One of the reasons I got into anime is giant robots. I’ve been watching them since I was able to walk, and they remain one of the key reasons that anime still interests me. Now, I could argue all sorts of lists, like who is the best, or has the best series, but personally, I want to talk about the ones who have influenced the genre. This are the ones whose existence continue to shape the genre. Here they are, in chronological order (meaning the only complaints I should be getting is if one came out before another), the most influential giant robot series in anime.
Tetsujin #28 aka Gigantor
Oh my, we are going old school for our start. Created in 1956 by writer/artist Mitsuteru Yokoyama, adapted into anime four times with the earliest one being in 1963 and one live action CGI heavy film in 2005, Tetsujin #28 (or Gigantor if you prefer) was a robot controlled by remote control by a young boy who used it to fight crime and injustice. This was the original, the first giant robot in anime. Before this, most robots were of the Astro Boy kind, human sized. Nothing on this scale. Gigantor was awesome, mostly because his main method of fighting was just to punch or kick things. Sadly, it was controlled by remote. If you think having a three-story tall engine of destruction controlled by RC was a bad idea, it was. I can remember several times where either the controls were stolen, or the signal hacked. So, yeah, he had his moments of sucking. Still, without him, we’d have no giant robots.
Oh God yes! Created by Go Nagai in 1972, Mazinger Z followed the adventures of Koji Kabuto, piloting his grandfather’s great invention as he fought the evil forces of Doctor Hell. Mazinger was a major influence for multiple reasons. First off, it was the first giant robot that had a pilot inside it. Second, it was the first Super Robot, meaning a robot that was pretty much a superhero in terms of design and powers. Mazinger had a ton of weapons, and was the first to showcase yelling out your attacks. Insane, but it worked with the hot-bloodedness that the genre would become well-known for. Mazinger would go on to have several sequel series and one remake a few years ago.
Oh, Go Nagai, of course you show up twice on my list. Created by Nagai and Ken Ishikawa in 1974, the story followed three pilots as they used a scientist’s giant robot (special note, be afraid of scientists when visiting Japan) to battle a race of lizard men evolved from the dinosaurs who live underground (really, you should just roll with it) and their giant robots. What made Getter Robo special for this list was that it was piloted by a team, and it was a combining robot. The three jets merged to become different mechs based on the order. Since then, combining robots continue to be popular.
Mobile Suit Gundam
Created by Sunrise Studios in 1979, this series followed the adventures of a young crew during the One Year War between the Earth Federation and the Principality of Zeon. Admits the dramas as we followed heroes and ordinary people on both sides, we also saw a new breed of robot, the most iconic of which was the titular Gundam. Piloted by Amuro Ray, the RX-78 Gundam represented a new sub-genre in giant robot anime. Unlike Mazinger Z (the iconic Super Robot), the Gundam was the first Real Robot, an anime robot bound by logic like ammo and fuel. The Gundam had limited bullets in its rifle, and it wasn’t some invincible machine. As such, the series was more like a war drama, focusing on the human cost of war. These days, giant robot anime is divided between the two types, with Super Robots being essentially superhero stories on a giant scale, while Real Robots being treated as more dramatic pieces. And Gundam was the original Real Robot.
GoLion aka Voltron
Okay, this may be a bit wrong to include, but Voltron was major in the 80’s when it was broadcast on US television. It’s the earliest example I’ve found of a five-man group (and subsequently five-mech group), and the fact that Voltron was a mech made of freaking LIONS was awesome too. But the main reason I’ve included it is because of its impact in America. To this day, Voltron is still pictured by people of my generation when they think of anime robots. And the fact that it’s so popular it got a CG sequel (with a new series coming to NickToons) and there’s a live-action film in the works. It may not be as big in Japan as it is here, but Voltron was a big part of getting people into anime in the States, so it deserves to be on the list.
Neon Genesis Evangelion
And now we hit the breaking point of giant robots. When the series Neon Genesis Evangelion was created in 1995 by Studio Gainax, it created a massive anime boom. In this deconstruction of the giant robot genre, we’re introduced to Shinji Ikari, a young boy who is recruited by his father’s organization to pilot Evangelion Uni 01 or Eva-01 for short, to help battle strange creatures called the Angels. The cast grows, more robots appear, and there’s lots of battles. Now, that may sound like… every freaking entry on this list, but Evangelion was different because it took the normal tropes of giant robots, and tore them up like a hungry bear. Everyone in this series is a psychological wreck, no one becomes better through the plot (arguably, they become worse), and it has one of the most iconic depressing endings in anime history. And since I’ve focused on how the robots influenced the genre, Eva-01 is insane. It’s not so much a robot as a massive biomechanical creature you can ride. Its normal weapons run on Real Robot logic (ammo and such) but itself functions like a Super Robot (name one machine that can go insane mid-battle, pop out teeth, and start slaughtering with its bare hands). Besides the impact the series had, Eva-01 made possible all the creepy robots, the ones that the pilots couldn’t trust. And the series made possible an overwhelming wave of of angst, depression, and took a lot of the fun, the epic, and just the will out of giant robots… until the next entry on the list
Gainax strikes again, with this 2007 series. Set in a post-apocalypse future, we meet Simon, a young kid who is lacking in confidence like Shinji Ikari from earlier. We also meet his surrogate big brother, Kamina, who is like Mazinger Z’s pilot Koji with even more hotbloodedness. The two find a small robot head they name Lagann, and with the help of a sniper girl named Yoko, they steal another robot they call Gurren. When the two mechs combine, they form Gurren Lagann, an unpredictable and badass robot that cannot be stopped easily. This series seemed to look back at all the other robot shows on this list, and say “Hmmm, how can I combine all the best elements of these?” As such, we have over-the-top Super Robot battles, epic storylines, some depressing dramatic moments (seriously, people die unexpectedly in this show) and finally, the overall theme that if you have the will to keep moving forward even one tiny step, it’s a victory. Anime all over the place, especially giant robots, are following this show’s lead. Yes, you can have over-the-top epicness and angsty drama and still come out awesome with a happy ending that you probably had to fight for in order to earn. In fact, after this series came out, Gainax made a new film version of Evangelion. There’s still a lot of angst, and a sense of hopelessness, but suddenly, it’s showing more strength of will in its heroes. Gurren Lagann may be the newest series on this list, but its influence is already starting to spread in all the anime that’s coming out.
Thanks for following me on this trip through the ages. As new stories are told, they’re both inspired by what’s come before, and inspiring what’s to come. As such, the cycle will continue, so long as we have stories to tell, the seeds of which were planted by those who come before.
If you all have a hankering for giant robots now, I recommend www.rightstuf.com for all your anime needs. And as Kamina himself would say “Give it all you got and kick the limits others place on you to the curb!”