, like ‘Transformers’, ‘Pacific Rim’, and’ Power Rangers’ being either inspired by or are direct adaptations of Japanese Mecha shows.
Mecha is mainly divided into the Super Robot and Real Robot genres, with a multitude of subcategories derived from those general categories. The first mecha in Japanese media were typically of the Super Robot genre, where the featured mecha was one-of-a-kind, their pilots were basically superheroes, and the science was intentionally left vague in favour of telling an entertaining story.
Super Robot shows typically have a younger fanbase, and have a broader appeal than Real Robot media. In stark contrast, the later Real Robot genre was hard science fiction shows aimed at a mostly young adult audience, delving more into darker themes with a degree of realism.
The mechs in Real Robot shows are relatively uniform in design, typically being mass-produced war machines, with a lot of attention given to their functionality, and real science is sometimes involved to give the setting more believability.
This specificity and attention to detail made the mechs in these shows into popular merchandise, giving rise to entire communities of fans collecting models without even bothering with the shows they came from.