[Editorial Tuesday] The History of Gundam

A New Mecha Anime

Thanks to Tetsujin 28 and Mazinger Z, anime created a new genre known as mecha (short for mechanical, or sometimes referred to as mech), where young men can use giant robots to fight evil. They were cool and gimmick by flying and having novelty voice activated moves like rocket punches and laser eyes. The robots were presented like they were a superhero and they were a huge success. In addition to these two iconic animes, Western Science Fiction had their own foray into mech through the original Starship Troopers novel.

Beyond mecha, space opera anime such as Space Battleship Yamato also became an international phenomenon as Star Blazers coming off the tails of Star Wars. By the end of the 1970’s, Yoshiyuki Tomino and a group of animators at Sunrise who use Hajime Yatate (a name you have also seen in Cowboy Bebop, Gintama, and Code Geass) as a group pen name got together to create a new mech anime, Gunboy.

Freedom Fighter Gunboy

In case you didn't know, Gundam was initially conceived as Freedom Fighter Gunboy, and the idea of such a title was obviously used to appeal to its target audience, boys. When the series was in development under its original project name, one series staple such as the White Base space battleship was known as the Freedom Fortress and the Core Fighter was the Freedom Wing. As time went on, the Hajime Yatate team suggested changing the title to Gundam, by combining Gun and dom, the suffix for Freedom. Since the pronunciation of “dom” and “dam” sound similar to the Japanese based on the phonetics of their language (both are read as ダム, or “damu” in Katakana), Tomino changed the spelling to “dam” since the titular robot could wield a gun powerful enough to stop enemies like a dam does from a rampage of flowing water.

In addition to the name, the design and color scheme of the Gundam is different from what fans know. The Gundam was intended to be black but at the insistence of Sunrise and other sponsors, it became red, white, blue, and a bit of yellow to make it more marketable. If you ever have the chance to visit Diver City in Odaiba where the Gundam statue was long featured, its Gundam exhibition has original sketches of Gunboy on display for visitors to see. In addition, the original color scheme is also available to see through the famous strategy game, Gihren’s Ambition. Since Tomino was very focused on realism, he personally disagreed with the suggestions but still complied.

In addition to being a fan of Space Battleship Yamato, Tomino used a space setting in order to make the mech battles fast since there is no gravity in space. In addition to using the space setting, Tomino took direct influence from the O’Neill cylinder theory in regards to making space colonies. In 1976, three years prior to the premiere of Gundam, astrophysicist Gerard K. O’Neill published “The High Frontier: Human Colonies In Space,” and many of Gundam’s concepts in relation to the space colonies are 100% taken from this book.

Taking from History and Reality

When Mobile Suit Gundam debuted on April of 1979, Japan was fully recovering from World War II and was progressively becoming the world’s second most powerful economy but the Cold War and its proxy wars were still going on. Wanting to explore the dark realities of war, Tomino made the series rather dark (in fact, Amuro was originally intended to be killed off halfway through the series!). Many of the featured villains and antagonists take influence from both World War I and World War II figures.

Gihren, the leader of Zeon, obviously represents Hitler with his speeches in both his vocal and physical delivery, and he orders that his enemies must be eliminated to the point of extinction. Ramba Ral, one of Amuro’s rivals in the second act of the series is a copy of the Desert Fox, Erwin Rommel, a master strategist who was an honorable officer and never fully agreed with his Nazi superiors. Both Ramba and his historical counterpart faced little to no support from their superiors but carried out their duties as soldiers.

Last, Char Aznable, who is the human face of the franchise, obviously takes influence from a World War I Ace Pilot, Manfred Albrecht Freiherr, who is historically remembered as The Red Baron which would in turn influence Char’s other famous moniker, The Red Comet.

As the series progressed into modern times, installments such as Gundam 00 addressed contemporary issues such as the Middle East and Sri Lanka. While Gundam has always done a great job of being the ultimate male teenage fantasy of kicking ass in a giant robot for nearly four decades, 2015’s Iron-Blooded Orphans is a reconstruction of using teenage boys as pilots. While characters such as Amuro, Kamille, Judau and the rest of their friends were forced into their roles at the spur of the moment, Mika and his comrades in Tekkadan of Iron-Blooded Orphans represents a new kind of cast where they have always been soldiers by choice, but the circumstances of that series makes viewers re-evaluate whether or not they really did.

