It is possible that, albeit you might not be a anime / manga fan, you would have still heard something about a series called Gundam (or Gandamu, as in its Japanese transliteration): and with a reason. If there’s anything comparable to the Star Trek universe in the Asian tradition this is certainly Gundam, in terms of longevity, complexity and interest. Created by the genius of Yoshiyuki Tomino (富野 由悠季) and produced by Sunrise Animation Studio, the original 1979 anime series has later on generated many sequels, prequels, spin-off, manga, OVAs, videogames and an impressive range of merchandise.
There are many reasons for the sheer success of this war drama (this is the most appropriate label, if one has indeed to be chosen) – sofisticate scenarios, the accuracy of the design, the credibility of the technology and some charismatic characters among them.
The first series, aired in 1979, is called Mobile Suit Gundam (機動戦士ガンダム), and features the historical model RX-78 in the hands of the young (nonprofessional but very gifted) pilot Amuro Rey. The plot and the story look straightforward. In a sentence? There’s the Earth and there are its colonies, that at a certain moment decide to rebel and obtain their independence. One in particular: the Principality of Zeon. You can expect all sorts of intrigues, betrayals, side switching and of course gory battles in Earth’s orbit. This series ends in a cliffhanger and its sequel starts just a few years later. However, the timeline becomes afterwards increasingly complicated, and the successive series led to eventually have not one but many (I have counted between six and eight versions so far, depending on the linkages among them) alternate Gundam universes. That’s it – a multiverse.
While there are some people that seems to prefer other, more recent series to this historical one, this is the recommended starting point if you decide to give it a try. This is because Mobile Suit Gundam establishes standards and memes that will stay constant across the franchise. Physics is one. Space colonies are conveniently situated on the Lagrangian points, for example, and follow their rules (see this post for more about them). Others are more of “Star Trek type”, like the fictional subatomic particle called Minovsky Particle generated by a helium-3 reaction and largely used in combat (electromagnetic warfare is one) and communication devices. But it’s also important to mention the characterisation of the villains. Nobody is completely good or bad, hidden motives are mainstream and the golden principle of International Relations “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” rules uber alles.
In addition to that, more than often villains are more charismatic than the good guys, and here it’s impossible not to mention the star of whole franchise, the Lieutenant Commander “Red Comet” Char, aka Casval Rem Deikun. So successful that even alternate universes had to create at least a personage inspired to him, when not directly connected in some other ways (there’s now a name for it: the Char Archetype, essential to the success of every Gundam spin-off/sequel.) A possible equivalent in Western terms? A mix between Mr. Spock and Darth Vader for popularity in Japan, even though Char has some unique characteristics and a strong sexual appeal connotation that doesn’t exist in the other two.
Like Star Trek, no matter how long it has been around, Gundam’s success continues unabated, embedded how it is now in every aspect of the Japanese culture and society (and not only). According to corporate accounts, in 2014 the franchise has generated about 80 billion yen in revenues, which converted in USD gives 665 million or so. Not bad, if you consider that only part of the series is actually distributed overseas, and certainly not everywhere.
By the way: unsurprisingly enough, Gundam reached academia too, and the International Gundam Society has become the first academic institution based on an anime TV series. I might decide to take my university job with renovated passion from now on.
This is the first of a series of posts dedicated to Gundam. In the next article I am going to discuss more into detail the alternate timelines and the relations among them. The credits for the featured image are mentioned here.