On Gundam, Anime and My Life as a Casual Otaku

This post is the introduction to a series of Gundam reviews, currently in progress. In fact, if you’re reading this it’s at all close to September 24, 2009, this is probably the only post in the series.

I don’t know if I’m more shocked than it’s been a decade since I started watching anime or that it’s only been a decade.  Though my otaku cred is minimal, anime’s been an important influence on be both as a writer and in the way I look at animation.  Yet before sometime in early 2000, the only anime I had seen was Voltron and Noozles.

Seriously. Noozles.

I was hired at Electronics Boutique in 1999 as a register jockey.  In the same mall was a Suncoast, one of the only stores at that time to have a dedicated anime shelf.  I wish I could remember why I decided I needed to know more about anime, but all I can recall is walking into Suncoast, seeing the eye-catching cover of the first DVD of Serial Experiments Lain and buying it on the spot.  At the time, I thought it was a movie.  When it came to anime, I knew nothing.

Around the same time Lain was corrupting my fragile mind, Cartoon Network was spinning off its successful Toonami block of mostly anime programming into a late-night offering intended for teenagers trapped in adult bodies called Midnight Run.  It was Midnight Run where I first saw Gundam.  And it was good.

Giant robots are like sword-fighting skeletons.  There’s genetic code that predisposes some of us to love them.  Combined with an early childhood spent watching Transformers and Voltron, the love of giant robots fighting each other can become overwhelming.  Once I started to get into the world of anime, it was only a matter of time before I heard of Gundam.

The first thing most people hear about Gundam is it’s the Star Trek of Japan. It’s actually not a terrible comparison.  The show started in 1979, was ahead of its time as an animated mecha show that dealt with more complicated themes than whether a giant lion robot could free humanity from enslavement, failed to find an audience and was canceled.  It found an audience in the years after, leading the studio to reconsider and relaunch the franchise as a series of television and film projects that have been a nearly endless cash cow since.  Where Star Trek told the story of an endless series of spaceships named Enterprise, Gundam focused on its eponymous mecha.  In the same way that the Enterprise became a symbol of the ideals of Star Trek, so did the Gundam become more than a simple mobile suit.

The comparison should stop there.  Gundam is a very different franchise from Star Trek, a fact I learned from the first series I saw: Gundam Wing.  While Star Trek became increasingly obsessed with its own continuity, Gundam saw a decline in interest in its core timeline as a chance to reinvigorate the franchise.  After 15 years of telling stories in the Universal Century timeline, Bandai released Mobile Fighter G Gundam, an alternate universe take on the Gundam mythos.  Rather than continuity as the cornerstone of their francise, they decided that what Gundam meant was the key.

Gundam Wing was the second of the alternate universe Gundam stories, set not in the Universal Century timeline of original Gundam nor in the Future Century world of G Gundam.  It was a stand along story, set 175 years after the colonization of space.   Where original Gundam was primarily a military story and G Gundam was a one-on-one combat story in the mold of  Dragonball, Wing was a complicated political drama.  With mecha beating on each other. That doesn’t go away.

Brent, Brennen and I caught it on Midnight Run halfway through the series.  We all decided, for reasons I no longer recall, to give this strange and convoluted mecha series a shot.  We were all in separate places, so we chatted online through the show.  None of us had a clue what was going on.  There was a cold, murderous pilot at the center of the series, five insanely powerful mechas fighting either Earth or the Colonies or both – it was hard to tell – and some very uncomfortable proto-romance between the emotionally stunted pilots and the overly emotional women they met.

It was fun, at first.  And then it got good. Really good.  By the end, all the political nonsense started to make sense and the pilots ended up in life or death struggles against enemies in mecha even more unrealistic and silly than their own Gundams.  Somehow, it got to me.  All of it.  The battles. The characters.  The Gundams themselves.  The speeches on the ethics of dropping a massive spacecraft on Earth’s surface so as to destroy the source of all war.  I loved it.

That was enough to turn me into a bit of an otaku, but it was a while before I made my way back to another Gundam series.  Very little had been brought over to the US, and I was concerned about watching anything set in the original, U.C. timeline  without seeing it mostly in order.  All I knew of the original Mobile Suit Gundam was that it was badly animated and no one wanted to spend the money to bring it over.  I watched a few episodes of a stand along OAV set in U.C. called 8th M.S. Squad and liked it, but never got around to finishing it.  I had plenty of anime to watch, anyway.

Then, after moving back to Pittsburgh in 2003, I stumbled into a site hosting all 50 episodes of the newest series: Mobile Suit Gundam SEED, another alternate universe series. (This one is set in the “Cosmic Era”).  I devoured it.  Where Wing was excellent cheese, SEED had all the elements of a really great show.  The animation was lovely, the fights crazy and the character arcs cleaner and less goofy than Wing.  Whatever I needed to push me into full on fanboy mode for Gundam, SEED had it.

In the years since, I’ve seen almost as much Gundam as I have all other anime combined.  Of the dozen Gundam television series, I’ve seen all but 3.  And they’re 50 episodes each.  I’ve jokingly named my last two cars after Gundam.  I’ve spent hours and hour talking about it with friends, mostly fellow Gundam fan Brent.  The last two series to go on television, SEED Destiny and 00 I’ve watched as they came out, downloading the fansubs as soon as they hit the net.

I like anime a lot.  I’ve gone to anime conventions.  I spent most of the last two weeks plowing through Code Geass.  When it comes to new television series, I’m at least as excited about what’s coming out in Japan as I am with what American television is dripping out.  But I love Gundam.

If it weren’t for Gundam, I’d probably still be an anime fan. I adore Lain and Cowboy Bebop.  Without Gundam, though, I’m not sure I’d have the enthusiasm for it.  It was Gundam Wing that made anime a communal experience for me, that tuned me onto something deeper in the culture of anime than the fanservice and the obsession with blue hair.  My love of Gundam has enabled my love of anime as a whole, and yet it’s also stood on its own.

It is, without a doubt, the best television franchise of all time.  Its closest competitor, Star Trek, reached a similar moment as Gundam did in the early 90’s.  Popularity was flagging.  Creativity was dried up.  The answer? Remake the original series.  Rather than tap into what made Trek what it was, it settled for a remake, missing its one chance to do something truly new.  Nothing would stop them from covering similar ideas and concepts, but they’d be free of characters literally named Kirk and Spock, just as Gundam is free of Amuro and Char.  Which is why Gundam stands alone, a franchise that’s lasted 30 years and found ways of renewing itself whenever it needed.

And Gundam taught me my favorite anime word of all time.  A word I use now as I plunge into a long term project to review every Gundam show.  A word Gundam pilots have used for 30 years before launching to fight an impossible battle.


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One Response to On Gundam, Anime and My Life as a Casual Otaku

  1. Baltar says:

    Holy crap, I thought I was the only one… My unexplainable obsession with blue hair was the reason I started watching anime.

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