So you’ve seen Pacific Rim by now (and if you haven’t, you should), and you want to know a little more about its inspirations. Del Toro’s movie is based primarily in two genres of Japanese entertainment: the kaiju (man-in-a-suit monster) movie and the mecha (giant robot) anime. I am not an expert on the kaiju genre (I’ve seen and enjoyed the original Gojira, but I’m not the one to pick out the individual nuances of its gagillion sequels and spin-offs), but I am a fan of many mecha anime, so here’s my guide to understanding the history and various aspects of the genre.
As I mentioned in my Pacific Rim review, mecha comes mainly in three flavors: silly “Super Robot” shows, serious “Real Robot” shows, and a post-modern deconstructive variety. The first category is almost as old as anime and manga itself. Tetsujin 28, known in America as Gigantor, was one of the first three anime TV series to premiere 50 years ago in Japan (the other two 1963 series, Astro Boy and 8-Man, were also action series focused on robots, though those robots were intelligent and human-sized). Like the kaiju movies and their nuclear anxieties, Tetsujin was shaped by the post-WWII environment it came from; in the original Japanese version, the robot was in fact a weapon initially designed for use in the war. For a particularly high-quality adaptation of a manga by Tetsujin creator Mitsuteru Yokoyama, check out the anime Giant Robo: The Day The Earth Stood Still.
In the ’70s, “Super Robots” were everywhere in Japanese children’s programming. Famed manga author Go Nagai came up with the idea of pilots inside of robots (as opposed to controlling them remotely) for 1972’s Mazinger Z, which launched a long-running franchise and plenty of new cliches. Working on various mecha anime during this time period was Yoshiyuki Tomino, a director with an unusual dark streak. What would go down in history as his revolutionary masterpiece, 1979’s Mobile Suit Gundam, was actually a ratings flop in its initial broadcast; its initial order was cut down by ten episodes due to its failure. However, the series developed a cult following among older audiences, who would support it by buying merchandise and give it a second life with movies, sequels, and alternate universe spin-offs. Now the series is as iconic and beloved in Japan as another sci-fi ratings flop, Star Trek, is in America.
Gundam‘s big gift to mecha was a more complicated sense of morality: instead of humans using giant robots to fight off an evil alien menace, Gundam‘s One Year War had humans fighting humans, with both sides having their reasons to fight and containing elements of both good and of evil. Another notable “Real Robot” series, 1982’s Super Dimension Fortress Macross, had alien foes, but maintained Gundam‘s moral ambiguities and political grit; the series is probably best known in America as the first part of the anthology series Robotech.
1995 brought another revolution to mecha, and we can thank Hideaki Anno’s nervous breakdown for that. He was not in a good mental state when he started directing Neon Genesis Evangelion. The first half of the series starts off normal enough, a “Super Robot”-style monster-of-the-week story with “Real Robot”-influenced maturity. Slowly hints of weirdness build; a mystery involving Jewish and Christian symbolism, surprising bursts of violence, characters proving even more damaged than the typical angsty Gundam pilot.
Midway through the series, at the point Anno seems to have recovered from his breakdown, it transforms into a work of psychoanalysis, a deconstruction that does to mecha what Watchmen did for superheroes. The production went out of control as it stretched both its limited budget and the standards for sex and violence in what was marketed as a show for young teenagers, and eventually it imploded in on itself in the last two episodes (made at the last minute with no money after their original planned ending fell through), which in my opinion are about as awful as the episodes coming before them were brilliant. Eventually the original ending was made in movie form as The End of Evangelion, a still baffling but more emotionally fitting conclusion filled with unforgettable apocalyptic imagery.
Like Watchmen, EVA didn’t so much write the final word on the mecha genre as inspire tons of rip-offs, most of them lacking the vision that made EVA so compelling. Some post-EVA mecha shows did things differently enough to stand out (the feminine romance and pseudo-medieval setting of Escaflowne, the parody of Martian Successor Nadesico, the Batman-inspired Big O), but the best mecha series since EVA actually came from the same studio: 2007’s Gurren Lagann, a gloriously cartoony attempt to reconstruct the genre Studio Gainax had deconstructed 12 years prior. Filled with the joy of old “Super Robot” shows while balancing it with a more modern depth, it’s probably the closest tonal equivalent to Pacific Rim, and with its wild plot twists as it goes along I can see it being a good inspiration for what directions Del Toro could develop his story in if he gets the chance at sequels.
Unfortunately, just when the spotlight’s on the mecha genre, too many of these series aren’t easily available in America. Bandai’s implosion left most of Gundam, Big O, and Escaflowne out of print on DVD, though not impossible to find. Daisuki, a new legal streaming venture by several Japanese studios, has started uploading Gundam series, but so far they only have Zeta Gundam (a direct sequel to the original series; very good but not recommended if you haven’t seen its predecessor) and Gundam SEED (a 2002 alternate universe series which serves as a quality modernization of many themes of the original).
Nozomi Entertainment recently got the rights to release Gundam Unicorn (a currently-ongoing and very high-quality direct-to-video series taking place in the same timeline as the original Gundam but able to work relatively well as a stand-alone); they also have released Nadesico and Gigantor. Because they co-funded it, Adult Swim occasionally airs the second season of The Big O but the first season is by far the stronger; hopefully it and Escaflowne get license-rescued soon as Studio Sunrise starts making deals with other studios.
Giant Robo seems to be one of many licenses lost by Media Blasters in their financial troubles, but it’s still cheap on Amazon. Some Mazinger spin-offs have been released in the past and don’t seem to be in print now, but the original is due for a release by Discotek later this year. The original Macross is also out of print, and due to some legal issues with Harmony Gold, the company behind Robotech, later Macross series haven’t been licensed for US release, one of the few fortunate exceptions being Macross Plus, which served as the debut of Shinichiro Watanabe and Yoko Kanno, the director-composer genius team behind Cowboy Bebop. Evangelion seems to be in some sort of licensing limbo as well due to a split between Anno and Gainax; since it’s been rereleased on DVD as many times as Blade Runner, it shouldn’t be hard to track it down used.
Anno’s current movie series Rebuild of Evangelion is available from FUNimation, but as a work in progress it’s hard to judge whether to recommend it; the first movie is pretty much a direct remake of the first six episodes of the series, while the second movie goes in new and exciting directions, but early word on the third movie’s been split and is leaning negative. Gurren Lagann was another Bandai series but fortunately it’s been snatched up by Aniplex USA; while their DVDs and Blu-Rays are ridiculously overpriced, they have the complete series up for legal streaming, so what are you waiting for? Burst through the heavens with your drill!