Gundam Rises, Gundam Resilient
“It is the year 0079 of the Universal Century. A half-century has passed since Earth began moving its burgeoning population into gigantic orbiting space colonies. A new home for mankind, where people are born and raised. [Dramatic Pause] And die.”
— Opening Narration, Mobile Suit Gundam
“Brrrt!” “Pew, pew, pew!” “Woosh!” The sound of big guns, laser cannons and flying missiles fill the air as children in front of the television watch one of their favorite mecha series. Excitement fills the air as the giant robot hero brings its shield forward and takes cover from the incoming enemy fire. It brings its other arm over and behind its head, and pulls the hilt of a “beam saber”, which then hums to life as it is activated and swung forward toward the opponent. The energy sword crackles, and the children hold their breath at the titanic struggle. The enemy finally gets sliced into two, and the children erupt screaming and cheering on their victorious hero. The childhood fantasy: the control of a humongous machine of war, invulnerable from whatever attack the enemy throws at them, complete with an arsenal of weapons at their disposal, is alluringly undeniable.
Mobile Suit Gundamdebuted on the evening of April 7, 1979. It told the story of a young man and his friends who are drawn, against their will, into the stalemated war between the Earth Federation, the global government of Earth and its outlying space colonies, and the Principality of Zeon, the group colonies located behind the moon at Larange Point 2 that have declared their independence. The protagonist, in the chaos surrounding Zeon’s attack on his home space colony, ends up falling into the cockpit of the Federation’s top-secret prototype mobile suit, an 18-meter humanoid war machine. Stepping up to the call, he defends the colony but to no avail; and ends up going on a space odyssey to Earth and back.
Depicting the lives of the various characters thrust into an apocalyptic conflict, it showed the tragic realities of war, in stark contrast to Hollywood’s then common theme of glorifying war of the post World War 2 era. The destruction of the characters’ daily lives and their response to it, the harrowing experience of being under enemy fire, and the despair that comes in the face of constant attack gave a general anti-war feeling. Born out of Japan’s defeat in World War II, pacifism became enshrined in their constitution, and then on became the nation’s creed. “War is hell” is the uniting message of the various series in the franchise.
The series’ success and the associated cultural phenomenon have drawn parallels to the western series Star Trek. The series, however, washighly unsuccessful during its debut run with the initial plan of 52 episodes getting cut down to 49 due to low ratings. After the initial airing of 1979 to 1980, subsequent reruns spurred the growth of a fanbase like wildfire thus becoming one of the most popular and recognizable,;’ and the eventual fan demand resulted in several sequels: Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam, 50 episode 1985 TV series;
Mobile Suit Gundam ZZ, 47 episode 1986 TV series; and
Mobile Suit Gundam: Char’s Counterattack, the 1988 anime movie serving as the final culmination of the original saga.
Now in its 34th year, and with more than 100 animated works, 250 manga series, and 80 novels, all spread over 10 or so different alternate universes, the trademark is worth more than 50 billion yen, making it an industry giant in Japan. With hundreds of various illustrated material, collectible figures and Gundam plastic model kits, also known as Gunpla, it accounts for a staggering 90% of Japan’s character plastic model market. Currently on air is Gundam Build Fighters, in which plastic models duke it out, with Gunpla builders, the model makers, in the controls. The upcoming 35th year anniversary of Gundam has already announced several more upcoming series: Mobile Suit Gundam: The Origin, which revisit the original series and serves as an exposition of the story’s past; and Gundam Reconguista in G, set in a new continuity, Reguild Century, succeeding the original saga’s Universal Century
Gundam is also generally given the credit for having single-handedly invented the “Real Robot” genre. Groundbreaking for its time, it departed from the typical giant robot series formula where all that stands alone in the way of defeat and sole hope of humanity is a single robotic hero and its pilot, or pilots, in the case of the combining mecha series. Here, the titular mech is treated as a soulless machine, not much different from planes or tanks.
The series also gave the animation world the Zaku. Its name hails from the Japanese term Zako (雑魚, meaning “inferior fish”). Its role was that of the most common antagonist suit, or in fan parlance, the “grunt” suit, and served as the first opponent to the Gundam. Even after being eventually outclassed by newer and more advanced models by Zeon, it still continued to show up in the battlefield as the mainstay machine of Zeon’s military. This breaks from the “monster-of-the-week” format used by earlier anime in which various villainous giant robots come to oppose the heroes at each singular encounter.
Gundam is also notable for its indiscriminate assorted fanbase. The myriad series goes all the way across the spectrum and attract fans along with it. Reasons for the internal strife within the fan community vary from trivial matters such as whom the better protagonist is, design, and even color scheme!. The reasons are almost infinite, and a quick internet search will reveal a picture akin to that of a bickering family ashamed but unabashed by their “dirty” in-culture.
Its cultural impact has pervaded much in Japan. Nissan Chief Creative Officer Shiro Nakamura has explicitly stated that the Nissan GT-R R35 was influenced by Gundam and The International Gundam Society was founded; which uses Gundam as the main topic to discuss the relationship of science and technology in science fiction anime and the real world. The Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) even used Gundam as the codename for their advanced personal combat equipment project under development.
And what more can cement its legacy better than the 1:1 scale statue of the titular RX-78 mecha in Odaiba? Picture it: the towering Gundam in the midst of the cityscape stands majestically, staring towards the horizon into the future. Drawing fans, robot enthusiasts, and the general public alike, it represents the pinnacle of the giant robot series’ success. Gundam’s place and significance in the world of animation and popular culture has definitely secured itself timelessly.