It’s always Gundam this and Macross that, but what about those ready to enter a new mecha-verse? There’s more to giant robots than decades-spanning franchises. Nick and Chris uncover some mecha anime you may have missed.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by the participants in this chatlog are not the views of Anime News Network.
Spoiler Warning for discussion of the series ahead.
Chris, we’re getting deep into the Halloween season but haven’t had the chance to cover anything truly spine-chilling yet. So, let’s try to spice things up with some Two Sentence Horror entries. I’ll start:
The most frightening stories are the ones that could happen. So, thanks for this reminder. I’m probably going to want to double-check which zip files I’m sending over to Lynzee this week when we start off talking about a show from “Studio NuT” called “Bullbuster.”
Well, if either of us messes this up, the show has helpfully provided us with the proper way to react:
Turns out Bullbuster is an educational series in many ways! You see, unlike most mecha anime that is only about the robots, this one focuses on…the logistics and regulations of the giant robot industry!
Look, I don’t care how many orphans The Witch From Mercury turns into marinara sauce, nothing is scarier than the idea of having to fill out Mech Pilot health insurance. This show could never be set in America because it would take an entire season to get through the paperwork.
Several mecha anime have aimed for some sort of “deconstruction” of the genre regarding things like realistic physics applied to these multi-story machines or the psychological horrors that would necessarily come from getting in them to fight giant monsters. But only Bullbuster is brave enough to ask the real questions like “What if giant robot teams had to worry about unapproved overtime or extensive rebranding efforts?”
And honestly? It kind of rules.
It’s not the absolute first to combine office politics with giant robots, but lord knows it’s been a while since Dai-Guard. More importantly, what I like about Bullbuster is that it’s aggressively low-tech for a mech show. Rather than our main robot being built by a government-backed military outfit, it’s the passion project of a young engineer in service of a company that initially sold industrial chemicals. So even the cutting-edge new model is repurposed construction equipment.
It is noticeably better than the model it was replacing, which looks like it was originally designed for shaking nuts out of trees over on a farm.
In several scenes, characters have to repeatedly twist an actual key to get their mech’s ignition to turn over. It’s great.
It’s a remarkably on-the-pulse choice for a “down-to-earth” mech series, too. What is the closest thing we have to mechs in real life, not counting that stationary Gundam statue? It’s made by a company of about nine people who typically design farming equipment and manufacture car parts. So either the team for this did a lot of research for this project, or there’s some real serendipity going on.
When Shoji friggin’ Kawamori approves of your transforming robot design, you know you did something right.
It’s cool! I’ve been a mech fan for a long time, and I’m always happy to see new takes on the genre. Much as I enjoy Gundam and adore Macross, it’s always refreshing to see approaches outside of big space wars. Surely, this new, energizing focus on local economics and office politics is grabbing the attention of millions of anime fans, right?
Yeah! Despite being one of the medium’s formative elements, mecha remains an odd niche genre for anime watchers. There’s a recurring belief that mecha, in general, is “dead,” although we usually get a cool little robot show like Bullbuster at least once per season. It probably doesn’t help when omnipresent flag-bearers like Gundam garner more attention.
Granted, sometimes that attention isn’t necessarily for the reasons the company behind that franchise would want…
Listen, do not get me started on what has happened to Gundam Build Fighters in the last few years. I remember when that first show came out and became the most incredible toy commercial I’d ever seen. Now it’s been reduced to three-episode promos for a years-late “Gundam Metaverse” project that was so bad at data management you can now download a gunpla for yourself.
What did we just say about double-checking which files you uploaded?!
Having just checked out the first episode of the Gundam Build Metaverse anime, it seems…fine. But while the original Build Fighters was nakedly an advertisement (as all Gundam anime are, really), its energy and enthusiasm for the hobby has diminished. There’s something deeply ironic about a series that originally peppered itself with cameos of classic Gundam characters now doing that with old characters from within its meta-series.
Still, I’m not going to not laugh at Bandai going all-in on a tech trend in the hopes of finding new avenues of revenue, only to trip face-first into making their toys pirate-able.
Back in my day, our inexplicable cameos were reserved for things like Ramba Ral just being there and nobody thinking it was weird.
More importantly, it was an interesting twist on the whole Gundam franchise. It took its decades-spanning reputation within anime and funneled it all into a boisterous, sumptuously animated sports show. That was a unique angle to take, and it feels like that element’s been lost in the decade since.
