Gundam gets honest and drops the pretense
Spoilers to follow…
In 1989, Mobile Suit Gundam 0080: War in the Pocket sent its audience away with a stark and sobering look at war through the eyes of a child and a not so subtle scathing indictment of the franchise’s commercial priorities. “Al don’t cry. Another war’ll start soon and it’ll be even bigger, flashier, and more fun than this one!” his friend promises as the reality of the tragedy finally buckles within the protagonist. Brutal and to the point, 0080‘s finale spoke to the contradiction of a multi-entry series harping on the horrors of war while simultaneously selling the engines of that conflict as attractive products. It wasn’t as much biting the hand that fed it, the newer depictions of by then classic robot designs were very cool after all, so much as it was knowingly going as far as it could in the ever-present struggle inherent in anti-war storytelling, especially one geared towards getting younger audiences to part with their money. And on the opposite end of that thorny spectrum sits 2013’s Gundam Build Fighters, which looks viewers directly in the eye and declares, with a smile and not an ounce of shame, “this is a commercial but that doesn’t mean we can’t have fun with it.”
Not content with simply holding up a featured product, though certainly not averse to the cast regularly proclaiming their bottomless love for Gunpla and actual product boxes filling the screen in many scenes (so you know exactly which ones to buy), Build Fighters showers each episode in enough Gundam minutiae, allusions, and callbacks to make even the crustiest long-time fan crack a smile. While I don’t think it diminishes the many interesting artistic accomplishments or sheer entertainment value of the franchise over the last 40 years, it is an immutable truth that Gundam exists because of toys. And to its great credit, Build Fighters respects its audience enough to level with them. As if it is throwing its arm over an old friend’s shoulder, Build Fighters makes it abundantly clear this is a jovial hang out at the mall, not Gundam‘s typically contorted self-serious balancing act of commerce, distinct personality, and rigid formula.
I consider myself kind of a grump when it comes to relying too heavily on “hey remember that?” humor but Masashi Hirose returning as Ramba Ral, here a veteran plastic model enthusiast with the air of an elder statesman, long beloved and underseen mobile suits alike animated with verve, and so many more little touches warmed my heart. Build Fighters elevates what could have easily been a dry and cynical exercise of furthering the Gundam plastic model empire’s brand recognition into both a celebration for established fans and a pretty darn fun ride for just about anyone else. It never quite reaches The LEGO Movie‘s synchronizing of brand awareness and passionate thematic purposefulness, but when the opening episode features a lovingly animated Gyan crushing a Wing Gundam, well there’s something to be said for that.
Divorcing itself from the usual war-torn futures full of proper noun terminology and tangled political backgrounds, Build Fighters takes place in a contemporary world where the Gundam explosion of the 1980s just kept on rolling. With the recently discovered Plavsky Particle, which allows the once stationary models to be fluidly manipulated by remote control, Gundam mania has steamrolled over seemingly all facets of pop culture on a worldwide scale with the Gunpla Battle game. Madison Square Garden has rebranded as La Vie en Rose Garden, the Gunpla Mafia is real and their crimes are serious (tampering with toy fights? The audacity), and the bouts that drive the series are national events. What happens if you’re more into Macross‘ transforming jets and pop idols angle? We may never know, but I have a strong sense that you’d be shunned in the streets and disowned by your family. Build Fighters rides its silly premise into a wonderfully hilarious place, never overplaying its hand and becoming an out and out parody but never missing an opportunity for a moment like trying to pick up a pretty lady with a well put together Victory Gundam or someone solemnly reflecting on the hardships of the Gunpla Academy. Everything is played just seriously enough to build tension without forgetting for a second this all revolves around toys aimed at children. Fighters shines for embracing this absurdity that later entries in the Build subseries would downplay to their detriment.
In this surely not war free but at least less grim world, we follow aspiring model builder Sei Iori, son of a famed Gunpla fighter, as he struggles in a hobby that places a lot of emphasis on battling. The laser and explosion effects simulated by the Plavsky Particles may be an illusion, but damage done to the models is very real. When putting more time and energy into construction yields a better quality machine, the risk of losing it all in quick battle is great and Sei feels the weight of his investment with every action. In an early battle against a local contender, Sei’s hesitation to press the attack costs him the match and serves as yet another reminder of his mental block. You don’t have to step back too far to see this as the universal struggle to better express yourself, and hey, what better way to do it than through expensive merchandise, right? Enter the mysterious boy Reiji, who doesn’t know his Z’Goks from his Zogoks, but soundly defeats Sei’s sneering rival after stepping in during a rematch. What Reiji lacks in encyclopedic knowledge of Gundam, he makes up for with skillful control. Together they decide to team up, with Sei handling the building and support, and Reiji throwing plastic fists, and enter the World Tournament to take on the greatest Gunpla warriors on Earth.
