The sentinel stood guard 60 feet above Shiokaze Park in Odaiba, Japan, silent except for the occasional hiss of steam escaping from its joints. Below it teemed a crowd of onlookers who had come to witness the unlikely spectacle. To some, it was an astounding feat of engineering, a modern-day Colosssus of Rhodes. To others, it was a pointless (if impressive) curiosity. But whatever else the statue was, it was a mammoth celebration of popular culture: a full-scale replica of the titular robot from the groundbreaking Mobile Suit Gundam anime, built to commemorate the franchise’s 30th anniversary.

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Make no mistake: Gundam is a big deal in Japan. To put it in context for a Western audience, Gundam is the Japanese equivalent of Star Wars, complete with an iconic masked antagonist, laser swords and modern installments of dubious quality. But that comparison doesn’t explain the presence of a 60-foot statue that took over two months and millions of dollars to complete.

What’s so special about Gundam, anyway?

Domo Arigato, Mr. Roboto

To understand why the Gundam franchise has such lasting appeal in Japanese culture, you must first understand why robots themselves are so significant in post-war Japan. Robots, after all, are a striking example of advanced technology and industry, ideas that have been central to Japanese culture for a century and a half. Since Commodore Matthew Perry sailed his ships into Japanese waters in 1853, Japan has undergone two successful periods of extremely rapid modernization: first as the feudal Tokugawa shogunate scrambled to catch up to the industrialized West, and again in the aftermath of World War II.

After its defeat at the hands of the Allied powers in 1945, many Japanese were forced to confront the idea that they had been beaten, among other things, by the technological superiority of their foes, not the least of which was the terrifying might of the atomic bomb. Japan at that time was a weary, war-torn country, and the initial recovery was slow. However, once manufacturers repaired and replaced bombed-out infrastructure and the country grew self-sufficient once more, things sped up. Japan aggressively pursued manufacturing and industrial technology under the slogan “Catch up to and Surpass the Advanced Nations of the West.”

One of the new advances in technology that Japan’s manufacturing sector quickly embraced was the industrial robot. Not only did robots make manufacturing much simpler, their ubiquity in Japanese factories became emblematic of the country’s stated goal of modernization: They were a symbol that Japan was technologically advanced and fit to take its place on the world stage.

Japan was not the first country to pursue industrial robotics, but it did so with uncommon enthusiasm, an attitude which remains to this day: As of 2008, the country still leads the world in both stock and sales of industrial robots. As robots took their place in Japanese factories, so too did they take their place in Japanese pop culture. In 1952, Osamu Tezuka, now considered one of the forefathers of modern manga, published the first volume of Tetsuwan Atomu, known in the West as Astro Boy. Astro Boy followed the eponymous young robot as he fought crime and discovered humanity in a classic Pinocchio tale. Unlike most Western robots, such as those of Isaac Asimov or The Jetsons‘ Rosie, Astro Boy was not a servant or a sidekick; in his story, the robot was the hero.

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Things only got bigger from there. Astro Boy was followed by Tetsujin 28-go (or Gigantor in the West) in 1956, which many consider the forerunner of modern mecha – a term which has come to refer to advanced machines and vehicles that walk, are controlled by a pilot and are usually human-shaped. Go Nagai’s Mazinger Z, first published in 1972, was the first to feature the now-standard idea of a pilot controlling the giant machine from a cockpit inside its body. All of these early mecha series were incredibly influential, and all retain some measure of popularity even today – Tetsujin is even getting its own life-size statue in Kobe, for example.

But somehow, Gundam still towers over every other mecha series. After all, where are the inventors announcing plans to build a full-size, working Tetsujin within 10 years? Where is the exasperated announcement that Japan’s Agriculture Ministry “is not in charge of Astro Boy“? Why does a country that loves robots so much love Gundam more than the rest?

Flight Toward the Future

Gundam may not have been the first giant robot series, but it did pioneer the so-called “real robot” genre. Whereas “super robots” like Mazinger or Tetsujin are usually magical heroes whose enemies are generically-evil “foreign agents” like monsters or aliens, and whose pilots win the fight based on their courage and fighting spirit, the “real robot” genre is less fantastical and grounded more in human concerns.

The antagonists of Gundam weren’t monsters, but merely other humans who lived in space colonies around the Earth. The titular RX-78-2 Gundam (and all of the franchise’s machines that would follow in its footsteps) was no magical being, but rather a powerful piece of military hardware, and main character Amuro Ray was an engineering student who fell into the cockpit and controlled it after reading the owner’s manual. It was a show filled with shades of gray, where the protagonists could be cowards and the antagonists could be soldiers simply doing their duty and where characters on both sides of the universe’s One-Year War – or those caught in the middle – could perish without warning. (Indeed, as befits a country whose constitution forbids it from possessing a standing army, the various shows in the Gundam metaseries are all rather anti-war in some regard.)

