Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Beta vs. Gundam

"Fly, Gundam!"
Today I was going to do a review of Gundam Build Fighters, the latest Gundam TV series which just finished up its run in Japan a few months ago. However it occurred to me that the Gundam metaseries is a pretty big deal but that a lot of people who read this blog might not know much about the franchise. So really I had two choices: either I write the review and have an intro that may be as long as, or longer than, the review itself OR dedicate a blog to talking about Gundam and get it out of my system. Since that’s something I’ve wanted to do for years anyway it seemed like a pretty good time to do so.

For those of you who have absolutely no idea what the hell I’m talking about Gundam is a large franchise, primarily an anime, that’s extremely popular in Japan and pretty darn popular in America as well with the right people. Although it’s a bit more complicated than that the most important thing to know about it that is it features giant robots (or “mecha” as they’re often called) fighting each other with beam rifles and laser swords….and usually in space. If that sentence doesn’t at least peak your interest than I’m unsure if you and I will get along.

So today I’ll be looking at the Gundam TV series. It’s important to understand though that there is a lot more to this franchise than just the cartoons. As a giant money maker for its parent company Bandai this series has taken just about as many forms as you can think of. However for the purposes of this article I won’t be going over every little thing. In fact I’ll likely be skipping or skimming over many of the spin-off movies or OVAs, of which there are a lot, so if I don’t mention a comic or a light novel series here or there just note that I likely am aware it exists and you don’t need to tell me how dumb I am for forgetting to mention it. And if I do skip your favorite Gundam related thing and it really bugs you feel free talk about it in the comment section (just don’t ramble; that’s my job and I’ll delete anything that tries to touch my Kool-Aid).

We all dig giant robots after the jump.

First Gundam
Smells like the 70s
The story of Gundam begins in 1979 when the now classic anime Mobile Suit Gundam. It basically created the concept of “Real Robots”, a genre of anime where the robots in questions are depicted as mass produced tools no different from other vehicles such as tanks. Prior to this giant robots were depicted as pseudo-sentient superheroes often piloted by a young boy’s heart and willpower or some such craziness (the “Super Robot” genre, such as Mazinger Z). Though honestly the titular Gundam clearly had some old guard elements to it as it was clearly the most powerful of its kind in the series. The show was also famous for its depiction of war in what was still considered a children’s cartoon. Where previous efforts made things out to be relatively lighthearted adventures Mobile Suit Gundam was more of character study by seeing how the main cast could deal with a bunch of terrible, tragic shit happening to them and around them. The show was principally created by Yoshiyuki Tomino, who rather famously earned the nickname “Kill ‘Em All” for his tendency for killing off characters, sometimes entire casts of characters, in such cruel and abrupt way that even Joss Whedon would blush.

Mobile Suit Gundam takes place in the year 0079 of the Universal Century, which is an unknown period of time into our own future. It revolves around a yearlong war between the Earth Federation and the Principality of Zeon (the space colonies) who have awesome humanoid robot tanks called mobile suits at their disposal. 15-year old asshole student Amuro Ray winds up in the middle of conflict as he becomes the pilot of the Gundam, the Federation’s new prototype mobile suit. He also becomes a rival, and then blood enemy, of Zeon asshole ace pilot Char Aznable. Along the way we get a character driven story with complex examinations of the concept of black and white morality. Also Amuro and Char evolve to have super human space powers. It’s pretty cool.

Sadly the initial ratings were so goddamn terrible that the show was cut down from 52 to 43 episodes and the whole thing was basically canceled. Surprisingly the model kits that were associated with the show sold insanely well even after the show left the air, retroactively making the series a big hit. Bandai thus realized where the money truly was and thus continue producing Gundam anime in order, all together now, TO SELL TOYS! Yes, despite all the good things you’ve heard about Gundam the cartoons, the movies, and the comics all exist solely to get kids and adult collectors to pony up cash for the model kits. Thankfully the creators of the fiction still get have the chance to write mature, complex stories with the mythos (although they sometimes make crap, but that’s true of anything) making the Gundam series a bit more legitimate than, say, the majority of American cartoons from the 80s that were also merchandise driven.

"Hey kids, buy me!"
 The first Gundam series pretty much lays the groundwork for future shows as most of them follow the exact same pattern: Earth has colonized space, there’s a conflict between space and Earth, a young man (usually a teenager) gets involved when he starts piloting a Gundam, many people you like get killed, GOTTA SELL THEM TOYS MODEL KITS.

Sequels and Spin-Offs
Gee, I hope it works out for these crazy kids*
Now that Mobile Suit Gundam was a bonafide hit (albeit after it aired) and a merchandising money maker Bandai went ahead and produced a sequel in 1984 called Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam. Now Zeta Gundam, which took place eight years after the events of the first series, starred a mostly new cast with a few returning faces in supportive roles and remains the best received of all the Gundam anime. Unlike its predecessor it was successful right off the bat, solidifying Gundam as a premier franchise. Zeta Gundam got it’s own sequel in Mobile Suit Gundam ZZ (pronounced “double zeta”) in 1986 but it wasn’t as well received as the first two series (partly due to the first half of the series having a comedic tone that was a stark contrast to the dark, serious tone of Zeta). Still Gundam, Zeta Gundam and ZZ make up the bulk of the Universal Century timeline with the movie Char’s Counterattack acting as the grand finale. Throughout the 80s into the early 90s Bandai released a bunch of spin-off material that took place during various points during or around that trilogy. The most well known in the US was likely the Original Video Animations Mobile Suit Gundam 0080: War in the Pocket and Mobile Suit Gundam 0083: Stardust Memory and a few years later Mobile Suit Gundam: The 08th MS Team.

