When Yoshiyuki Tomino’s first “Gundam” series premiered on Japanese television in 1979, its run ended early due to low ratings. But when the same material was recut and released as three theatrical features in 1981 and 1982, the response was so enthusiastic, fans fought over Gundam toys and model kits in toy stores.
Three decades later, there have been 25 “Gundam” television series, 11 feature films, plus direct-to-video releases and an IMAX featurette. In 2009-2010, a 59-foot “life-size” statue of a Gundam Mobile Suit was exhibited in Tokyo and Shizuoka to mark the 30th anniversary of the release of the first Gundam plastic model kit. According to some estimates, there have been 10 Gundam models sold for every man, woman and child in Japan.
The breadth and effect of that history are timely topics with the home-video release of the feature “Mobile Suit Gundam 00 the Movie: A Wakening of the Trailblazer” (2010) and the reissue of the landmark TV series “Mobile Suit Gundam” (1979), which taken together offer an overview of one of the longest-running franchises in animation history.
In addition to helping to create modern anime fandom, “Gundam” transformed the robot sci-fi genre. Earlier series such as “Tetsujin 28 –go” (“Gigantor” in America) had featured dumpy robots that were remote-controlled, self-propelled entities. The boy-heroes of these programs treated the robots as pets that could be ordered to fly them around or attack an enemy. Tomino’s Gundams resembled a fusion of an outsized space suit, a one-man space ship and a flamboyant suit of samurai armor, piloted by psychic teenage warriors.
But “Gundam” offered more than superior robots. Tomino, who cites “Star Wars,” “Destination Moon” and the films of Akira Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu as influences, also instituted a revolution in story. Rather than focusing exclusively on a small cadre of heroes and villains, “Gundam” played its heroic battles against a larger canvas. Like George Lucas’ Galactic Empire or Gene Rodenberry’s Federation, Tomino’s “Gundam” universe allowed its creator to explore politics, mysticism, ecology, and prejudice.
The “Gundam” stories take place in the not-too-distant future, when the human population passed 11 billion. Most people have left Earth for the orbiting Space Colonies. But the corrupt, bickering oligarchs of the world government inevitably come into conflict with a large underclass seeking freedom. The outcome of the struggle depends on the battles fought by the heroic space-born pilots in their Gundam Mobile Suits.
The sheer scale of the “Gundam” franchise can be daunting. It would take more than six weeks of watching eight hours of video a day, seven days a week, to see the more than 345 hours of the “Gundam saga.” (And even a dedicated otaku would probably crack before the second week was up.)
The original “Mobile Suit Gundam” looks very dated today, with its crumbly Xerox lines, slow pacing, limited animation and tame battles. It’s closer in tone to “Robotech” than the more spectacular recent favorites “Gundam Wing” (1995) and “The 08th MS Team” (1996). But the story of Amuro Ray becoming a mecha pilot and a warrior in spite of himself is well told. In contrast, “A Wakening of the Trailblazer,” the first theatrical feature in 19 years, boasts dazzling CG battle scenes and a muddled plot.
Despite the enormous success of the “Gundam” franchise, Tomino has a notorious love-hate relationship with his creation. In a 1993 interview, he recalled the frustration he felt when the first film was released: “In the United States a film like ‘Star Wars’ could be made in live-action, whereas in Japan we were in a position — or I was in a position — where I had to make my story in robot animation…and I don’t particularly like robot animation.”
– Charles Solomon
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