While superhero robots like Voltron are an impossibility, advancements in military technology are commonplace. The franchise’s creators and fans take its technology seriously, too: Supplementary material often features additional variant models not seen in the anime series, and high-end model kits include schemata of the inner mechanical workings for fans to pore over as military buffs might examine the details of modern jet fighters. Even the giant Gundam in Odaiba featured realistic warning labels near “dangerous” pieces of fictional machinery, advising mechanics to check a nonexistent maintenance manual for help.

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Gundam‘s hyperadvanced technology may border on magic, but it still remains within the bounds of plausibility. There is no reality-warping, faster-than-light travel, only space colonies in orbit around Earth. There are no aliens or interstellar empires, only humans fighting amongst themselves over the things that humans have always fought over: power, independence and greed. All of these in combination create a feeling that Gundam, more than any other mecha series, could someday become a reality.

Despite logic, physics and economics all pointing to the impracticality of giant humanoid fighting machines, that hasn’t stopped the Japanese Defense Ministry from presenting an exhibit about the use of military robots called “Towards the Realization of Gundam.” Sure, that might have been a publicity stunt, but it was a publicity stunt that worked, because it tapped into a part of Japan’s cultural consciousness that wants Gundam to be real. In a culture that equates robots with technological might, what could be better than the most advanced (real) robot possible?

Sixty-Foot Sentinel

The statue of Amuro Ray’s RX-78-2 Gundam in Shiokaze Park may not have been fully operational, but it was the next best thing. Though primarily built by Namco Bandai as a celebration of the franchise’s 30th anniversary, it was also a part of the “Green Tokyo” campaign to promote the Japanese capital as a host site for the 2016 Olympics. (Clearly, the company must have reasoned, the city with the biggest giant robot would be the most deserving to host the Summer Games.)

Tokyo’s Olympic bid ended in defeat, but that doesn’t mean the statue itself was a failure, at least not according to Gundam creator Yoshiyuki Tomino. During a press conference, Tomino said that while he had initially feared that the statue would be something “that looked really cheap and tawdry,” he found himself moved by the final product:

I feel tremendous strength and power from this huge Odaiba robot. It really focuses on what I like to call toy-like colors. These toy-like colors don’t have the color of real weapons and real tools of destruction. They’re peaceful colors. Happy colors, the kinds of colors that little kids like. And they are the kinds of colors that encourage people to say, “don’t give up hope. Have great expectations and have great hopes for the future of human kind.”

For Tomino, hope is one of the reasons Gundam remains so popular 30 years later: Though Gundam‘s war is still tragic and senseless and its humans still petty and flawed, the series is not without hope for humanity as a whole. Over the course of the story, Amuro and others evolve into psychic Newtypes – a literal “new type” of human. This is not a random mutation, insists Tomino, but the manifestation of the idea that humanity can evolve into something beyond itself when there is a need for it – as there is now. “It’s a very sad situation, actually, that Gundam has something to say to us, and that the world has deteriorated to the point that we do need a Newtype,” says Tomino.

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Even though crowds of people came from all across Japan to see the Odaiba statue, the Gundam creator says the sort of “pure positive reaction” he’d hoped to see toward the project came from overseas. The wonder, excitement and surprise we Westerners displayed at this seemingly ridiculous project was exactly what Tomino would have liked to see in his native Japan. Interestingly enough, Tomino attributes this lukewarm response to the ubiquity of Gundam in the Land of the Rising Sun: “Japanese people have become sort of blas√©. They’re too used to Gundam. They don’t have the ability to be surprised as much as before.”

Perhaps he has a point. This is, after all, the country with themed Zeon and Federation bars where one can order cocktails like the Zaku Tank or the Black Tri-Stars. This is the country where iconic antagonist Char Aznable decorates everything from mobile phones to Game Boy Advance handhelds to credit cards. This is the country where megapopular J-rocker (and notorious Gundam fan) Gackt played the famous Gihren Zabi funeral speech before a concert and got a stadium full of screaming girls to join him in chanting “Sieg Zeon!” This is a country where Gundam arcade games take place in a life-size recreation of a mobile suit cockpit.

Maybe it isn’t that Japan wants Gundam to be real. Maybe it’s that, in a way, it already is.

John Funk is not ashamed to admit that his license plate is the in-universe designation for the Freedom Gundam from Gundam SEED.

Review: Torchlight

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