Castles of Iron: The Origins of Mecha

Can you hear it?

This voice of mine was sucked emptily into darkness

If the world has meaning to it,

Then these kinds of feelings aren’t futile

Sorairo DaysShoko Nakagawa

Mecha, just word alone causes over half of anime fandom to sigh. On average, the regular anime fan only remains a fan for a maximum of two years (as per Helen McCarthy). Most are of high-school age, perhaps collage, and ‘mature out’ of the fandom not long after that. So it’s no surprise when you ask the average anime fan what their favorite mehca manime anime series is, most reply with ‘Gurren Lagann‘. It finished its run on Toonami last month, the equivalent of being entered into the hall of fame. Just after Code Geass, it’s listed as the top mecha series on My Anime List, ranking 24th of the top anime. Making it a popularity contest, that score rises to be the 17th most popular anime on MAL, more popular than its predecessor, Evangelion. But the arrival of the mecha messiah didn’t spring out of nowhere…

July 1956; In the street, he roars, on the night highway, he roars, da-da-da-da-daan, the bullets come flying ba-ba-ba-ba-baan, things explode, with a whoosh he flies, it’s Tetsujin 28-gou! Young Shotaro Kaneda first appeared in the pages of Shonen Magazine nearly 60 years ago and in many ways has never left. 97 chapters, a short stay by today’s standards, and Testujin was finished. In honor of  Mitsuteru Yokoyama who passed away in 2004, all twelve collected tankobon are rereleased every ten years. When Shotaro and his giant robot companion reached the television screen, those abroad too loved them, but by the name of Gaigantor. Like Tezuka’s Astro Boy, Testujin is more than a children’s show, but a national icon, and the first giant robot. And the legend lives on.

Testujin 28

Hiroyuki Imaishi – some might say he’s here to save anime, others turn their nose up at such lowbrow entertainment. He’s the closest thing anime has to Quentin Tarantino, for better or for worse. That aside, Gurren Lagann was Imaishi’s break-out hit. If one where to give the reader’s digest version of Gurren Lagann, it could be summed into two key phrases: ‘Row row, fight the powa‘ and ‘Believe in me who believes in you!‘ – a man’s burning soul. And it caught on.

The wonderful thing about an homage is that it’s much like an iceberg. With icebergs, only the crown can be seen by those who don’t realize its depth, but unlike an iceberg, ships may pass safely over, none the wiser. That might perfectly describe Gurren Lagann. Previous GAINAX hits, to the works of legendary animator Yoshinori Kanada, found harmonious balance in the spiral of homage, alongside a larger influence, an iceberg – Getter Robo.

hiroyuki imaishi getter robo

CHANGE GETTER ONE, SWITCH ON!!! A youthful life blazes bright red; Getter Spark high in the sky; See the combination, it’s Getter Robo! Tetsujin might be the first giant robot, but Getter Robo was the first to showcase the now staple gattai. Getter 1: Eagle, balanced and for aerial combat, Getter 2: Jaguar, proficient in speed and ground-based combat, and finally, Getter 3: Bear, focused on strength and marine combat – three color-coded jets, depending on their order, combined to form one of these three fighting machines.

While Testujin was created as a manga first and made into an anime years later, Ken Ishikawa, the series creator, took a different approach. Launching the series and the manga simultaneously, Getter Robo was a phenomenon. You could tune in weekly to see the plans of the dastardly Dinosaur Empire foiled, as well as read the hyper violent rendition in the pages of Weekly Shonen Sunday. Also prominently different was the inclusion of Getter Rays, author’s short hand for the flaming hot pathos mecha pilots are now required to wield. So unruly and defiant where these Getter Rays that in order to bend them to one’s will (and subsequently pilot the mecha successfully) the very fabric of one’s being must be just as defiant and unruly, even if masked by a calm exterior. We haven’t heard from Getter Robo since the likes of 2004’s New Getter Robo, but rest assured, we haven’t heard the last gattai

gurren lagann

‘Let your drill pierce the heavens!’ Borrowing the drill motif from Getter, Kamina calls Simon to greater heights. Combining Gurren and Lagann, the two robots stolen from the surface beast-men, they obtain power beyond their own. In the second half of the series, the Dai-Gurrendan cross thresholds previously thought to never exist, leading to a battle for the very existence of the universe itself. Gurren Lagann is in may ways the ultimate incarnation of Joseph Capmbell’s Hero’s Journey. But one part of of the Hero’s Journey sticks out in particular, Refusal of the Call. At a certain point in the series, Simon refuses to carry on anymore a.k.a. whiney-mech-pilot-syndrome; some might view it as a reference to past GAINAX Evangelion, but this is not the case.

gundam 0079

Grief, trembling grief
That is a song of parting
Even the tired bones burn away
Even the dampened flesh returns to dust

Ai Senshi – Gundam: Soldiers of Sorrow

If giant robots were as powerful as they’re made out to be, surely one can imagine their capability on the battlefield. However, in a world where conflicts are fought with mobile suits, not every pilot is a Saturday-morning paragon. But when less than perfect people make less than perfect decisions, they suffer and cause others to suffer in turn. Enter Yoshiyuki Tomino‘s Mobile Suit Gundam.

