Gattai: The Global Interplay of Mecha Design

This article originally appeared in Ex.Mag #4.

The modern concept of mecha was formed on Japanese TV screens in the ‘70s and ‘80s as brightly-colored cartoons meant to sell toys and models to kids. Shipped overseas and repackaged, in the ensuing decades the concept of “giant robots” has become a global phenomenon, the stuff of Hollywood films, video games, TV shows, and more. But even back then, as much now, the art of big robots has bore witness to a range of global contributions, influences, and shared inspiration.

Foundational Japanese giant robot series were inspired by Western science-fiction, Western science-fiction borrowed profusely from Japanese designers, and as has always been the case, pop culture is a globally shared phenomenon. Before the widespread use of the internet, when anime fans had to share videos on video cassettes and write a letter or pick up a phone to reach out, this influence seemed a bit more indirect. Things are different now, of course, and global collaborators can work together on mecha media much more directly and much more easily.

Studio Nue’s Starship Troopers‘ Powered Suit.

Soldiers in Space & Powered Suits

Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, first published in 1959, was a formative science fiction novel that featured the concept of exo-suits of armor used by humans to fight off the invading “bugs.” In 1975, Japanese publisher Hayakawa commissioned detailed schematics of the powered suits of Starship Troopers for SF Magazine from artists Naoyuki Katoh and Kazutaka Miyatake. In doing so, they created the prototypical “powered suit.”

Katoh and Miyatake were members of a design studio called Studio Nue, which would later become most famous for creating the TV series Super Dimension Fortress Macross [1982], but in the 1970s they were best known for providing design work for anime and their work on Starship Troopers (or, as the novel was titled in Japan, “Soldiers in Space”). In 1979, Hayakawa published a new edition of Starship Troopers and asked Katoh to do the packaging design, cementing the Studio Nue powered suit as a pillar of mecha design. Katoh went on to become a legendary illustrator beyond the mecha genre (and continued to work with Hayakawa for years to come), while Miyatake helped shape the look of mechanical design in the 1980s. Miyatake had grown up in Yokosuka, home to an American naval base, and spent his childhood watching ships come and go, forging an early interest in mechanical design.

The 1979 edition of Starship Troopers was something of a phenomenon and helped kick off an obsession with powered suits; small-scale mechanical armor that stood in stark contrast to the towering, brightly colored giant robots commonplace in 1970s TV anime. Contemporary designers found inspiration in Katoh and Miyatake’s design, which looked detailed and realistic enough to be feasible in the real world. Other designers pursuing the notion of smaller, more realistic mecha included Katshuhiro Otomo’s designs in his short manga Fireball [1979] and Kow Yokoyama’s designs for SF3D [1982], a photo novel series published in Hobby Japan magazine. These powered suit designs came at a time when brightly colored, giant robots were giving way to the more realistic designs inspired by the success of Mobile Suit Gundam. While Gundam and its wildly successful model kits inspired a boom in the early ‘80s, most of the designs for TV were still much larger and more implausible than the simple mecha of Starship Troopers, Fireball, and SF3D.

Yokoyama’s SF3D designs are worth mentioning in this context because they leaned heavily on World War II aesthetics, in part because the real-world machines and vehicles were in their DNA. Yokoyama wasn’t just an illustrator, but also an incredibly skilled scratch builder and his designs for SF3D were realized in three dimensions by combining bits of plastic model kits, simple objects like ping-pong balls, and hand-sculpted pieces. Yokoyama borrowed parts from subjects as disparate as a T-62 tank, a Detomaso Pantera, and a Cyclon Raider from Battleship Galactica to create a science fiction aesthetic that was fresh and distinctive, but grounded in enough real-world design to feel appealing to those unsatisfied with the giant robots of TV.

Finding inspiration in real-world mechanics wasn’t just limited to those scratch-building models, though. In 1982, Shoji Kawamori (a member of Studio Nue alongside Katoh and Miyatake) was designing the primary mecha for Macross. Kawamori’s transforming robot could change from a bipedal robot into a fighter jet, finding inspiration in two real-world aircraft; the Grumman F-14 Tomcat for its variable-sweep wing design and general shape and the experimental XB-70 Valkyrie for its name. In doing so, the VF-1 Valkyrie of Macross found itself based on enough existing tech to feel like it could be a reality in a few years… at least until it turned into a 13-meter-tall robot.

The Studio Nue powered suit was iconic, though, and it lived on in multiple forms throughout the ‘80s. In the early ‘80s, a group of fans held a science fiction convention in the city of Osaka, dubbed Daicon III (the name a wordplay on one of the Chinese characters in the name of Osaka and a large Japanese root vegetable), this event was the 20th occurrence of the Nihon SF Taikai, the “Japan SF Convention.” Based on the old-school format of Western science-fiction conventions like Worldcon, the Nihon SF Taikai was held at a different city each year and blended Japanese science-fiction and manga with a range of traditional science-fiction guests from overseas (typically authors). The organizers of Daicon III (who later went on to form Gainax, a studio responsible for, among other things, Neon Genesis Evangelion) were a bit extra and produced their own animation short for the convention’s opening ceremony. Drawing from science fiction from around the world, this short film prominently featured the Studio Nue powered suit albeit redesigned slightly by future Evangelion director Hideaki Anno. The Studio Nue design appeared in animated form again years later when Miyatake revised his original design for the direct-to-video anime series Starship Troopers [1988].

