War is Sell

Gundam Build Fighters is the soul of Gundam.

Such a statement is close to heresy in the halls of Gundam fandom. Certainly, Build Fighters is well regarded – even many diehard Universal Century heads admit that it was better than they feared it might be – but to say that Build Fighters is the essence of Gundam is something of a stretch. Perhaps a more serious entry, such as the fantastic 0080 War in the Pocket or the foundational Mobile Suit Gundam series, would be more appropriate when discussing the core being of Gundam. If nothing else, these latter shows would be more in tune with Gundam’s primary theme, surely?But the fact remains – Build Fighters is Gundam’s soul, the very core of the franchise on full display.

gbf-ogle
This is your serious war show folks, right here.

Now, Gundam is a huge property, spanning dozens of storylines and multiple continuities stretching across decades. More than one writer has told stories in its various universes, and more than a few others have spilled ink discussing the themes in these tales. Certainly, a show which is so painfully simple, so blatantly childish, could not be representative of the series as a whole, could it?

The common wisdom is that Gundam, across most of its iterations, carries one overarching theme – War is Hell. This is the refrain of the Universal Century old guard, and is often the perception of outsiders who have little to no knowledge of Gundam. It shows us the terrors of war and the painful cost of the unending struggles that plague humankind. Gundam is the lament of the weary soldier, asking if there was any point to all the killing even as they are forced to return to the front again and again. Gundam is the mud in the trenches, the blood on the bayonet, and the recoil from the gunshot.

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Pictured: War. Status: Never changes.

 …at least, in theory. But I would argue that there is a more pervasive theme to the Gundam franchise, one that is more accurate both to its intended and unintended themes – Conflict matters. The reasons why someone engages in conflict, the importance that the conflict has for the individual, and how those conflicts shape the warriors involved, are essential in understanding the nature of a person. Gundam as a franchise is more about the importance of conflict – both in its outcomes and in the sense that conflict should never be taken lightly – rather than serving as a referendum against war or conflict universally.

Part of this stems from the fact that most entries in the Gundam franchise are not terribly effective at selling the idea of warfare being Hell. Due to a number of factors, some within the narratives themselves and some as a result of external pressures, most of Gundam does not effectively work as an anti-war statement. Often times it is practically inept at doing so.

This is most apparent in its heavy commercialization. Gundam exists to sell Gunpla. Full stop. The original Mobile Suit Gundam would be no more than footnote in anime history were it not for the continued success of the model kits long after the show was canceled. With each entry in the franchise come new suits designed for mass consumption, with endless options for customization and fetishization of military weaponry. While there is no inherent evil in this, it certainly becomes difficult to sell the audience on horrors of war when the primary aim is selling them war toys.

plot
“Gundam teaches us to fear the military industrial complex.”

The commercialization angle naturally dovetails into the framing of these conflicts. Most violent acts committed in these shows are by machines and against machines. They feel no pain and will not bear the long-term debilitating effects of combat. While various Gundam pilots suffer from anxiety and fear of conflict, this is often a temporary stumbling block rather than a truly defining character trait. Anything approaching the true psychological scarring of war is often used merely as a pretense for characters to discuss why fighting/piloting is super important. In fact, not fighting (Amuro-ing? Shinji-ing?) lets down everyone they care about, and is actively discouraged. In its most petty form, the emotional scars of war are a vessel for introducing a ‘berserker mode’ variant of an existing mecha, and thereby heralding a new color or armor configuration of an existing model to sell to the audience. Hell indeed.

And while it is perhaps unfair to critique a work based on its fandom, it is not exactly a secret that many Gundam die-hards have a great love for the Principality of Zeon – the blatantly aristocratic and fascist space warmongers who like to shout words like sieg.

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Fascism will always overcome scrappy rebels because of their snazzy outfits.

