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Entry updated 17 May 2021. Tagged: Theme.

In this encyclopedia, a pilotable or remote-operable machine, often bipedal or otherwise humanoid in form, encompassing the city-stomping war machines of Anime and the Powered Armour suits of numerous sf shows.

Strictly speaking, the term mecha originates in Japanese from the English "mechanism", and refers to any form of machinery. A concentration on the workings or design of a particular machine is not uncommon in Manga, particularly those in which a named creator has many art assistants, as a draughtsman-like recreation of real-world machinery is a task that can often be left to a deputy. Hence, in Gunsmith Cats (graph 1991-1997) by Kenichi Sonoda, the action is often paused for loving beauty-passes of various firearms and vehicles, and part of the appeal of the car-racing series Initial D (graph 1995-current) by Shūichi Shigeno rests on sudden cutaway appraisals of the conditions of car engines.

More generally, Japanese sf Fandom has come to use mecha to refer to manned machines too vehicular to be Robots. The first documented mecha appears to be a sword-wielding, steam-powered giant from World War Two propaganda, Kagaku Senshi New York ni Shutsugensu ["The Science Warrior Appears in New York"] (graph 1943 Manga), drawn by Ryūichi Yokoyama. Some Japanese sources claim another strain connecting to Jules Verne, whose La Maison à vapeur (1879-1880; trans Agnes D Kingston as The Steam House 1881) featured a mechanical elephant, but this does not appear to have been translated into Japanese. Far stronger influences can be discerned from the tripedal Martian war machines created by H G Wells for The War of the Worlds (April-December 1897 Pearson's; 1898), translated into Japanese on three separate and remarkably late occasions: by Toshiyasu Uno (1963), Isamu Inoue (1969), and Tōru Nakamura (2005). Similarly, the Powered Armour suits in Robert A Heinlein's Starship Troopers (October-November 1959 F&SF as "Starship Soldier"; 1959), as rendered into Japanese by Tetsu Yano in 1967, created a vogue for pilotable mechanical "suits" in Japanese sf – as did Heinlein's coinage of the term Waldo. Further mecha precursors arguably include the Daleks of Doctor Who and the Waldo-equipped EVA pods of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968); any links with more distant ancestors such as the Steam Man in Edward S Ellis's The Steam Man of the Prairies (1868) are perhaps tenuous. An early film example appears in the French animation La Bergère et le Ramoneur (1952; vt The Curious Adventures of Mr. Wonderbird) (see The King and the Mockingbird).

Tetsujin 28 Go (July 1956-May 1966 Shōnen Magazine), created by Mitsuteru Yokoyama, was not a pilotable mecha but the ultimate toy, a reconditioned World War Two weapon, whose remote control was placed in the hands of a Japanese schoolboy. The first truly pilotable mecha, hot on the heels of both Wells and Heinlein in Japanese, was Gō Nagai's anime Mazinger Z (1972; vt TranZor Z, 1985 US), which soon became the epicentre of a local boom in dolls and action figures. Nagai's later Getter Robo (1974; vt Starvengers, circa 1980 US) added the concept of a regular combination sequence, in which separate machines would click together to form a super-Robot. This paid dividends in animation, allowing for recyclable combination footage to be used every episode, but also in merchandise, in incentivizing children to acquire a complete set of the relevant Toys. In the puppet show X Bomber (1980; vt Star Fleet 1982 UK), the combination of the model space ships would then give way to "FX footage" of a giant bipedal mecha, played by a human in a robot suit.

Mecha shows are often glorified commercials for tie-in Toy lines, a fact embraced by Yoshiyuki Tomino in the long-running Mobile Suit Gundam franchise (1979-current), with the understanding that he had essentially free rein to introduce complex political, hard-hitting storylines, so long as the quota of new mecha appearances was met. Hence the enduring paradox of much subsequent mecha anime: that they can contain the most serious of sf plots, amid the silliest of sci-fi accoutrements.

