[nextpage title=”8 Groundbreaking Mecha Anime that Influenced Pacific Rim”]
Pacific Rim: Uprising just blasted its way into theatres to deliver all of the giant robot fistfights any young moviegoer would desire. The raucous sequel extends the saga that began with Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim, pitting humanity – with a boost from the mechs of the Jaeger program – against the invading Kaiju from the bottom of the Pacific Ocean.
Pacific Rim is perhaps the most ambitious mecha franchise ever conceived (at least in terms of the initial production budget), but it’s hardly the first apocalyptic epic about giant robots punching giant monsters. Mechs are a well-established science fiction trope, and while incarnations like Voltron have become popular in North America, the best mecha fiction tends to come from Japan, which pioneered the genre and has continued to innovate for decades. Pacific Rim was a loving homage to mechs and monsters that proudly displayed its creator’s many influences. Uprising lacks Guillermo del Toro’s Oscar-winning vision, but it might be a purer, pulpier distillation of the source material in all of its gravity-defying absurdity.
With that in mind, we thought it would be fun to get back to basics. In honor of Pacific Rim: Uprising, here are eight formative Japanese mecha series that made the genre what it is today:
[nextpage title=”Tetsujin 28-go”]
Tetsujin 28-go is the foundation upon which other mechs are built. Mitsuteru Yokoyama’s 1956 manga and the subsequent 1963 anime adaptation is widely credited for launching the mecha phenomenon, standing as one of the first (if not the first) mecha franchise to gain mass appeal in Japan and around the world. The title refers to a giant robot in the possession of Shotaro Kaneda, the ten-year old son of Tetsujin’s inventor, who uses the robot to assist in his endeavors as a famous child detective.
Better known as Gigantor in the United States (with most of the character names rather comically westernized), Tetsujin 28-go is an early touchstone for anime writ large – the 1988 classic Akira borrows several character names from the series – that casts an even larger shadow over other mecha. Virtually every modern franchise was influenced by Tetsujin 28-go in some capacity, though there are several key differences between the progenitor and the films and series that would follow, most notably the fact that Kaneda does not sit inside the robot. He uses a remote control to pilot Tetsujin like a drone, and it would be years before another series would finally collapse the distance between the man and the machine.
Go Nagai’s 1972 manga Mazinger Z (and the 1972 anime of the same name) represents an important evolution for the mecha subgenre. That’s when the human characters started piloting the mechs from a cockpit inside the body of the robot (usually in the head), a technological innovation that has been mimicked in seemingly every mecha series in the decades since.
The premise is otherwise a fairly straightforward action setup. Mazinger Z is the name of a giant mech forged from a new element that can only be mined at Mt. Fuji. The robot’s inventor – Professor Juzo Kabuto – is murdered shortly after its completion, but he manages to pass the Mazinger Z on to his grandson Kouji, who takes over as the mech’s primary pilot. Kouji then uses the Mazinger Z to battle against the evil forces of Doctor Hell, a mad scientist who has discovered (and reanimated) the lost technology of an ancient civilization that utilized giant mechanical monsters as machines of war.
The title was changed to Tranzor Z when the anime came to the US in 1985, and while American networks only broadcast around two-thirds of the episodes, the series was aired in its entirety south of the border. That makes Mazinger Z particularly noteworthy in the present context. The anime adaptation was popular in del Toro’s native Mexico in the 1980s, and would likely have been a zeitgeist influence on Pacific Rim.
The title character of the landmark 1966 live-action Japanese TV show is technically an alien, but you wouldn’t know that based on his appearance. At a glance, the design of Ultraman looks mechanical rather than biological, with a head that looks like it belongs on a robot rather than a human being.
That’s why the show’s influence can’t be overlooked. Ultraman was one of the first major special effects series to break big in Japan, with a premise that will be familiar to fans of Pacific Rim. The show chronicles the exploits of a human Science Patrol as they defend the earth against a parade of invading alien monsters. Ultraman, meanwhile, is a benevolent alien being that fused with a member of the Science Patrol during an accident (Shin Hayata is the patrolman in question). Whenever the threats prove insurmountable, Hayata transforms into the gigantic Ultraman to continue the fight on behalf of humanity.
It’s not quite the same as stepping into a walking suit of armor, but it’s not too far removed from the basic mecha setup. Hayata is an everyday human being who becomes a passenger in a larger-than-life military vessel when the Earth needs someone to battle monstrous threats, and that narrative DNA would become a hallmark of the mecha genre.
Set in the near-future world of 1998 (OK, that part hasn’t aged well), the various Patlabor series of the late 80s and early 90s combine the technological sensibilities of the mecha genre with the story logic of a police procedural. In the show’s alternate timeline, Labors are large robots that are used to assist with construction, heavy lifting, and other industrial tasks. The Patrol Labors (the title is a mashup of the two words) are a squad of police Labors that monitor Labor activity and investigate any criminal activity involving the machines.
Though not as well known in North America, Guillermo del Toro has cited Patlabor as one of the major influences on Pacific Rim, especially as it relates to the workaday portrayal of mecha technology. Unlike most mecha, the Patrol Labors (and their pilots) were not trying to save the world. They were blue collar employees trying to complete everyday tasks with the same elbow grease as other menial laborers. They often had to maintain and repair their own machines, and that nuts-and-bolts approach to the genre grounded the series and del Toro’s subsequent film. Patlabor placed the emphasis on relatable human characters rather than fun-but-implausible robot fights, creating a modern aesthetic that belies its skewed timeline.