It would seem then that commoditization of weaponry and the importance of personal conflict are far closer to the core of Gundam’s being than dour reflections on the tragedy of war. Gundam Build Fighters is not an aberration, then, but rather the franchise at its most honest. This is a show about characters who buy Gunpla and battle them. No veneer of the terrors of war. No dialed-in exposition about the cost of human suffering. No lamenting about a soldier’s duty and necessary evil. Instead, this show focuses on how its characters approach their battles, what they learn from them, and why they fight. The characters are not only employed by the show’s creators to sell toys, they are literally employed at a business that sells toys to other characters. Sei waxes poetic on the joys of watching Gundam anime, and explains in detail how building toy models is both work and pleasure, a cathartic expression of creativity. I would argue that this is what Gundam really is, rather than how it pretends to be. Even the delivery system of the show’s content reflects this – Sunrise put the show on Youtube, free of charge or commercial breaks, because it is a commercial in and of itself.

And yet it still retains the meaningful drama that makes Gundam so compelling. Consider the many ways in which conflict illuminates the different relationships and personalities on display, and how they entwine through the same core activity of Gunpla battles. Sei and Nils both excel at building Gunpla, but the former only does so for the love of the art while the latter does so as a means to an end. Fellini and Reiji both love competition, though Reiji is more of a combative personality at his core rather than a competitor like Fellini. Aila and Reiji both could care less about Gundam, but have been pulled into the tournament through very different forces – one nefarious, one sincere. Mao and Sei both carry the burden of legacy on their competitive performances, though Mao comes from a martial tradition while Sei’s is inherited by birth.

These kinds of character distinctions arise through the Gunpla tournament, teaching us why so many varied individuals would take part in the same activity. Most importantly, these kinds of conflicts are in many ways allegorical references to prior Gundam tales. Their dynamics are echoes of the same important conflicts that have run through the franchise since its inception. A young man with a mechanical knack facing off against a deadly elder combatant with a flair for the dramatic? An emotionally scarred young girl forced into battle against her will who outclasses all opposition? A pink-haired woman who will manipulate others in her quest for power?

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Guys, I have a great idea for a subtle homage to a classic character.

These character notes and broad themes are equally as powerful and resonant in the context of model kit poke-tournaments as they are when placed against the backdrop of galaxy-spanning warfare. The idea that Gundam’s primary theme is War is Hell does not hold the same water when the primary beats of a Gundam series can still be hit in a show that is so far removed from actual warfare. Furthermore, Build Fighters retains a kind of relentless positivity that is both saccharine and naïve – two more strikes against the need for the drums of war and its deadly fallout in order to tell an effective Gundam tale. Gundam is really about conflict and why it matters to those who fight. Conflict is both a mirror that forces us to reflect on ourselves and a lens through which we more clearly see others. Battle is not an outright evil, but rather a purifying flame that leaves characters with the truth of their enemies and themselves. How many heroes in the Gundam franchise truly eschew all conflict and are celebrated for it? How many villains find that the heat of combat actually clarifies their true self, just before they die?  How many mobile suits are portrayed as avatars of the pilot’s inner spirit, and how many are shown to be little more than violent implements?

This is why Gundam Build Fighters is the soul of Gundam. This is the franchise stripped of its pretensions and boiled down to its most personal elements. Rather than having to wrestle with its stated ambitions and commercial expectations, Build Fighters instead finds the true zen of the franchise. Gundam is commercialization. Gundam is conflict. Why pretend any differently? This is nothing new – it has always been this way.

Gundam is about building and fighting. So let’s just put together our wonderful toy model kits while we watch Amuro Sei and Char Fellini dance their dazzling dance.


Grant is a scatter-brained GM, a third-rate Destroid pilot, and one of the hosts of the Blade Licking Thieves podcast. If you want to subject yourself to more of his inane ramblings, follow him on Twitter @grantthethief, check out the blog at http://www.bladelickingthieves.wordpress.com, and find the podcast on iTunes by searching Blade Licking Thieves.

14 Comments

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  1. While it was only a minor aspect of your post, I can totally see why people root for the Zeon. After only having seen the first two 0079 compilation movies my knowledge of the UC is obviously very limited, but so far the Zeon appear as total underdogs to me.

