Mobiles Suits Gundams

Mobile Suit Gundam and On-Ramps

Various series within the Mobile Suit Gundam franchise are available across different streaming platforms.

I thought I might get into Gunpla recently.

Editor’s Note: “Gunpla” is short for GUNdam PLAstic model kits. It’ll come up a lot.

Everybody seems to be picking up an extra hobby right now, after all, and model-kit-building has always struck me as a fun pastime. Sure, that entire scene looks like (and, my many accounts, is) a rabbit hole one might easily fall down and never emerge from. But model Gundam kits specifically feel like a nice, semi-contained pool to wade in, especially knowing that they typically don’t need all the painting and detailing work after assembly if you want to stop there. Why not get elbow-deep-but-no-deeper into some detail-oriented work, and have a nice little figure to show at the end of it?

So, where to start? I just pick one that looks cool, right? Sure, except my inner voice is nagging me: you know what’d help me really enjoy the activity? Having some context for that thing that I’m making. Sure, sounds reasonable enough.

Except when it immediately becomes a time trap.

Consider the Jesta

I wanted to dip my toe back in (I’ve built exactly two Gunpla kits in the past), so I put my eye toward something of a grunt model, but one that looked cool. Jesta screamed that: he’s not brightly-colored, or something with a lot of flashy parts or more than the typical four moving limbs. But at the same time, he’s a satisfyingly-chunky metal man with plenty of fun-looking mounted weapons and just a couple of bells and whistles. He feels like the Gundam equivalent of Marvel’s War Machine, which is a selling pitch if I’ve ever heard one.

For your consideration: a Very Cool Robot

So where does he come from?

Mobile Suit Gundam Unicorn, circa 2013.

Uh-oh.

Unicorn is a fairly recent series, made within the last decade of a franchise that’s been plugging along since 1979.

Here’s an incomplete list of just TV series that came out before Gundam Unicorn, all of which may or may not matter to its setting and story:

  • Mobile Suit Gundam (the original)
  • Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam
  • Mobile Suit Gundam ZZ
  • Mobile Suit Gundam 0083: Stardust Memory
  • Mobile Suit Gundam 0080: War in the Pocket
  • Mobile Suit Gundam: The 08th MS Team
  • Mobile Suit Gundam MS IGLOO
  • Mobile Suit Gundam MS IGLOO 2

…and I swear that I’m not making up a series functionally named Gundam Igloo 2.

Doubling up on that is the sheer length of most Gundam TV series; while a few of those titles are quick little twelve-episode affairs, those are the exception. The majority of shows titled Mobile Suit Gundam border on space opera, taking around 50 episodes a pop to tell story within the same super-story. From back-of-the-envelope math, that’s 100 hours of TV you’re watching if you want to be absolutely sure you’ve got all the context you need for Unicorn. Some of that isn’t even legally available to stream in the U.S. right now, and that’s still ignoring movies, novels, and manga (the first of which is fairly high-profile). And there’s always the chance that, in the end, the model came from a show that didn’t resonate with you, which would be a real buzzkil to discover after all that.

Of course, there are ways around this. The original series and Zeta Gundam have both seen their stories condensed into movie trilogies, and a few of those are pretty obviously meant to be optional companion stories. All told, that still only brings you down to about half the original length of “required reading”. You could read plot synopses instead, but what’s less exciting, complete, or nuanced than having Wikipedia recount a story to you? Then there’s always the option of asking other fans what matters to the ongoing story and what doesn’t, but getting a getting a consistent answer is another thing entirely. If there’s one thing that internet fandoms do well, it’s disagree about minutiae like which of Spinoffs A, B, and C “matter” to Sequel Stories E and F.

And yet, even for sequels of sequels of series within the franchise, Bandai will manufacture oodles of kits for every single mecha that ever appeared on-screen – there’s even a whole Variations line of models that aren’t quite based on anything from the shows. So clearly there’s not a complete overlap of fans of the show and fans of the kits; it seems more of a venn diagram between people who are on-board for the kits’ Cool Factor™ and those with a story attachment to them.

