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Gundam Wing Retrospective: Part Three

Posted 10 March 2010 / By Nick Gibson / Opinion

In the first installment of this retrospective, I looked at the themes, characters, story, and execution of the Gundam Wing television series. After that was a rundown on the show’s luxuriously gratifying sequel, Endless Waltz. Now it’s time to analyze the franchise’s impact on the world, from Toonami to the US anime landscape to the Gundam metaverse as a whole.

In Japan the Gundam franchise is immense in its popularity and scope. In American parlance the Gundam universe would be a fusion of the blockbuster weight of Star Wars and the sprawling mythos of Star Trek. Big stompy Gundams have been packing Japanese living rooms and selling out toy shelves since 1979. Want proof? How about 3D Gundam, a classic late-70s fan film effort?

Clearly, Gundam as a whole is pretty serious business. Gundam Wing, however, was not anything special in Japan. In terms of ratings it performed almost identically to G Gundam, with the added infamy of being the first Gundam series to feature a ‘pretty boy’ (bishounen) cast. Eyes were huge, locks were long, and faces were flawless. For a series that marketed itself to boys who liked to play with action figures, this is perhaps a peculiar decision. Even more striking for fans of Gundam, the actual nature of the robot on robot combat changed drastically. Hero machines had become almost deified – the military realism of Gundam tradition was replaced in Gundam Wing by super-bots capable of taking endless damage and using inexhaustible ammunition in the annihilation of  huge armies. The death count of the series is perhaps ludicrous, courtesy of a primary cast that cannot die and a neverending flow of popcorn targets for the Gundams to abuse. This trend would later be reversed in 08th MS Team and most other franchise entries, leaving Wing a mid-nineties oddity. In short, many long-time Japanese Gundam fans were turned off by Wing. In recent years its Japanese support has increased – evidenced by Wing’s placement in a few different public opinion surveys on popular anime series’. It is important to stress that there are other Gundam shows that carry a heavier stigma than Wing – Gundam X, for example.

What made Gundam Wing a modest flop in Japan, however, was what pushed it to the top of the charts in the USA. The year is 1998, and a little background information is required. Although VHS tapes of the original Gundam and its sequels had been kicking around importers and bootleggers for some years, not a single series of the Gundam franchise had been legitimately licensed and shown on American television. Most kids didn’t have an idea what Gundam was, or anime for that matter. The watershed moment came in 1999 when Bandai licensed a North American release for Gundam Wing to Cartoon Network’s Toonami. It was a surprising move to introduce American viewers to Gundam via the non-canon spinoff Gundam Wing instead of the original Mobile Suit Gundam, but as we’ll see it was probably for the best.

Within weeks after its first showing, Gundam Wing was making waves as the top-rated offering on Cartoon Network. The mysterious characters and ball-busting mecha action proved an addictive formula for US kids, all supported by a jazzy score and some forceful voiceovers. Toy and merchandising sales went through the roof, Gundam Wing shot up to 8th on the search engines, and Geocities exploded with kids writing fanfics about dreamy Gundam pilots. Wing was huge, for all the reasons it had landed so dully in Japan. Almost overnight, people knew what ‘mechs’ and ‘anime’ were, and Toonami rode the Gundam Wing explosion (along with Dragonball Z and the Western animation roster) to prominence during this period.

For the older set there was Midnight Run’s Gundam Wing Uncut, which featured largely unedited blood and violence from the original Japanese release, as opposed to the neutered TV-Y7 daytime edition. As if that wasn’t enough, the Gundam Wing rush kept coming with the hyped release of Endless Waltz – a huge success and a boon for model kit sales thanks to the redesigned mechanical designs and triple A animation budget. Without a doubt, Gundam Wing can be given at least partial credit (alongside DBZ) for mainstreaming anime consumption with an entire generation of Americans. The volume of anime content on Toonami skyrocketed after this era – almost pushing out Western franchises at times.

Almost all of use have our stories of this period. It was truly the golden age for Gundam in the US – every kid had a couple of models, trading cards, and a t-shirt. Literally everyone on the block and at school was riveted to the TV set ‘weekdays at 5:30’. It was nothing less than a phenomenon, and what the Japanese had rejected the Americans ate up. It is perhaps a credit to Wing’s over-the-top characterization and melodrama that the West embraced it so well. One has to wonder if the stiffer, less expressive Mobile Suit Gundam would have made as much of a splash. (And indeed it would bomb out later on when it made its way to Toonami in 2001.)

And, to be honest, that was it. Gundam would never again be as huge as it had been for those three bright years between 1999 and 2001. As mentioned, when the original Mobile Suit Gundam series was shown in 2001 it was a complete disaster, and the critically-hailed 08th MS Team’s performance was mostly a flash in the pan. Later in the timeline Toonami saw the broadcast of Gundam Seed to be a disappointment, and only (ironically) G Gundam was able to excite US audiences. But the question must be asked: could even Gundam Wing do it at this point? Assuming, of course, that some other show had popularized anime in America and that the franchise was fresh material for US viewership.

Nowadays the landscape has changed. Anime is a way of life for a huge number of people in America, and most of them would never even consider watching a series on TV, in English, edited for content, five years after the Japanese premiere. In reality, Gundam Wing was all those things. It was also largely confusing, hokey, and straight-up repetitive at times. It’s my guess that Gundam Wing would do about as well as Seed did if shown now – or worse.

The key, of course, was that Gundam Wing had the advantage of being first, of being fresh. Mecha shows are dime a dozen for us now, but Wing lead the wave and captured our excitement. Sure, we now have overwhelming choice and can stream any anime we want now or just download it. 1999, in contrast, was almost a vacuum into which Gundam Wing had the advantage of debuting. With a lack of options we were ‘forced’, in a sense, to give it a chance. In short, we loved Gundam Wing because we didn’t know any better.

But who among us doesn’t wear a smile when we hear those old familiar lines: “I’m the God of destruction once again!” “Mission complete.” “Heero, I’m right over here so come and get me!” Nostalgia? You betcha. In the world of neverending choice and perpetual unfamiliarity, sometimes nostalgia is a welcoming warmth.

Suit up.

Here are the first and second parts of this article in case you need a look back. But be careful – those who have laid eyes on a Gundam cannot live to tell about it.

Part One
Part Two

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