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Hitchhiker's Guide to the strange and wonderful world of Mecha (guest post from MAGi Trilogy author C. Lonnquist)

I just finished the deep-dive line edit of the second book in C. Lonnquist's MAGi Trilogy, a sweeping sci fi/fantasy saga that's turned me on to the bizarre and beautiful world of mecha. Defined by the talented Mr. Lonnquist: "Mecha is a subgenre of anime that focuses on large, piloted fighting suits, either mechanical or biological or both, often accompanied by giant monsters and commentaries on war and humanity." Yeah, turns out, that is a thing! When I said I'd like to explore, he sent me down the rabbit hole with this interesting Facebook conversation and today's guest post. Enjoy! ~ jr

Narratively and stylistically, this is jumping into the deep end of the pool for anime, but they're good places to get a good grasp on what Mecha is. Anime is a bit of a time investment, especially since a lot of it is subtitled and keeps you from really focusing on anything else, and a lot of it is just straight-up commercial without much value.

That said, the stuff that IS good tends to be ASTONISHINGLY good. I'd have a lot more to recommend, but these are the mecha ones that provide some insight into where MAGi comes from.

Mobile Suit Gundam: Iron-Blooded Orphans (also on Hulu)
Child soldiers on Mars, focuses on the politics and the cost of war. Pretty grim. Only 4 episodes out but cool character building thus far. Any Gundam series can be a bit hard to follow since they go for a sort of 'narrative cubism' where most of the scenes are really short and don't give a lot of time to sink in. The result is kind of a look at what's going on from all POV's at once. Thankfully, IBO is a bit lighter on this than other Gundam series. This isn't a huge influence on MAGi since it just started a month ago, but it goes for the same thinky stuff mixed with fightin' robots. Gundam series in general are good for that, and there's nearly 40 years worth of them. This is a good a place to start since it's a stand-alone and not part of the main Gundam universe.

The Vision of Escaflowne (usually just called Escaflowne)
This is the series that inspired MAGi. A mix of fantasy and mecha elements. It's old (early 90s), and since the version I could find is dubbed, you're in for some pretty lousy voice acting (anime didn't get good voice actors until the late 90's/early 00's), but it's a unique series. The concept of fate is a big mechanic towards the end, and the characters are interesting, albeit a little 2D at the start. It does take a little while to pick up speed, but that's another anime thing from that time period. Upshot of the dub is that you don't have to be as glued to the screen as other anime. Also, the mechs in Escaflowne are called guymelefs (guy-MELL-effs), which is my favorite word of all time. No joke. This series is crazy-influential on a number of my stories, with aspects showing up in MAGi, WildCard, and Ancestor Sword, and how the Crossverse works as a whole.

Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann (Or just Gurren Lagann in the US. Watch it on Hulu or Netflix)
Holy crap, I love Gurren Lagann. I love it so much. In many ways, it's a satire of what mecha is, but the kindest sort of satire. It's absolutely 100% batshit insane, and I want to live my life like the characters in this series. One of the character's catchphrases is, 'Don't believe in yourself, believe in me who believes in you.' That's the mantra I live by. If you watch this, you will think I am on drugs, but the main characters exemplify the anime/mecha concept of 'hotblood,' which, in simplest terms, means that you can beat ANYTHING thrown at you if you toss sanity to the wind and just fight a little harder for the people who believe in you. It's really goofy, it's really over the top, and it really shows just what can be done with the genre if you pretend physics/sanity/reality can't stop you. There are moments of 'hotblood' through MAGi, and they're usually some of my favorite scenes. This studio's non-mecha follow-up series, Kill la Kill, is also an amazing and really hilarious commentary on the pervy-ness of a lot of anime while still maintaining the balls-insane pace and characters of Gurren Lagaan.

RahXephon (Also on Hulu)
I almost didn't recommend this one because I only have the dub, and the voice acting is REALLY crap. Like cheap-porn-quality acting. Still, it's another one that really influenced MAGi, as there's a lot of psychological stuff and the mechs are more on the organic side. At times, the story is really, really moving (I cried during one episode when I watched this in my late teens). The plot does get a bit hard to follow (another anime thing), so you might end up using wikipedia to connect some dots, but the dub is easier to follow than the sub, so it's got that going for it. Focuses a lot on coming of age themes and feelings of isolation/depression/insanity.

