To all intents and purposes I come across as a mecha fan much of the time when discussing anime, and something that often comes up when talking about mecha shows is often something along the lines of “that show felt really realistic”, or “that show was more realistic than this other show”, or “that show didn’t feel real at all”.

A recent post by ghostlightning brought a lot of fermenting thoughts to a boil – despite the fact that mecha anime is pretty much always about fictional pretense, it seems we still appreciate a dose of the “real-world” in our entertainment. Or do we?

I think there are essentially two axes at work in any given mecha anime. As Iknight points out in some older posts, part of what makes mecha interesting to watch is that they are essentially anthropomorphic machines – they mimic human characteristics and mannerisms; and provide a useful visual accessory to a character. The other major dividing factor is the one that in casual speech we might refer to as “realism”, but I prefer the more technical term verisimilitude – how closely the show mirrors reality, or rather, our expectations of reality given the fictional setting of the show.

In summary:

1) Anthropomorphism – how “human-like” the mecha are. Note that here, I speak in terms of relatives. All mecha are human-like to a lesser extent – it’s arguably their defining feature. However, one can draw comparisons between mecha that take on more of a utilitarian appearance, versus those that take on more of a symbolic significance. At heart, this axis captures the mechanical design of a particular show. A lot of games, such as Battletech, Steel Battalion, or Chromehounds, feature mecha that take on more of a vehicular feel – in part because of the limitations of the game interface to capture humanoid movements. On the other hand, stylized depictions of the “iron knight” exist in shows like Escaflowne or more recently, Code Geass.

2) Verisimilitude – how the mecha fit within the fictional reality of the show. I find this tends to be the true deciding factor in terms of the “realness” of a mecha show. This incorporates elements of how the mecha are portrayed, the sorts of skills and training, a lot of background detail. As with the previous axis, this is more of a relative that absolute comparison. Little background details, such as the how and why of mecha deployment, evidence of pilot training, attention paid to interface, etc. are all things to consider. Essentially, this axis seeks to capture how much of the mechanics of the mecha are explained and how much is left up to “hand-waving”. Gundam for the most part is higher on the verisimilitude scale – it tries to explain the origins of mecha and the rationale for their use with “Minovsky physics”. Some is handwaved, but not all. Escaflowne and many Super Robot shows on the other hand do very little in the way of explaining why mecha are used in the first place.

And to simplify, a diagram:

Figure #1 - Mecha Typology, with some examples plotted.

Figure #1 - Mecha Typology, with some examples plotted.

The first confession to get out of the way is I’ve actually seen very little in the way of actual mecha anime, let alone shows that most mecha fans would consider essential. I can count my paltry list of completed anime on one hand and a finger (Gundam SeeD, Macross Plus, Macross Frontier, Code Geass, Gurren Laggan, and Escaflowne – though there are many half-starts and drops). Hence many of my categorizations are fairly debatable. Second to note is that many shows feature a varied mix of mecha, resulting in rough area on the chart – this gets even more aggravated when you take extended franchises such as Gundam or Macross, with very many iterations. The key thing to note is that this criteria is relative – it ceases to make sense if you try to apply it on a single show alone.

While technically not Japanese, Battletech and Mechwarrior have ripped enough off from the Japanese to warrant a lawsuit or two (which has actually happened, as a matter of fact)

While technically not Japanese, Battletech and Mechwarrior have ripped enough off from the Japanese to warrant a lawsuit or two (which has actually happened, as a matter of fact)

On the other hand I don’t exactly consider myself a stranger to the aesthetic of mecha in general – most of my exposure to mecha has been more from the gaming side, mostly from series that exist independent of anime franchises. And here, I’ve experienced all three of the essential names: Mechwarrior (or Battletech, for the more grognardly), Front Mission, and Armored Core. (Some fans may be aghast that I don’t list Zone of the Enders or Steel Battalion here; while I think they’re great they just don’t quite have the same, ah, pedigree). One interesting thing to note is that most games are fairly consistent on the verisimilitude angle – Battletech, Front Mission, and Armored Core often feature militarized geo-political settings – but also are fairly low on the anthropomorphic axis – as noted before, this may be due to the limitations of gameplay; there is much less to account for in a game that simulates driving a vehicle rather than one where you play a human-like character with a wide range of motions. Mechwarrior and Chromehounds feature very vehicular style play, and have correspondingly vehicular design. On the other hand, the Front Mission and Armored Core series (strategy and action genres, respectively) attempt a wider range of expressive motion due to their genre, and have more humanoid designs as a result.

This is a fairly rough paradigm at the moment and I still think it needs some work myself. There is to some extent major association too between these axes – high verisimilitude mecha often require low anthropomorphic designs, but there are some series – Evangelion comes to mind – are particuarly problematic and difficult to plot easily; but I would say Evangelion perfectly achieves its deconstructive objectives in that sense.

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