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.
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.
…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.
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.
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?
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.