Aumo Ray was 15 when he first piloted the RX-78-2, an age akin to Koji Kabuto, Ryoma Nagare, and even Simon. After losing his home, he is quickly drafted into the military to fight against the Principality of Zeon. As he becomes a more capable pilot with the Gundam, so too is he relied upon to carry his comrades safely through battle. However, this changes in episode nine; Amuro simply refuses to pilot. This leads to the famous (infamous?) Bright slap, but otherwise is the first instance of a pilot refusing to jump inside the giant robot. Evangelion is well known for this, but in fact used the template set up by Gundam.


It’s also worth mentioning that it was Gundam that defined the real-robot genre, a line Macross, Votoms, and Patlabor would follow. Despite that monumental achievement, it is the visual cue above I want to focus on. From that first battle in Side 7, all the way up to the Giga Drill Breaker, the scene of a crouching mobile suit, explosion in the back ground, as been another staple Gundam has contributed. Harkening back to the simultaneous strikes samurai would use to end a battle, its imagery is synonymous with power and a cool sort of deadliness that only a New Type (or someone of similar caliber) can achieve.

Then there is the father of all super robots. I can go no further without mentioning it, for it is upon it shoulders lie all mecha. It alone holds the power to be a god or a devil, the black, iron castle soaring in the sky, super robot, Mazinger Z! It is the creation Go Nagai is best known for, and for good reason; it’s the first robot to have a pilot. The central concept of a man entering a giant robot was something lacking from Mazinger‘s predecessor, Testujin-28. In those early days, Shotaro would stand on the sidelines, dictating the movements of the iron giant from afar via a giant remote control, but come Mazinger and no more.

maziner manga

‘PILDER, ON!’ Koji Kabuto would yell, his motorcycle transforming mid jump to become a psuedo helicopter, docking atop Mazinger. From there he was the most powerful man in the world, ready to fight the evil forces of Dr. Hell (not a doctor I would let work on me). Every week, he’d melt, rust, or smash his opponents with his Rocket Punch. And likewise every week you could buy the new toy you’d just seen. Mazinger didn’t just start the 70’s boom of robot anime, it was the boom.

But perhaps an overlooked aspect is the humanization these robots where. Koji would laugh, curse and shake his fist, and the robot did the same. It was part of the cast, a character, almost like a friend. Sayaka’s Aphrodite A, a rare instance of a female robot, was the first of it’s kinda likewise. Mazinger even falls in love one episode. Man or machine, we only had one hero, in many ways the two where one. But Mazinger did not gain the power to be a god without first escaping from the devil.devilman

In the dark who is that, who is that, who is that? There he is the Devil, Devilman, Devilman! 1972, Go Nagi was seeking to tell a truly horrifying tale, where the deeds of humans and demons where indistinguishable, where evil was good and good was evil, and the light didn’t always come from heaven. Recycling much of his previous project Mao Dante, Nagai created Devilman. Just like his previous work, Harechi Gakuen, Devilman was being shut down by PTA groups; the frustration was building in Nagai, and his mind turned towards other projects. He needed to blow off steam. Always wanting to create a story with a giant robot, Nagi was struck by the right inspiration when caught in a traffic jam. He thought of how awesome it would be to have a giant robot walk over the cars, and thus Mazinger was born. That same year, the manga titled Mazinger Z was published in Weekly Shonen Jump; the same anthology that now holds One Piece and Bleach. Were it not for the hero of justice, Devilman, there’s no telling what would could have happened.

Come back to now. A young boy goes from living underground to savior of his lovedones, friends, and the rest of mankind. All of it harkens back; the drills, the combining, the unbridled willpower, the refusal to pilot, even the explosions – it all harkens back. This does nothing to rob Gurren Lagann of it’s glory or achievement, quite the contrary, it enriches it. All this time we’ve been looking for a way to change, but the more things change, the more the stay the same.”Can you hear it? This voice of mine was sucked emptily into the darkness; If the world has meaning to it, Then these feelings aren’t futile.” The voice is that of each show’s predecessors, asking if they faded from our memory. I answer back saying:

‘Believe in me who believes in you.’

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