Describing a mecha as boxy might be a good start when describing some robot’s looks. After all, famous ‘bots like Optimus Prime and RX-78-2 Gundam have a body build that’s mostly built on boxes. Boxy does not mean that the body parts build is made of square shapes, but sometimes on the overall silhouette of the mecha. However, boxiness itself doesn’t describe the design direction of the mecha, just the shapes of it.
To go into crunchy detail, design does not only mean visual flavour or how something looks. Design has to take use and intention into account. Otherwise you’re ending up with sculptures. Mecha, by vastly large degree, is designed in and out of universe to serve a certain role and its outer appearance has to reflect this. As such, a boxy design doesn’t really describe the design of the mecha but rather the geometry of it. The term works in everyday use where we don’t give a damn about the finer detail, but once we start to talk about design, the term really needs to be thrown out.
Traditionally boxy mecha don’t exist outside Super Sentai anymore, as broken geometry has become a standard all around. Even when you could have a square geometry, it’s more often than not broken down by additional angles, making e.g. legs into octagon. Granted, as mentioned, it’s more about the silhouette, and octagonal design doesn’t really show in there. Dancouga is a good example that broke down the whole box like structure and looks stocky instead.
The whole thing about boxiness referring to the silhouette starts to break down when we remember that cylinders look like boxes in silhouettes too. For example, we know for a fact that Mazinger Z has cylindrical body parts with curved surface, but the only thing we see in a silhouette is the curve. Without more info, we could assume that the parts are boxy with a curved surface.
Because of this boxiness is more or less a silent agreement among people. It’s inaccuracy is ignored in favour of common grounds we can use across the board. The first examples of Optimus Prime and Gundam as an example of boxiness could be seen as base comparison point, however I do feel that I need to drag more Super Sentai into this discussion.
Boxiness as its understood is more often than not a result of toy manufacturing. If you look at the Zyuohger‘s mecha, they are epitome of box design by their very core, but that’s their intended design, a valid exception. Square shapes are easy and cheaper to produce en masse than complex shapes. They are also easy to pack, meaning down the line the closer the overall silhouette is to a square, the less material goes into the package and its production. The same applies to basic cylinders, and while those demand slightly more expensive production, producing those offers similar versatility.
To split hairs, there are only very few number of mecha that can truly be called boxy, and most of them come from children’s toys. We have thousands of designs with infinitely complex outlooks that wouldn’t work for jack shit in real life, and then we have Transformers, Brave-series and Super Sentai mechanical designs that aim to be robust, sturdy and cheap. No, not in-universe, but in the kids’ hands.
An easy way to see this would be to assume that these square-built mechas are only for children, and that the more mature a show is, the more complex the used geometry. This, of course, is a stupid assumption. A tank is essentially a box on tracks with some surface variation, and the most basic design for a car is a box on four wheels. As you can see from Daidenjin above, a boxy design can be pleasing to the eye.
With time, even children’s toys have abandoned certain kind of boxy silhouette, not because the designers feel that they couldn’t do anything new with it (in reality, using cubes or boxes to build a mecha design can yield incredibly complex designs that break the whole concept down) but rather because production capabilities have evolved to a whole new level. Back when moulds had to be largely produced by hand based on prototypes, nowadays we can use a CNC machine to mill out necessary prototype and their moulds. Because of that, the simple time spend on the production has been cut, not to speak of the skill needed.
So, what terms to use instead of boxy, even if it has more or less agreed base point? This is the very reason I’ve discussed different approaches and styles. While describing something boxy gives you a certain, immediate idea, it lacks everything else in flavour. If you describe a mecha as a futuristic knight, everybody’s more or less on the same page. The terms boxy and cylindrical come in handy is here as prefixes.
This post is more or less meant to give something to think about rather than seriously argue for something. I agree that boxiness or cylindrical are good for generic descriptions, yet as I’ve said many times, they simply lack in everything else but describing the base geometry, which doesn’t say much without other additional descriptions. They’re things we can’t escape because they just work, even when they’re really not saying much.
We should also remember that boxiness doesn’t mean just square looking design. You can have shapes within shapes, that simply create a box. It may not be a square box, but a box nevertheless.