    After all they are only a smallish colony which is completely outnumbered in it’s fight for independence. But they are not only facing the numerical superiority of the earth federation and the gundam against which their Zakus are no match. Their biggest enemy is the cruel necessity of the plot leading to a bunch of bratty kindergartners beeing able to foil a well thought out sabotage attempt.

    “Nazifying” them appears as a cheap way to make the audience side with the protagonists and undermines the story’s otherwise great attempts at humanizing the conflicting parties. All in all it leads to what I would call the “Star Wars Effect”. Where the obviously “evil” faction appears much more sympathetic to some people than the supposedly “good” faction.

    (I realize this is a bit of a rant, but I just watched the second 0079 movie which I want to like although it is giving me a really hard time. After what little Gundam I have seen I have to say that I agree with your main argument though. Cheers)

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    • Thanks for comment! I’m glad we agree on the primary themes of the show. You are right, it was a bit of a throwaway comment, but I think it could bear some wider discussion.

      Regarding the Nazi imagery, I agree to an extent. Much like in Star Wars, the imagery is used to “evil up” one side in order to make them appear more sinister than we may actually experience in the narrative. On the other hand though, I think one could see it as a sort of cinematic shorthand. When that sort of imagery is used I think can be seen as the creators saying, “Look, you know what’s going on here, these are not good people.” In the case of Star Wars this bears out in the xenophobia of the Empire, and in Gundam we see it in the petty aristocratic squabbles and backstabbing of the Zabi family.

      Furthermore, as over the top as it is, we can’t ignore the massive death tolls these groups are willing to inflict on civilian populations – whether it is the destruction of Alderaan or the colony drop of Side 2 on earth or the use of nuclear and chemical weapons. While we can argue over the “weight” these actions bear in light of the Federation/Earth Sphere’s abuses, I certainly wouldn’t give the Principality of Zeon a free pass, if that makes sense.

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      • Unlike the Galactic Empire, though, the cause Zeon is fighting for is a worthy one: spacenoid independence. Despite the horrible methods of the ruling class, you can’t help but be sympathetic to an oppressed people. Gundam definitely showed some moxey by essentially switching the goals of its equivalent Alliance and Empire factions and also disconnecting its warring factions from the citizenry they supposedly represent.

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      • Does a righteous cause make a body politic no longer fascist?

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      • Obviously not, but the cool thing about UC Gundam is that you don’t have to support the politics or methods of the Zabi family to root for individual members of the duchy or spacenoid independence in general. Again, the shows do a nice job of not making every member of a faction be a dyed-in-the-wool zealot for the politics of their “representatives.” Neither side is particularly innocent anyway, so, no matter which you “get behind” (if you are the getting-behind-a-side type) you’re in the corner of some gross dudes. Given the lack of moral high ground, if you then choose a rooting interest based on which side has the net fewest toolbags, Zeon comes out the winner.

        Also, to be straight real for a sec: since this is a cartoon, I don’t find it morally problematic if someone wants to pull for the bad guys because they are cooler, regardless of fictional mass murder. In LOGH, I’m an Emoire guy🙂.

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      • Whether or not to root for them is something of a tangent, though. I think the core issue was, “Is Zeon actually fascist?”

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      • I guess it could be seen as a red herring, but I thought the larger context of the discussion re: buffaloe’s comment was their relationship to the audience, i.e. “calling them Nazis forces you to pick a side, since it’s a value-loaded term.”

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      • This is a possibility, I may have misread the emphasis of Buffaloe’s comment. Though I still thing that use of incredibly violent means to achieve political means – droppin’ colonies and what have you – is pretty effective in keeping the Zeon/Federation sympathy tracker very close to the middle. Sympathetic for specific characters? Certainly. But the sides themselves? Plenty of blood to go around.

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      • Measuring and comparing the wickedness of the Federation or the Zeon was not really what I was going for. My limited knowledge would prohibit that anyway. (By the way, I personally would not use body count or degree of authoritarianism to determine wheter a state is fascist, but that is an entirely different discussion)

        Doc has a good point when he says that the show is not about rooting for one faction or the other. Instead it explores the motivations, goals and emotions of the different individuals that are all taking part or are beeing forced into a war that seems to be more or less pointless for the regular soldiers or civilians. After all their “only” stake in the conflict are their lives.

