The robotic world created by Yoshiyuki Tomino 30 years ago has transcended cultural, commercial and scientific barriers.
IT has inspired roboticists and environmentalists. It’s responsible for 45bil yen (about RM1.6bil) in sales of plastic model kits and other merchandise. It has seen the release of more than two dozen TV series, films, manga titles and original video animations in a continually growing metaseries. It has moved beyond entertainment and into the realm of the philosophical. It has changed forever the way anime is regarded in Japan. And this year, Mobile Suit Gundam is celebrating its 30th anniversary.
“I didn’t think (as deeply as I do now) about this series when I created it,” Gundam’s creator, Yoshiyuki Tomino, tells The Daily Yomiuri days after a full-size, 18m replica of the Gundam RX-78-2 was unveiled in Odaiba, Tokyo. “But I knew that I wanted to send an absolutely ‘correct’ message to the public. There are artists who want to show their audiences something great or to show off their abilities. I never had that ability. But, at the very least, I knew we needed to send a message.”
That message began its life as a warning about overpopulation and the futility of war, as well as an exhortation about what humans have the potential to accomplish. Today, that message continues to evolve along with the Gundam universe.
Set in the future, in the 79th year of the Universal Century – one of many fictional eras employed in the Gundam metaseries – humanity has moved into space because of overpopulation. Because of oppressive practices on the part of the Earth government, which has jurisdiction over the space colonies, inhabitants of the colony furthest from Earth form a breakaway government, called the Principality of Zeon. Zeon attacks the Earth Federation, instigating a one-year war, fought using giant piloted robots called mobile suits.
Despite its current success – just try to find a Japanese person who doesn’t know the original series’ hero, Amuro Ray – the initial airing of the 43-episode series, which began in April 1979, was cut short by nearly 10 episodes, surely a disappointment to both the creators and the fan base, which was made up mostly of girls – not boys – according to Tomino. It was only after the series was re-envisioned as a three-part theatrical release in 1981 that it grew in popularity, particularly among schoolboys who also bought the related merchandise.
This was ironic, as the show had always been intended as a vehicle to sell toys, a fact that both restricted and inspired Tomino, who also worked on Astro Boy and Star Blazers.
At the time he was putting together Gundam, Japan’s first oil shocks were recent memories and there were growing warnings about overpopulation.
“Thirty years ago, we were already concerned about overpopulation,” Tomino, 67, recalls. “But also, about 35 years ago – most people have forgotten about it – we were being told there was only about 80 years’ worth of oil left. I decided to combine those two issues for my theme.”
To his theme and his desire for a “correct” message, Tomino added contemporary thought on science, economics and issues facing wartime noncombatants and refugees.
The concept of mobile suits and a war between humans in which the line between good and bad grew increasingly ambiguous as the series progressed put a new spin on a genre that had been hitherto dominated by so-called giant or super robots – mecha capable of just about anything – fighting aliens set out to destroy Earth.
“The vast majority of super robot shows were essentially kids’ stuff – long commercials for robot toys,” Matt Alt, author of Super #1 Robot: Japanese Robot Toys, 1972-1982, tells The Daily Yomiuri in an e-mail interview.
“Gundam was the first show to really tackle the idea with any sense of scientific reality. It was incredibly innovative from that standpoint. The science of the Gundam world is intricate and original. And its overt politics, its sense of the futility of war and the suffering of both sides, revolutionised the anime world.”
While the plot was thought-provoking and to a certain degree realistic, the creators still had to figure out a way to justify how the main character could instantly operate the Gundam mobile suit despite being in his early teens (a decision made to appeal to potential toy buyers).
Explains Tomino: “How are these children with no training suddenly able to operate these huge, complex pieces of equipment, such as tanks or robots or weaponry? We had to have some kind of explanation, and the explanation we came up with was extrasensory powers.”
Dubbed “Newtypes”, ESPers in Gundam originally had the ability to do things as varied as merely piloting a giant Gundam robot or summoning the spirits of dead friends. However, since its inception, the meaning has come to describe the next step in human evolution, involving a new way of thinking and a new approach to dealing with the environment.
Much as with technical and social concepts introduced in the West through the television series Star Trek, scientific and social mores from the Gundam world have worked their way into the vernacular of Japan’s scientific community. It is not limited to the study of robotics, however.
During a recent discussion with a prominent Japanese environmentalist, Tomino was surprised to hear the man refer to the need for humans to evolve into Newtypes, a concept the scientist was unaware Tomino had coined.“I am thinking about the future of the series – 20, 30, 50 years from now,” Tomino says. “I’ve begun to realise that the words and expressions that began in association with mobile suits and Gundam are not merely of the cinematic world anymore. Because we put real concepts out there into the world, and all the concepts and Gundam-like words apply to contemporary society, Gundam has started to become more than a mere piece of cinema; it’s not even mere social commentary. It deals with points we need to think about regarding the very fabric of humanity itself."