Mecha is dead, according to anime Youtube influencers who don’t watch mecha anime. Gundam and Macross certainly exist, but they’re decades old. Code Geass is nearly fifteen years old. Full Metal Panic nearing twenty.
Though all this discounts the many mecha anime of the 2010s. Shows like Knights of Sidonia, Aldnoah Zero, Gargantia on the Verdurous Planet, Valvrave the Liberator, Cross Ange, Star Driver, Majestic Prince, Heavy Object, Lagrange: The Flower of Rin-ne, Captain Earth, and Schwarzesmarken.
But I get what they mean. Mecha hasn’t been major since the ‘80s. Gundam and Macross are still the two biggest mecha franchises.
Discounting the fact that we don’t judge any other genre that way, this raises the question: How do we build the next big mecha franchise?
Historically, TV mecha anime existed to sell toys. Even the illustrious Gundam and Macross were, in part, elaborate toy commercials. In fact, plastic models helped save Gundam as a franchise.
But we’re in the 2020s now. Are model kits and action figures enough to build a mecha show on? Gundam and Macross have since grown into massive media mix brands. Creating a new major mecha franchise would require a solid foundation. Without one, it would simply pale in comparison to existing franchises.
Videogames have potential to provide a foundation for the next big mecha franchise. Mecha games tend to provide a story and a world expansive enough to build more media off of. Two example of this are Virtual-On and Armored Core.
Virtual-On is nominally an arcade game, but provides a wealth of backstory to expand upon. It’s a fleshed-out universe, but all of the worldbuilding happens outside the games. It already has artbooks, model kits, and the like, but it’s a small enough property that making an anime out of it could boost it into “major mecha franchise” territory.
Armored Core, on the other hand, is even more open. It’s more a mixture of specific themes and a specific mecha design philosophy. Multiple canons exist through the games. It’s similar to how Zoids reinvented itself multiple times through multiple series.
Though truth be told, it’s been a decade since the last Armored Core game, and nearly twenty years since the last Virtual-On game, not counting the 2018 Index/Railgun crossover. As examples, however, they have everything we’d be looking for.
Major mecha franchises are media mix projects that use anime to sell model kits, action figures, videogames, soundtracks, and other merchandise, as well as other works of media in the same universe. The merch is as important as the anime used to sell it.
Perhaps the next mecha property to see the sort of growth we’re looking for will grow out of a gacha game, similar to how Azur Lane and Girls’ Frontline exploded in popularity. Every effort, however, must be made on the part of its creators to set it up for success.
Part of what makes Gundam work so well is that it not only tells a story, but it establishes a universe. Outside of the main storyline told through the UC Gundam TV series, there are a number of side stories told through many different media.
How many Gundam OVAs are basically “Mobile Suit Gundam 00XX: Zeon Tries Something Again?”
But it works because Gundam establishes itself as that kind of franchise, up to and including multiple spin-off universes that exist independently of the main storyline. That creates an open opportunity for all kinds of different products and media, which is what we need for a major mecha franchise.
Gundam, Zeta Gundam, and other UC TV series present their stories as the experiences of a group of main characters against the background of a greater conflict spanning the entire Earth sphere. This is true for many AU Gundam series as well.
Of course the most open mecha universe won’t catch on if it fails to tell a compelling story first and foremost. This is a given. A franchise goes nowhere if people don’t resonate with the story, the characters, and the world. Creativity is the variable of success, after all.
However, many of the 2010s mecha shows I mentioned earlier had no trouble attracting an audience. Many of them still enjoy passionate fanbases. None of them, however, will be the next Gundam. They haven’t demonstrated that sort of longevity. Though that’s a lofty goal to aspire to, it’s important to understand, both from a creative perspective and from a business and marketing perspective, why Gundam is such a big deal.
If you’re out to try and approach that level of mecha franchise, set yourself up for success. On top of making the most compelling story and characters you can create, you must:
- Create a world that stories can be told in for decades
- Design machines that aren’t difficult to make into merchandise
- Establish common themes that are timeless
- Have something you can sell (besides the media itself)
We study successes of the past so we can hope to replicate that success in our own endeavours. While mecha has fallen to the wayside, it’s far from dead, and had certainly seen resurgence in recent years.
And while nothing can replace Gundam, I do think we can hope to see the beginnings of the next major mecha franchise in the coming years.