Earlier this week ghostlightning wrote up a post about how Gundam Wing had been mislabelled the start of the Bishounen aesthetic in male mecha anime characters, but really it was more of a reason to gush about Five Star Stories. It got me thinking though, has anybody ever really sat down to try to look at the evolution of the two sexes in mecha anime, the change in their appearances and the degree to which they played a role (and what role they played) in the plot of the mecha sagas over the ages? If so I would still like to take a look at it anyway and I think there’s no better place to start then what is commonly recognized as the first ever series where the characters played some sort of role in a mecha series versus the title robot. Mazinger Z.
The Classic Era/Role Models (Early 1970’s)
Meet Kabuto Kouji, the archtype of the super robot mecha pilot. Kind of plain and unassuming looking if definitely hot blooded. This was the dawn of the mecha anime, where the male characters were there to be cool, but not to a degree that would distract from the recognizability of the title mecha, in this case Mazinger Z. Kouji was a little dull, but the sort of athletic high school student that had the girls eyes on him and who kids could relate to in their own budding maturity, but who they also yearned to be more like. The perfect hero to star in a mecha anime and draw kids into the idea of Mazinger Z without taking the spotlight away from it. He would prove to be the precursor for the majority of Toei Super Robot heroes like Ryoma of Getter Robo and Voltes V’s Kenichi.
Contrary to what a lot of people might assume about the genre, women actually got off to a pretty good start with Sayaka Yumi, it’s just that….well….female roles didn’t quite evolve at quite the pace of male roles until a little later into the the 80’s. Sayaka could best be described as a tomboy, but someone who still had a feminine appearance. She refused to stay on the sidelines and would often do what she could to help Kouji in combat with her Aphrodite A, but simply couldn’t be as effective due to the weaker power of her robot. Perhaps it could be argued that this wasn’t meant to reflect poorly on women or the idea that they weren’t as skilled as male pilots at the time, but simply that the focus was still on the robots more than the character at the time and she just didn’t happen to have the title robot. It could also be said that Sayaka could hold her own with Kouji or at least tried to, which also set a good example for female roles, even if they were to remain mostly supporting characters for some time yet. You could say that Sayaka was the precursor for characters such as Michiru in Getter Robo and Reideen’s Mari, always the enternal support to the hot blooded male hero, but never afraid to do whatever they could to make sure the day was won.
The Calm Before The Storm/The Reluctant Hero Is Born And Damsels In Distress (Mid To Late 1970’s)
Contrary to what some may believe, the first reluctant mecha pilot wasn’t born in Evangelion’s Shini Ikari (although it could certainly be said that he would take the idea of reluctant self-deprecating hero to it’s logical extreme) but in Kotetsu Jeeg’s Hiroshi Shiba. While still carrying with him elements of the sports playing hot blooded types like Kouji Kabuto, unlike Kouji, Hiroshi had no real desire to bear the burden of becoming Jeeg and saving the world from the Jama Kingdom once it was placed on him. Becoming a cyborg after a motorcycle accident that nearly cost him his life, Hiroshi would become uncertain of himself, his humanity, and his purpose and would have to find his way towards becoming that hero everyone expected him to be. Of course he would find his way, but never before Hiroshi had this journey really been depicted along the way, it was just assumed that the hero would accept his role and get right into the action in the traditional hot blooded style and be able to perfectly balance their normal civilian life with that of a hero. Following Jeeg this would really be the case anymore (especially with the oncoming advent) and heroes would have a bit more complexity to them that provided a layered experience for the viewer in discovering them. He could be seen as the archetype for the traditional hapless Gundam pilot who would rather not have the responsibility of being the ships defender early on, specifically Amuro Ray
I had previously said that gender roles got off to a fairly even start with Kouji and Sayaka, but Nagahama’s Daimos would then give us Erika and the idea of the classic damsel in distress would make it’s way into mecha as well. Erika could be said to be the first significant non mecha piloting female character and she would take on a different more traditional Yamato Nadeshiko role as an angelic peace loving figure who only wanted to see an end put to all of the fighting and for those she cared about to reconcile before they destroyed each other. She also started the tradition of the enemy ace’s little sister becoming the lover of the main hero and hence sandwiched between two conflicting sides on a multitude of levels. However Erika would portray a quite strength to never give up on the idea that her race and humanity could live in harmony together, even placing herself in harms way and being self-sacrificing in order to ensure that no harm came to either Kazuya (Daimos’ pilot) or Richter (his rival and her brother). You could say that Erika showed what could be accomplished without a mecha and would be the archetype for many in a long line of peace loving characters (and the afformentioned enemy ace sister caught between two warring sides) in the likes of Linda Plato from Dragonar, Emily Luft in Dunbine and Lacus Clyne in Gundam Seed.
