Few anime series have the same legacy behind them that Mobile Suit Gundam does. The almost 40-year old series marks a bold turning point for Japanese science-fiction and mecha anime. Prior to Gundam almost every show featuring a robot fell under what was called the Super Robot genre, where larger than life machines would duke it out against other large scale mechs or monsters. Gundam was one of the first to break away from this trend. It featured more political themes and drama, and placed more story emphasis on its human characters and making the mechs more like tools. While Gundam is a celebrated franchise both in and outside of Japan now, it’s had a rough life getting to where it is now.
Mobile Suit Gundam was met with mixed reception when it first aired in April of 1979. Japanese audiences were expecting something closer to the super robot shows they had been used to seeing, and instead got something closer to a space soap opera. The initial bad ratings led to sponsors cutting money from the shows budget, and brought it down from 50 to 39 episodes. Sunrise and series director, Yoshiyuki Tomino, were able to renegotiate and were able to extend it to 42 episodes, which was still 2 months shy of the original plan. Gundam seemed destined to fail. Its TV series was cut short, its toy line was failing, and its biggest sponsors had backed out.
Bandai picked up the Gundam toy rights for cheap after this failed run, and took a stab at turning the Gundam mechs into newer plastic kits (the original line being made of metal). These easy to assemble kits took off in popularity, and by association, revived Gundam when it was given a second chance with another TV run. Gundam was so well received it got a theatrical release, plenty of sequel series’, and popularized the realistic robot genre. Even with all this success there was still some turmoil behind the scenes.
The original vision Tomini had for Gundam had a lot of comparative differences from the final product. He took a lot of these frustrations into his own hands, and penned 3 novels for the series after the original run. Tomino originally wanted the main character, Amuro, to be older. In the anime he’s a 16-year old kid, whose genius in robotics is what allows him to easily get used to using the Gundam. The titular robot was also changed. In the show the Gundam has a distinctive red, white, blue, and yellow color scheme (probably to make it stand out for toy sales), but the novel points out that it was original planned to be gray and white. The novels also get into much darker territory by killing off members of the main cast, and bringing in darker war imagery. However, the widespread love for Gundam eventually brought these types of stories forth as well. There’s several different re-tellings of the original Gundam since Tomino’s novelization, and plenty of official “what ifs” that explore some of the older ideas Sunrise had abandoned. The hard fought battles against lukewarm ratings and sponsors eventually resolved itself in Japan, but outside it’s a different story for the rest of the world.
The Gundam franchise had had some exposure to the west through movies and even an Italian dub of the original series in the 1980s, but the franchise’s biggest Western push was through Cartoon Network in the early 2000s. The animation conglomerate had originally brought over New Mobile Report: Gundam Wing, a series that originally aired in 1995. Cartoon Networks burgeoning anime fandom loved the unique mech design, explosive battles, and decent looking art. Bandai also brought over the line of plastic Gunpla models that went with Wing, and it cemented the franchise as one of Cartoon Network’s anime staples. Bandai followed up Wing with the original, and it was not as well received. The aged animation of the 70s didn’t hold a candle to what the mid-90s Wing looked like. Mobile Suit Gundam is also a bit slower paced when it comes to action, and whole episodes could be dedicated to character growth without much use of the titular mech or any battles at all. The lukewarm reception to Gundam ended up getting the show pulled before it even finished airing. Keep in mind Mobile Suit Gundam aired daily in the US, so it lasted a little over a month. Word of mouth is that the series was originally pulled because of how close it was to the September 11th attacks on the world trade center, but that could easily have been an excuse for floundering ratings.
Gundam’s Western success lived and died by its toy line. There were plenty of different kits and action figures for Wing, and even Mobile Suit had a fairly large amount of figures. It wasn’t until G Gundam and Gundam SEED that things started to get out of hand with Bandai’s toy push. It got to the point where there were normal action figures of all the Gundam units and then those same units beaten and destroyed in a special line called “Battle Scarred.” Needless to say, it was damn near impossible to keep up with everything, and the Gundam market crashed. Stores were so overstocked with units that they refused to carry newer lines of toys and this combined with the mild reception of SEED lead to the franchise’s inevitable collapse.
It’s been well over a decade since the Great Gundam Collapse of the early 2000s. In that time the series has continued to flourish in Japan, but has only recently started to gain traction in North America again. Gundam Versus on the PlayStation 4 marks the franchises first game on a major home console in the west since 2006 (unless you’re counting the Dynasty Warriors spin-offs). The last few major anime series have made their way onto major streaming sites as well, and even Gunpla kits have started to gain traction at major chains like Hobby Town and Barnes & Nobel. Few franchises can claim to have had the same struggles as Gundam, but it’s those struggles that make the series memorable and impactful. In an essay titles “Contesting Traumatic War Narratives: Space Battleship Yamato and Mobile Suit Gundam,” William Ashbaugh talks about how Tomino thought viewers should come to their own conclusions about what the series means. It’s that same thought process that has helped to keep not only Gundam, but also the real robot genre, alive and well to this day.