It’s not like Gundam in general is all out of ideas, as the fresh spins of The Witch From Mercury and enthusiastic reactions to it showed. But given Bandai Namco’s now-infamous “interpretation” following that one’s end, following it up with this Metaverse thing and a SEED movie, it feels like there’s a sense of uncertain aimlessness about this moment in the franchise.
It’s too bad since, as we all know, Gundam is the only mecha anime ever!
Yeah, that’s one of the issues you run into with a lot of discussion around the genre. As you said, we do still get non-franchise mech shows on a fairly reliable basis. Many of them are quite good, or at least unique or atypical in their approach to the genre’s staples. Yet it never feels like any of those can get a foothold in fandom spaces. I am fresh off an entire summer of telling anyone who will listen to give Synduality: Noir a try to little avail.
Synduality was ostensibly a launchpad for a mixed-media franchise that includes manga and an upcoming video game. Which makes it that much more disappointing that it didn’t seem to move its needle much. Despite its alleged ambitions, Synduality had a pretty cool, unhurried style that I dug. It reminded me of the enjoyment I got from watching Zoids back in the day, being fun, mostly episodic robot adventures with dipshit teenagers.
It’s got a very 2000s robot-show energy to it. Thanks to being a rare two-cour series, it takes time to chill with a big ensemble of horny doofuses. Also, somebody on staff is a shameless Sheryl Nome fan since they just put her in here as a robot who marries the main character for an episode.
Also, as long as we’re spotlighting series like these as mecha anime, I must confirm that Synduality is another one with robot designs I like. The heavy customization at the behest of their pilots is a nice touch, and that kind of personalization comes through in the stylization of the cockpit interiors.
Oh yeah, I love the modular design of those things. I want a whole set of toys where you can take their limbs off to mix and match. As cool as fully humanoid robots are, I love it when shows branch out past that. It gives the combat and designs some unique identity that helps them stick out.
Bandai Namco, you heard it from us: Ease off the Gundam NFTs and put out a Synduality toy line. You’d have two whole guaranteed customers!
Also, put out some character figures. I have a buddy who would buy every bit of Ciel merch you put into plastic.
Meanwhile, talking about shows we futilely tried to talk people into watching inevitably puts me in the mind of my poor, neglected Granbelm. I’ve spilled plenty of ink trying to sell this show elsewhere, and I will continue so long as it stays stuck as the best-kept secret in both mecha and magical girl anime!
Sorry, Chris, we can’t discuss this cool original thing. Too busy having pre-emptive arguments about the new Madoka movie. Homura’s got some weird phone thing with a spinal cord in it. Gotta yell about that for a few months.
See, it’s stuff like that or the terrifying proportions of the Gundam Seed Freedom characters that take up all the time that could be spent gushing about sumptuously animated fights between adorable chibi mechs, or Aoi Yuuki giving a wonderfully unhinged evil performance.
Seriously, Granbelm rules. It’s equal parts rad-as-hell and existentially terrifying, often in the same episode. I don’t care if you’re too much of a coward to embrace the SD mechs. Put it inside your brain, chumps.
Come on, mecha fans love Super Robot Wars, and if the Granbelm bots got added in there, they wouldn’t even have to be adjusted to match the series’ chibi aesthetics!
I was surprised when Granbelm was airing to see how many people were actively put off by those robot designs. Despite having tons of identity and distinct styles even in their squat little silhouettes, it sometimes feels like you can’t win outside of sticking to the big, relatively humanoid look.
And sometimes, that’s still not enough to catch people’s eyes, even if you’re putting your entire ass into making it work.
BBK/BRNK had the unfortunate burden of being well ahead of its time. While CG mechs were pretty common when it aired, full CG anime was a much harder sell, and people unanimously rejected it. Nowadays, SANZIGEN‘s style and artistry have gotten to the point where they can produce cult favorites like BanG Dream! It’s MyGo!!!!!, but back in the day, they got lumped in with Polygon Pictures‘ eternally subpar output despite having some of the coolest super robot imagery in the entire decade.
I knew for a while I needed to check out BBK/BRNK, given my well-publicized appreciation for SANZIGEN‘s work on BanG Dream! and D4DJ. So, finally having the excuse to jump in, I was amazed to see how capable these CGI workhorses already were with the style in 2016. Even before the giant robots come out, this is a slick-looking show a lot of the time. The story I’ve seen so far seems a bit heavy on the proper-noun-laden world-building, but it’s all in service of outsized vibes that almost put me in the mind of my beloved (and mildly mecha-adjacent) Symphogear.
There’s a huge, city-flattening robot (technically, these are like giant aliens whose individual body parts are controlled by teams of five, but basically, they’re robots) fighting in the second episode. It packs more of a punch than some show manages across 50. Just going back to get screencaps was enough to impress me with how much ass it kicked right out of the gate.
