Mecha, also known as meka or mechs, are walking vehicles controlled by a pilot, often appearing in science fiction or other genres involving a fantastic or futuristic element. Mecha are generally, though not necessarily, bipedal. In most fiction in which they appear, mecha are war machines: essentially armored fighting vehicles with legs instead of treads or wheels. Some stories, such as the manga Patlabor and American miniatures game Battletech, also encompass mecha used for civilian purposes such as heavy construction work, police functions or firefighting.
Some sci-fi universes posit that mecha are the primary means of combat, with conflicts sometimes being decided through gladiatorial matches. Others represent mecha as one component of an integrated military force, supported by and fighting alongside tanks, fighter aircraft, and infantry, functioning as a mechanical cavalry. The applications often highlight the theoretical usefulness of such a device, combining a tank's resilience and fire power with infantry's ability to cross unstable terrain. In other cases they are demonstrated with a greater versatility in armament, such as in the Armored Core series of video games where mecha can utilize their hands to carry a wide range of armament in the same manner as a person albeit on a much larger scale.
The distinction between true mecha and their smaller cousins (and likely progenitors), the powered armor suits, is blurred; according to one definition, a mecha is piloted while a powered armor is worn. Anything large enough to have a cockpit where the pilot is seated is generally considered a mecha.
The first occurrence of mecha in fiction is thought to be the novel The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells where the Martians use tripod walkers very similar to mecha, but this fails to take into account that, thirty years before, Jules Verne published the La Maison à vapeur (The Steam House), which featured a steam-powered, piloted, mechanical elephant. The first occurrence of mecha robots being piloted by a user from within a cockpit was later introduced in the manga and anime series Mazinger Z by Go Nagai.
Rarely, mecha has been used in a fantasy convention, most notably in the anime series Aura Battler Dunbine, The Vision of Escaflowne and Maze. In those cases, the mecha designs are usually based on some alternative or 'lost' science-fiction technology from ancient times.
The term "mecha" is derived from the Japanese abbreviation for the English word "Mechanical". In Japanese, "mecha" encompasses all mechanical objects, including cars, guns, computers, and other devices. In this sense, it is extended to humanoid, human-sized robots and such things as the boomers from Bubblegum Crisis, the similar replicants of Blade Runner, and cyborgs can be referred to as mecha, as well as mundane real-life objects such as industrial robots, cars and even toasters. The Japanese use the term or "giant robots" to distinguish limbed vehicles from other mechanical devices. The first widespread English language usage of the term was in the animated series Robotech which was an English dubbing and rewriting of three different anime and the terms usage since then has mostly associated in the west with either robotic (occasionally transforming) piloted vehicles or powered armored battlesuits which are worn akin to exoskeletons. There are exceptions; in the film A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, the word is used to describe "mechanicals" (robotic humanoids), as opposed to "orga" for "organics" (humans).
With respect to powered armor suits, mecha typically do not refer to form fitting garments such as the Iron Man armor. Armored suit mecha tend to be much larger and bulkier than the wearer and the wearer's limbs may or may not actually extend completely into the respective limbs.
The term "mech" is used to describe such vehicles considerably more often in Western entertainment than in Asian entertainment. "Mech" as a term originated from BattleTech (where it is often written as 'Mech, short for BattleMech or OmniMech), and is not used in Japan in other contexts except as an unintentional misspelling of "mecha." (One exception is the Japanese version of BattleTech, which attempts to retain the English word.) In Japanese, "robot" is the more frequent term (see 'Other meanings' below). In the Japanese stories themselves, they are seldom known as "mecha".
Robot mecha are quite popular in Japanese manga, and by extension anime. In Western entertainment, they are occasionally seen in video games, especially the action, strategy and simulation genres, but the most well-known Western context for mecha is BattleTech. The original BattleTech—a tabletop strategy game—has been the basis of numerous games such as games workshops warhammer 40,0000 titans and products in other media
In Japan, "robot anime" (known as "mecha anime" outside Japan) is a genre that features the vehicles and their pilots as the central plot points. Here, the average robot mecha are usually twenty feet tall at the smallest, outfitted with a wide variety of weapons, and quite frequently have tie-ins with toy manufacturers. The Gundam franchise is a prominent example: Gundam toys and model kits (produced by the Japanese toymaker Bandai) are ubiquitous in Japan.
The size of mechas can vary according to the story and concepts involved. Some of them may not be considerably taller than a tank (Code Geass, Eureka Seven), some may be a few stories tall (Gundam, Escaflowne) and others can be as tall as a skyscraper (Space Runaway Ideon). There are also mecha which are big enough to contain the population of an entire city (Macross / Robotech), some the size of a small moon (Transformers, Diebuster) and some the size of a large galaxy (Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann).
The genre started with Mitsuteru Yokoyama's 1956 manga Tetsujin 28-go (which was later animated in 1963 and also released abroad as Gigantor). Its inclusion is debatable however, as the robot was controlled by remote instead of a cockpit in the machine. Not long after that the genre was largely defined by author Go Nagai, into something considerably more fantastical. Mazinger Z, his most famous creation, was not only the first successful Super Robot anime series, but also the pioneer of the genre staples like robots being piloted by the hero from within a cockpit and weapons that were activated by the hero calling out their names ("Rocket Punch!"). According to Go Nagai:
This led to his creation of the Mazinger Z, which featured giant robots which were "piloted by means of a small flying car and command center that docked inside the head." It was also a pioneer in die-cast metal toys such as the Chogokin series in Japan and the Shogun Warriors in the U.S., that were (and still are) very popular with children and collectors.
Robot/mecha anime and manga differ vastly in storytelling and animation quality from title to title, and content ranges all the way from children's shows to ones intended for an older teen or adult audience.
Some robot mecha are capable of transformation (Macross / Robotech, Zeta Gundam, Gundam 00) or combining to form even bigger ones (see Voltron and Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann). Go Nagai is also often credited with inventing this in 1974 with the television series Getter Robo.
The mecha genre, one of the oldest genres in anime, is still alive and well in the new millennium, with revival OVAs like Getter Robo: the Last Day and Mazinkaiser from the Super Robot tradition, the recent Mobile Suit Gundam 00 and Code Geass from the Real Robot genre, and Reideen, a recent remake of the 1975 hit series Brave Raideen. Other recent anime series in the mecha genre include Heroic Age and particularly Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann, a Super Robot anime with elements from the Real Robot genre.
The Hollywood movie Aliens featured a cargoloader as a civilian mecha (although this instance blurs the line between being a mecha or an exoskeleton). The film Robot Jox, featuring two giant mech fight scenes, is another example.
One of the main characters in The Iron Giant is a giant robot.
Few companies and organizations are doing some research about it:
The first real-life mecha could be Robosaurus since it is a robotic-vehicle requiring a human to control it and was created in 1989 before the aforementioned mecha examples.