Friday 28 May 2021

Giant Robots and Miniature Plastic Models: Gundam as Japan's Star Wars

There is a genre of (military) science fiction in Japan that is known all over the world: giant machines (=mechs, known as meka in Japanese, from the English mechanism or mechanical) controlled by ordinary soldiers. Easily the most famous - and first - of these is Mobile Suit Gundam (機動戦士ガンダム), a 1979 TV series which, despite the name, depicts robots many times bigger than their human pilots: the size of the mechs differentiates this genre from fitted "suits" worn by the likes of Iron Man (though inspiration did apparently come from the powered armour featured in 1959 Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers). 

In Japan, the impact of Gundam has been compared to that of Star Wars in the United States: the Japanese military (SDF) even code-named its advance personal-combat suit Gundam! Regarding pronunication, be sure not to make the same mistake I did and pronounce it as "GUN-dam": even though the first syllable does come from the English "gun" it is pronounced "gan" in Japanese and making this mistake will elicit stifled sniggers (and possibly worse among hard-core fans). Another interesting piece of background was that Yoshiyuki Tomino who wrote and directed the series apparently saw it as a anti-war commentary on Japanese agression in Manchuria in 1939 (though he has never explicitly discussed the message of his work). See here for the official English fan site.

Recently, I visited a life-sized (19.7m) replica of the Unicorn Gundam at Odaiba, Tokyo, standing in front of the DiverCity shopping mall (the 7th floor boasts the massive Gundam Base store). Four times a day the Unicorn switches to battle mode which sees its frame expand and emit a pink glow. Right behind the statue there is a Gundam Cafe which sells take-away snacks and memorabilia. More recently, an 18-metre moving Gundam statue opened in Yokohama which unlike its Odaiba cousin can flex all its limbs, move forward and even kneel down (video here). Unfortunately, unlike Odaiba, at Yokohama you have to pay to see the robot (and pay even more if you want to ride up to the observation deck for a closer look).

Although the original TV series was cancelled after only a year due to low ratings, it was the release of Gundam plastic models or Gunpura (often written as Gunpla but always pronounced ganpura =ガンプラ) in 1980 that revitalised the franchise. The ensuing years saw a slew of films, manga, DVDs, and spin off TV series whose popularity spread to Asia (from the 1980s) and North America and Europe (from the 1990s). Interestingly, it was not an Asian country but Italy which was actually the first to air the series outside Japan, in February 1980, and to this day many Italians fondly remember growing up with the programme (though Captain Tsubasa seems to be the most loved Japanese anime among football-crazy Italians). Today, Gunpura have a cult following and in Japan at least the word has come to refer to the actual practice of building the models rather than simply the models themselves. Gunpura reportedly make up 90% of the Japanese character plastic model market and have sold over 700 million units worldwide (as of March 2021), figures boosted by a rise in interest during the pandemic (the first ever English guide was released in 2020). If you want to start off with a simple one, why not try your luck at the newly opened Gashapon Department Store in Ikebukuro which boasts 3,000 capsule toy vending machines (known as gashapon or gachapon). In the words of the character Yuki Tatsuya, "Gunpla is freedom - you can build it as you like." Or as Gundam Unicorn said, "Only mankind has a god - a "god" by the name of "possibility." Was Star Wars ever this deep?

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