Giant mechanical suits (“mecha” for short) predominate anime about as much as superheroes crowd American comics. They’re so common, honestly, you might as well describe most shows simply by whatever gimmicks they add to the suits. As in “this one’s about mecha on skates,” or “that one’s about mecha in medieval times.” Too often, the differences can be purely cosmetic, mere window-dressing for figurine commercials. And it’s understandable why newcomers can be put off by a genre too often more concerned with the engineering specs of these giant suits than with the personalities of the people piloting them.
Still, there are plenty of awesome mecha shows that buck such tropes. Here are just a couple that are still loaded with armored action, but always put the characters first.
The gimmick here, if you’re curious, is that these mecha literally surf on clouds…
Deftly hitting all the major beats of the Hero’s Journey, this shows stars Renton, a boy who escapes humdrum rural existence to fly with a crew of outlaws being hunted by an evil empire. Also, wouldn’t you know, the fate of his mysteriously-departed father ties directly into the founding of that empire.
Lest any Star Wars parallels get too pronounced, though, the girl who calls our “sky walker” to adventure isn’t anything like Princess Leia. Eureka, the titular character, is a socially-awkward synthetic creature who must play mom to a handful of little kids orphaned during the war. She and Renton can pilot mechs handily on their own, but shine best when piloting together. And this saga, for all its spectacular aerial battles, is at its heart, the story of their fragile young romance.
Many mech shows are about teen pilots, but these heroes actually feel like young people–almost like a mecha crew of Real World housemates. Believe it or not, that’s actually a compliment. Eureka 7 has an honest running theme about mentors, with Renton coming to realize that the outlaws he idolizes don’t have any more answers than he has. Everybody, on all ends of this rebellion, is trying to figure out the world on their own terms, day by day.
Eureka 7 is also a bit of an outlier within sci-fi anime, since it insistently steers away from any “info dump” that front loads too much world building, too early on. Actually, it keeps most of the mumbo jumbo in the background until the very end. Save yourself some pain, though, and avoid the follow-up series. Eureka 7 AO frustratingly departs from the tone (and almost everything that makes the first show work, really) and feels like a separate, under-cooked series with the Eureka 7 brand awkwardly taped on.
To draw another, unexpectedly positive allusion to an MTV show, watching this is like hearing the most profound life advice phrased in the language of a bro from Jersey Shore.
Indeed, think over the show’s credo… “Don’t believe in yourself–believe in the me that believes in you!” You’ll soon see the wisdom.
Making the Allegory of the Cave a bit more literal than in most journeys of enlightenment, Gurren Lagann stars a couple miners, “bros” Simon and Kamina, who are stuck inside an underground village. The unexpected arrival of Yoko the marksman and a mecha finally kick-starts their dreams of reaching the surface world. Of course, once they get up top, they find mankind is under the thrall of the Spiral King and his hordes of beastmen. Driven by the perpetual motion of self-belief, they rapidly assemble a posse of pilots and take the fight to the king, aiming to smash his regime right down.
Studio Gainax produced this the same year they were “re-building” their signature Evangelion series, and the two work wonderfully as light/dark companion pieces. Where Eva is high-minded and nihilistic, Gurren Lagann is plainly spoken and endearingly optimistic. It ridicules the “philso-babble” of highfalutin anime, and grounds its pep talks on self-actualization in concrete terms.
It’s also facetious about mecha, in general. Not only does our lead pilot just a piece of a suit (the head, specifically), the armors also get bigger and bigger until they’re so laughably huge, you might think you’re a watching a Tex Avery toon.
It’s not all chest bumps and chest thumps, though. Without giving too much away, Gurren Lagann blindsides you with one of the most shocking, heartbreaking, and unexpectedly inspiring major character deaths ever…
Featured Image Credit: FUNimation