Mankind has always had a fascination with technology, one that is expressed in a plethora of mediums, from artificial intelligence to space travel, and that melding of organic and synthetic is usually the basis for a number of highly popular stories and franchises that we are familiar with now.
History of Super-Sized Mechs
It’s no question that Japan is the pop-culture superpower of mechanized giant robots. Its media dates back to 1956 with the release of Tetsujin 28-go, which follows a boy detective who uses his father’s invention, a hefty blue robot, to solve crime and bring justice to the world. This was the first instance of man and robot working together as a team.
The next was a melding of man and machine rather than a coexistence: Mazinger Z by Go Nagai. It didn’t come out until 1972, but this manga, that was later developed into an anime, was the first of many to pair the two as one entity. The story follows orphan Koji Kabuto that happens upon Mazinger Z that is lying dormant within his grandfather’s old laboratory. Koji flies a small space craft that attaches to the head of the robot and he controls it through the use of voice commands.
This was quite popular at the time, with brightly colored plating and a fun interstellar story, and it inspired one of the greatest large robot franchises today.
Gundam and Real Robot
Released seven years after Nagai’s work, Yoshiyuki Tomino decided to drift from the stand-alone episode format of Mazinger Z and create Mobile Suit Gundam in 1979. Gundam was something completely different. While it still had the enormous humanoid forms of metal, the premise was grittier and more realistic. The conflict arrived, not from another planet, but from Earth. The series – and the following franchise – pitted different factions of human beings against one another, and the mechanical robots became less of an otherworldly being and tool, and more of a man-made weapon used in place of tanks and missiles. It was a fusion of man and technology, one that we continue to see, both in robotic pop culture and other genres, and a narrative based more on the characters and politics of the world than the episodic nature of the previous mecha anime.
Gundam brought a complexity that graduated the genre into something outside of weekly baddie-of-the-day entertainment, and thus creating a franchise that includes dozens of series, including the popular Gundam Wing, which popularized the series here in America when it appeared on Adult Swim’s Toonami.
Gundam started the diversion of the culture, too. There are two different kinds of giant robot narratives called real robot and super robot. Real robot is more science-fiction based. The robotics are usually weapons and are more realistic in their portrayal and origin. Gundam is considered part of the “real robot” subgenre.
This subculture of the robotic science fiction is a mix between fantasy and science fiction. It’s actually very close to superhero stories. The protagonist, usually someone controlling the robot or that is partners with a sentient robot, battles out-of-this-world (literally) enemies that would squash the Earth under its equally large sized boot or claw or paw.
The Transformers franchise would be considered in this genre, the Autobots and Decepticons transforming from the anthropomorphic to vehicle forms to blend in on our planet. Originally from Japan by toy company Takara in 1975 under the names Diaclone and Microman, Hasbro bought the rights to certain transforming toys and rebranded them here in North America in 1984 as the toys we know now.
This subgenre of the mecha (short for mechanical) genre of science fiction is home to a number of more familiar franchises and films here in America. The animated film The Iron Giant (1999) would be in this category, following a preteen boy after he discovers the hulking form of Vin Diesel’s voiced robot that descended from outer space into the forest of an unsuspecting small town. And more recently, we have Guillermo Del Toro’s Pacific Rim in 2013 that actually places the pilots inside of the robot and fights an alien species that had emerged from the Pacific Ocean.
Actual Giant Robots
Not only do large fighting machines give storytellers to imagine worlds in which humans must coexist and thrive in an environment that needs the use of such weapons, but more simply, everyone likes giants robots fighting other giant things, especially other robots. The action associated with the genre of giant robots still persists—because why wouldn’t it? It’s awesome to see big things beating up on stuff. We like big explosions. Godzilla is still a household name because of that certainty.
Big robots are so beloved that the far-off dream when we watched shows like Transformers and Gundam of having one of our own as kids is starting to materialize. Odaiba is now home to a life-size model that sports a few flashy lights and movable head. And while most rolled their eyes at the idea, the Japanese Liberal Democratic Party discussed creating an actual weaponized Gundam back in 2012.
And now companies like MegaBots, which wants to create large mechs for sport, and Suidobashi Heavy Industry have both created their own robots.
MegaBots’ robot is a 15-foot tall and 12,000 pound monster that projects paint balls from its cannons at over 100 miles-per-hour. Two fit inside of this mammoth with one being the gunner and the other the pilot. Last year MegaBots challenged Suidobashi to a duel between the duly named MegaBot and the Japanese company’s Kuratas, which is slightly smaller at 12 feet and 9,000 pounds.
And they have accepted. Each team was given a year to prep their robots for a melee battle, and the battle is supposed to take place sometime next month.
If the fight is a success, this could potentially lead to a very pricey, yet lucrative new sport that is a major upscale from BattleBots that is the current sporting realm of brawling robots. Sometime in the near future, we might even be filing into a stadium instead of the theater if we want to watch giant mechs duke it out.