Thursday, June 4, 2009

Mobile Suit Whatnow?

Well my sister, who is a darling and a saint, actually read through that entire first post I made, but she had a question: Gundam? Is that like, Japanese Transformers?

The answer: Uh, not quite. There are Gundams that transform, but Transformers and Gundam are about as different as Spiderman and Star Trek. Actually they're about as different as Spiderman and Dawson's Creek.

The thing that made Mobile Suit Gundam unique and original, when it came out thirty years ago (it just had it's 30th birthday in April, actually), was that all the other robot shows were basically:

"Oh no! A giant monster is destroying the city!"
"Someone must stop it… "
Queue the dramatic music… "We're saved! It's Giant Robo to the rescue!"

Essentially, large robot shows were seen as little more than kid-targeted commercials to sell robot toys, and as far as story was concerned: Giant monster attacks, then hero robot shows up, hero beats monster in highly dramatic fashion, day is saved. Now, repeat 25 times over the course of a four month TV season! And make sure someone's making a toy of that robot, so that you can generate revenue off of the toy sales - it's worth tons of money.

Gundam changed a lot of that.

In the first episode of Gundam, the main characters are living in a space colony that comes under attack for mysterious reasons. It is explained that a war in space was being waged between the Earth Federation (the Good Guys) and the Principality of Zeon -all humans of different sorts - but the main characters thought the war had nothing to do with them. The Zeon are a Nazi-Germany themed group of space colony nationalists who believed the Earth Federation is mistreating their people and declared independence from the Earth government - and started bombing earth from space to enforce their independence. The attack on the main characters' colony was a mission to find a prototype military weapon called "Gundam" that was under secret development in space (the earth Federation apparently thought keeping their secret weapon as far from earth as possible was a good idea. Whoops!)

By the end of the first episode, most of the main characters have lost their entire families in the colony attack. There's a notable scene where one of the women is running towards a shelter, and is lagging behind the rest of the crowd - who are suddenly scattered in all directions by a missile blast. In one second she watches her father, mother and little brother killed right in front of her. This is an important theme of the show: War Is Hell. Try To Survive.

The bad guys on the show were not giant, comical monsters, but rather soldiers of an opposing army who often seemed fairly reasonable, but still decided they would fight for their own country's independence. The main characters rally around the Gundam, a seemingly unbeatable vehicle that combines the firepower of a tank with the mobility of a fighter plane - and had giant, energy swords that could cut through metal like a light saber. However, even though the fights often seemed like over the top, kiddy cartoon stuff, the horror of the enemy pilots' screams as their robots were destroyed were a painful reminder of the truth of armed conflict. War truly is hell, and survival must sometimes take priority over a soldier's personal feelings.

Gundam itself didn't do well until the company Bandai became a sponsor and made model kits for the various robots. Ironically, the practice of turning the robots into toys SAVED Gundam (which had been suffering from poor ratings), and funded a new series called Zeta Gundam (the first to feature TRANSFORMING robots!) in 1985.

The "Military Robot" genre of anime that Gundam started is still being made today. The show Macross and others followed in Gundam's footsteps, making robot war dramas and stories of personal heroism in the face of horror more commonplace. It's a style of Japanese television that is still quite successful today.

Thanks for reading! SUPER GO!


  1. It has always fascinated me how post war (WW2) Japan has expressed it's anxiety about large scale destruction and it's relationship with technology thru giant robot anime. It was startling as a young child to go from G.I. Joe where nobody died, to the large scale destruction of anime. For me it was Robotech, I remember thinking about the number of people that must have died the first time Macross (the giant space fortress/city) transformed and engaged in battle.

  2. I like Amuro Ray and flying sharks.