In 1993 Bandai shook things up a bit with Mobile Suit Victory Gundam which took place far ahead in the timeline in the year 0153. It was the final Gundam series directed by Yoshiyuki Tomino for some years. The response to the series was mixed partly due to supposed behind the scene clashes between Tomino and the producers and partly due to the fact that the show was easily the darkest show in the Gundam franchise. According to legend Tomino was battling with depression, which was something that he had dealt with throughout the 80s as well, and led him to say “f**k it, I’ll just kill as many characters as I can.” Tomino left the franchise after this series and to this day in very outspoken about how much he hates this show, which may be part of the reason it’s never been released in the United States. Regardless Victory Gundam was the final TV show set in the UC timeline (though spin-off material continues to re-visit it).

Alternate Timelines
Because the only thing missing was obviously martial art action
Following Victory Gundam, the departure of Tomino and the franchise losing steam in general, Bandai decided to reboot the franchise in 1994 with Mobile Fighter G Gundam (which also celebrated the fifteenth anniversary of the franchise). G Gundam was the first series to take place in a different timeline than UC. Taking place in the Future Century (…seriously?) timeline G Gundam threw out rules from the Real Robot genre and instead just had the robots all have super powers and have every pilot be an impossibly powerful martial artist. Really this anime has more in common with Dragon Ball Z than the previous Gundam series. The show was over-the-top and more than a little racist but it did the job of revitalizing the franchise. From that point forward Bandai began making all future shows in their own, self-contained continuity that was not related to the UC timeline or the previous series.

Following G Gundam came New Mobile Report Gundam Wing which you likely know of as it was released in the US through Cartoon Network a few years later and was partially responsible for the anime boom of early 2000s. Taking place in the After Colony timeline Wing followed the a more traditional formula for a Gundam show, unlike G Gundam, and was supposedly very popular with a female demographic which I always found odd as there’s pretty much no well written women on the show. Gundam Wing had a large amount of spin-offs most notably the sequel OVA/film Endless Waltz and most recently another, decades later sequel called Frozen Teardrop.

I'm pretty sure the mantra of this show's fanbase is "Make the boys kiss"
After War Gundam X (After War timeline) was the follow-up but, despite me having a soft spot for it, the series was not very popular and was cut short due to low ratings, the first show to have that happen since the original. It wouldn’t be until 1999 that a new series would be produced and that show was Turn A Gundam, or ∀ Gundam. I’ve talked about this show before but it’s notable for two reasons: 1) it supposedly ties all the previous Gundam shows together, including the ones from different timelines, and linking them into one connected continuity (the Correct Century timeline). 2) It was the first Gundam series directed by Yoshiyuki Tomino since Victory Gundam and his departure from the franchise. Now feeling significantly less depressed Turn A Gundam ended up being a more optimistic series than his previous efforts. Sadly it still to this day has not been released in North America.

By 2002 the franchise began what would end up being their most successful series since the original trilogy: Mobile Suit Gundam SEED. Set in the Cosmic Era SEED closely followed the plot stricture of the original series in the first part of the show, to the point that a lot of people thought of it as a remake. But the series ended up being strongly written and took its own unique turn. This anime was crazy popular in Japan, to the point that even today it earned the second highest ratings of the series after Zeta Gundam. SEED was the first Gundam series since the UC timeline to get a TV series sequel, Mobile Suit Gundam SEED Destiny which was not as well received, and to this day the Cosmic Era remains the only timeline to be showcased as being on even standing with the original. Though whether or not we’ll ever see any more new material from this timeline remains to be seen.

Recent Activity
The villain of this show is called "Full Frontal" so I can't take it seriously
The follow-up to Gundam SEED was Mobile Suit Gundam 00, which was split into two seasons which was uncommon for this franchise at the time, but it was not nearly as well received as it predecessor. Bandai then began releasing a new OVA series based on a Gundam book series set in the UC timeline called Mobile Suit Gundam Unicorn which has since become a big deal in the mythos. The follow-up to 00 was Mobile Suit Gundam AGE. Now AGE is the least successful, most critically panned of any of the Gundam series to date. It was so bad that Bandai may never release it out of Japan (though there’s no way it’s the worst in the franchise). In 2010 Bandai released an OVA called Model Suit Gunpla Builders Beginning G which was set in present day and totally about fans collecting the Gundam model kits. It kind of felt like the company had taken out any pretense of fiction and was now just making straight up commercials disguised as fifteen mintute cartoons. But hey, it was just an OVA and people clearly liked it what harm could it do?

Oh, except that it spawned a full TV series called Gundam Build Fighters. That is the series I will be reviewing next time so I’ll save my thoughts for then. But it’s important to note that this series may have been something of a game changer for Gundam.

This fall the latest Gundam series will hit Japan; Gundam Reconquista Reconguista in G. It features the return of Yoshiyuki Tomino as director of a TV series though I’m unsure if he’s depressed these days so I have no idea if this is will be a lighthearted series or a bloodbath. I don’t know too much about Reconguista; it’s the celebration of the 35th anniversary of Gundam and it takes place in the timeline Reguild Century which, apparently, is in the far future of the Universal Century. But as of it right now it seems that the Gundam franchise still has a lot of life in it even thirty-five years after the fact. For better or worse.

What's with Tomino and weird ass titles?
Come back in a few days or so for a review of Gundam Build Fighters.

*Yeah, I know this image is from the Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam: A New Translation movies rather than Zeta Gundam proper but I like the picture.

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