October 20, 2021
Reading Time: 5 minutes
Late to the Gundam party
I’ll admit it. I am properly late to the whole Gundam thing. What’s worse is that while being late is bad enough, I probably would never have watched it if it was not for Netflix. Pretty shocking on all fronts, huh? But not to dwell, here I am, talking Gundam.
If you’re are an avid watcher of anime, then unless you have been watching it while living under a large rock, then you’ll know what Gundam is. If you have zero idea, then put simply, Gundam is one of the most famous of all the Japanese ‘robot’ franchises. To save myself a lot of writing, Wikipedia says:
Gundam : ガンダムシリーズ, : Gandamu Shirīzu, lit. /Gundam Series/) is a Japanese military fiction media franchise. Created by Yoshiyuki Tomino and Sunrise, the franchise features giant robots, or mecha, with the name “Gundam”. The franchise began on April 7, 1979 with Mobile Suit Gundam, a TV series that defined the “real robot” mecha anime genre by featuring giant robots called mobile suits (including the original titular mecha ) in a militaristic setting. The popularity of the series and its merchandise spawned a franchise that includes 50 TV series, films and OVAs as well as manga, novels and video games, along with a whole industry of plastic model kits known as Gunpla which makes up 90 percent of the Japanese character plastic-model market.
Academics in Japan have viewed the series as inspiration; in 2008, the virtual Gundam Academy was planned as the first academic institution based on an animated TV series.
So yea, it’s a big deal. You could say, unlike me, it’s BIG in Japan…
Funnily enough, my first exposure to Gundam was back on the early 80’s, not through anime but when my dad brought a Gundam handheld game, ‘Game Watch’, back from HongKong. The whole thing was in Japanese, so I had to spend ages working it out (there was one game I never did) but in the various games, you played the Gundam. I had no idea what it was but I thought it was pretty cool, being nothing like anything I had seen up until that point.
It came in colour??? A ‘newer’ version of what I had.
It was a good long while until I crossed paths with Gundam again and by then I was well into various aspects of anime and manga, a big fan of likes of Shirow and Otomo, amongst others. By now I was seeing the myriad of Gundam models in hobby shops everywhere. It was hard to miss the dynamic, brightly coloured box art depicting the sharp angled mecha of the Gundam world. While I never thought of buying them, like my (now long gone) handheld, I thought they were cool.
Fast forward to now and I am seeing Gundam everywhere. Modellers I follow on Instagram are making them. Anime GIF clips are all over the web, and fan art on various feeds is hard to miss. So when I saw various Gundam films on Netflix, I finally decided enough was enough, it was time to find out what all the fuss was, and it seems, still is all about.
I’ll make no pretense about this, I have always thought that Gundam was probably some sort of light and fluffy mecha based kids show, much like the original Voltron (very different from the remake); and it’s probably this misconception that never saw me pursuing it if I think about it now. Well, let me say how wrong I have been this whole time. So wrong in fact, that when I was asked if our 9 year old could watch it, I said without a second’s thought that most of it would probably be over his head.
Gundam is the perfect dichotomy for us in the West when it comes to Japanese animation, anime, as a whole. At a passing glance, like watching TV with the sound off, one can view it as a colourful, often highly stylised cartoon, full of wild looking characters and/or machinery. But spend 15 minutes paying proper attention and you’ll soon find the story lines are often mature, complex and considered – even disturbing. That’s because anime, as opposed to what is mostly produced in the West, is often involved story telling, with many layers of culture and thought behind it; just because it’s animated does not mean it’s for kids, as many in the West continue to mistakenly see it (and manga for that matter). And I see this purely as a cultural thing.
Animation in the West went down the path of being mostly children’s entertainment, even though Disney’s early works were seen by, and made for, adults. That path has been a hard one to get off, and not until Pixar, it could be argued, have Western audiences started to reconsider animation’s place in the arena of storytelling (though it is still vastly geared towards younger audiences). In Japan, manga and anime is, and always has been, far more mainstream, accepted as legitimate forms of art, entertainment and story telling across all age groups. As such, it has not carried the stigma it has in the West and as a result has grown and flourished to create franchises such as Gundam that now spans decades and generations.
Animation wise it’s an interesting mixed bag, especially if you watch the various installments back to back. As the series spans 30 years and counting, the franchise is a bit of a showcase for change and trends of styles and techniques. I stared watching later series like ‘Orphans’, which is sharp and crisp, with outstanding action scenes, but delve further back and the styles and techniques change quite a bit and by the time you hit Gundam I, you are reminded of the type of animation being done around the time of Space Cruiser Yamato (aka Starblazers); what I call the pre-Robotech era. There’s nothing wrong with it at all, but it does have that now somewhat dated feel (at the time it was at top of its game). What is apparent throughout is the quality of design, development and the level of thought and concept that’s gone into creating this universe; it is next to none.
Despite only having watched several of the movies and a few series, it abundantly clear that the whole Gundam universe is interwoven and complex, with characters, themes and histories that traverse it as a whole, giving it a foundation and weight. Other than the visuals, I very much doubt kids would, or could, appreciate its complexities and depth of storytelling.
Am I hooked? Well yes. Not to the point of wanting to buy kits and the like, but certainly enough to want to chase down what Netflix is not showing. On the whole, Gundam has proven to be more than a pleasant surprise and I can finally see, beyond the cool mecha, what the fuss is about.