As an interesting aside, the two direct-to-DVD 3D CG Starship Troopers movies released in the 2010s were directed by Shinji Aramaki, who cut his teeth as a director on the direct-to-video anime film MADOX-01 [1987]. Aramaki’s design for the titular powered suit in that film was very clearly inspired by the Studio Nue powered suit. Hideaki Anno was, coincidentally, also a key animator on MADOX-01, a film that was one of the very first anime titles released with English subtitles aimed at American anime fans.

The Daicon crew existed in a time before the epithet “otaku” was used to derisively describe obsessive fans and their own interests were drawn from an eclectic melange of Western science-fiction, Japanese live-action superhero shows, and anime. The opening page of the Daicon III convention booklet featured a scrawl borrowed from Star Wars and after the event, when they launched their own model kit and merchandise shop, they used the name “General Products” borrowed (with permission) from Larry Niven’s Ringworld novels.

Star Wars [1977] marquee in Japan.

Star Wars & The Sci-Fi Boom

The same year that Hayakawa’s Starship Troopers re-release hit shelves, anime studio Sunrise and director Yoshiyuki Tomino unleashed their TV series Mobile Suit Gundam [1979] on airwaves. While not a huge success initially, a groundswell of fan support, a trilogy of compilation films, and an all-new model kit line from Bandai turned Gundam into a bonafide phenomenon over the next few years. Gundam followed the success of Star Wars [1977], which kicked off a worldwide science-fiction obsession and in some cases drew obvious influences from George Lucas’ film (the beam sabers being one of the most obvious examples).

Gundam’s presentation of space colonization, both in concept and execution, was directly shaped by the work of Gerard O’Neill, most notably his book The High Frontier: Human Colonies in Space. O’Neill’s cylindrical design for a space colony was used extensively throughout the series and became almost as much of an icon of the series as the giant robots.

In regards to both Star Wars and O’Neill, in an interview in 1993 with Animerica magazine Tomino admitted how important both of those aspects were in the creation of his ground-breaking series, saying, “The space-colony concept and Star Wars were very much an influence on me; in fact, you could say that they’re the basis for the whole Gundam drama.” It’s worth remembering that Star Wars’ popularity kicked off a science-fiction boom that even Japan was not immune to.

Sometimes that resulted in obvious influences, and sometimes it inspired Japanese creators to do something different. That was the case when Miyatake and Kawamori were deep in the development of a show called Genocidus, which, while never produced, eventually led to the development of Macross. During the development process of this early ill-fated project, Miyatake and Kawamori were both experimenting with different mechanical designs and both had settled on the idea of using reverse-jointed knees. Then they saw an advance screening of Empire Strikes Back [1980], which featured both bipedal (AT-STs) and four-legged (AT-ATs) mecha with reverse jointed knees. Unaware of these designs prior to seeing them on the big screen, Miyatake was apparently “gutted” at seeing such similar designs already in use. While the reverse-jointed knee would appear in Macross in supporting mecha like those of the giant Zentradi and the intermediary GERWALK form of the VF-1, it would not be as prominent as they had originally intended for Genocidus.

The success of Gundam and its model kits kicked off their own boom, as toy and model kit manufacturers rushed to replicate the show’s success. These shows became increasingly estranged from the over-the-top designs of the ‘70s, as designers pushed smaller, grittier designs that embraced reality (as much as a giant robot could) and spurred on by model kit trends that were blending the worlds of real-world subjects and giant robots. Notable examples include Ryosuke Takahashi’s Fang of the Sun Dougram [1981] and Armored Trooper VOTOMS [1982], as well as Studio Nue’s aforementioned Macross series.

While the airwaves were flooded with giant robots of increasingly varied shapes and sizes, hobby shops were flooded with mecha models. A strange confluence of the exchange rate and the Star Wars science-fiction boom meant that Japanese robot kits started showing up all over the world, particularly in the United States. The low value of the Japanese yen meant that these affordable kits by companies like Bandai, Takara, and Imai were easy to export and soon model shops around the world began putting the likes of Gundam, Dougram, and Macross kits on their shelves. The shows weren’t as easy to export, but giant robot anime was starting to appear in places it hadn’t before. In the United States, the rise of cable and UHF channels created a need for programming, and dubbed imports often fit the bill. Following in the footsteps of Starblazers [1979] (a reworked version of Space Battleship Yamato [1974]), the most memorable of the bunch were Voltron [1984] (which adapted Beast King GoLion [1981] and Armored Fleet Dairugger XV [1982]) and Robotech[1985] (which adapted Macross, Super Dimension Cavalry Southern Cross [1984] and Genesis Climber MOSPEADA [1983]).