The First Advent/The Villains Step Into The Limelight/The Dawn of The Pretty Boy/The Female Leader (Mobile Suit Gundam 1979)
If Kazuya Hiroshi would give us a slightly more complex lead hero character template, then Char Aznable would do more for the villain character then any single other character in the history of anime. A bold statement, but consider this, prior to Char Aznable the villain character could essentially be seen as little more than an obstacle, someone whose sole purpose was to be evil and destructive or to see to the whims of their superiors in whatever evil alliance they were a part of. Some would eventually have a slight change of heart near the end such as Prince Heinel from Voltes V and lay down their lives once they finally saw the truth of everything and that their actions and views were perhaps not what they thought was reality based, but right from the beginning Char Aznable was his own character. He knew what he wanted to accomplish and it would become immediately clear that his views and goals were not necessarily those of his superiors or even subordinates. Char’s story wasn’t entirely tied to the hero Amuro Ray’s and lead along by it either (although their destinies would become inseparable by the end of the story) and it could be said for the first time that viewers were allowed inside the head of the villain character, to see their backstory and what made them the person they are depicted as in the story. To judge for themselves whether they were truly unjustified in their actions compared to those of the heroes. Viewers would be lead to question whether Char was truly a villain at all, or if perhaps Amuro might be just as much of an aggressor in their relationship/conflict as Char was. Never before had the line between good and evil, just or unjust, right or wrong been blurred so much for the viewer of a mecha series as it was with Char Aznable. Char’s story and the focus he was given as a villain would redefine the way mecha stories were told on a sub-level equivalent to how Mobile Suit Gundam would redefine the whole mecha genre, and despite my attempts to do so it’s almost impossible to truly measure the degree of influence he would have on not on mecha anime character portrayals, but on all anime character portrayals. As such no list of who he was the precursor for can be listed as it would just go on forever and there are too many options.
Garma Zabi. While some characters before him could be described as handsome, it was Garma who was arguably the first significant pretty boy character to grace (?) the mecha scene. With his trademark hair twirl, almost too friendly relationship with Char Aznable, obsession with impressing his sister Kycilia, and daddy’s boy status Garma was about as feminized as a male character could possibly be at the time. There it is, as ghostlightning said, Gundam Wing was indeed not the first show to bring bishounen into the mecha genre, and even if L-Gaim and Five Star Stories could be said to have had the first primarily bishounen cast of male characters, Garma was certainly the precursor.
Whoever said that female characters couldn’t make for the most conniving of villains and even be the lead villain in the end. While Haman Khan is looked upon by many a mecha fan as the pinnacle of the strong female pilot/leader/villain character and there had been female villain leaders like Himika of Jeeg prior to her, they were just depicted in that status from the beginning and never held onto it until the very end like Kycilia did. After Degwin Zabi is killed by Gihren and Gihren assumes command, Kycilia makes her move right before the end of the conflict and takes out Gihren to the surprise and shock of everyone, in the process assuming the leadership of Zeon for herself, however briefly before she is killed by Char and the nation crumbles under the Federations assault. In the process though she proves that it was not Gihren, nor Degwin who was the top dog of the Zabi family and the greastest mastermind of them all, but herself, a female, the one that while given a position as head of the space attack fleet was always overlooked in favour of favourite son Garma, warrior Dozle, and political leader Gihren. Sadly while Gundam would teach us that women could be just as manipulative and despicable villains as the oft scene male puppetmasters, she wouldn’t find nearly as many female lead villains to be the source for as some of the other character prototypes I have mentioned. Some still do come to mind though, such as the previously mentioned Haman Khan of the Zeta Saga, Katejina Loos of Victory Gundam, Grace O’Connor of Macross Frontier, and Nami Shishidou of Sora Wo Kakeru Shoujo.
