I’ve been binge-watching Mobile Suit Gundam 00 recently for a review and it occurred to me that when it comes to mecha shows, the least important part is the mecha. That may sound counterintuitive but stick with me here. The very best series that feature giant fighting piloted robots are those that use these bipedal tanks as a metaphor – whether that’s to explore geopolitics, mental illness or, as in the case of Gundam 00, the nature of peace and war.
For a certain generation, the quintessential mecha series is Neon Genesis Evangelion, a show which has been introduced to a new legion of viewers thanks to its auspicious debut on Netflix. It’s a personal favourite mecha series, not least from a mechanical perspective, where the giant hulking EVAs are, at least to begin with, tethered to a power source. Of course, Evangelion gets metaphysical and theological and engineering realism isn’t exactly a priority. In any case, the EVAs themselves are a means to explore mental illness – particularly depression – whilst offering a mechanical womb in which to cradle Shinji and co.
Mecha feature heavily in Code Geass but if those stylish giant robots were removed, the story would lose little of its impact and power. It would still offer a meditation on colonialism, power struggles and the cost of freedom and peace. In many examples, mecha are simply shorthand for advanced technology and could be easily replaced with innovative fighter jets without compromising the story or action. Giant robots fighting is just cool, but that look gets old pretty quick, and so the best series in this subgenre use mecha in all their wonderfully ridiculous nature to explore themes and ideas.
The difference can be most obviously seen when comparing mecha anime to those revolving around cars, bikes and motor racing. While the Initial D series does explore friendship and the rest, it’s ostensibly about cars and racing culture. Yet the best mecha shows aren’t about mecha, they just happen to feature them.
At the risk of earning the ire of mecha fans, let me just reiterate that giant robots are cool and it’s okay if that’s all a show wants to be. But the most influential, important and thought-provoking shows in the subgenre are those which go beyond aesthetics and aerial combat, and use these giant tanks to speak a truth or two.