Why Big, Badass Robots (and Mecha) Rule JapanS

The heat was unbearable. A group of kids scurried to find shade, but they did't find it under trees.

A 59-foot robot statue towered over the people and shops below. Made of steel, it's far larger than the inflatable 26-foot Gigantor erected in Tokyo's Shinjuku earlier this month. That Gigantor, née Tetsujin-28, might be filled with hot air, but its brethren are made of steel. Both types join a laundry list of giant robots that tower over Japan.

Japan is crazy about robots and mecha—the bigger, the better. If there's another thing Japan's gaga for, it's actually building them. And not just to look at, but actual, operational giant mechas—for children, even!

The statues of these robots and mechas are the landmarks that proudly scream, this is what we dreamed, this is what we did, and this is what we can do.

In Japan, it's important to note that the words "robot" and "mecha" are sometimes used interchangeably by fans and creators as well.

MIGHTY ATOM - Astro Boy is a modern retelling of Pinocchio, but it also epitomizes the view of robots that they are good and can make our lives easier. More importantly, the manga and animated TV series defined Japanese anime, and its impact is still felt today.

In English, there's a clear distinction. "In a Western sense at least, robots are normally artificially intelligent machines," doublesix game designer Ollie Barder, currently working on Strike Suit Zero, told me. "Whereas mecha, as a term at least, is broader and normally encompasses vehicles piloted by people." In Japanese, "robot" is often used for both machines that move and also humanoid machines, which is why it's not uncommon to see the word "robot" slapped on mecha toys.

The 1950s saw the rise in popularity of robots in comics, thanks in large part to Astro Boy in 1952. While Astro Boy wasn't a giant robot, 1956's Tetsujin-28 was. The manga was inspired by the U.S. firebombing of Kobe and the notion of top secret super weapons. Tetsujin-28 was a modern take on the Frankenstein monster, with a little boy able to control the enormous robot's every move. It was, in a way, a fantasy version of a real Metal Gear.

Why Big, Badass Robots (and Mecha) Rule JapanS
A large Gundam model poses with a female model. (Bandai Namco)

The robot, with its round curves, looks different from the origami folded-paper mecha designs made popular in the late 70s and throughout the 1980s. Yet, it remains an iconic Post War robot, today inspiring a whole new generation of kids, like my son who visited a 1/1 scale version after it was erected two years ago.

My son and his grandfather packed a lunch and took the train out to Hyogo Prefecture to see the 59-foot statue that cost over a million and half dollars to build. The money was raised by local shopkeepers, and the end result was not-for-profit, but rather, as a monument to the power of the imagination. Seeing the huge life-sized robot made my son an instant fan.

The infamous life-sized Gundam, which was first erected in 2009 in Tokyo's Odaiba, was for profit, backed by corporate Gundam interests, and it wasn't the first life-sized Gundam Mobile Suit (a few years earlier, a reclining 1/1 scale Gundam was built at a Japanese theme park).

The standing Gundam was moved to the Bandai Namco toy factory in Shizuoka where Gundam plastic models and figures are made, but returned to Tokyo this month in pieces (possibly as a result of being damaged during the March 11 earthquake). For ¥500 (US$6.50), visitors could view the enormous 1/1 scale mecha up close and sit in the Mobile Suit's hand and pose for photos.

Why Big, Badass Robots (and Mecha) Rule JapanS
A life-sized Gundam towers over Tokyo trees. (Koji Sasahara | AP)

The life-sized Gundam is the stuff of dreams, and the stuff of reality. Gundam figures and models were originally created so that fans could own and build the Mobile Suits; they were at an attainable scale. You could hold these mechas in your hands. Holding them in your hands did allow them to populate bookshelves, but didn't provide a concrete representation of their true scale.

By making the mecha figures life-sized, that took them out of the bedroom and put them in the real world. These life-sized mecha statues are not true mechas—are don't walk around and swing their weapons. But they are real representations of the Mobile Suits' immensity, bringing them one planted step closer to reality.

These are not the first huge robot statues in Japan. The first include fan-made creations. Most notably, there is an unofficial 1/3 scale, MSZ-006 Zeta Gundam inspired "Giant Mobile Suit" that was designed and created in 1999 by a Gundam maniac. The robot, located in the sleepy town of Tsuyama, even appears on the city's website as a local tourist attraction. These, among other large mechas, exist across the country.

