Growing up, I was never a fan of the Transformers series. Which was odd, because it’s not like I didn’t enjoy giant robots in general. I mean, I watched Macross Frontier and knew about Gundam from afar. I just never got into the appeal of it and spent my time growing up on Sailor Moon and Pokémon instead. But then, I had my curiosity peak for the franchise, but from the most unlikely of places. And so, I have to ask: Does anyone remember Megas XLR?
Before I get into how that relates to Gundam, let’s break down what a Gundam even is. If we’re referring to the franchise, it is just one part of the title: Mobile Suit Gundam, aka a Military Fiction series from Japan. The word started as ‘Gundom’, coined by the team that worked on the franchise, combining the English word ‘gun’, with the latter half of ‘freedom’. However, Yoshiyuki Tomino later amended that and changed it to ‘Gundam’ aka a mobile unit wielding a gun so powerful, it could hold back enemies ‘like a dam’.
However, Gundam has gone on from its toy-selling roots into becoming a franchise that’s almost synonymous with Japan itself. It popularized the Mecha genre, practically being the first of its kind. And it’s been fascinating to see how it went on to influence almost every other robot sci-fi we have seen ever since. When you think of some of the biggest mecha franchises of the last 4 decades, all of them owe thanks to the original Gundam series that came out, all the way back in 1979.
And you see its iconography even in Western media, such as Transformers and, yes, Megas XLR. And the latter has always paid homage to its anime routes, complete with a parody of the Sailor Senshi from Sailor Moon. But Gundam was always its biggest inspiration. And today, I want to take some time and talk about Gundam, both its origins and how it has evolved over the years into this behemoth of a franchise.
The Origins: Shallow Toy Commercial Becomes Heavy-Hitting War Drama
It’s time for some honesty: Before the pandemic, I had never paid attention to how the Gundam series worked. There were just so many to get through and, well, I never had the patience for them. But I knew so many were passionate about this franchise, and it got me curious.
How did a series, made to be a toy commercial, become this hardcore narrative about war? The answer, apparently, lies with its creators. When Gundam was pitched by Tamino, he was accompanied by a team of Sunrise Animators known as Hajime Yatate and they put it forward as a show targeted at teen boys. So, a little more serious than previous offerings like Mazinger Z, which targeted a much younger demographic with its more superhero-esque take.
But this was a risk, and there was pushback. After all, Tamino’s series was going to tackle warfare, taking a more realistic route on how these robots were weapons first that could be used (or abused) by the military. And, as expected, it didn’t exactly do numbers upon airing, even getting canceled. Though it did get revived thanks to a deal with toy maker Clover, and then ended. That was it.
Except, it wasn’t. Gundam was on the precipice of something revolutionary, and that was the ‘Real Robot’ subgenre, an amalgamation of the intrigue of giant robots mixed with the realism of military science fiction. And that couldn’t have happened if the toys hadn’t started selling. A lot.
The Hobby: Gundam Fans Grow Alongside The Franchise
Remember how Clover was the one who made the toys for Mobile Suit Gundam? Well, when the show ended, its rights were procured by Bandai Namco. And this is where they got a facelift. Instead of being marketed as children’s toys like action figures would, Bandai went a completely different route with Gundam.
Gundam became Model Kits, plastic cast with multiple parts in a variation of colors. However, these kits had to be assembled by the individual buying them, with glue and paint. While this sounds like the norm, it wasn’t so back then. There was nothing like Bandai’s Gundam kits on the market before, and the cheap price point sealed the deal. Gunpla was it, the winning formula. Soon, the interest in Gundam came back tenfold.
You had re-runs playing back-to-back on TV, compilations being sold out across theatres in Japan, and Gunpla kits just kept the engine running. Gundam was back, blazing the path to the Real Robot craze for a more mature audience to partake in when they grew out of the Super Robot phase. And from there, we got additional series and movies, starting with Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam.
While you’d expect fans to outgrow the Gunpla phase, it feels like it never happened. To this day, Gunpla remains one of the most popular things to come out of Japan. Hell, they ended up replacing traditional model kits, with each iteration of Gunpla getting more and more intricate, and some even came with articulation. It stopped being a children’s thing around the same time fans realized just how intense the franchise could be. And the level of difficulty the kits offered was varied, providing both a challenge to its enthusiasts and customization options, should they want it.
If rivals were banking on Gunpla going out of style, well, they were sorely mistaken. Gundam was taking over the world, one model kit at a time.
The Remix: Diverse Characters And Explosive Takes For A New Generation
The last time we saw Gundam in animation was Mobile Suit Gundam: Iron-Blooded Orphans back in 2015. And it did fairly good numbers, with a story that was only slightly let down by a lackluster 2nd season. However, that wasn’t when I joined the fandom. For me, the time was now.
Mobile Suit Gundam: The Witch From Mercury took the anime world by surprise last month, and I have been obsessed. The series’ first-ever female protagonist had been a long time coming. The mangaka that worked on the series, Koichi Tokita, had always been vocal about how much they wanted a femme-centric Gundam series but were always shot down. And now, here we are.
The Witch From Mercury does more than that though. In the very first episode, we get to meet Suletta Mercury, our bumbling main character, and her bride, Miorine Rembran. Yeah, there’s a possible queer relationship that’s at the heart of this show. And yet, diverse characters are amazingly not a new concept for Gundam. The series had always pushed for diversity with its characters, with the original series having one of the first black characters in anime history. The Witch From Mercury has a dizzying array of individuals, from mixed ethnicities like Suletta herself to portraying characters of various body types and skin tones.
But for all its fluffy cuteness, this is a Gundam show in the hand. And the prologue is brutal, reminding you that you’re not watching a story about students going to ‘Gundam school’. There is going to be war, bloodshed on both sides, and the characters you love will be lost. Gundam has finally managed to tap into a crowd that it was purposefully avoiding before, with a new entry that seems inspired by shows like Revolutionary Girl Utena while carrying the same grit and awe that we always associated with Gundam.
The Legacy: Inspiring Media, Both Domestic And International
Rarely have we seen a franchise evolve so much, and yet keep its fanbase intact. And this fanbase was growing up, creating from what it was inspired by. Remember Megas XLR? While it was an entertaining comedy, its show finale was directly inspired by Gundam. Like, Evil Coop was piloting a mech that looked suspiciously similar to the MSN-04 Sazabi from Mobile Suit Gundam: Char’s Attack. Its seriousness was such a diametric opposite to what Megas XLR had been so far, and you could see just how much Gundam’s boldness influenced that.
From then on, it was hard not to see it everywhere. From shows like Neon Genesis Evangelion, which took Gundam’s ideals on war and gave it a religious spin, to Code Geass which utilized mechs as weapons alone and focused more on the characters, Gundam was everywhere.
Gundam isn’t just a media powerhouse within anime. It isn’t just a model kit mega-franchise with flagship stores across the world. Gundam is a phenomenon that has survived over the years and flourished. And it has been a wild ride finally getting into it, with so much more to discover.
I think that’s it. That’s the true legacy of Gundam, being able to continue into a newer generation with fans of all ages and backgrounds, no discrimination to be found.