What follows is at its core a light-hearted and easy-going sports story with the pair working their way up the ranks, facing down memorable rivals who quickly transform into friends (highlights include the day drinking Italian Dandy Ricardo Fellini and super genius weeb Nils Nielsen), learning to work together and value the other’s contributions, and to course appreciate the wide world of Gunpla expression. Chihayafuru this is not, you’ll never be thinking three matches ahead to figure out how the rankings could shake out or mentally sweating each shift in points. Sei and Reiji are on the way to the top, with no hard lessons in what it means to lose and pick yourself back up or pained moments of self-realization when faced with being not being good enough. Things are kept breezy and simple, always with a forward-moving momentum, and in doing so, Build Fighters easily lands among the tightest Gundam viewing experiences to date. Directer Kenji Nagasaki and series composer Yousuke Kuroda’s skillful working of the basic mechanisms of anime sports storytelling is the production’s secret weapon. There is an understated management of ambition and follow-through going on just below the surface, meaning that while it doesn’t ever reach for the heavens (like Yoshiyuki Tomino’s Gundam entries have), that reach never exceeds its grasp (also like Yoshiyuki Tomino’s Gundam entries have). The toy battles headline the whole affair, but it’s the investment in the well-executed and energetic journey that creeps in while you’re watching robots smash each other that keeps your attention for episode after episode.
Gundam has a bad habit of presenting itself with a sort of perfunctory shrug, which often undersells the unique qualities of individual entries while making the broader picture seem tired. And none of that is seen here, Build Fighters overflows with enthusiasm and in a franchise that has often felt stale, it is a gust of fresh air. Nowhere is that more evident than in the many plastic throwdowns. A fun mix of familiar and brand new mobile suits are lavished with attention to detail and a palpable sense of love. Aila’s wild new spin on the classic Qubeley may get a lot of screen time for a variety of reasons, not the least of which to promote new kits, compared to Sei’s father’s underseen in animation Perfect Gundam, but the many talented animators and storyboard artists make sure that everything gets at least a moment to shine. Much of the staff being no strangers to Gundam, many having worked on 00 and AGE, here give the impression of cutting loose and going wild and the energy is infectious. Build Fighters manages to channel a joyous Saturday morning cartoon spirit not seen since Yasuhiro Imagawa played chicken with producers and put a horse in the pilot seat of a horse robot in G Gundam.
Even without taking into consideration that Gundam has had a very strong, well documented female fanbase from the ground floor in 1979, it remains depressing that the franchise continues to depict women’s stories by and large as accessories to men’s. Each female cast member is positioned to rigidly exist within the orbit of a designated male counterpart. It rarely takes long for their assigned role, typically as a romantic interest, to become clear and it usually doesn’t extend past that. On top of that is the way the girls approach the central hobby. Sei and his friends naturally take to Gundam and Gunpla like fish to water, but China, Kirara, and several others take a roundabout, self-serving route that paints them as outsiders in a man’s world. Then there’s Aila, whose story is trapped in the suffocating tragic Cyber Newtype love interest routine along with the unfortunate baggage that carries. Gundam should be better.
In my mind, the crowning example of this was during an announcement event a few years ago for the then-upcoming Iron-Blooded Orphans, the host mentioned a there would a number of female characters… before quickly elaborating that they would serve as romantic interests. A role that frequently ends in tragic explosions. This isn’t an issue specific to Fighters and it is something subsequent Build entries have tried to address, to let’s say mixed results (Try‘s sort of protagonist Fumina spends a lot of time in a sports bra being panned over by the eager camera even as she gets pushed off to the side for Sekai). It’s easily the biggest knock against Build Fighters, a show that otherwise casts a very broad yet effective net of entertainment. It’s just a shame for it to leave one of Gundam‘s long-standing glaring issues unpolished while it does such great work on many others.
Build entries continue to pop up without any signs of slowing down but the lighting in a bottle that Sunrise captured on the first go-around has long since escaped. Perhaps it’s because Try and Divers have strayed from meeting their audiences in the eye and attempted to take their settings at their word. Never before or since has Gundam been this upfront with what it is, and that alone is highly endearing. A few quibbles aside, Build Fighters is an absolute delight, regularly laugh out loud funny, charming, and exciting. Gundam has never been more fun.