Three approaches in designing a mecha

The three approaches to mecha design this blog uses is based on their role and function within fiction rather than in-fiction. The first archetype is the Protagonist, a mecha that functions or acts like any human character and is treated as such within the narrative.

The Protagonist mecha as a character serves an integral role within the narrative. Initially they may seem like simple machines, like the eponymous Mazinger Z, yet they exhibit clear-cut human characteristics in actions and behaviour. Mazinger Z sunbathing in the original series Mazinger Z-series is this exact human-like behaviour the mechas are written with.

Here, the symbolic action of shaking hands is not represent the pilots themselves per se, but the relationship and role of the mechas

These type of mecha can also be explicit characters unto themselves, as it is with the The Transformers and Brave-series. These mecha are only separated from their human co-characters is their nature as giant mechanical beings. In cases like Beast Wars, there is no distinction between characters as such, all of them simply are the characters, but share the main characteristics of being human equivalent in different form.

The Protagonist has a unique role within the story. Not necessarily the main protagonist in itself, often sharing that role with another human character or another mecha. The same categories of heroes and villains apply to these as much as they apply to human characters.

In visual design, Protagonists more often than not share a humanoid body with strikingly human face. Heroman, by all intentions, shared all the previously mentioned points; a human-shaped mecha with human face and sits in a prominent role within the fiction as one of the main characters next to the main human protagonist.

American made in Japan

However, there is extremely wide variety of Protagonist mechas which toy with the concepts and ways to realise the main role. GaoGaigar, for example, in itself has no characters outside as it is an extension of Guy Shishioh; it less piloted as it is a giant piece of armour for Guy.

It must be mentioned that most Protagonist mechas are found in media aimed at younger audiences with healthy amounts of toys, and tend to have connections to the Super Robot side of mecha. This is not to degrade from the fiction itself, only an observation.

Naturally, the opposite of human-like characters would be the lack of humanity, as it tends to be the with the second archetype, the Machines.

The utilitarian approach to mecha design has always been there, though it gained most of its popularity in the 1980’s. While Mobile Suit Gundam certainly paved the way for Real Robot as a sub-genre, shows like Armored Trooper Votoms and FLAG have taken the concept to its more natural direction due to lack of needing to sell toys as much.

FLAG‘s HAVWC, High Agility Versatile Weapon Carrier, is equipment.

Unlike with the Protagonists, a Machine has no nature to speak of. To make a blunt comparison, they are toasters. Their use is largely utilitarian. The form is made and designed for a purpose first and foremost, following the necessities over flavour.

The mechanical design is far more industrial as opposed to organic contours, than anything else among the Machines. Take Heroman above for an example. Most of its shapes are round to further accommodate its humanoid visual. While at a first glace HAVWC would fit this as well, its shapes are equivalent that of a car, lines made to increase aerodynamics. Heroman is not exactly an aerodynamic character, and its not supposed to. That is a tertiary concern at best. In order for it to be more aerodynamic in its forward position, it would require some sort of wind-breaking apparatus around its chest to lessen drag.

However, FLAG is an example of the more more adhered end, similar to Metal Skin Panic MADOX-01, which has been described as equivalent of mechanical pornography due to its attention detailed opening.

The Machine comes in many varieties, all of which share multiple characteristics. Mass production is one, where the mecha can be or is mass produced. Scopedogs are a dime in a dozen in Votoms and are easily replaceable. Round Vernian Vifam is another example of a show, where mechas are tools, and the cast goes through numerous units during the course of the show.

Valkyries from Macross, despite often gaining a prominent role as a single unit or a customised main character vehicle, are all from a production line of similar units. While later entries in the series have made an effort to give most characters their own unique snowflake Valkyrie, in the end all of them are more or less faceless machines that showcase no human characteristics, outside the genre-defining four limbed humanoid shape.

