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40 Years Of Gundam: An Introduction To Japan's Favourite Giant Robots

In all forms of entertainment there are "the big beasts" that everyone in that community is familiar with. Mobile Suit Gundam was a show created and directed by Yoshiyuki Tomino and produced by Sunrise and is one such animal. Within the anime community Gundam is one of the major pillars of science fiction stories which this year, 2019, celebrates its 40th birthday having first aired in April 1979.

It clocked in at 43 episodes and is considered a show that defined the "real robot" genre within anime. Prior to Mobile Suit Gundam we had super robot shows (for example Mazinger) where the machine was a one of a kind or perhaps made by a genius or was even mystical/magical in nature. Typically the protagonist was a young-ish boy, mirroring the target audience for the show. Gundam was none of these things - mobile suits had power supplies and ammunition could run out. The characters were older and there were lots of them with relatively complex relationships. Looking at the plethora of Gundam series out there you would have expected it to be a smash hit on its release. It wasn't with its desired audience.

When you look at or search for Gundam what you'll find, along with a vast number of installations in a still ongoing franchise are toys, books, manga, games and gunpla - plastic model kits of the mechs from the show. You'll even find real-world life-sized Gundams have been built (the RX-0 Unicorn in 2017 replaced the RX-78 which was installed in 2009). It is an exemplary mixed-media franchise.

The gunpla kits however were a massive hit with the young adult audience. This drew a different audience in to watch a show full of intrigue, plots, machinations, political maneuvering and of course glorious mecha-based action in a science fiction universe. Woven into this were stories more relatable to the audience of love, death, dreams, duty and honour that were told at a more personal level. For me the best Gundam shows are those that have managed to balance both of these elements. Whilst I am a big fan of the original series Zeta Gundam, which is a later entry into the Universal Century timeline is my favourite with an ending that really brings the large scale conflict back to a very personal level.

As stated above it was through the merchandising Gundam became a success (yay!) and this led to the extensive franchise that now exists. The original series Mobile Suit Gundam (MSG) with its sequels and spin-offs exists within its own universe or timeline, the Universal Century. The other installations in the franchise exist in their own timelines like After Colony (AC) in Gundam Wing or the Cosmic Era (CE) of Gundam Seed. Gundam 00 is set in our very own timeline in 2307 AD! 

With each new entry into the franchise Sunrise reaches a new audience. As each spin-off is its own contained thing new character designs, animation tools, music and the tone of the series can be explored. This keeps it roughly in tune with the times and the audience. Whilst at times this can date a show, particularly the character designs if there is a broader trend, it makes each entry as unique as it can be within the overall brand. Of course, each new entry gives more model kits and therefore more merchandising sales.

In keeping with the tropes of a real robot anime, most Gundam shows require a bit of thought to keep up with the multiple characters (with some entertaining names like Mu La Flaga in Gundam Seed) and the multiple storylines they are all engaged with. I have found this to be part of its charm as I have to be present when watching it, it's never been something I can have on in the background. Typically there is someone you'll want to get behind and there are enough characters that have long story arcs. Along with the robot designs, these have become staple tropes within each Gundam entry that I have watched.

You'll also spot certain characters that, if not in name, their spirit and even elements of their look lives on in each entry. In many entries the shadow of Char Aznable, one of the antagonists in the original MSG is visible. We often see a charismatic masked mobile suit pilot who we are not totally sure about appear. He also happens to be an ace pilot too. Of course the different series often feature the space colonies that have been built around the Earth and the tension between them. Whilst this can lead to some thinking it is a remake every time the familiarity of the world enables certain things to be expressed without it having to be explained. It is fun to watch and see the references to the other shows.

Gundam is a real robot show but it still features mystical elements in the form of the Newtypes. Each series uses the newtype concept to express something different, in a similar way to vampires or aliens have been used to express something deeper in society. The untapped potential of the newtype in the initial series could be seen as looking to the future potential of the children or young adults about to be let loose into the world of work. The Innovators in Gundam 00 hint at the ideas of trans-humanism which with the current technological rate of change is a pertinent discussion.

I am by no means a Gundam expert but over the years I have tried to keep up with the physical releases of the franchise entries.  I've always watched shows legally and have only recently got into streaming services - I still like fixed packaged media. Luckily in the UK we have had shows released by Beez Entertainment and recently through Anime Limited (who have put together some really excellent products). There are some entries I would really like to watch that fit in and around the events of the original series like Mobile Suit Gundam 0080: War in the Pocket or the 08th MS Team.I hope that one day I'll be able to pick up a copy.

Initially, the Gundam franchise can appear like a maze where the first task is to find an entry point. There are so many shows where do you start? Given that this is its 40th anniversary over the coming weeks and months there will be a series of posts about the different Gundam timelines, what they are about and whether they are a good starting point to get into this franchise. After dipping my toe in many years ago it is a series that has brought me a lot of entertainment and joy.