Speaking of, a quick aside to marvel at what a crazy operation Gunpla kits are. They virtually never go out of print (even those minted decades ago), are cleverly-designed to minimize the need for unique parts on some very unique models, and have managed to turn boxes of parts still in their factory molds into a fun artistic pastime. Model kits are almost certainly a huge part of the reason Gundam lands in the top 15 highest-grossing media franchises ever. For evidence, look no further than image search results, which are absolutely dominated by volume by Gunpla kits.

They have their own, independent appeal

Still, I want to be in that center overlap. Call me persnickety, but putting hours into a creative project works better for me if I have some context for it.

Which is why I find its true spinoff series like the very post-911 Gundam 00 and mega-campy G Gundam so appealing. They provide a obvious lower-investment ways to jump on and find some models I’ll like, especially with the latter’s first half being so episodic (read: easy to skip episodes of). Sure, they’re still long by most anime’s standards, but 50 episodes are way easier to swallow than a potential 200-plus all said and done.

Oddly enough, though, this still puts the cart before the horse a bit. At the end of the day, I’m not getting interested in models because of the shows they come from – not directly, at least.

I’m getting interested in the shows because of the models. I want to see that Jesta in action.

Splash Page of a kit - the moneymaker
These splash images make me want to re-watch 00 just to see this guy in action again.

This shouldn’t surprise anyone paying even passing attention to the pop culture market, of course. Hasbro either took after Bandai in this way or was already way ahead on making TV shows inextricably linked to merchandise. Transformers and GI Joe, anyone? Character-focused merchandising is its own massive market, with oodles and gobs of franchises using character designs as a selling point, including the infamous gatcha game. Then there’s Pokémon, with has so many arms across so many divergent mediums that it’s hard to tell which are meant to feed the others. It’s hardly a unique approach.

But I don’t think I’ve ever seen many franchises pull it off nearly so well.

Where you have some other series that clearly exist as a vector for cool toy designs, or toys manufactured to pull every drop of marketable interest from an already-loved story and setting, Gundam sees the two feed each other seemingly equally.

You have shows that tell sweeping space-war epics or heavy, band-of-brothers dramas. Some see multiple-award-winning collaborators like Yoko Kanno (composer for Cowboy Bebop and Ghost in the Shell: SAC) or Tatsuyuki Nagai (director of Anohana and Toradora!).

You have an elaborate and broad line of build-your-own-figurine sets. They range from grab-bag, done-in-five-minutes affairs to projects that take months to complete, and drive local competitions for best craftsmanship in how users will detail and modify them after the fact.

Either is strong enough to stand on its own.

But as dual entry points into a brain-bustingly huge media franchise, each with their own distinct audiences and appeals, they support one another in a way that’s almost symbiotic.

Sure, the whole series originated on television, and you wouldn’t have nearly the same demand for Gunpla without the shows. Just look at Frame Arms, a model kit series that looks just as detailed and cool, but doesn’t have nearly the same reach.

But Gunpla was never far behind, and it’s clearly a driving influence on the franchise now. No fewer than four series are based on model-kit building rather than any in-universe giant mecha, and there’s a whole series of video games based on mix-and-match kit building. There are even series out there like Custom Robo and Medabots that are clearly inspired by the idea of Gunpla kits.

Gundam feels like the purest example of a two-pronged approach to a franchise. Two pillars, neither subservient, and both equally valid as an on-ramp. You see some franchises with broader appeal, or more story-and-merchandising arms to them, but rarely ever so clearly-conceived and purpose-built as Gundam is to having equal branches that feed into one another to define its outlook. It’s focused, it’s well-constructed, and it’s a little crazy to see it having barely lost steam since 1979.

Now I’m off to go put together some action figures.

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