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If you enjoy anime, its likely you already know how much Japan loves its giant robots.
The massive Gundam statue that’s been a tourist attraction in both Shizuoka and Odaiba since 2009 is a perfect example of how mechs loom over the history of Japanese animation.
Of course, if you’ve never seen a mecha show, it can be overwhelming to know where to begin. It’s easy enough to figure out that Gundam is the biggest name, but even that’s daunting. The franchise started in 1979 and is still going strong. It can be a deep dive once you get into mecha, but here are a few shows to help beginners to get started.
Mobile Suit Gundam
Japan’s landmark mecha series was born in 1979 and was remade as three films in 1981. The series differed from others by casting its robots as mass-produced military hardware. It starred a hero who was caught in the middle of a war he didn’t want to fight and showcased sympathetic characters on both sides of a devastating war.
The Gundam series got low ratings when it was first released and was eventually canceled, which is laughable considering its popularity today. Whether you watch the original series or the films, this is an essential part of mecha history and a great place to begin. Even though the animation is more than 30 years old, it’s still enjoyable—as well as a beautiful testament to what would go on to become the biggest mecha name of all time. You can buy on Amazon here.
With its trifecta of transforming fighter jets, idol singers, and love triangles, Super Dimension Fortress Macross left a mark on the anime industry after its 1982 release that is still felt today. It also introduced Lynn Minmay, one of the first anime idols to gain immense popularity. She is featured prominently in the retelling of Super Dimension Fortress Macross from an alternate perspective, Macross: Do You Remember Love?
Macross introduced music as a prominent element of the mecha genre, and would go on to become a key part of another major series. You can stream Super Dimension Fortress Macross on Amazon.
If Robotech seems a bit familiar upon first watching, that’s because it was actually cobbled together from the parts of three other mecha series: The Super Dimension Fortress Macross mentioned above, Super Dimension Cavalry Southern Cross, and Genesis Climber MOSPEADA. U.S. distributor Harmony Gold decided to create the hybrid in order to appeal to an American audience. While Robotech tends to be a polarizing topic for fans of the original Macross series, its undeniable that it had a major impact on the mecha genre as well as drawing in American fans. Robotech can be streamed through Crackle for free as well as Amazon.
If you like cyberpunk dystopias, Bubblegum Crisis has more than enough to satisfy you. Featuring gorgeous animation and a world heavily inspired by Blade Runner and Streets of Fire, the series tells the story of the Knight Sabers, four women who use powered exoskeletons to fight the evil ambitions of the multinational Genom Corporation. Famously left incomplete due to legal issues between production companies Artmic and Youmex, Bubblegum Crisis is still massively entertaining today, and it seems a shame that only eight episodes of the original show exist. It also inspired a late ’90s reboot, Bubblegum Crisis: Tokyo 2040. Both can be streamed on YouTube.
Neon Genesis Evangelion
Considered one of the most complex anime ever made, Neon Genesis Evangelion is set in a post-apocalyptic world ravaged by Angels, a race of mysterious creatures that destroy all that lies in their path. A young boy named Shinji Akari plays a key role as a pilot of an Evangelion, a giant mecha that may be his world’s only chance at survival. Weaving classic mecha elements with themes of religion, psychology, and philosophy, Evangelion created a discussion that still continues more than 20 years after the show aired. The series was followed by the End of Evangelion movie in 1997, and again a decade later by the Rebuild movie series that retells the story in a new way. Both the original series and the Rebuild films are available on Amazon.
Code Geass: Lelouch of the Rebellion
While Code Geass looks a bit different than its predecessors and calls its giant robots “Knightmare Frames,” it attracted many mecha fans to its tale of three countries warring in an alternative timeline. At its center is the Machiavellian anti-hero Lelouch, who gains a power called Geass that allows him to force people to do his bidding. He becomes a vigilante in the process, manipulating enemy and ally alike as though he’s playing a grand game of chess. Code Geass was hugely popular when it was released in 2006, leading to video game, manga, and original video animation adaptions. The complete series is for sale on Amazon.
Gurren Lagann was a massive hit when it came out in Japan in 2007. It perfectly executed a hybrid of anime comedy and high intensity action, making it instantly addictive from the first episode on. Set in a future where humans are forced to live underground, a young digger named Simon sets out on an unlikely adventure with ultra-positive friend Kamina after the two discover a mecha buried in the dirt. Just when you think Gurren Lagann’s world has gotten as big as it can get, it somehow gets bigger, leading its characters down a path that will take them to the stars. It’s streaming on Hulu.
Knights of Sidonia
Sidonia marked Netflix’s first exclusive effort in the mecha anime genre. Adapted from a manga series, it also brought back some of mecha’s now-canon themes, such as an isolated teenager becoming a pilot. After aliens called the Gauna destroy Earth, colony ships escape the solar system and attempt to find a new home for humanity, all while under constant Gauna assault. In the world of Sidonia, resources are so limited that humans genetically engineer themselves to photosynthesize for food. Sidonia has been critically acclaimed, even praised by Metal Gear Solid creator Hideo Kojima for its “sci-fi spirit.” It can be streamed on Netflix right here.
Update Sept. 15 8:37am CT: This piece has been updated to correct the release dates for Gundam and Macross.
Colette Bennett is a writer/editor who specializes in web culture, skincare, and all things geek. Her work has appeared on CNN, HLN, Engadget, Kotaku, Colourlovers, and Continue Magazine. She also writes horror and sci-fi fiction for Corona Books and is at work on her second novel.