Saturday, July 20, 2013

Everything You Need to Know About Mecha

With "Pacific Rim" coming out in a couple of weeks and the marketing blitz hitting a crescendo, I think it's time to talk about mecha. The mecha genre, found primarily in Japanese media, covers stories about humanoid robots and machines, including mechanized battle armor, mechanical constructs, modified vehicles with battle capabilities, and your good old-fashioned battling robots. The Transformers are mecha, even though they're technically aliens from outer space, because they're living machines who have the ability to act like vehicles and other large mechanized objects. Iron Man is a borderline case, since his armor does give Tony Stark special enhancements, but traditional mecha tend to be more substantial machines that are piloted or operated.

I've noticed that there's been widespread confusion over the appeal of mecha in the American mainstream, as Japanese media remains an acquired taste. Why giant robots? Why building-sized machines and vehicles, often stylized to ridiculous extremes? Well, part of it's cultural, of course. Japan is famously an industry leader in the research and development of robotics, and use more of them than just about any other country in the world. Robots are also far more prevalent in Japan's popular media, with the Giant Robot genre emerging in kids' manga in the 1950s and 1960s. Several influential titles like "Mazinger Z" and "Tetsujin 28" (aka "Gigantor") seem to have kicked off the national love affair with giant, heroic, mechanical creatures. I think it's also worth remembering that Japan is home to the kaiju, the giant monsters like Godzilla and Mothra, and the same impulse that created them probably also had a hand in the robots getting supersized.

In the West the most high profile mecha franchises remain the ones that were made for children, like "Transformers," "Voltron" and "Power Rangers." In Japan, however, mecha gradually expanded into many different genres over the years. Mecha action and science-fiction shows are a given, but there are also mecha comedy, fantasy, historical fiction, and crime series aimed at much older audiences. They range in style from cartoony and over-the-top to starkly realistic and cerebral. The Real Robot anime subgenre is notably more grounded in the real world and shows human beings using mecha as tools. Some of the most famous mecha franchises like "Gundam" and "Macross" are military-themed shows that involve extensive depictions of mecha used in violent warfare, often alongside traditional weaponry. Mecha stories have become so pervasive in Japanese fiction, they can be seen as the equivalent of superhero stories in the United States, with their own tropes and traditions. Sure, giant battle machines and people with superpowers are completely impossible, but don't they look cool?

Having seen my share of mecha TV series and movies, It's clear that mecha are great for really huge-scale carnage. The "Transformers" movies have already proven this. However, another important aspect that I think often gets lost in the discussion is that piloted mecha allow normal people to gain the powers of superheroes - superior size, strength, and all kinds of different weapons, while still remaining ordinary, relatable people. Mecha pilots tend to be less like Superman, and more like Maverick from "Top Gun." Unlike what we saw in "Transformers," sentient Giant Robots usually work in concert with human operators, and their relationships are central to their stories. This allows for very personal human drama to play out on an epic scale. "Neon Genesis Evangelion," the most influential mecha show of the 90s, is about a group of teenage mecha pilots with a lot of sticky psychological issues, who can't help bringing their problems with them to the battlefield.

Considering current American blockbuster trends, the mecha genre is increasingly looking like a good fit for franchise filmmaking needs. Giant IMAX screens require giant spectacle to fill them, and you don't get much bigger than gargantuans like Optimus Prime and Tetsujin 28 duking it out against the forces of evil. With Michael Bay, "The Avengers" and "Man of Steel" setting the bar higher for big CGI-enhanced battles, most mecha series should fit right in. "Pacific Rim" was clearly heavily influenced by many famous mecha anime, and if it does well, I expect we'll see more adaptations in the same vein. And if it doesn't, it may only be a temporary setback, as mecha keep showing up in our movies in various from, from the AMPs in "Avatar" to the rumbling robot boxers of "Real Steel."

Like many mecha fans, I'm keeping my fingers crossed. Japan's film industry is one of modest means, so they've produced very few pieces of live action mecha media. Hollywood studios are currently the only ones capable of creating something with big budget production values like "Pacific Rim," and they're taking a pretty big gamble on this movie, considering the traditionally niche appeal of mecha in the US.

In Japan, however, they're going to eat this up.
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