Specialist roles are not exactly uncommon among Machines. Full Metal Panic!’s Arm Slaves, while mostly consisting of non-unique units, the units used by the protagonist Sousuke Sagara deviate from this mould in form of Lambda Driver, which allows the pilot to turn their willpower into physical force. This specialist position, be it due to extra equipment, prototype role or simply because the mecha is a protagonist’s unit, is a common trope. This position does not change them into Protagonists per se, unless human characteristics are applied. It is not uncommon for people, fictional or not, humanise their devices to a large degree and treat them accordingly.

Vehicles technically fulfill this spot,

However, it’s not uncommon to see the the aforementioned archetypes mixed either.

The Hybrid approach takes characteristics from both sides of the fence in a happy mid-ground. Perhaps the most well-known examples of this would be the Evangelion units of Neon Genesis Evangelion. While treated as equipment and something that can be mass-produced, each EVA-unit exhibits overt human-like characteristics from in-universe and in their role. EVA-01 is effectively one of the main characters while still serving the role of a toaster. Its design goes for utilitarian, but only in terms how the EVA-unit itself allows this in-fiction. The base design idea was, after all, a monster barely controlled by humanity.

A some sort of purple mom bot

Another method to give mecha character is by keeping the core mechanics itself intact in terms of its role though the use of Artificial Intelligence. Jehuty from Konami’s Zone of the Enders series of games is exactly this.

Jehuty in itself has no conscience or awareness within fiction, no character to speak of. Its actions and behaviour are determined by its pilot and support AI, A.D.A. In principle, A.D.A. could be embed into whatever Orbital Frame would support the addition.

These three approaches are more or less starting points, more or less. While at first it may seem arbitrary to make a category of three, one of which is effectively just combining the first two, they serve their role in setting the proper mindset for design work. That is, the nature of the mecha rather than the end-visual the designer ends up making. That is up to the designer’s own style and research into the subject materials.

For further reading on expanded subjects, such as combiners, basic design tips, controls and similar, please visit the Robot Related Materials section.

Old metal will always be replaced with something new

Recently a question was thrown out there; why isn’t the giant robot genre more popular in the Western markets? The answer to this is both simple and complex, depending how deep you want to go, but also reflects the overall way of things when it comes to popular things in pretty much anything in any given era.

To use the giant robot genre as an example of this, almost every body of work is seen as science fiction. While science fiction itself has always been largely popular, the emphasize on giant robots, or mecha if you want to use just one word, has few stigmas to it that it simply can’t escape due to how world works. Using the Transformers as an example is a very straightforward one; despite it being a franchise that has rather sophisticated stories to it, ever since its inception it has been vehicle to advertise the toys and that dictated to what audience in what way those stories would be told. The genre has been vastly catered to children across in its modern form since the 1960’s, with each show in Japan getting slew of toys. This of course has always reflected back to the US with each of its localised show. Johnny Sokko and his Flying Robot, Gigantor, and even Astroboy all were localised shows that were hits, but were children’s television. For adults (and for the whole family really) you had Star Trek and the Twilight Zone, shows that were more than just about robots beating each other or aliens, and Twilight Zone offering other sort of stories to boot.

There is a stereotype of Japan being a nation of technological marvels, and there was a time when it seemed to be absolutely true. The industrial growth Japan experienced after the World War II, and the economy bubble it experienced in the 1980’s, supported the admiration of technology. Cold War pushed technological advanced in both West and East, and man travelling to the stars had become an evident thing. There was a moment in history when science fiction flourished both in US and Japan, which lead the 1980’s to have more adult sort of stories concerning giant robots with the adults who had grown up with Ultraman and Mazinger Z. Similarly how we have people doing things like Pacific Rim with the people who grew up with Voltron, Robotech and Star Saber. Robotech were the first proper taste of 1980’s robot anime in the US, which would lead way to further ventured, and without it things like Gundam Wing would not have seen on US television. Europe was largely a different beast, Spain enjoying Mazinger Z, others enjoying the likes of Grendizer in form of Goldorak, and we Nordics were stuck with Balatak and Starzinger. UK always had its own thing going on and influencing its cultural scheme with Stingray, Thunderbirds and the like, which also were rather popular things in Japan. Hell, if you check UFO’s opening and compare it to how Evangelion’s opening was cut, you’ll see a lot of similarities.


