What Makes a Giant Robot Compelling in Anime?

If you are like me, you have seen your share of giant robot anime.  If you just take a random sample of anime movies, OVA’s, and series, chances are that a significant percentage of these employ some kind of mecha as a part of the story.  Also, if you are like me, you will agree that there are some giant robot shows that are great and some that are just not worth watching.  So what makes the difference between a classic, like Gundam, and something altogether forgettable?

There are several answers to this, of course.  All of the standard questions about what makes a good show apply to this genre, and I don’t really want to go into that.  This site is about animation and I want to talk about a specific observation that I have made about what really appeals to me with giant robots.  This can be summed up in one word:  scale.

The thing about giant robots is… they’re giant.  For me that is key.  In fact, the series that first made me realize that there might be something to this whole anime thing was Mobile Suit Gundam:  The 8th MS Team.  This was on the Toonami Midnight Run back in the good old days, and I remember just catching it at the right moment to see a scene that made an impression on me.  There was a girl at the top of a cliff, and I think she was lying down with a pair of binoculars keeping watch.  Then, to the girl’s surprise, a giant mobile suit (I think it was a Zaku), which had been hidden from view, walks right in front of her at the bottom of the cliff.  The mobile suit’s feet were at the bottom of the cliff, but the head rose above the top of the cliff, such that the girl, and the camera angle, was at about the height of the head.  This really produced a feeling of just how large those mobile suits were, and the animation was executed with enough realism that it really gave me a sense of awe.

This is what made me stop and say, “Wow, that was well done.  There really might be something to this.”  If I am just watching two robots fighting each other in space, with no significant sense of scale, then it is kind of boring.  It may as well just be two people duking it out in the old west.  Sure its an action scene, but not a special one.  In fact, without that sense of scale and realism it becomes just what non-anime fans think from hearing a description.  Its just silly.

There are people that will watch anything that looks sci-fi and be happy, because they think it looks cool, but if you want to appeal to a wider audience, you need to do more.  You need to visually communicate the monstrous scale of the machine in a way that will strike awe in the viewer.  Its not enough to just have people talk about how big it is.  In fact, its not really enough to just show it standing next to something smaller.  You need to be creative with your perspective, sound, and animation to really make the viewer feel what it would be like to stand next to something like that in real life.  This also requires a certain realism in your presentation.  Make the viewer feel that the giant mecha they see on their screen would be very similar if they saw it in the real world around them.