Giant Robots, Growth, and Evolution (or Lack Thereof)

Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a fan of big ol’ robots (a technical term). I love the genre and nearly all that it entails. That said, I am not without criticisms towards my beloved mecha. When I look back at how giant robot designs in anime and manga have progressed since their inception, I get the feeling that robot designs have grown too much without evolving enough.

There was a time when giant robots in anime were mainly known for having cylinders for limbs and looking more like superheroes than weapons of war. As the years went by, however, the robot designs became more and more detailed, to the point that today when you think “giant robots” or “mecha,” complexity in design is something that comes to mind.

It was really an inevitability. Even as far back as the mid 70’s, we could see that Daitarn 3 looked a little more detailed and structured than Combattler V, and Combattler featured more complex design features than Mazinger Z. And it’s not a bad thing either; in many ways it shows how far along mecha design has come since Tetsujin 28. At the same time though I can’t help but lament that the giant robot fandom seems unable to reverse gears and bring itself back to those simpler times.

“But giant robot fans love Mazinger!” you might say. Yes, they might, and they might even refer to its design as “classic” or even “enormously influential,” but as the mecha fanbase has grown older and more concentrated, their heyday of being the go-to shows for marketing to kids having passed, the idea of presenting an old-fashioned robot design as a modern one is something that I think simply would not fly. All recent attempts to create super robot series, remakes aside, still do not match the level of simplicity in robot design that once existed.

So what I mean by mecha designs growing without evolving is that the giant robots of today aren’t that different from those of yesterday in basic design, and that the major developments in mecha design that have persisted over the years have mainly had to do with how to make robots look sleeker and more detailed, whether it’s with the more angular robots of the 80s or the muscle-like excess of the 90s. Compare this with character design development, which people can criticize as being worse today than it was previously, but it still feels like character design trends moved a certain direction.

I can’t entirely fault giant robots for the direction they took over time. Like I said earlier, it was practically inevitable, as one show tries to top another, which then inspires another. It’s just that I think a lot more people might get into designing robots if “robot design” wasn’t the massive undertaking it’s perceived to be because of expectation as to what a giant robot is “supposed” to be.


8 thoughts on “Giant Robots, Growth, and Evolution (or Lack Thereof)

  1. I think this problem extends to Gundam as well, considering Gundam Unicorn’s immensely busy design. The trend seems to be detail for its own sake so that Bandai could release Master/Perfect Grade kits for modelers to gobble them up.

    There are a lot of Master Grade RX-78 variations, the Ver OYW is a blocky redesign with tons of panel-lining, while the 2.0 is the closest you can get to the animated RX-78 (it looks more like an action figure than a model!). I wish we had more of the latter.


    • I took a look around the internet, and saw that quite a few people had issues with the simplicity of the 2.0 MG of the RX-78-2. It’s almost like they were saying, “I don’t want the RX-78-2 to resemble the robot in the show, I want it to resemble the robot in my imagination!”


  2. You indirectly alluded to it, but I credit the relative lack of evolution of mecha design to the fact that well, most of the same guys from back in the day are the ones still doing the mecha designs now on account that nobody new in the anime industry has any idea of how to do it. In a situation like that, there is little incentive to overcome inertia. By contrast, there seems to be a steady clip of new character designer talent.

    Any potential new mecha design talent that could drive the evolution of giant robots are probably working in videogames or something instead. Or so I’d imagine.


  3. I’d be interested to hear possible evolutionary paths you think giant robots should take. I agree that despite a wide amount of variation, giant robots follow a general design principle. It would be neat to see a homo superior to giant robots’ current homo sapien.


  4. I would make the point that a major shift in robot design (as opposed to more ornamentation) is pretty hard to accomplish. It’s not just the mecha genre; the concept of the robot itself seems to be pretty much universally established in the popular mindset as being divided into two discrete groups- androids (made to be indistinguishable from humans) and “machines” (having body parts analogous to those of humans, but clearly mechanical in apperance). As long as that is the case, it’s hard to diverge too much from current designs without being seen as exiting the genre altogether. There are two obvious directions one might go, but each has its problems.

    One direction to go would be the Eva direction, i.e. to more organic-looking. For instance, the angular appearance of the Evas were seen as pushing the envelope of the mecha genre, even though they basically retained the machine-like features (except occasionally when they busted out of their casings). If one were to push even further in that direction, i.e. imagine an Eva “naked”, basically in its Angel form. The general impression would be probably that the designer had created a “kaiju” not a “mecha”.

    The alternative is the PatLabor direction, to make robots more clearly machines for performing practical functions. But if one went even further in that direction and portrayed “real robots” that are actually likely to exist in the future, i.e. those that have few if any humanoid physical features, then it would be hard for the viewer to empathize with them, hence losing one of the main characteristics that make the mecha genre so attractive.

    As long as the concept of “mecha” is defined as a large machine with the same main body parts as humans, there is only so much you can do, and one oculd say mecha designers have hardly been lacking in the will to push the envelope. Eva and Patlabor aside, we have mecha with floppy dreadlocks (Overman King Gainer), mecha that look like King Tut (Raideen), mecha that are all face (Gurren Lagann), mecha that surf (Eureka 7), etc.


    • King Gainer I think is more in the direction I think things could go, but notice all of your talk of mecha: whether it’s organic or being more machine-like, everything seems to hinge on this sense of visual realism (if not scientifically realistic).

      Why do mecha have to possess that “mecha” look? Why can’t they be rounder, more cartoonish, less subject to being a defined object that looks “exactly like this?” Why can’t the designs be more minimalist?


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