If there is one nonsensical complaint that I’ve been seeing for a while around the anime community, it’s statements along the lines of saying “unlike other mecha shows, this one actually focuses on the people”. First, they aren’t transformers. Those are something completely different. You know, actual robotic living organisms that have a vehicle form and a human form. Transformers aren’t mecha, but some mechs can transform. That’s besides the point though.
Second, I feel like that is a statement from people who found one mecha show they love and feel like dismissing all other shows attached to that genre. You know, because that one series they love can’t possibly be like those other mech series in the genre besides maybe Evangelion. That’s all assumptions, but I can’t for the life of me think of a logical reason why some anime fans would say things like that. Maybe I am thinking too hard on the matter, but regardless of all that people are the literal driving force mecha series. You can’t have a series without them.
Can an anime work without people?
I think this one is the most obvious sort of category, but it’s a good starting point for all of this. Nothing in a mecha show would work without people anywhere in it. There would be no civilians that are forced into any sort of conflict without people. There would be no space ships flying through space with some of them inevitably exploding without people. No mechs flying moving around our atmosphere or space without people.
To make this a quicker argument, without people the whole setting wouldn’t be able to work either because there would be no civilizations around that would even create any sort of technology necessary to even build a mech. That series would probably just be about the evolution of people, which can be exciting or boring depending on how it’s done. Still wouldn’t be a mech series though. Once again, this was the obvious route. I thought it would be at least humorous to start out with though.
Politics, politics, politics
One of the biggest hall marks that is attached to any mech series in anyway are the politics involved in almost every mech series that exists. Whether it’s one large group of people like Evangelion where you only see Nerv going against an alien force they don’t understand and the rest of the world or something like Gundam a where there are two parties in one conflict with a possible third in the mix. The thing here is that despite the different political organizations in play, there are a lot of nuances and attention attached to everything. Each part of the conflict isn’t characterized as one type of person with one opinion attached to them. This isn’t early Star Trek where one opinion or way of thinking describes an entire race of people.
The best mech series have parties full of people that have varying degrees of alignment from good to evil with different reasons why they want to fight the other. Some are scheming to take over everything as you would expect in any series, but there are others that have been wronged and feel like they are fighting for what they feel is right. What I’m saying here is that in the best shows have tons of nuance in them that wouldn’t be possible without series treating people like people. On reflection, maybe there is too many involved in a mech series because it takes a lot of ground work to get all of this to work.
Ok, I think that this is what people usually refer to when they talk about this matter. To me, there was only a few points where I would ever considered characters not people/human. Moments like the invincible hero suddenly blasts everyone away without having to work hard on anything or without episodes of development automatically makes people not human in my book. And if we want to talk about characters developing any sort of issues or being angsty, that’s true. That is a cliché but throwing a teenager into a war that they never wanted to fight in would make anybody angsty. They are literally killing people with a death machine out of the blue. That’s heavy stuff. All protagonists who aren’t used to war and fighting would feel the same way as their humanity is being put into question. It’s solid stuff that many young soldiers feel when they are fighting for the first time.
I think that some people are used to shonen action anime when it’s character vs character and power vs power stuff done in the flesh. There are no metallic bodies in the way, so each person has a large possibility of facing damage directly which is infinitesimally more relatable. You know what, I can’t argue against that. Mech series involves battles around metallic bodies that pilots can survive massive mech destruction and the mechs can eventually be brought back after hours of maintenance. You know what, I can’t argue about that at all. Even with sync ratios and other things that allow the pilot to feel what the mech or mech like things feel, nothing is ever going to feel that organic. The only counter I have is how cool everything is. There are giant, human shape robots carrying around light sabers, beam rifles, rocket launchers, and other things in space, through our atmosphere, or on the land. I just love seeing these things fight together. Is that so wrong?
Putting it together
I know I said this before, but mech series are always about the people. Every single anime existed is about people. Mech series and space operas have this whole “lots of people doing lots of things” deal that is never going to leave it. It’s just apart of the whole space opera and mecha genre thing. Not going to change anytime soon. Every genre has their quirks that take forever, and this is the mecha genres after all. Take it or leave it. That’s your call.