Amuro, Kamille, and Judau during the Tomino run of the series were all mechanical geniuses, academic overachievers, and socially withdrawn. Mika and the rest of Tekkadan, on the other hand, grew up under impoverished conditions due to economic sanctions so the only way to put food on the table was by getting involved with private military contractors who saw them as expendable.

As portrayed, Mika and the rest of the cast outside of Orga and Biscuit are (functionally) illiterate. Due to these conditions, Kudelia, a daughter of a prominent Mars political family, goes to Earth to fight the unfair sanctions so that the children of Tekkadan can have true opportunities. Due to Mika’s upbringing being only around conflict without school or parental guidance, the series excellently demonstrates that he does not understand everyday social interaction with not only the cold way he speaks but with his constant thousand yard stare.

Post-Cancellation Success and a New Trilogy

Despite Mobile Suit Gundam being the first of its kind, the series during its debut was not a rating success and was cut down by almost ten episodes. So how did it bounce back? In addition to finding new life through reruns, merchandise sales such as models were largely to thank. Though Masters of the Universe is considered one of the first franchises where merchandising with toys and animated features went hand-in-hand, some could argue that Bandai beat Mattel to the punch in regards to that business practice in Japan.

After Gundam was rejuvenated shortly after its initial run, Tomino decided to reboot it through a trilogy that introduced some new elements to make the series more realistic. In the original TV series, the Guntank was used in space but knowing that a mech of that design is unpractical, it was properly changed to a new Guncannon. In addition, some of the Gundam’s more gimmicky weapons such as its ball and chain and its combination features with the G-Fighter were taken out, which Tomino felt did not go along with his initial vision. Last, it gave a new ending to give more ambiguity in regards to the fate of Char, the breakout character.

The Rise of Real Robot Anime and a Franchise

Thanks to the newfound success of Gundam, it paved way for a new subgenre of Sci-Fi and mech, Real Robot, which depicted dark stories of war and focused on story and characters as opposed to its robots. In addition to Gundam, Tomino would make some other dark mech anime such as Space Runaway Ideon and Aura Battler Dunbine, while Shoji Kawamori of Studio Nue would create Macross, which would then come to the West as Robotech. Though Gundam was still for children, Tomino always found ways to push the envelope with his later creations and Space Runaway Ideon would be the beginning of taking things to the extreme, and this would later carry over into his follow up of the original Gundam series, Zeta Gundam.

Initially, Tomino was not interested in making a sequel to Gundam but after overwhelming demand, he made Zeta Gundam, which focused on a new main character, Kamille Vidan and would ironically be mentored by the rival by the series’ original antagonist, Char Aznable. While many fans today praise it for being dark and pushing new boundaries, upon its broadcast, it was ironically being criticized for those qualities by viewers, Sunrise, and Tomino’s own family. In some interviews, Tomino has shared that he was going through some difficult times and that he put a lot of his own frustrations into his works. When he followed up Zeta Gundam with Gundam ZZ, he addressed these criticisms by making the first half more comedic and ironically, it got criticism for that and reverted back to telling a darker story.

As that series found success, it would gain more series and movies and in 1992, the series broke new ground by having its first alternate universe series, G Gundam, which is a combined spoof of the franchise, super robot from the 1970’s, Shounen titles like Saint Seiya, and Street Fighter II. Though it was an alternate universe series, it was meant to commemorate the franchise’s fifteenth anniversary. With all of the Gundams and characters featured (in a rather politically incorrect context), it would encourage Bandai to make new models and inspire new merchandise sales. While Sunrise was skeptical of G Gundam since it took a departure from how it traditionally was, it eventually found success in Japan and would be a hit in North America in the following decade.

Western Debut/Toonami/Adult Swim

It is only natural for many fans to assume that Gundam Wing was the first Gundam series to hit US shores. In fact, Gundam was already in the US two years prior to its debut. Through older distributors like Anime Village, the original trilogy, War in the Pocket, and Stardust Memory were released in the US in the 1990’s. In fact, Steve Blum, the voice of Spike from Cowboy Bebop, voices Char in this version of the trilogy. However, these videos were released at a time when anime in the West had a niche audience.

As a good majority already knows, Gundam’s true impact in the West came in the spring of 2000 with the debut of Gundam Wing on Cartoon Network’s Toonami block. But Gundam Wing also helped pave way for the Midnight Run, which would include minor cursing and unedited use of blood. At the time, this was considered a milestone and Gundam 08th MS Team would follow suit with an unedited broadcast at midnight.

