It is quite plain that a certain level of anti-mecha sentiment festers among the anime fans. In my recent memory, Impz wrote about it, and so did Steven den Beste. The core belief here is mecha series generally tend to suck because the shiny metal takes the focus away from the characters and the story.
I used to subscribe to this notion, but I am starting to wonder if it's true at all.
Over the years I saw a number of series and movies with mecha in them, and taking stock it becomes clear that quite a number of them did not suck outright. Here is the cream of the crop:
- Banner of the Stars: I'm going to go on a limb and consider the assault ship a degenerative mecha. It is crewed with 20, but we only ever see 5. The amount of gizmo obsession going around there can put Macross to shame (I am talking about the cutaway views of VF-1 here). Fans of the franchize discuss solemnly the imaginary properties of weapons and ships in the way Gundam fans do. So it really is a mecha series, but it provides excellent story and characters.
- Dai-Guard: An underappreciated series with the goofiest-looking giant robot. Surprisingly deep characters and an interesting storyline, and there's more going on than meets the eye at first. I think I watched it first at a convention when nothing else was available. What a serendipitous chance.
- Stellvia/Vandread: Essentially twin series in my mind. Decent story and characters in both, although the mecha is not goofy like in Dai-Guard, just impossible and/or magical. Stellvia I watched because I liked the OP; SDB's relentless advocacy made me watch Vandread.
- Gurren-Lagann: This I dropped after the 3 episodes to ease my fansubbing duty because I knew it was going to be licensed. But it's a very decent series with manic action. Bloggage was quite positive.
- IDOLM@STER Xenoglossia: Dropped too, but it's on my list to watch if I have money when it's licensed in R1. Cutest animation; characters somewhat shallow, IMHO; plot is driven by a conspiracy and girlmecha.
- Macross, or whatever the right name is. I place it undeservingly low on the list, I know. More about it below...
- Martian Successor Nadesico: Parts are good, parts are bad. Referrential, breaks the 4th wall, uses patterns too much, has filler, and the harem lead sucks. But it still has a certain amount of goodness. I haven't seen the ending yet.
To be sure, quite a number sucked as well. I didn't like NGE much (although perhaps I didn't watch it right), GiTS:SAC was a silly derivative, Sakura Wars the Movie was ruined by the whitewashing of the prewar Japan, Dual was not too bad as far as mindless fluff goes, but failed to resolve the harem, Escaflowne the Movie was goth, Voltron's mechanical tigers were ludicros, Macron 1 was just old rank-and-file series, Saber Rider and the Star Sheriffs ditto, and the less is said about Zoids, the better (except that admitting to watching that should be as embarrassing as to watching Yu-Gi-Oh).
In the end, the final suck ratio is not that bad. Harems produce about the same divide, too, for instance. It may be some kind of Sturgeon law in action. Why single out mecha for punishment then? There's no rational reason.
But if done right, mecha provides interesting possibilities. My personal favourites would be the ace and power multiplier. They were provided by air forces, especially during the WWII, in the real life, so they are realistic. Anyone with a martial arts experience knows how a stick multiplies power of an adept user, but is dangerous for an inept one. More sophisticated weapons tend to magnify this effect. This is how Galland's Experten, Bong, Pokryshkin, and Sakai came about. These people were fascinating. All mecha needs to do is take this a bit further (but it has to stop before the progression reaches the absurd if director is any good).
Now that my worldview is adjusted, I'm going to give mecha a fair consideration. In simple words, gotta see me some of dat. But what?
Gundam is obvious. I always avoided it because the franchize was too extensive, with a truly bewildering array of series. But after reading about it on the Net, it appears that there's not all that much that stands out. I saw some of the W in the U.S. broadcast and the story seemed overstretched. The 0083 looked like having good comedic moments (I wanna hear the following classic in the original Japanese: "Yes, sir!" -- "Don't call me ``sir'', you idiot! I'm your enemy!"), but it was too little. Brickmuppet linked an article about 0080 at ANN, which seemed interesting but not quite there. So, after careful consideration, I'm going to look at 08th MS Team for starters and then we'll see.
I'd love to see Macross too. I saw bits and pieces here and here, and it looked intriguing. But I still cannot figure out what the definitive version is. Also, it's long in all incarnations.
Finally, I am going to watch the new NGE movie. Maybe Asuka is not such a bad bitch in it anymore. One can only hope.
These three items should do mecha justice that it was denied, and I'm going to keep an open mind in the future (Kaminaaaaaaaaa).
UPDATE: Nick Istre writes:
Just to throw out one hypothesis, it might be a reaction to the sometimes rabid fanbase of mecha? I know a few people who are hardcore mecha fans. Heck, a few of them form the core of "Mechacon" that's held here in Louisiana.
Reader Michael Gardner asks what is GiTS:SAC a derivative of. Of the original movie, of course, which was quite good. Coincidently, the movie didn't have any mecha (unless we consider a tank a mecha). It certanly didn't have a mechanical insect with an outhouse stuck to its butt.
UPDATE: Oh, snap. Netflix lists 08th MS Team as "3-disc series", starting with v.2 (ep.4). It's not just "availability unknown", but seems like v.1 never existed. Now what? RACS seems to have v.1 on sale for $12.98... I wish I knew it last week when the previous order went in (I gave up on hunting RahXephon and just ordered a thinpack). Still, ordering a standalone v.1 seems retarded, so I suppose the best course of action would be to netflix v.2, check if it's any good, then get a thinpack. Hey, the out-of-order thing is all the rage these days since it worked for Haruhi.
UPDATE: Owen insists that I watched Code Geass. In my judgement, it is too fresh to rub with the likes of 08th MS Team, so I added it to the common queue. It is #40 now. I might see it in about 18 months from now if nothing bumps it.
UPDATE 2007/09/10: Fledge makes a post about upcoming live-action Robotech (which is an ugly child of Macross, or perhaps vice versa). I am not holding my breath, because of two words: Wing Commander. Hollywood is capable of trampling any great franchize into dirt.