The Dark Ages/Anti-Heroes and Dying Girlfriends (Early To Mid 80’s)
Yoshiyuki Tomino didn’t just redefine how characters were looked upon, but also how they would be treated for some time to come. No more was anyone but the main character and their main rival afforded more then a rare second chance as Tomino sought to try and depict a little more of the true effects of war in mecha anime. Enter the suffering hero, Kill em’ all Tomino’s most famous contribution to mecha anime. If Hiroshi was a little reluctant, Tomino’s characters would be put through hell on top of it. Perhaps no more was this apparent than in the archetype of such suffering hero roles that was Cosmo Yuki. Wrenched from his home and forced to watch the death of his immediate family and everything he had ever treasured up to that point Cosmo Yuki doesn’t mince words or ideals, he is angry and he wants to make the Buff Clan pay, and if the Ideon will help him do it then so be it. Cosmo can hardly be described as the most relatable character to someone growing up now as he is simply so bitter and even racist towards the Buff Clan (even Karala who is shown time and again to be anything but the agressor that the rest of her race is) that his actions just as much as any other characters lead to the continuing conflict that escalates to the point where he is robbed of everything he has left that exists aboard the solo ship. Amazingly and perhaps a sad reality that Tomino in his depression believed he ought to depict, Cosmo is only able to finally resolve his conflict and inner demons in giving in to the Ide and allowing it to destroy everyone so that they can start over reincarnated in a new life. Perhaps even more amazing is the fact that Cosmo initially had trouble letting go of his resentment and anger even in death as only the embrace and reassurance of his loved ones allowed him to acknowledge that he can start over and follow the messiah to a new life. A dark and depressing character never before seen indeed and one that showed for the first time in a raw and unfiltered manner that perhaps war and aggression is the true villain in the long run, not any race nor any person specfically. Anybody may be capable of horrible actions as compelled by the forces of war and chaos, and the heroes side would no longer be an exception in mecha anime from this point onward. Cosmo would be the prototype for many vengeful characters including Kamille Bidan of Zeta Gundam, Sho Zama of Dunbine, and Lelouch Vi Britannia of Code Geass.
Rest assured Kitty Kitten does not quite dress like this in Space Runaway Ideon and this is simply the best picture I could find. If Lalah was a passing attempt at the dying girlfriend as a driving force for character’s trope that would later get it’s proper due in the movie Char’s Counterattack, then Kitty Kitten was the first time is was really given serious thought. Portrayed as a simple girl who wants to look after the group of kids she has taken in, Kitty Kitten is an example of what can become of civilians in any major skirmish that happens to come their way at the wrong time. Being in the wrong place at the wrong time and having nothing to do with a war doesn’t mean you are safe, and indeed Kitty after falling mutually in love with Cosmo is killed right in front of him (decapitation) as Cosmo watches in horror and swears revenge against the Buff Clan without any reservations. Not all people are motivated in combat and some merely find themselves in these circumstances for a variety of reasons, but seeing the ultimate price of war can potentially motivate even the most reluctant or callous of individuals to seek an end ot it, especially when it affects the ones they care about. As mentioned above this was the time when mecha series started getting darker, and not even the innocent or the major characters could be spared anymore. Punches were no longer being pulled and mecha anime started to evolve away from the primarily younger kids fare that it had been up until the 80’s. The dying or maimed girlfriend as defined by Kitty Kitten would become the source for such relationships as Kamille and Four Murasame, Hathaway Noah and Quess Paraya, Suzaku Kururugi and Euphemia Li Britannia and Saji Crossroad and Louise Halevy among several others. It is to this day an enduring trope.
