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Mecha forms a distinct genre within manga and anime, so much so that it has its own particular tropes and cliches. The standard mecha set-up is something like: Boy is enlisted to pilot giant experimental robot to defend the Earth from [insert menace here]. What separates the worthy mecha anime from the not-so-worthy is how the creators choose to play with and respond to these common elements and, further, use them to tell an interesting story. It hardly needs to be pointed out that the vast majority of this stuff is derivative of earlier works. Of course, the same criticism can be leveled at the American superhero genre.
Two of my favorite animes from this category come from Gainax studio. Gainax is headed up by Hideaki Anno, a protege of Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind). The studio's first endeavor was a film called Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honneamise (1987) -- a movie that succeeded artistically but failed to rake in the dough. For its next project Gainax went with a format that was practically guaranteed to raise some capital -- a story about a hot young thing that joins the space navy and pilots a giant friggin robot. They called it Gunbuster.
Gunbuster: Aim For the Top!
Directed by Hideaki Anno (Neon Genesis Evangelion, Nadia: The Secret of the Blue Water)
Gunbuster is largely the story of Noriko Takaya, the orphaned daughter of a respected space fleet admiral. Noriko is determined to follow in her father's footsteps. She's a late bloomer and struggles through much of the series to measure up, both to her peers and to the reputation of her father. Gunbuster somehow manages to juggle interesting characters, exploitative fan service (most of the female protagonists are seen nude), gripping action and a fast-paced narrative. There's humor here (some of it self-parody) as well as melodrama. In short, it does everything I expect from a great film or TV series. Animation-wise its a solid piece of work as well. Anno uses interesting "camera angles" to reveal things about his characters. At times, there's a sort of mixed-media approach. Interestingly, the last episode was purposely done in black-and-white. Many of the seeds that bore fruit in Neon Genesis Evangelion can be found here. Perhaps most significantly, the story ends with a rip-roaring climax and satisfying conclusion.