Thursday, January 26, 2006

Ultra Mecha Ace, Unit 0, Go!

I'm no otaku---though I've played one on TV---but I've seen my fair share of anime. I've noticed a few themes that recur repeatedly in Japanese animation, specifically science-fiction anime. The first 3 you've probably noticed; the others, maybe not. Are you interested in reading about them? Oh. Well here they are anyway. Ready, ikimashou.


Giant robots, are, of course, the hallmark cliche of anime. Sometimes, the mecha are truly autonomous robots; sometimes they are vehicles/machines piloted by humans or other sentient creatures. In the later case, the mecha may be so small as to be just power armor. In all cases, however, they are roughly humanoid in shape or, if transformable, have at least one humanoid configuration. Notable examples include Robotech (Super Dimension Fortress Macross, Super Dimension Cavalry Southern Cross, and Genesis Climber Mospeada rewritten rolled into a single series), all 3 Voltron series, Neon Genesis Evangelion, Patlabor, Tranzor Z ( Mazinger Z), all the Gundam series, and too many more to list.


Sub-Cliche: Gaijin as Nihonjin

After giant robots, perhaps the most famous trait of anime is the style in which the characters are drawn. In particular, they invariably have large, round eyes. These eyes are intended to make the characters more endearing and expressive, but, to Western viewers at least, the round eyes and other features, make all the characters look Caucasian. I won't bother listing examples for this one; just turn on any anime series.

Sub-Cliche: Crazy Hair

Anime characters are also famous for huge, gravity-defying, hairstyles that divide into peaky, pointed clumps. (How much animated hair spray do you suppose the average anime character goes through in his average animated day?) Anime hair is also distinctively colored; blue, green, and purple are commonly found. And dye isn't the explanation; based on the context and the characters involved, the crazy colors seem to be natural. As before, providing examples would be pointless, so I won't bother. Pick a show at random.

THE TEAM OF FIVE (more or less)

(This one's my personal favorite.) Often in anime, the central characters form some kind of formal or informal team. The team members usually number about 5, and they belong to these categories:
  • The Cool Guy. This is usually the leader of the team, and he's often the central character. And yes, he's generally the coolest one.

  • The Slightly Less Cool Guy. This character often supports the Cool Guy/protagonist; sometimes he's the Cool Guy's best friend, sometimes he simply servers to as a contrast, to show just how cool the cool guy is. Occasionally this is a slightly darker character.

  • The Big Guy. This character can be musclebound, but more often, he's simply fat. The Big Guy often serves as the comic relief.

  • The Girl. Yep, there's usually just one girl, though that seems to be changing as even Japan becomes less sexist. The Girl can be a romantic interest for one of the other characters, but that is not often the case.

  • The Kid/Nerd. This character is sometimes just a kid, and sometimes just a nerd, but he can be both. Not surprisingly, he often wears glasses and provides comic relief.

Note that sometimes the roles can be combined. In particular, the kid can sometimes also be the token girl. In other cases, the central team may include additional characters, though they will frequently fall into one of the above archetypes. (If nothing else, I've cleverly written my description of the Slightly Less Cool Guy vaguely enough to include almost any character.)

Examples of series featuring a team of exactly these 5 members include Battle of the Planets/G-Force (Science Ninja Team Gatchama), and the Lion Voltron series, among others. Examples of series featuring slightly fewer or more characters that nonetheless match my descriptions include
Cowboy Bebop,and Robotech, the New Generation (Mospeada),

Sub-Cliche: Not-Quite-Uniform Uniforms

When the central characters are part of a formal team, often a military unit, they usually wear a "uniform" that is not uniform. Almost always, everyone has his or her own signature color. (Black, blue, red, green, and yellow are the standard colors for the Team of 5, although the Girl can sometimes be pink.) Additionally, sometimes a character's uniform will differ to reflect his or her gender or special skills. Examples include Battle of the Planets/G-Force, Voltron, and Robotech, the Macross Saga.


Frequently, a single visionary inventor is responsible for developing a crucial technology, often a mecha or vehicle. In this case, his son (or sometimes daughter, nephew, or niece) will invariably be chosen, out of sheer nepotism, to pilot/operate the mecha/vehicle/whatever his or her father/uncle created or contributed to. Examples include Tranzor Z and Evangelion.


These stories often take place in a post-apocalyptic setting where, among other disasters, Tokyo has been destroyed. But don't give up hope, because Tokyo is almost invariable reborn as Neo Tokyo, Tokyo 3, or some such. Examples include Akira and Evangelion.


Given that Tokyo has been destroyed---but rebuilt, never fear!---I suppose it makes sense for the military---I mean self-defense force---and research corporations to hide all their top-secret (and usually mecha-related) projects underground. Still, these complexes are immense, often with enormous open volumes. The GICs always engender questions in my mind:

  • How do they support the earth over such huge caverns?

  • How long did it take them to dig these things out? I mean, the Chunnel took 15,000 workers over 7 years, and these GICs are much bigger.

  • Where did the put all the dirt? Seriously, if these series and films are any indication, it seems as if roughly a quarter of the Japanese archipelago has been undermined. Shouldn't the rest of the country be 100 meters higher now? Or maybe they solved the overpopulation problem by making all the islands larger.

Examples of giant underground complexes include those in Akira and Evangelion, but they can be found elsewhere.

I hope you've enjoyed this little tour of anime cliches. (If not, I'll be glad to give you your money back.) Can you think of any that I missed? If so, feel free to comment. (If you're only planning to comment that my hair looks stupid today or that my momma dresses me funny, please keep that to yourself.)

Doumo arigatou gozaimashita.


  1. Anonymous6:27 PM

    I am by no mean expert in anime, but I believe there are four common themes or clichés not mentioned here

    The plot of a many anime movies involves some conflict involving humans and some really advanced technology. GIANT ROBOTS are just a plot manifestation of the conflict. Movies like “The Matrix” ripped-off this conflict from anime. Notable examples include Akira, Ghost in the Shell I and II, Battle Angel, Metropolis, and Princess Mononoke.

    Nearly every anime movie I have seen has some mass destruction at the end. Lots and lots of destruction: Neo-Tokyo yet destroyed again, etc. . Notable examples include Akira, Princess Mononoke, Vampire Hunter D- Bloodlust, etc.

    This is common theme, about some female having some tremendous, unexplained power over all of humanity. Notable examples include Princess Mononoke, Metropolis, and Ghost in the Shell.
    In my opinion, sometimes associated with this theme is a confusion between “cute” and “sexy”. Sometimes this leads to some bizarre stuff, but I digress.

    This character typically serves a part comic relief and part guide for the protagonist. And usually this character is not what he appears to be, just like when Luke met Yoda in “The Empire Strikes Back”. The crazy old guy is very powerful. Notable examples include Ninja Scroll, and Wicked City. I guess you could throw Princess Mononoke in there too.

  2. Good comments, Dr. Zeptodude. Now that you mention them, I realize I've seen all those clichés myself.

  3. Anonymous2:55 PM

    Off the top of my head the one major one which seems to be missing is the Uber powerful move.


    Invariably this is the last hope to save the world and relies almost entirely on the main character. In the key moment during the second to last episode of the season this move succeeds and the main character is the biggest badass around. That is until next season when a more powerful move will be required.

    Notable examples include DBZ, Bleach, Rurouni Kenshin, Naruto, X: The Series, and Hikaru no Go. The last three are minor variations.
    Naruto: The bad guys tend to be his level.
    X: It is the not so cool guy that gets to pull of the uber move, but for once it doesn't work.
    Hakaru no Go: It is Go strategy instead of combat.