The "mecha" genre in anime involves robots large and small (usually large!), but it's also a stomping ground for stories about people with ambitions and dreams at least as big as the machines they're piloting. Here's our rundown of the most significant of mecha anime, in alphabetical order.
1. The Big O
Before Keiichi Sato and Kazuyoshi Katayama paired up to create Tiger and Bunny (see entry later in this feature), they created another series that showed off their love of Marvel/DC-type superhero comics. The Big O features a Bruce Wayne-like protagonist (complete with stoic butler), who uses a giant robot to keep the peace in Paradigm City, and to also try and solve the mystery of why everyone in the city lost their memories decades ago. The show originally -- and inexplicably -- did poorly in Japan, but gained a strong enough fan following overseas to allow a second season to be commissioned. Chief series writer Chiaki J. Konaka also worked on the moody, cyberpunkish Serial Experiments Lain, Armitage III, Texhnolyze, and (see separate entry) Giant Robo.
2. Broken Blade
A mecha series with a brilliant central conceit: it's set in a world akin more to a sword-and-sorcery fantasy setting, where the mecha in question are powered by the local equivalent of magic. Then someone unearths a real mecha from a previous era (that is to say, ours), and all hell breaks loose. Even better, the series doesn't just rest on its conceptual laurels -- it's also fueled by solid writing and a fast-moving storyline.
3. Eureka Seven
Renton's first schoolboy crush isn't on the girl in the seat next to him -- it's on the girl who crashes a giant robot through the ceiling of his house. She's part of a renegade crew of pilots whom he's idolized for years, but joining up with them -- and piloting the giant sky-surfing robot that's one of their key pieces of gear -- becomes more adventure than he's prepared to handle. This delight of a series, with mecha designs by none other than Macross designed Shoji Kawamori, works as a reminder that even a mecha show is only as good as its characters, and Renton and Eureka are at the center of a cast that makes fifty episodes seem like not nearly enough.
4. Giant Robo
This spectacular 1990s OVA project starts as a wide-gauge clash between forces of good and evil across the globe, and then by degrees mutates into something even deeper and better: an action epic with a heart and a soul. A kid entrusted by his scientist father with a giant automaton that only heeds his commands is brought on board to stop a madman from paralyzing the world's power supply -- but the real story turns out to be far more complicated.
The series sports a curious pedigree: it was adapted from Mitsuteru Yokoyama's manga (Tetsujin 28, Sally the Witch), and was written and directed by G Gundam creator Yasuhiro Imagawa. But it's crammed with references from across Yokoyama's career, including characters from his adaptations of the Chinese classics Romance of the Three Kingdoms and The Water Margin. It also has more than a few passing nods to another live-action Japanese series, Johnny Sokko and his Flying Robot.
Most every child of the 1980s remembers Voltron, wherein five lion-shaped robots combined into one and fought evil. Few of them, at least until recently, knew that the series it was derived from, GoLion, was actually more successful in its English-language incarnation than it was in its original Japanese version -- but the original version also sported a more coherent (and less Bowdlerized) storyline, and was more or less responsible for the "combining robot" mecha subgenre. (See: Gurren Lagann.) A U.S. reissue of both shows lets you place them side by side and see the changes for yourself.
The original Gunbuster (a/k/a Gunbuster: Aim for the Top!) was a prime piece of 1980s giant-robot adventure courtesy of GAINAX, who a decade later would be creators of that other prime piece of giant-robot adventure, Evangelion. Gunbuster starts off on a fairly goofy note -- a girl with ambitions to become a space pilot like her father eventually lives up to her dreams -- but mutates over time into something a lot more ambitious and serious, and the last episode is guaranteed to squeeze tears from a rock.
Diebuster, the spiritual sequel released two decades later, has only the loosest association with the original, but even more of the loopy spirit and wide-eyed wonder of its predecessor. Note that Diebuster has been issued in both a cut-down feature-film format and a longer OVA version; get the latter version whenever possible.
Over the top. Those are the only words that do justice to Gurren Lagann which begins with a kid discovering part of a giant robot and ends, more or less, with giant robots flinging galaxies at each other like throwing knives. There's a great deal in between, the same mixture of ridiculous and sublime that one associates with the works of GAINAX (creators of Evangelion, Gunbuster/Diebuster et al.).
If Mobile Suit Gundam was the father of mecha anime and Evangelion the son, Macross is at the very least the holy ghost. The first installment in the franchise, Super Dimension Fortress Macross premiered in 1982, a few years after the first Gundam came on the air, and despite the superficial similarities between franchises -- giant robot warfare, armies in space, etc. -- Macross sported a flavor of its own that was a touch more personal and emotional, rather than the large-scale politics that drove the Gundam shows.
Macross also deserves mention for being the source material for Robotech, the '80s English-language show that introduced a great many audiences to anime in some form.
Among the best of the Macross follow-ups is Macross Plus, an OVA with all the elements that made Macross great -- a love triangle, spectacular aerial and spatial combat, and some speculations about life in the future -- at full boil. A shame most of the rest of the franchise is trapped in litigation over its ownership and distribution.
A tongue-in-cheek farce that's part loving homage to mecha anime, and part sendup of its goofiest excesses. A young cook who'd rather slave over a grill than pilot a giant robot is drafted into fighting an alien menace as part of the crew of the Nadesico, under the command of the outwardly-bubbleheaded but astonishingly competent Yurika Misumaru. A fair amount of the humor comes from the hero being a fan of the show-within-a-show, "Gekigangar 3", but most of the laughs are derived from the way standard mecha-anime plot elements are stood on their heads ... or had their pants pulled down around their ankles.
10. Mazinger Z
Widely recognized as one of the first incarnations of mecha anime as we know it, Mazinger Z (released briefly in English as "Tranzor Z") came out in the early 1970s and was derived from Go Nagai's manga of the same name. A nigh-indestructible robot, created out of "Super-Alloy Z," falls into the hands of young Kouji Kabuto and becomes his weapon against the sinister Doctor Hell and his army of robot beasts. (The formula of "giant robot vs. robot monsters" was also recapitulated in Voltron / GoLion, among many other shows.)