        But having all the Zeons shout “Sieg Zeon” in unison while the conscripts on the white base massacre large amounts of faceless goons without even batting an eye kind of undercuts that verly commendable effort. It also feels kind of jarring to me to see Amuro switch between between hyper-competent killing machine and traumatised (child-)soldier.

        In other words, giving the Zeon the brown touch and the need for spectacle undermine this story’s biggest strenght.

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      • I agree, it is murky and inconsistent in its message regarding broader trends and social commentary. The personal drama at stake between individual pilots is much more compelling and thought out, precisely why I think Conflict Matters is a stronger hook to hang Gundam’s hat on than War is Hell.

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      • @Buffaloe Amuro’s personality shifts can be chalked up to two things that may or may not do a sufficient job of justifying them: (1) the Newtype angle (2) survival instincts push an adrenaline high that eventually crashes into new and huge moral conundrums and responsibilities.

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      • I’ve been thinking about these explanations for the shifts in Amuros personality. I am just very unsure whether I consider them satsifactory.

        Amuro is certainly a very interesting character starting his “career” as a pilot with almost playful naivity then after the first few fights becoming afraid (of himself?) until he seems to start basing his self-worth on his prodigious skills. These more longterm changes alongside the sudden shifts certainly add to him as a character, they just seem very stark sometimes.

        It’s weird how on one hand I am interested in watching more of Gundam, while on the other having such conflicted views makes it a pretty unnerving exercise.

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  2. There’s a big difference between ‘war is hell’ and being opposed to war, no? Even most professional soldiers in nations without conscription think that war is awful, but they certainly aren’t ‘anti-war’—they think it’s a morally justifiable choice in some circumstances. I think most Gundam has a much more confused position on war’s morality than just ‘being anti-war’ (whatever Tomino says!).

    Build Fighters is /almost/ about the real commercial processes that drive Gundam, but isn’t it telling that most of the ‘conflict’ excitement is set up by a sports show format which has no real-life equivalent? It’s not about people competing in gunpla modelling competitions of the kind which genuinely exist. As for conflict, isn’t this a bit broad? A great many anime, indeed a great many stories from anywhere could be described as being fundamentally about people in conflict with one another. I think that breadth makes it an accurate description but not a useful one: you can’t really use it to pick Gundam out.

    For what it’s worth, I think Gundam’s too large and varied to have one ‘essence’ which particular iterations can either ‘betray’ or ’embody’. Maybe it’s more of a family resemblance thing.

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    • Thanks for dropping by and commenting!

      Regarding exactly how anti-war Gundam’s themes are there is definitely a worthwhile discussion along those lines. And I think we could spend a lot of time arguing where to make the cut, so to speak.

      But the point of my article was more that there is a conventional wisdom that says Gundam is, as a franchise, a broad anti-war statement, “War is hell” and such. I don’t think Gundam is making that statement, internally or externally. Many fans and casual observers feel that Gundam is occupying an extreme, but much like your soldier example I think it is much closer to the middle.

      As to “Conflict Matters” being too broad a theme, that’s fair. It may be too generic a theme to be of much worth since it could apply to almost any narrative, but (in my defense) I was trying to come up with a theme that covered everything from 0080 to G Gundam. That is a bit of a challenge, and there were bound to be stretch marks.

      But I think it is still a worthwhile theme. Certainly, all narratives involve some conflict, but whether or not the emphasis is on the conflict, its position relative to the character drama, or whether it is just eye candy will vary from show to show. In fact, I would argue that there are plenty of examples in modern anime where there is in essence no central conflict – “Cute characters being cute” type shows are more than a blip on the radar. In many of those shows, “Conflict Matters” would not fit at all, so I think the theme has some merit in comparison to other works.

      Perhaps we could make it more specific – “Battle Defines Us,” or “Warfare Exposes the Soul.” Something along those lines? That would be more pointed than “Conflict Matters” but still jive with the central thesis. Thoughts?

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