I have to admit that I have personally grown tired of the term mecha. It’s way too broad and really encompasses anything mechanical. It’s an imprecise and unpractical term if you know what you’re talking about. Robot animation on the other hand is more precise, and we can be more precise with additional terms to this, like Human Robot animation (Tetsuwan Atom) or Giant Robot animation (Mazinger Z) and so forth. Western fandom of course uses the mecha-term simply to note that the show is about some sort of mechanical robots. Then again, it seems that people are using that particular term as a sort of loophole to include bunch of series that have no giant robots to speak of, vetoing to the Japanese use of the word… which then really is anything mechanical. However, I do admit that I use mecha very freely in its western context, but for the sake of this post I’ll have to narrow it down to giant robot. Perhaps giant robot sounds too childish to some.
So, to be exact, I’ll be going over a bit more about giant robot animation designs this time. We’re going to check how giant robots changed at certain point from all-around cartoon characters to more industrial thing.
At some point in the 70’s there was a paradigm shift in giant robot animation, where the creators of these series began stepping away from the older style to a new, more modern direction. This paradigm shift introduced us industrial design in robot animation and comics, which has led to an increased numbers of gimmicks and details in every robot produced since then. The exact moment where this changed happened isn’t really easy to pin down, but I’d guess Combattler V is one of the first giant robots that was more a complete machine than a cartoon character.
We can assume that this shift was mostly due to the need of marketing robot toys to the children. Overall it’s much easier to overdesign something than keep it clean and simple. Mazinger Z is a notable example, and there’s a reason robots like Ga-Keen and Gouwapper 5 Goudam was forgotten.
Toy design is a branch of industrial design, so it’s not really anything special to note that when toy companies notices how well Mazinger and Getter Robo toys were selling, they wanted in. Thus, the amount of detail and attention on how the giant robots would and should function increased, and continued to increase further during the next few decades. Incidentally, this also lead into a certain level of isolation, where giant robo animation got its own stigma within the general fandom where every design began looking the same. For example, any design that followed the “real robot” principles laid down by Gundam looks different only because of its added details. This is actually rather large problem, as it just creates a large gray mass of robots where everything looks more or less the same without notable differences, which then translates into lack of interest from the general public who has more money than the core group.
Perhaps this is one of the reasons why Gurren Lagann became a sort of phenomena. Looking back at the show, it follows more in the lines of cartoony robots rather than what its age usually produced. It doesn’t stress the viewer as much to see a cartoony robot as it does to see a highly detailed machine hulking on the screen. The best example of this would be the live-action Transformers movies. To take a more objective approach to those, they really are some damn fine designs. The amount of attention to the detailing and how the Transformers move is astonishing and has no rivals. By all means this is the highest peak the giant robot design has achieved, but also shows the problem that this isn’t what the audience wants. They’re too detailed, there’s too much too see and keep track of most of the time. Personally, I have no difficulties on following them on-screen, but I recognize the problem. It’s the complete opposite to what Mazinger Z is, where all the shapes and details are rather simple outside the head, which is both the most important aspect of the design and the most difficult to get down just right. Perhaps this is where the super/real robot thing comes into play, as most “super robot” shows are more cartoony than those we call realistic. However, there’s a thin line here, and I still stand by the idea that super/real difference can only be done in Super Robot Wars games and within the show itself.
Cartoon/industrial is a troubling dilemma. On the other hand the older audience wishes to see more detailed robots both on screen and in model form. Then again, making too much details will make the animation harder, even if it’s through 3D modelling and producing more detailed toys will cost more. Then again dropping the detail level lowers the cost of both animation and production, but it also might not sell nearly as well. In addition, the older audience might not like more simplified designs, so the whole thing may change the target audience. Thus, it’s more important to know your target audience and design accordingly.
Then again, we have Mazinger Z, which has broken pretty much all barriers and could and should be enjoyed by all ages. This is another problem in addition to cartoon/industrial, where the designer is required to juggle between the themes and tone of the series the robot is meant to be in. This is where cartoony robots shine much more than highly detailed ones, as they can be pretty much anything when portrayed just right. Industrialised designs often start acting funny and strange, and even change proportions to add to the comedy, thus breaking the strict design they’re in. Mazinger Z can be very lighthearted, just like the original series was and it can be a full-out drama like Shin Mazinger Chapter Z is. Could Gundam be a comedy with it’s machines? No, it really couldn’t. All the comedy would come from the human characters. SD Gundam is Gundam with intentional design choices to change the show to make it a complete comedy. For Mazinger Z such changes are unnecessary as the design already allowed the design to be used in comedy.
While Combattler V can be counted where the industrial design took hold of the design where the giant robot genre would go with its designs, and Macross then stepped up the game even further with VF-1 Valkyrie. The reason to this is that often the toy of the robot was rather different than in the show if it had a transformation gimmick. If the transformation was simple, then it could be replicated in the toy, but for its time Valkyrie’s transformation scheme was complex. On top of that, the transformation was completely replicated in the toy. However, this also meant that Valkyrie’s design wasn’t a cartoon character in any form anymore, but an industrial design. After Macross, almost every giant robot afterwards was industrially designed, thus enforcing certain direction there shows went. There are high number of exceptions where the marriage of cartoon and industrial design is mixed very well together, like Xabungle, but to an extent very few series have been able to survive to this day.
We can also question the need of cartoony robot design nowadays. Animation has changed drastically since Tetsuwan Atom and Tetsujin-28, but even then we need to ask why haven’t these iconic designs been dethroned? Why is that there’s a statue of the original Tetsujin-28 rather than its FX version? I’m not the best person to give an answer to this, as I am not either Japanese or lived long enough to see Tetsujin’s evolution since its birth to the current day.
What Japanese animation (and my Little Pony) has proved that adult people are going to value a well-made children’s cartoon even thou they’re not in the target group. Overall, wouldn’t it be for the best to create designs that would appeal to all? Well, this is impossible to do. However, it would be for the best to balance between all possible target audiences within one design, and do more targeted design and series only occasionally. This is why a lot of giant robot show have been failing; it’s not that there’s audience to be grasped, but because these shows keep cannibalizing the exact same audience over and over. This isn’t the design fault really, but the whole genre’s overall. If the giant robot genre would be able become more broader once more, then things could look more bloomy. However, seeing how Japan’s birthrate’s are down, giant robot genre is in larger trouble than most.
To design a cartoon character is actually very difficult. Designing a robot through industrial approach really isn’t. Industrial design is hard only when you’re not really accustomed to draw within what I call function set-rules, which at its core is function before form, but after than all that follows in that design is to compensate the function with the form. Cartoon characters do not really need to follow this, because they exist in the rules of the cartoon world.
Personally I think that modern comics and cartoon overall have gone far too much into the realm of realism in many ways both in stories and how they look. Lately I have found myself enjoying older comics simply due to their appearance as opposed of modern look. The logic also functions a bit differently as well, and even the most serious stories manage to maintain their comic-like approach.
There’s something I often hear; the modern designs are more prettier and detailed, they’re more pleasing to look at. This is due to the paradigm shift, and how it has integrated itself to the general mind. Giant robots are not thought nor treated as characters in their respected series, but just another machine. Not to say that this is a bad thing, but it has made the genre far too homogeneous, where all machines are machines. In Gargantia on the Verdurous Planet, the main robot of the show, Machine Caliber Chamber, is more or less a character and is unique to all others in the series, but the machine itself is still industrially designed. There has been other interesting designs for some time now, but nothing what we could call new. I hope that during the next five years we will have a new breakthrough series that will not only bring in something new but also would slowly give way to a new paradigm that we’re sorely needing.