Disclaimer: Thanks to SirNoogen for providing some excellent screencaps. This post would have taken forever otherwise!
This fall brings an embarrassment of Gundam riches. Not only do we have a new series by the creator of Gundam, the supremely influential if uneven Yoshiyuki Tomino, but the second installment of fan-favorite toy commercial battle show, Gundam Build Fighters TRY. I heard a lot of positive buzz floating around saying that the original Build Fighters (which finished airing earlier this year) was the best Gundam series in years, that it elevated a standard premise with fantastic execution, that it had kickass fight scenes and a Gundam who was a giant teddy bear. There was no way I could resist this kind of sales pitch, so I decided to catch up on the first season of Build Fighters hoping that at the very least I would be able to cheer on the current season along with everyone else. What I discovered prompted a bit more reflection than I expected. Build Fighters is certainly one of the best shows to bear the Gundam name in a long time, regardless of its origins as an advertisement for gunpla models. But it’s a show that succeeds in ways that set it entirely apart from the rest of its compatriots. Despite becoming a recent favorite of many Gundam fans, Build Fighters is in fact the antithesis of Tomino’s UC outings and of his creative philosophy in general.
The original Mobile Suit Gundam was far ahead of its time in many ways. Compared to recent anime series, aspects of the show fall hugely short, from inconsistent characterization to scatter-shot animation and pacing. Even the movie trilogy, which trim away some of the original show’s excesses and arguably strengthen the material, are weakened by Tomino’s tin ear for dialogue and haphazard plotting. But Tomino did for robots which few others had dared up to that point: he took a genre that had been used mainly for toy commercials and transformed it into a complex science fiction drama. Robots became interchangable weapons of war, the typical black-and-white morality common to kid’s shows at the time was muddied, and the characters had actual (if later to be surpassed) psychologies, their own hopes and fears. Amuro and his peers at White Base navigated a vividly imagined far future populated only by humans, not by the monstrous aliens typical of super robot shows. The paradigm had already been challenged by science fiction series like Space Battleship Yamato, but Gundam marked the official beginning of the so-called “real robot” genre, with higher ambitions and expectations to match.
Despite his weaknesses as an artist, Tomino’s great strength may be his refusal to accept the commercial status quo. He was never afraid to render his main robot irrelevant at the climax (Mobile Suit Gundam), address difficult topics like terrorism or suicide bombing (Zambot 3) or end the universe itself (Ideon: Be Invoked.) His success (and his ultimate failure?) lies in his ability to complicate, to take a concept that could have been an uninspired toy commercial in the wrong hands and make it more than it was, make it interesting. At his worst, such as in the infamous OVA Garzey’s Wing, these twists and character relationships are so convoluted in their construction that the story’s dramatic engine falls apart and becomes laughable. But Gundam has the fanbase it does today because when Tomino knocks it out of the park, he engineers moments so resonant that nitpicking suddenly seems petty. Both his earlier Zeta Gundam and his later, and arguably best, Turn A Gundam stand as landmarks of anime in general, the former for its colossal influence on later works at the very least and the latter for its sheer quality. It’s hard to call either of these series “just” toy commercials when there’s so much else going on!
In contrast, Gundam Build Fighters is far less ambitious in every way. Rather than an elaborate sci-fi epic in the vein of Zeta Gundam, it’s a shounen battle series meant to market gunpla, plastic gundam models, to children. Any pretense of seriousness or ambiguity is tossed away, politics erased. Each battle is one-on-one, reducing battles between mechs from the chaotic shootouts or formations of earlier Gundam anime to straight-out sports brawls. It’s an approach reminiscent of G Gundam, Yasuhiro Imagawa’s controversial super-robot take on the franchise, except that while Imagawa himself tussled with toy companies during the production process the staff of Build Fighters chose to play along. With everything but the robots themselves scrubbed away, Build Fighters hardly looks much like Gundam anymore. But here’s the trick: that’s why Build Fighters is so good.
The secret to Build Fighters‘s genius is that rather than attempt to be all things to all people (as recent entries in the series have tried, and failed) it chose to specialize. Build Fighters excises everything from the Gundam formula except for robot battles, but in the process the series eliminates many of the franchise’s traditional weaknesses. Each character has a clear motivation (to be the best gunpla fighter ever, no matter what!) The plot holes and inconsistencies so common to Tomino’s work vanish due to the fundamental simplicity of the premise. Even better, in comparison to Tomino’s current Reconguista in G (which somehow manages to explain too much while leaving the viewer permanently confused) Build Fighters is ruthlessly efficient in its pacing. And if it lacks Tomino’s signature ambition, it is just as sincere as well as legitimately good-natured. Reconquista in G may be Tomino’s message to today’s children, but Build Fighters is a message I think stands a better chance of being heard.
And in the end, that message adds up to more (if only just) than “buy gunpla today!” Build Fighters is a toy commercial, but at least it’s an honest one. The series might lack the life-or-death stakes of earlier Gundam shows, but it treats its hobby seriously, acknowledging that there are many different ways to enjoy gunpla and that all are equally worthy. It also points out that gunpla is only worthwhile when it’s fun, that it’s unimportant in the grand scheme of things but that (like all hobbies) that’s what makes it worthwhile. Each of the gunpla fighters introduced is an exemplary sportsman, even those who seem scary or intimidating at first. The only “villains” are corrupt officals lurking on the outside and seeking to bend the game towards their advantage. In the world of Build Fighters, the most grevious sin is not world domination, but cheating, bad sportsmanship, ruining someone else’s fun. Honestly, even if you don’t really care about gunpla it’s inspiring to watch how each member of the cast is so devoted to their chosen sport, how each is grateful in defeat, how every character realizes something about themselves in the process and takes another step forward. Even better, the spectacle of the gunpla battles is fully unified with the overall themes, in contrast with the dissonance that affected earlier shows where any presumed anti-war message was eventually subsumed by how awesome the fighting robots were.
Which brings us to the battles, which are the highlight of the whole thing. The staff of Build Fighters understood that being the kind of show it is, everything would fall apart if the matches themselves weren’t up to snuff. So they put together over the course of twenty-five episodes some of the most memorable robot fights in recent history, which not only contain all kinds of cool moments but actively reference famous scenes from Gundam past. One such notorious sequence is a full-out reenactment of Char’s Counterattack‘s climactic battle. Another seemingly comes out of the blue, pitting the cast against a seemingly impervious mech that never really got a chance to go all out in its own series. Of course, part of the appeal for Gundam fans is seeing their favorite robots match up against each other in unexpected ways, or robots from obscure franchise entries suddenly taking central stage. But whether you’re a Gundam fanatic or not, the battles in Build Fighters are both exhilarating and quite varied. Some embrace hilarious gimmicks (the baseball episode has to be seen to be believed) while others switch genre from tactical shoot-out to rooftop samurai showdown. And while I’m hardly a sakuga buff, I’ve heard enough commotion about Build Fighters on Twitter to know that the series doles out fairly spectacular bits of animation on a regular basis.
More than anything, Build Fighters demonstrates the power of restrictions as a means of encouraging artistic creativity. Build Fighters aspires to be far less than any of Tomino’s productions, or even other Gundam works like 08th MS Team or War in the Pocket directed by others. But by trimming away anything inessential and doubling down on its fundamental strengths, Build Fighters earns its status as one of the most entertaining series to bear the Gundam name in ages. I’m glad that Tomino has been given the chance to make G-Reco, as much as a mess as it threatens to be. But I think other entries in the franchise could really stand to learn from how Build Fighters proves that Gundam can be not merely ambitious, but effortless.