I’m not a fan of mecha.
If you’d asked me what I thought about Gundam a year or so ago that’s probably what I would have responded with. Yes, I appreciate Neon Genesis Evangelion and Bokurano (at least up to the tonal change) but these few mech shows I liked often had something very different to them. They weren’t the kinds of shows I thought of when you say “mech”. They weren’t a narrative designed to maximise action sequences, and they weren’t incredibly machismo. I never finished Gunbuster, or started Diebuster (I should rectify this someday). Nor did I finish Gurren Lagann, or felt I was particularly missing out by not doing so. So when my Anime Society finally voted in Gundam Build Fighters after a friend of mine had been trying to sell it to us for a year I wasn’t particularly excited.
Nowadays, when at my University address, I wake up in the morning and can see Gunpla staring back at me from across the shelf. Thanks Build Fighters. See, the thing about Gundam Build Fighters as a show, is that it fundamentally is an ad for plastic model kits. The whole point of the show is to look at how fun and uniting building (and playing in this universe) these kits are. Somehow Build Fighters makes this work. Build Fighters manages to be one of the best traditional sports anime I’ve seen, so good in fact it convinced me to try other Gundam series.
What makes Build Fighters stand out to me, is that it somehow manages to be a very safe sports show that manages to avoid the crippling flaws that plague the genre. For instance, the show is incredibly male dominated. The vast majority of characters depicted playing the sport are guys of varying ages and personality types. So when the show introduces a character as the “Fake Gamer Girl” trope, or rather the Fake Gunpla Idol, alarm bells were ringing. But ‘lo and behold the show isn’t damning of her. Rather than have her be ostracised or treated as a fundamentally evil character the show gives us reason to sympathise with her. She’s self centred and self serving, yes, but she isn’t framed as wrongly self centred and self serving. The ‘tragedy’ of her story is that she was forced into such a situation in the first place, and the rest of the show goes out of it’s way to let her love gunpla anyway. She’s initially presented as this elitist gatekeepy trope, but develops into another, adult, gunpla fan.
“But that’s still tokenism Louis! It’s still saying the only way a girl could be interested in this medium is by them having to take such a route for their career.”
See, Build Fighters depiction of women is somewhat up and down. The world it presents us with isn’t drastically different from our own – that is, if you overlook the magical Gunpla craze that the planet has – meaning that their are expected gender roles and societal expectations on the cast. What the show doesn’t do is say these gender roles are ‘correct’ nor does it suggest they are strict. Some of the women and girls in the show are shown to be in traditional supportive gender roles, others aren’t. Build Fighters at least tries to be inclusive. The childhood friend side character gets her own arc at a Girls Only tournament as she tries to understand what her crush sees in Gunpla. This is very typical ‘girls version’ with girly gunpla like Beargguys (I bought one) and on it’s own, even as enjoyable an arc it is, it would be rather damning. But again, there’s still more narrative threads involving women, girls and even the roles expected of them and how they connect with that. For such a simple show, it is genuinely surprising how much time it spends on developing and interacting with it’s large supporting cast.
I don’t for a second believe that Build Fighter’s depiction of gender is perfect or nuanced. But I do believe it does a better job than any other non-shoujo or josei sports anime that I’ve seen has. The childhood friend does fulfil the obligatory ‘managerial’ role that’s common in the genre – alongside Ramba Ral who’s having a great time despite having died in Mobile Suit and his wife being nowhere in sight – but there’s still the aforementioned Gunpla idol who acts as a caster and is allowed to down whiskey and develop a relationship.
The only real ‘villain’ character in the show is a villain due to his businesslike and heartless manipulation of a poor, but talented, girl. Again, no blame was given to her for such circumstances, and there was even a cathartic release as she lashed out at everything in the system that wronged her. Unfortunately, most women and girls in the show are relegated to supporting roles, and basically all of them end up in a relationship or implied relationship with a male member of the cast. This is unfortunate despite all of them making sense? That is to say, the relationships themselves are about as well done as any simple show that’s main goals are elsewhere, but it is a shame that none of them were allowed to be single/actively being pursued as a romantic partner.
Build Fighters was the first Gundam anime I watched, unless you count those random Wing episodes that Toonami aired when I was very young. I think it’s fair to say that Build Fighters is also surprisingly representative of what Gundam is. Before I watched it I was under the impression that Gundam was just a franchise built around fetishizing war and war machines. I thought that I’d have no interest in such things and thought the “War is Bad” memes were representing the exact kind of irony I’d dislike. Nowadays, after watching the Mobile Suit movies, G and IBO? I think Gundam is a messy franchise. I think Gundam is a franchise that has series that genuinely try to tackle themes of War, Fascism, Capitalism, Child Soldiers… And I think it also believes in fun. Mobile Suit and G Gundam are varying degrees of ham, and there are challenging themes in them. But I also think they make an effort to be accessible and fun. Mobile Suit is basically Star Wars. G Gundam is many things, but at it’s heart it’s a Wrestling tournament with mechs and plenty of allegory. Iron Blooded Orphans is probably the most tonally depressing or harsh show, and even that has it’s emotional highs as well as lows.
So those are my thoughts on Gundam. I may not like mecha, but I sure as hell have grown to love some of these various stories and characters within this quintessential mecha franchise. So go watch Build Fighters. Watch a show entirely about how important fun, friends, and honesty is. And then don’t watch Try. Almost everything I compliment Build Fighters for avoiding Try does. Which is… Incredibly unfortunate.