While it’s unlikely that a live-action mecha film is ever going to satisfy fans (G-Savior sure didn’t, Robotech won’t, Pacific Rim sorta did), that hasn’t stopped people from trying. In the ’80s and ’90s, it wasn’t uncommon to see Japanese promotional videos and commercials based on mecha franchises, but most were low-budget projects that often boiled down to little more than a couple of actors driving around holding airsoft guns (see the Appleseed video, below).
Gunhed way back in 1989 may have been the biggest exception, and the closest thing we got to a decent live-action mecha film until Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim in 2013. In 1994 there was even talk of doing a Macross film in Hollywood that never went anywhere, much as I expect the Robotech film that’s been “in the works” for years now will never actually see theaters. WETA was even working on a live-action adaption of Evangelion, back when ADV Films still existed.
Considering the inevitable disappointment of Hollywood’s anime adaptions and pap like Michael Bay’s Transformer films, maybe it’s best if we just stick with the cheap commercials. Read on!
While the Appleseed OVA from 1988 was a noble (if unsuccessful) effort to adapt Masamune Shirow’s post-apocalyptic manga for home video, it’s hard to say the same about this live-action promotional video whipped up to advertise the OVA. Sure, the Briareos costume is impressive, but there’s not much else here. But the best part? Those EGA computer graphics.
FRONT MISSION: GUN HAZARD 
Despite being the first sequel to Squaresoft’s 1995 mecha game Front Mission for the Super Famicom, Gun Hazard deviated its progenitor’s formula by ditching the turn-based strategy formula for side-scrolling action. Both games are great in there own way, but this commercial falls short of capturing just how fun Gun Hazard actually is. Filmed in Nevada with an actor that admittedly looks like a dead-on version of the game’s hero, they certainly could have done worse. You can even find a translated behind-the-scenes article about the commercial on the Front Mission Series Translation Project’s download page.
Long before there was Patlabor: New Generation, there was this live-action trailer (using some charming late-90s CG work for the Ingram) that was included with the Patlabor Playstation game. The Ingram redesign is hard enough to stomach, but it’s difficult to imagine watching a whole film like this. Patlabor being Patlabor, it wouldn’t be hard to come up with a plot that didn’t require a lot of labor action, but something tells me the filmmakers wouldn’t have had that kind of restraint. It also serves as a reminder that for all New Generation did wrong, at least they built an actual Ingram.
Kow Yokoyama’s SF3d/Maschinen Krieger series is a personal favorite of mine (and I’ll be doing a big post about it at some point) but now, let’s take a look at Nutrocker, a promotional video from 1985. The odd name comes from a hover vehicle that featured predominantly in the series. The video itself isn’t too bad, although the acting and model work isn’t going to knock your socks off.
Released on VHS and Beta back in 1985, Nutrocker cost 9,800yen, which is about the same that a single episode of an OVA would run you back then. For more information on Nutrocker (including an interview with one of the actors), check out Roger Harkavy’s website about the video.
While it’s not clear if Yokoyama had any involvement in the production of Nutrocker (and a look at the cast and crew list suggests he didn’t), but he did do some live-action work during the 1980s, like this commercial for Pocari Sweat starring Cindy Crawford.
With mechanical designs by Shoji Kawamori (Macross, Gundam 0083) and a tie-in manga by Kia Asamiya (Silent Möbius, Zeorymer), plus a decent budget and an international cast, Gunhed certainly had the potential to be the first really great mecha movie. It didn’t quite live up to the hype, but the designs and model work were ace, and American fans even got the manga translated (and in color) via Viz Comics.
The movie managed to make enough of an impact in the ’90s that it popped up as footage in Front Line Assembly’s Mindphaser video and William Gibson’s novel Virtual Light features an armored patrol car nicknamed “Gunhead.”