The Evolution of "Mecha"

From "Everything Mechanical" in Japan to Anime About Robots

Gundam: Battle Assault
© Bandai

Traditionally, mecha was used to described anything mechanical in Japan, from cars, toasters, and radios to computers and yes, even robots. The term has since been adapted (mostly in the West) to mean "robot anime" and is used to describe anime and manga series that center around robotic elements.

The word mecha itself comes from the Japanese "meka," which is an abbreviated version of the English word "mechanical." Although the term has since evolved, the same central themes of its origin still apply: robots, gears and machines.

Japanese Anime and Manga

In mecha anime,the robots are usually vehicles or extensive, full-body "armor" piloted by humans and used in battle. Mecha components are typically quite advanced and offer a range of weapons as well as complete mobility and even flight capabilities and super-strength. 

The size and appearance of the mecha robots vary, with some being not much bigger than the pilot who operates them while others are considerably larger, as in the case of the popular "Macross" series. Some mecha also have organic components to them, as in the case of the Evas used in "Neon Genesis Evangelion."

Oftentimes films with mecha themes will also carry with them themes related to artificial intelligence and the cultural impact of robotics on the modern world. Anime series like "Ghost in the Shell" emphasize the realism in computer engineering sentience into robots. On the other hand, some anime utilize robot components that are linked to their master like in the popular "Gundam" series where astronaut warriors don suits of mechanical armor with high-tech gear to take on opponents.

Other Interpretations

Of course, mecha is not limited to anime and manga productions. Quite the contrary, many sci-fi movies and television shows have a strong mecha influence, with such notable works as "Star Wars," "War of the Worlds" and "Iron Man" falling into the mecha genre.

And while the tradition in anime is uniquely Japanese, there have been several American-made interpretations of the mecha theme as it original appeared, such is the case with the "Transformers" series of films, which drew inspiration from earlier Japanese animes "Microman" and "Diaclone."

Even popular U.S. production companies like Disney and Warner Bros. use mecha in their films. Such is the case with the "Matrix" trilogy and the animated film "The Iron Giant," both box office hits domestically and abroad. Meanwhile, modern films like "I, Robot," and "​Ex Machina" again tackle the question of sentience and morality. 

Whatever the form may be, machines have recently dominated not only entertainment but industry as well. With self-driving cars being used and tested for Uber in Arizona and Japanese robots capable of answering basic questions about themselves, the robot revolution is happening. Fortunately, film, television and manga are right in the fray of it, producing great works for all ages to enjoy.