Then in the summer of 2001, Toonami took the initiative and aired the original Gundam series, over twenty years after its Japanese premiere! However, it was pulled off the air shortly after the September 11th attacks. It later came back to Cartoon Network almost a year after but was once again pulled with little to no explanation. Regardless, Gundam Wing was a great representation of how vast anime is beyond Dragon Ball Z and Sailor Moon, which were also gaining popularity on Toonami.

Gunpla and Video Games

As stated numerous times, Gundam is a success beyond anime, and much of its contribution comes from its large supplies of Gunpla models. Gunpla is a word play on Gundam and plastic. By having the chance to own articulated and detailed figures, it is just simply another method of an individual expressing their support for the series. They tend to be sold in the following scales of 1:144, 1:100, and 1:60. Fans can create something to decorate their desks, rooms, or a diorama of their own dream battles. These are not your typical action figures like Star Wars or GI Joe because these are figures you assemble like model airplanes. So patience and time are a necessity when collecting. This line of models is famous in Japan to the point that it even has its own anime series, Model Suit Gunpla Beginners G, and Gundam Build Fighters.

Despite Tomino being critical of video games, the Gundam franchise has found continuous success in that industry on every front you can think of. It has been an action shooter and an RPG on both the original Famicom and Super Famicom. Gundam Wing has a hit fighting game on the Super Famicom as Endless Duel. It has first-person shooters like Blue Destiny on the Saturn and Rises from the Ashes on the Dreamcast. And there are arcade games where players can enter a simulated cockpit and feel like they are in a real mobile suit. So you name it, there is a game of Gundam about it. Some of the recent famous games are the arcade versus melee installments that were originally done by Capcom, but Bandai Namco has kept it going.

In addition, there is also the twenty-year-old strategy game, Gihren’s Ambition (available for the Saturn, PlayStation, Dreamcast, PSP, and PS2), where players can use characters from every One Year War series to win the war. This means if you play for the Zeons and wish to put the likes of Char from the original Gundam, Anavel Gato from 0083, and Ginias from 08th MS Team as one platoon, you can do that! If you play as the Federation, you can give Amuro the ALEX from War in the Pocket. Last, if you want to prevent the deaths of certain characters such as Garma or Sleggar, this game gives you that chance. Though we do recommend this game, Japanese reading ability is highly required!

Final Thoughts

Long after we die, Gundam is still going to be made. Some may be good, and some may be bad but it will find a way to bounce back. As stated earlier, much of Tomino’s personal frustrations have been projected in his earlier works. Since V Gundam, his personal state has improved and much of that can be seen in his newer Gundam installments, 1999’s Turn A Gundam and 2014’s G-Reco, which are not as presently dark as Zeta Gundam, Ideon, or Dunbine.

Many fans were open to how different and distinct Turn A Gundam was though the notion of giving the titular Gundam a mustache is forever going to be subjected to ridicule. G-Reco, on the other hand, has been met with mixed reaction, with much of its criticism being that its story is very difficult to follow (though it does have a unique presentation with its design and animation).

Many fans compare it to the Alien series prequel, Prometheus. While its concept is easy to understand, its execution severely falls off the rails. Some critics in Japan praised the confusion and felt it was a reaction to people’s attention spans thanks to present technology. Tomino, on the other hand, has apologized if viewers found it confusing and admit that it is a flawed series.

As for Iron-Blooded Orphans, despite its praise from fans for pushing the envelope, like Zeta Gundam, it is has gotten complaints from Japanese equivalents to the Parents Television Council for its portrayal of children in war. By no means is it trying to glorify war and if one pays attention to any installment, all Gundams have a strong anti-war theme that takes influence from both current conflicts and Japan’s own sins from World War II. The fact that the themes that were presented in the original Gundam are relevant to this day is a reason why Gundam continues to thrive.

Mobile-Suite-Gundam-Wing-crunchyroll [Editorial Tuesday] The History of Gundam


Author: Justin "ParaParaJMo" Moriarty

Hello, I am originally from the states and have lived in Japan since 2009. Though I watched Robotech and Voltron as a child, I officially became an anime fan in 1994 through Dragon Ball Z during a trip to the Philippines. In addition to anime, I also love tokusatsu, video games, music, and martial arts. よろしくお願いします

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