The point of highlighting these overlooked mecha anime is that most of them are hidden gems, but BBK/BRNK is the truest definition of that yet. Being an original series produced by a studio that would go on to be known mainly for making (still excellent) musical mobile game tie-ins, it proves that mecha series don’t need some established pedigree to turn out awesome.
Granted, sometimes that pedigree is enough to get your foot in the door. Would I recommend Last Hope to anyone who isn’t an obsessive Shoji Kawamori enthusiast? Probably not. Yet I still greatly appreciate it, both for its uniquely direct environmental themes and for being goofy as hell.
It is a non-franchise mecha series that debuted as a Netflix original. It’s a small wonder even the power of Kawamori wasn’t enough to put Last Hope over.
Look, even I won’t tell you everything the man touches is gold. There’s a reason I don’t have anything to say about Nobunaga The Fool here. However, there is an undeniable charm to having a transforming robot that rollerblades everywhere. This is a fundamental truth of the universe.
Sometimes, storied creators throwing a party for themselves is a more enjoyable reward than any so-called “mainstream success.” It’s how we wound up with twin giants Goro Taniguchi and Kazuki Nakashima teaming up to cash the blank check written by their reputations in exchange for the wildly imperfect yet still lovable fever dream that was Back Arrow.
I wouldn’t have asked for anything else.
Back Arrow is one I kept meaning to go back to, but the passage of time makes fools of us all. Still, what I did watch of it seemed charmingly offbeat, from the weird mech (?) designs to the main character being naked for the entire premiere.
It’s the one on this list where its status as a “mecha” could most potentially be debated, as Back Arrow‘s Briheight suits sit somewhere between giant robots and massive Kamen Rider transformations. Still, the spirit of the mecha excess experience of Taniguchi and Nakashima is very much there, alongside all other manner of absurdity. There’s a mad science choir who dies partway through and is memorialized in the show’s ending sequence. There’s a transforming muscle-bound man-god who sextuple-chugs wine through his shoulders. I and four other people watched it in the same season SSSS.Dynazenon was airing, and as far as we were concerned, mecha could not have been more back!
Speaking of, if Crunchyroll et al. wants to hurry up on getting that Gridman Universe movie brought over here, I’m certainly not going to complain. That franchise has delivered some of the most bomb-ass robot fights I’ve ever seen, and I need to witness that on as big a screen as possible.
Mark me down as the second signature on that petition. The Gridman and Dynazenon anime are some of the more noticeably successful new mecha shows. That could be due to their connection to the earlier Tsubaraya tokusatsu series. Still, I will go way out on a limb and guess that Studio Trigger‘s name recognition probably helped the most. Sometimes, an established pedigree can help sway fickle audiences into trying a bite of your new series.
Being incredibly good at combining fist-pumping robot action with idiosyncratic character drama probably helps, too. Also, that swimsuit episode where the camera was glued to Rika’s thighs certainly didn’t hurt its numbers. Yet, even if it weren’t an exemplar of what the genre can be in the current era, I’d be glad to have it. No matter how niche, any genre benefits from having a broad swath of ideas on offer. Not all of them will be good or even interesting (looking at you, AMAIM), but having everything resting on a couple of decades-old franchises is an excellent way for a genre to stagnate.
I’m happy to have a show like Bullbuster, even as it’s likely doomed by its niche to fall down the seasonal memory hole. The fact that there are still demonstrably new ideas to be mined from mecha as a framework rings more hopeful for the genre than any other also-rans we could point to as proof that the genre isn’t dead. Even if that inevitably means that someone else will give another go at integrating it with isekai, despite Knights & Magic winding up no more well-remembered than almost any other show on this list.
If I have to sit through a dozen of those every season, they could at least include some cool robots.
Either way, while I can’t promise folks will enjoy Bullbuster if they’re not the kind of nerd who listens to engineering podcasts for fun, I can still recommend branching out and trying new things. There are less well-known franchises like Eureka Seven and Aquarion. There are ambitious one-offs like Star Driver. There’s even a mech show where they fight Prince. Yes, that Prince.
Like a bunch of miniature robots combining to form one giant one, the mecha genre comprises various styles and approaches. As rundowns like this demonstrate, there are so many more than just the big names. And like transforming robots disguising themselves, they can often hide right in plain sight with all the other forgotten seasonal also-rans.
Also, if you want to get mad about this mostly feature 2010s show, go yell at the streaming companies instead of us.