Refinements in toy manufacture and a reduction in toy size in the 1980s led to a new unique selling point: mecha that could transform into other Toys, such as the "Valkyries" of Super Dimensional Fortress Macross (1982-1983), which functioned as aeroplanes and bipedal robot suits. Such an idea reached its apotheosis with Tatakae Chō Robot Seimetai Transformers ["Fight! Super Living Robot Transformers"] (1985; vt Transformers), the first in an enduring franchise of mecha that can turn into mundane vehicles and appliances (see The Transformers [1986]). Mecha toys migrated abroad ahead of the anime boom, inspiring Battletech and its attendant Ties, most notably the numerous Robotech novels by the pseudonymous Jack McKinney (Brian C Daley and James Luceno), popularizing the use in English sf of the term "mech" [sic].

Subsequent developments in the mecha genre in Japan have proved more thoughtful. The Mobile Police Patlabor (1988-1989) anime and manga serial, whose labors take their name as a direct calque from Karel Čapek's robota, posits a Near-Future scenario in which mecha are used in construction, and hence in crime, necessitating the formation of a dedicated "PATrol LABOR" police unit. In the boom-time 1980s, the general size of mecha tended to decrease in inverse proportion to the wealth of the Japanese economy, leading to the glorified suits of armour ("hard suits") of Bubblegum Crisis (1987-1991). Mecha were also employed in impressive allegorical form, for the retelling of World War Two trauma in Top o Nerae (1988), and as symbols of the Gulf War military-industrial complex, in Ryōsuke Takahashi's anime Gasaraki (1997). Another mecha-based television series is Dai-Guard (1999-2000).

Chōhei Kanbayashi's novel Yukikaze (1984, trans 2010) took mecha into the realm of the existential, with a sentient fighter-plane that begins to doubt the abilities of its human pilot. There have also been experiments in mecha as Steampunk creations, such as the God Warrior doomsday device found in Hayao Miyazaki's Kaze no Tani no Nausicaä, and the Alternate History war machines of Masaki Yamada's novel Kishin Heidan (1990). Mecha are now so endemic to Japanese popular culture that it is unsurprising to find them even in Fantasy works, such as the anime series Escaflowne (1996).

Mecha have been frequently depicted in Anglophone sf from the 1980s, an effective novel on the powered-suit theme being John Steakley's Armor (1984). Atypically quadrupedal examples are the Imperial AT-AT (All Terrain Armored Transport) Walkers of Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980). A notably iconic appearance is in James Cameron's Aliens (1986), in which Sigourney Weaver dons a "power loader/lifter" to duel with the Alien Queen. Cameron would refine such devices for overtly military application in his later Avatar (2009). One interesting hybrid mecha appears in Gene Wolfe's The Urth of the New Sun (1987): a sentient hollow Robot who seemingly originated as a spacesuit or battlesuit and can, though most unwillingly, be worn; Iain M Banks ironically portrays similar AI suits in such Culture stories as "Descendant" (in Tales from the Forbidden Planet, anth 1987, ed Roz Kaveney) and Excession (1996).

Joe Haldeman, whose underrated script for Robot Jox (1990) was a harbinger of late 20th-century mecha obsession, would revisit the genre with the novel Forever Peace (1997), in which the "pilots" are not physically inside their war machines, but operate them remotely through a volatile Virtual Reality link. This telefactoring approach reappears in Ian McDonald's "Sanjeev and Robotwallah" (in Fast Forward 1, anth 2007, ed Lou Anders). Earlier, Philip E High's "Point of No Return" (July 1963 New Worlds) features soldiers who identify with the Weapon systems they operate by remote telefactoring, to the extent of inadvertent Upload; Colin Kapp's remote operator in "Gottlos" (November 1969 Analog) identifies almost as closely with his (tank-tracked but also waldoed) battle machine, only to find that his titular opposite number has superior reflexes since the pilot has been wired into place as a Cyborg. The Comics character Iron Man wears proto-mecha Powered Armour, remotely controllable copies of which appear in the film Iron Man 2 (2010). Giant human-piloted battle robots are central to Pacific Rim (2013).

Curiously, the "powered suits" of Heinlein's seminal Starship Troopers were one of the elements dropped from Paul Verhoeven's movie version, Starship Troopers (1997), although when the novel was previously adapted into an anime, as Uchū no Senshi (1988), they were very much the focus of attention. [JonC/DRL]

see also: Mekton.

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