Why Big, Badass Robots (and Mecha) Rule JapanS
The Daibutsu or "Great Buddha" of Kamakura. (Tim Chong | AP)

There is a religious connection too; though it is an abstract one, and even a somewhat superficial one. Japan has a handful of extremely large Buddhist statues across the country as well as large scale Nio guardians at Buddhist temples. These do provide an artist tradition for sculpting and figure making, but also fascination with sheer size. The big Buddhas are overwhelming and remain a marvel even today.

Likewise, the huge robot and mecha statues, while devoid of the same religious meaning, do intrinsically carrying that same sense of enormity. And like the huge Buddhas, they do beckon followers (here, fans) to come and visit from far and wide, people like my brother-in-law, who grew up building Gundam models. He drove half a day to Tokyo, visited the giant Gundam, and them promptly returned home. "I just had to see it," he told me. This wasn't merely paying one's respects, but wrapping your head around the idea of something that existed only in pictures and small statues making the leap to life-sized reality.

Large monsters, large superheroes, and large robots became huge in the years following the war. Godzilla was, yes, influenced by King Kong, but its size became a metaphor for the enormity and destructive power of nuclear war. When the character captured the public's imagination, you started to see big for the sake of being big.

Robots have a long history in Japan, with the karakuri mechanized puppets from the 17th century onward. The Japaneseness, or "wafuu" as it's called here, of mechas resides in their design. "What with the dissolution of the samurai during the Meiji Restoration, mecha were partly birthed from that cultural vacuum," said game designer Barder, who also writes the mecha blog Mecha Damashii. "I think this is also why for Japanese mecha they are often ciphers for the human pilots, like armor, and a means to help them attain a form of spiritual redemption." Not to mention, continued Barder, the huge swords they carry. "To me at least, there's definitely a strong element of bushido when it comes to mecha in Japan."

KID'S PLAY - One size certainly does not fit all. Giant mechas are no exception. While working on the Landwalker, Sakakibara Machinery Works decided it needed to develop a smaller mecha—you know, one for children. The result: Kid's Walker, an operational mecha for kids 4 to 12 years old. The price? ¥1.8 million or US$23,000. To date, Sakakibara has sold eight of them.

These life-sized statues become a physical embodiment of that bushido manifestation, and also a monument to what can be achieved and what might be possible, which is why there are always geeks talking about and trying to calculate the cost of building a real, working 60-foot mecha. Even the guy who made the Gundam inspired statue in Okayama Prefecture is keen to have it eventually move.

Building life-sized working mechas are not cost effective right now—maybe they will be in the future when we're all wearing groovy space pants and floating in the cosmos. But that isn't stopping one Japanese company from not only making working mechas, but selling them.

Why Big, Badass Robots (and Mecha) Rule JapanS
The Landwalker. (Katsumi Kasahara | AP)

"I grew up reading robot comics and watching robot anime," 38-year-old Masaaki Nagumo told Kotaku. Nagumo heads up the Landwalker project at Japan's Sakakibara Machinery Works Co. "Why make a working mecha?" said Nagumo. "Why not?" The Landwalker is a 12-foot high, gasoline powered mecha, controlled by pedals that is able to fire rubber balls from its air cannon. You can buy this. For ¥36 million or US$467,000 (without tax).

It will take about a year and ten months for Sakakibara Machinery Works to make one for you. And Sakakibara Machinery Works has sold Landwalkers, two of them to be exact. If you can't afford the half a million bucks required for your own rubber-ball-shooting and stomping-about real mecha, then you can always inquire with Sakakibara Kikai about renting one.

There's something about these large robots and mechas. They touch a nerve in the deep recesses of the mind, sparking an immediate emotional response (usually a "holy shit"), but also showing both what is possible and what is not. While Japan hasn't developed real 59-foot mechas that can run, fly, and attack, these statues are more than dreams, they're pick me ups for the human spirit.

Earlier this summer, a group of young people in Mibu, what was formerly Japan's toy capital—a capital since diminished by increased toy production in China—decided that the one thing it need to energize its town was a life-sized Gundma Zaku. Can you really blame them? These life-sized robots and these life-sized mechas, with their feet on the ground and their heads in the sky, are metaphors for more than the desire to dream, but also the desire to make those dreams reality.

(Top photo: Koji Sasahara | AP, Idzuhiko Ueda, Katsumi Kasahara | AP, Shuji Kajiyama | AP)