The distribution of these shows wasn’t always equal, though. Outside of English-speaking countries, the distribution of giant robot anime could be wildly different, which is why viewers in France and Francophone countries might have had a deep appreciation for Goldorak (originally broadcast in Japan as UFO Robot Grendizer [1975]) and Italy loved Mazinga Z (originally known as Mazinger Z [1972]), but neither of those shows failed to find the same success in English-speaking countries.

Battletech 2nd Edition game, featuring mecha designs from Macross and Dougram. [source]

Battletech & Unseen Mechs

The Plaza Accord of 1985 agreed to depreciate the value of the U.S. dollar relative to the Japanese yen, and with it, model kits were no longer ridiculously cheap to import. It was also the reason, according to anime pioneer and U.S.-based writer/director Carl Macek, that the sequel to Robotech (which was to have been a U.S.-Japan co-production with Japanese animation studio Tatsunoko) was canceled after just a few episodes. However, the proliferation of Japanese robot model kits had one other lasting impact: Battletech.

Tabletop game manufacturer FASA used designs from Macross, Dougram, and Crusher Joe in their giant robot wargame, titled Battletech. The origins and specifics of how exactly those designs came to be found in Battletech are a bit murky and have led to at least a couple of court cases, but the general consensus seems to be that FASA began using them via an agreement with Twentieth Century Imports, or TCI, which was a mail order retailer at the forefront of the imported model kit game in the mid-’80s. For a while, TCI was selling Japanese kits with Battletech data cards included and it seems possible that FASA was under the impression TCI had the rights to license the designs of the kits themselves. After all, TCI did have some exclusive distribution rights for North America. Whether this misunderstanding was malicious or accidental is not exactly clear. This became a major issue years down the line when Harmony Gold, the company behind Robotech and the rights holder to the original Macross series overseas, went after FASA for using Macross designs in their products.

The result was that those anime-appropriated designs disappeared from Battletech products entirely (to this day they’re referred to as the “Unseen Mechs” in fan circles), but by then the damage had already been done; Battletech had exposed people to the idea of giant robots via their successful tabletop games, video games, and mid-‘90s TV series. The story of the Unseen Mechs had an unusual twist, however, because when Battletech was licensed for distribution in Japan, the Japanese publishers approached none other than Studio Nue (responsible for the designs of both Macross and Crusher Joe) to overhaul the designs for the Japanese language edition.

Battletech isn’t as prominent as it once was, but it did leave English-speaking fans with one unique artifact: the word “mech” to refer to giant robots.

Syd Mead Mobile Suit Gundam painting of Zeon mobile suits attacking Side 7.

Syd Mead & More Gundam

Perhaps the most prominent example of the cross-cultural proliferation of giant robots rests within the work of a single person, futurist and designer Syd Mead. In addition to working on films like Blade Runner [1982] and ALIENS [1986], both of which had a profound influence on anime of the ‘80s and ’90s. While only occasionally dabbling in mecha design, Mead’s designs still captured the imagination of diehard fans in the 1980s. General Products sold at least two garage kits based on Mead’s Spinner design from Blade Runner alongside their Studio Nue powered suit kits, for example.

When Lion’s Gate Film (not to be confused with Lionsgate Films, founded in the late ‘90s) began working on a Hollywood adaption of Gundam in 1983, they approached Mead to produce a couple of paintings based on scenes from the script and to illustrate some orthographic drawings of the mobile suits to aid with the CGI models they planned to use. This adaption never made it out of pre-production, with a script, some storyboards, and a few of Mead’s illustrations being the only things to show for the project. Years later Mead worked on Gundam again, much more notably, as the mechanical designer for the TV series Turn A Gundam [1999]. In the mid-‘90s he also worked on Yamato 2520, a sequel to the original Yamato that was canceled after a few episodes due to legal disputes.

Mead led the way in plenty of areas, but his pioneering work here can’t be understated. The idea of a Western artist working on a Japanese giant robot series seemed absolutely wild in 1999, but today that type of international collaboration is common. This is thanks, at least in part, to the connectivity of the internet and the global rise in popularity of Japanese pop culture. Rather than being siloed, giant robot and mecha projects, be they anime, video games, or otherwise, can now feature global collaborators for a global market. No one bats an eye when French artist Thomas Romain does design work for shows like Space Dandy [2013] or Macross Delta [2016], mechanical designer Junji Okubo designs new Stormtroopers for Star Wars Visions [2021], or artist Shinya Mizuno designs robots for Zecha Tactics, a game currently under development by the Thai development studio Bit Egg.

In the end, giant robots belong to everybody. Purists may turn up their noses at Pacific Rim [2013] or scoff at the suggestion of Hollywood finally doing right by Gundam this time around, but appreciation for giant robots is a global phenomenon and has been for years; it’s just now finally in the mainstream. In Japanese, “gattai” means to combine and within the context of giant robot shows of the ‘70s and ‘80s, the word was used to describe separate robots that would combine to form one, larger, more powerful robot. That’s a decent analogy for mecha media today; different forms, different influences, stronger together.