[nextpage title=”Neon Genesis Evangelion”]
Neon Genesis Evangelion
If we’re splitting hairs, Hideaki Anno’s Neon Genesis Evangelion was probably not a significant influence on Pacific Rim. Though Guillermo del Toro and screenwriter Travis Beacham both claim to be fans of the series, both have also stated that their core preproduction work was completed before either had watched the show. There are certainly similarities – both franchises tell stories about human-piloted mechs defending urban areas from colossal alien invaders – but it’s likely that those similarities are more coincidence than homage. If nothing else, this list proves that mechs punching giant monsters is hardly an original concept.
No, Neon Genesis Evangelion is on the list simply because so many people – most of them Neon Genesis fans – want to force the connection, and in fairness, it’s tough to deny its impact on the broader zeitgeist. Neon Genesis Evangelion was damn near omnipresent following its debut in the mid-90s, and it has now had more than two decades to spread its Angelic tendrils. Given its reach, it’s possible that a few traces of Evangelion seeped into del Toro’s film through osmosis.
That, however, is the most that can be said. Despite the fervent convictions of the rabid Evangelion fan base, other mecha shows do in fact exist, making this yet another instance of Evangelion fans overstating the significance of the (highly overrated) series.
Mobile Suit Gundam
If you grew up watching Cartoon Network (or YTV here in Canada), there’s a good chance you’ve stumbled across Gundam in at least some capacity. The original 1979 TV show has spawned dozens of movies and ongoing TV spinoffs, not to mention a DIY toy line that remains popular in hobby shops around the world, making the Gundam franchise nearly synonymous with the mecha genre. Its passive influence is everywhere, and Mobile Suit Gundam is where it started.
The series itself is set in a far off future where the rogue nation of Zeon has seceded from the Earth Federation and declared war on the rest of humanity, using powerful mobile suit tech to make up for their lack of numbers. The Earth Federation has developed a prototype weapon called the RX-78 Gundam to combat the threat, finding its pilot when a boy named Amuro Ray takes over during an emergency. Amuro happens to be the son of the Gundam’s designer, making him yet another legacy child in the storied history of mecha fiction.
Mobile Suit Gundam lacks a direct connection to Pacific Rim (the same will be true for every series from this point forward), but it has shaped the mecha subgenre for decades and is essential viewing for anyone interested in the form.
[nextpage title=”Super Dimension Force Macross”]
Super Dimension Force Macross
Like Tetsujin 28-go and Mazinger Z, 1982’s Super Dimension Force Macross was remixed and given a different name when it eventually made it to America. The iconic series was one of three shows spliced together to make 1985’s Robotech (the other two were Super Dimension Cavalry Southern Cross and Genesis Climber Mospeada), which papered over the gaps in the three unrelated anime series through the magic of editing and revised dialogue.
Super Dimension Force Macross is the best remembered of the three, which is why it makes the list today. In the show, the Macross is a city-sized space fortress built from the reverse-engineered remains of an alien ship that crash-landed on Earth in 1999. Things go awry when a race of aliens called the Zentradi shows up at the launch, triggering the Macross’s auto-defenses and lighting the fuse on an intergalactic war that would last for 36 episodes (Robotech tacked on two more shows to boost the episode count for American syndication).
Though the series is named for the titular space fortress, Macross is also well known for the original design of its mecha. The humans fight their space battles using transforming jet-mechs known as VF-1 Valkyries (VF stands for variable fighter) that, like the Macross, was reverse-engineered from alien technology. With an operatic aesthetic that leaned heavy on romance, Super Dimension Force Macross stands alongside Mobile Suit Gundam as a formative series that would foreshadow the future of mecha fiction.
Gundam Build Fighters
Critics have long argued that children’s TV shows are little more than glorified toy commercials, and that accusation does have an element of truth. After all, Transformers was created to move merchandise. History is littered with abandoned Saturday morning TV shows whose action figures failed to strike a chord with children.
Well, 2013’s Gundam Build Fighters makes the marketing in American shows look subtle by comparison. A meta offshoot of the Gundam franchise, Gundam Build Fighters eschews the usual sci-fi setup and is instead set in the real world. There are no mechs. The fate of the universe is not hanging in the balance. Rather, Gundam Build Fighters is a show about the kids who collect and build model Gundam toys (called Gunpla), and then use those Gunpla to battle other kids in Gunpla Battle tournaments (the end result is comparable to Pokemon). Needless to say, all of the Gunpla featured in the show are also available on store shelves. Gundam Build Fighters is an entire anime devoted to Gundam fandom that conveniently tells you exactly what you should buy if you want to display that fandom.
Though insignificant when compared to the rest of the list, Gundam Build Fighters is an absurd exercise in self-promotion, inventing a universe in which Mobile Suit Gundam became a national sport to amplify the legacy of the show. At the same time, the mere existence of such a masturbatory spinoff speaks to the longevity of the franchise. You might not want to watch this series in its entirety, but Gundam Build Fighters is an amusing novelty that reflects the allure of mecha toys amongst the civilian population.
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