Mecha Gets Silly/Comedic Relief Characters And Tsunderes Abound (Mid To Late 80’s)
You’d think I would be done with talking about what Yoshiyuki Tomino helped introduce to the world of mecha, but honestly all of this is still barely scratching the surface even now. Would you believe that the guy known as Kill em’ all also helped define the mecha comedy right around the same time as he helped define dark and depressing mecha sagas? Here we have Jiron Amos of Sentou Mecha Xabungle, a hapless country bumpkin out to find the man who killed his parents, but who mostly just gets into wacky situations along the way and acts like a wild untamed dog with no concept of culture, politeness or the law of the land. That’s what makes him so likeable in the end though, as you can’t help but like the guy even as he’s tripping, stumbling, getting pumelled and spazzing out and going wild in the title mecha with no concept of actual fighting tactics. Why? Well his heart is pretty much in the right place in all of his simplicity, and it always feels like he’s the underdog in an impressive society who just wants that shot at getting what little he wants in justice that he is continually denied. He’s dedicated to his task through everything that is thrown his way, never loses sight of what he’s after even as he gets sidetracked on crazy adventures, and in the end it’s not necessarily the intellect that makes a man, but the will and the heart. See the movie Rocky and you’ll see what I mean. Jiron would be the prototype for such simplistic oblivious underdogs as Kain Wakaba of Dragonar, Sousuke Sagara of Full Metal Panic, and Dan JD of Basquash.
If Jiron is the folksy loveable dufus (Boke) then Elchi is almost certain the cultured and dignified lady with a surprising abusive streak a mile wide (Tsukkomi). When we first meet Elchi in Xabungle she’s trying to introduce culture to the Plant Zora where the story takes place and just generally bitching out everybody that comes her way, including her own father. Then Jiron comes along and she instantly plays him for a fool and traps and recaptures the Xabungle which he tried to steal from her father. It is then we learn that while seemingly prim and proper, Elchi is arguably even more wild and untame when angered then even the likes of Jiron are ready for, and she decides to join Jiron’s little troop of Sand Rats so that she can tour the world and perhaps teach the “barbarians” a thing or two. I can imagine many people can guess where this is going and yes indeed Jiron and Elchi are always seemingly at odds on the surface as a veritable odd couple with Elchi always coming out on top while finding herself inexplicably attracted to him at the same time, knowing he means well, but of course unwilling to show it. Yes Elchi is the prototype of such relationships as Kain and Linda in Metal Armor Dragonar, Sousuke and Chidori in Full Metal Panic, Ginga and Eris in Dendoh and, Akiha and Leopard in Sora Kake Girl, and Dan and Rouge in Basquash.
Coming Of Age/Crawling Out Of The Heroes Shadow (Late 80’s To Mid 90’s)
Regrettably I know what I am about to say is something of a falsehood considering that it was 1977’s Zambot 3 that introduced the child lead character concept, but Alfred Izuruha of Gundam 0080: War In The Pocket came at the start of a trend in the 1990’s that would show a different point of view from which a mecha story could be told. The idea here is simple, what if the warfare and violence as depicted in a mecha series were seen through the eyes of a child who merely tagged along with the true heroes. That was the idea behind Alfred and Bernard Wiseman’s relationship as Bernie worked to carry out his impossible mission of destroying the Gundam Alex and Alfred tagged along because he thought it would be cool to see. Of course the idea here is that Alfred ends up being forced to see firsthand the true horrors of war and the psychological trauma that it can wreck on the part of those of the survivors as they watch their comrades and friends die. First he sees Bernie go through it with the death of the cyclops team, and just as he’s starting to realize the situation Bernie is in, he is forced to go through it as Bernie is cut down trying to destroy the Alex. Yikes, tagging along with a soldier who could die at any moment isn’t quite the wacky adventure it had been portrayed as for characters like Shiro Kabuto of Mazinger Z and Katz, Letz and Kika of Mobile Suit Gundam anymore. Well at least not in this case, for while the child meets robotic hero stories of the 1990’s Brave Saga and the Eldoran Saga that were to come would make use of the battle as viewed through the eyes of a bystander/child trope that Alfred kicked off, they would also strike a much lighter tone.