 UFO is pretty damn good show, you should watch it

With the 1990’s rolling in Transformers had died out and would see a sequel with Beast Wars in 1996, but it wouldn’t be similar cultural impactor despite it being rather good show and how the toys drove toy engineering and design forwards. The Brave series continued as its spiritual successor, but in the West we saw none of it at the time. Evangelion, despite how much people love to hate it, came around the right time to make one last impact on global cultural consciousness, and when giant robots were to become passé.

The question why giant robots are not popular in the West can be answered simply with Times change. The genre has not innovated itself as visibly as since Evangelion, and as such has served in the role of being the last of mecha shows. Sure, there has been slew of revivals, competitors and imitators, yet none of them have done anything new. Living robots, robots that transform, robots that combine, robots than combine with humans, humans that are robots, robots that aren’t robots at all and so, it all has been done and the storytelling regarding them has not advanced. The best examples of mecha as a genre have always been about the people, but they fall in the same category as any other niche genre within its mother genre by being very specific in their contents. Something like Muv-Luv might’ve been a huge success in the 1980’s or even in the early 1990’s, but in 2000’s and 2010’s its story doesn’t carry have any punch behind it. The same applies to a lot of other franchises, and while you see the occasional show that becomes very popular for a time and may leave catchphrases floating around, like Gurren Lagann did, they’re still in the same old mould.

The people who grow up with mecha, even in the 1990’s, have grown old and so has the genre. It doesn’t attract new blood from the young ones, because there are other, better things out there. Just like Pokémon and Pikachu have become a thing of the adults and has been replaced Yo-Kai Watch and Jibanyan in Japan, these newfangled things have taken mechas spot in the niche spotlight. This is reflected in the West as well, with Edge of Tomorrow enjoying better ratings than Pacific Rim. Pacific Rim itself showscases all the elements a hardcore fan of monster smash flicks wants to see, and almost everything a general audience thinks are petty and childish. Why Tranformers movies have seen the success they’ve had is both because of nostalgia and that they hit that certain cultural spark, and are largely unapologetic about what they are.

The few old franchises that still kick around in the West are for children only. Hasbro still pushes a lot of Transformers toys out, accompanied by cartoons and comics, while Japan has mostly chosen to cater the ever older otaku audience with Schwarzesmarken, Macross sequels, Valvrave and the like. It doesn’t help that outside Africa, Middle-East and certain parts of Asia birthrates have been dropping, significantly so in Japan, which means less quality children’s robot shows outside the few that have been running for an eternity and will most likely run at least to the end of this decade.

It doesn’t help that the current cultural climate also takes technology at its face value. We lived in a time when every single technological leap made a difference in our lives, but nowadays it seems even the greatest findings, like the recent news about over 1200 newly discovered planets that could sustain life, goes to largely deaf ears. Space travel is mundane. Even the miracle machine in your pocket is mundane, everyday item. No, not your vibrator, your smart phone. There is no more marvel in a giant walking robot when Iron Man’s latest suit in Civil War makes them look absolutely archaic? How can Macross hope to impress with its designs when it still uses the same basic shapes and concepts since its inception? Of course Macross was never about the robots first and foremost, yet that’s the first things you’re always shown, the first things that pop to you.

Children wish to stand apart from their parents, each generation does. Admiring technology, and by extension, the fiction using technology to a miraculous degrees, is a thing of older generations. When you have a thing that people have tired of and regard it something worn out, you begin to cater something new, something colourful (or in case of Apple, something black and white) and something that would replace the old. However, as things cycle, we may arrive in an era where things like space travel is of interest again, and we may relive a sorts of new renaissance of giant robots in fiction, but I doubt it’ll happen in my life time.

As a sidenote, if you’re a âge fan, you should head to kiminozo.life and check out Evan’s Kimi ga Nozomu Eien Drama Theatre Vol.3 translation. It’s a good piece.