Neon Genesis Evangelion
Evangelion is a little better in terms of voice quality than the others. This was the first mecha anime that changed how people thought about mecha and an example of the first time in anime that the mechs gained their own sort-of personalities. It focuses WAY more on the characters than the mechs and explores mostly how shitty it is to be a teenager and how incredibly effed-up humans are in general. Lots of weird religious stuff over top of everything, too. It is NOT a cheerful series, and it does get kinda unsettling in parts. Truth be told, I'm hesitant to recommend this one because it's similar to RahXephon, and I think RX is the better series, though most people would disagree with me. This series has been remade more recently, but I'm recommending the original. The ending isn't super-fulfilling, and there's actually a movie that takes place after it that wraps things up (by making basically no sense whatsoever.) You'd probably want to save this one for last, but it belongs on the list because many people would rank this one as the #2 mecha anime of all time. (#1 is the orignal Mobile Suit Gundam.) It's not #2 on my list, but it deserves recognition.

Cowboy Bebop
This isn't mecha, but it's on the list because it's the quintessential 'westerner' anime and super-accessible to people who haven't seen anime before. It's probably one of the top-five anime series of all time, a space-western-meets-bounty-hunter-noir sort of thing. It also does cool stuff with tone, and excels at having one episode that's tear-jerkingly sad while the next one is about the whole cast accidentally tripping on mushrooms. The soundtrack is also stupid-good, as it's composed by Yoko Kanno (who also did the music for Escaflowne). It's a good way to ease into anime in general, and just an amazing set of short stories (since most of the episodes are basically stand-alone).

FLCL (aka Fooly Cooly)
This one was made by some of the team that would go on to make Gurren Lagann, and their trademark insanity and breakneck pace are very much here. It's a very, very weird series, but it's only six episodes long, so you can get through it in less time than the most recent Transformers movie. It's technically mecha since there's a giant robot fight in every episode, but it's much more focused on the ongoing theme of how confusing puberty is, which it tackles with surprising grace, albeit with some obligatory pervyness. (I mean, c'mon, teenagers.) There's also a LOT going on in this series, so watching it once is a great, action-y ride, but watching it twice will give you a greater understanding of the more nuancy parts of the plot, even though most of those nuances are still about as subtle as a bass guitar to the face. It's also one of my favorites because of it's soundtrack, performed by the Pillows, who are kinda-sorta the Japanes equivalent of the Pixes.

If you want something that ISN'T anime that really, REALLY gives you a good feel for what the Mecha genre is, go watch Pacific Rim. Not the strongest plot or characters, but that's basically the point. It's Guillermo del Toro's love letter to the mecha genre, and it is PACKED with the themes and tropes that make mecha cool.

Other series that have influenced my writing:
Fullmetal Alchemist and Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood
Two series that are 'parallel universes' to each other. The first half of each of them is roughly the same, but they deviate into two completely different things. One of the main characters is a sentient suit of armor, but not technically mecha. These are amazingly good and get VERY dark at parts, considering the hook of the series is two young brothers dealing with the horrific fallout of trying to bring their mother back from the dead.

Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex
Cyber-punk that deals with the concepts of what we define as human and what a soul can be. The movie it's based on is not as good as the series, but a good place to start and considered one of the most defining anime of all time.

Cyber-punk social commentary on the benefits and costs of a surveillance state coupled with lots of talk about sci-fi books. This is one of my all-time favorites, as there's an entire conversation at one point between the main villains about 1984, Phillip K. Dick, and the novel Snow Crash.

Post-apocalyptic space-western about trying to be a pacifist on a lawless world. Very old-school and a bit goofy, but important because it defined the character archetypes of nearly all anime to follow.

Macross +
Short series that's basically a more emotionally driven Top Gun with mechs, AI pop-singers, and Bryan Cranston before he got famous. Also has a Yoko Kanno soundtrack, because she is amazing.

Dark, psychological sci-fi thriller. People consider Akira to be the anime that brought anime to the US. My wife demanded that this one be on the list.

C. Lonnquist's debut novel, The Will of Machines (MAGi Book I) is available on Amazon, soon to be followed by Book II: The Will of the Faithful.


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