Here we have Noriko Takaya of Gunbuster, a surprisingly younger hero for the time at the age of 15. Noriko’s story like Alfred’s is also one that can be described as a coming of age tale (something Gainax is extremely fond of) only in a much different manner. Not only would Noriko become the first undisputed female lead in a mecha series, but she also gave birth to the idea of seeing the birth of a hero in a mecha series. When we first meet Noriko we come to think of her as little more then a clumsy goof who can’t do much of anything right when it comes to mecha combat. She’s constantly cast in the shadow of her much older and more experienced comrades in the form of Kazumi Amano and Jung Freud, and is constantly having to be rescued and chided by them as well for her carelessness. We are lead to wonder why we are seeing events through the eyes of this character as she is constantly outclassed by everyone around her, but we begin to notice that Noriko is slowly growing, and like Coach had insisted, her natural talent is starting to show itself as she gains not only confidence, but the will to take the burden of being humanities saviour on her shoulders. It is then in the second half that she rises out from under the shadow of Amano to become the main pilot of Gunbuster and to show what she is made of. We see each individual step of this transformation and while at first it appears to be similar to the reluctant pilot trope of the real robot shows of the late 70’s-mid 80’s it really isn’t. It is something entirely new when it comes to the idea of portraying character growth (more akin to what can be seen in sports anime) in that Noriko actually wants to be a pilot and protect her friends from the Space Monsters right from the get go, but needs to overcome hardship and her own immaturity and insecurities in order to do it. Noriko would be the prototype for such characters as Simon of Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann, Renton Thurston of Eureka Seven and Haruka Amami in iDOLM@STER Xenoglossia.
Moe On Mecha/Beautification Of Characters/A More Basic Appeal (Mid 90’s To The Present)
We finish off with one of the more recent developments in mecha anime. Something I like to call the moe on mecha concept. Rather, the idea of introducing moe moe characters into the realm of mecha anime for the purposes of broadening audiences. If the bishounenification of mecha was foretold primarily by the likes of Heero Yuy and the cast of Gundam Wing who would bring in female audiences, then the moefication of mecha for the purposes of bringing in alternative male audiences can almost certainly be attributed to one character. Ruri Hoshino of Nadesico. Never before had a character been so clearly designed to be not only pleasing to the aesthetic sense of the moe otaku, but to end of inspiring that feeling in them as well. Ruri was loli, tsundere, snark, intelligent, innocent, talented, cutesy, everything you could imagine would ever get a postive reaction out of people into all things moe. The creators of Nadesico were apparently aware of her nature and potential standing with otaku communities as well since they sought to portray her perhaps partially in jest as simply perfet at everything and as being worshipped by the entire surrounding cast as infinitely desirable and worthy of affection. Ruri was such a massive hit that it is said she inspired the movie sequel (no comment) that would be centred primarily around her character, and she evenwould go on to lend her name to the trope she helped inspire in sarcastic, dry and overly talented loli characters. A gift from heaven if ever there was one ❤ . Ruri would inspire such moe moe loli characters as Anya Earlstreim of Code Geass, Roux Loux of Shinkon Gattai Goddanar, Sakura Shishidou of Sora Kake Girl, Coco JD of Basquash and many many more. And thus with the end of this article I believe I have found my answer. Hope you all enjoyed this trip down mecha character memory lane as much as I did.
Note by ghostlightning: