Success and Failure in the Ongoing Attempt to Bring Kids Back to Giant Robots

Giant robot anime began very squarely in the domain of children. Loud, boldly colored robots appeared on TV (at least, once color TV became common), and the toys based on them came full of fun gimmicks and gizmos. Over time, there was a maturing of the genre in many ways, both in terms of themes presented and the aging of fans, so by the time we got into the 2000s, things changed. Between Pokemon, card games, and more, giant robots have just not been the ticket to big toy sales among kids. Thus, most giant robot anime of the last fifteen years rely more on adult tastes and nostalgia, or at the very least have been aimed at young adults. However, every so often, you’ll see moves to try to reclaim giant robots for kids, and they communicate a reality that mecha alone tend not to capture kids’ hearts in this day and age.

Gundam AGE

One of the more significant attempts to capture that younger audience was 2011’s Gundam AGE, because of how Gundam is what arguably kicked off the move toward mature audiences all those years ago and because it’s traditionally been such a sales juggernaut. Although keeping the traditional “robots in war” staples, Gundam AGE was a concerted effort to target kids, right down to more toyetic robot and weapon designs. Unfortunately, the series pleased pretty much no one, including me, despite my initially high hopes. The story was a mess, and the model kits failed to attract older and younger customers alike, to the extent that a kitbash of Madoka from Madoka Magica with beefy Gundam arms became more of a sales point than the actual merch. Later Gundam overtures towards kid audiences were more successful via the Gundam Build Fighters and Gundam Build Divers spin-offs, but both treat the mecha as collectible items utilized in virtual environments—closer to the popular style of Japanese kids’ shows.

Chousoku Henkei Gyrozetter

Another instance is 2012’s Chousoku Henkei Gyrozetter, though this one is odd in that what it ultimately tried to promote was not toys or model kits, though some did come out. Rather, like Aikatsu! and Pripara, the bread and butter of Gyrozetter was the card-based arcade game. Ultimately, it was called a major mistake on the part of Square-Enix. Personally, I think the show is very enjoyable, but it’s also arguably better known for its attractive older characters than anything else—so not exactly kid’s stuff. 

While hitting the mark seems difficult, there is one company that seems intent on making giant robot anime work for kids: toy maker Takara Tomy, the originator of Transformers. In addition to that long-standing international cultural staple (whose success has so many external factors that it’s hard to gauge in terms of success as “anime”), it’s Takara Tomy that keeps taking swings, down to even pushing the ZOIDS franchise as their “third pillar” along with Transformers and Beyblade. 

2018’s ZOIDS Wild anime is a continuation of the ZOIDS franchise, which has been receiving animated adaptations since 1999’s ZOIDS: Chaotic Century. Given its longevity, it would be easy to assume that they’re doing something right with their use and portrayal of giant robots, but I think there’s a key factor that keeps ZOIDS relatively popular: the use of animal-shaped robots as opposed to humanoid ones. The more universal appeal of dinosaurs and cool beasts does a lot of the heavy lifting. 

Tomica Kizuna Gattai Earth Granner

Along this vein, Tomica Hyper Rescue Drive Head (2017) and Tomica Kizuna Gattai Earth Granner (2020) both involve motor vehicles that can transform into robots—and, unlike Gyrozetter, have the many toys to show. The Tomica line is primarily more about cars than mechs, and the toys have enormous success in Asia. Again, the robots are not the main popularity factor, acting instead as an additional flourish to push it over the edge. Transformers, in a sense, combines both ZOIDS and Tomica’s appeals together, while also banking on brand recognition. Moreover, while giant robots are still a staple of tokusatsu, they’re more a secondary component to the color-coded-hero fantasy that defines these live-action series. The previous Tomica tokusatsu series use cars in a similar manner. 

Shinkansen Henkei Robo Shinkalion

The strangest case might very well be 2018’s Shinkansen Henkei Robo Shinkalion THE ANIMATION is a series about bullet train (“Shinkansen”) robots sponsored by the East Japan Railway Company. Somewhat like Gyrozetter, there’s an unconventional ultimate goal—promoting Japan’s high-speed rail system—but unlike Gyrozetter, the toy and merchandise line is definitely there. In addition, while ZOIDS Wild, Drive Head, and Earth Granner all target boys ages 10-12, I can’t help but notice how aggressively kid-friendly Shinkalion’s aesthetics are, from the character designs to the story. What really makes Shinkalion an oddity, however, is that its success isn’t measured solely in toy sales, but also the degree to which it creates good PR for Japan’s public transportation.

It does sadden me that mecha don’t appear to carry an inherent appeal for kids these days, but I do think that sprinkling in robots can potentially push these franchises into becoming more memorable and enjoyable. Also, I’d like to think that Takara Tomy is laying down a foundation for it to happen in the future, and much like how adults who grew up with super robots in the 1970s grew attached to them, perhaps in a couple of decades we’ll see nostalgia for the Shinkalions and Earth Granners of the world.

The Day the Angel Fell…IN FLAAAAAMES

The 2012 Les Misérables movie was my first experience with the story in any format, and while watching it I had a thought that was probably the last one anyone would have: What if Gundam AGE were more like Les Misérables?

(Warning: Gundam AGE spoilers. Also for Les Miserables, but maybe that’s less of an issue because the book is quite old.)

flitoldyoung

I have a couple of reasons for comparing the two works. First, Gundam AGE, like Les Misérables, is a generational tale with a large cast of characters essentially centered around one strong-willed protagonist. Second, Flit Asuno, the hero of Gundam AGE, is extremely devoted to his quest to crush the enemy who has taken his family and his home, and over time it gets to the point that “eliminate the enemy” becomes a near-dogmatic mantra that he’s created for himself. His unerring path had me drawing parallels to Inspector Javert and his single-minded pursuit of Jean Valjean, while Javert’s personality that would have him rescue a man from robbers and then arrest the same man for not paying taxes further reinforces this comparison.

Gundam AGE suffers from not being able to properly bridge its generational shifts. The choice as to which characters remain and which ones leave (either by death or simply by never being on-screen again) feel rather arbitrary in that show, and so it loses the momentum that a work like Les Misérables manages to keep right until the end. So, if it were possible to revise Gundam AGE, I would make it more like Les Miserables but centered around Javert, with Flit of course being in that role of the straightforward devotee of justice, also reworking the enemy Vagans to be multiple characters playing the role of Jean Valjean-like antagonists, characters who challenge Flit’s black and white world view. However, I would also keep the element from the original Gundam AGE where Flit has a child and a grandchild who eventually rescue him from himself in his old age, so that his life doesn’t end as tragically as Javert’s. I’ve not read the book, but I know it is much more complex than the musical, and I could see a proper story existing somewhere between the two, depending on the audience desired, as well as other factors such as where exactly the broad strokes of the story should be focused.

Of course, there’s one last question to consider: would this version of Gundam AGE have singing? Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad.

Can You Watch Gundam AGE Without the First Half?

As the final part of the generation-themed Gundam AGE begins, I’m reminded of the “Machete Order,” a way of watching the Star Wars movies which supposedly introduces all of its elements in the best ways while cutting away some of the excess. Specifically, “excess” means “Episode 1,” as the entire adventures of a very young Anakin were deemed unnecessary and even perhaps detrimental to enjoyment. While I don’t think any of the parts of Gundam AGE are awful, it does make me wonder if it’s actually possible to watch the third and fourth Gundam AGE arcs without having watched the prior two.

While it would be sad to lose characters like Woolf and young Emily, I feel like the third part introduces you enough to the returning characters that someone who got into the show right at that point wouldn’t take long to fully grasp the story, and perhaps because the ratings were so low they actually made it with this in mind. While you don’t get to see Flit go from idealistic young boy to supportive but crotchety old man, you also get to immediately see the differences between him, pirate Asemu, and noble Kio. Obviously as someone who’s already watched the previous parts I can’t simply use my own experience to judge the effectiveness of omitting the earlier parts, at least not without much scrutiny and testing on willing subjects, but I would be interested in hearing thoughts on this matter.

Gundam AGE as Healthy Failure?

I’ve been enjoying Gundam AGE quite a bit since it began airing, and I think it’s a solid show (thought not without its flaws) which successfully utilizes its main premise of a battle being fought over multiple generations. The second generation hero Asemu is a far cry from his dad Flit when they were similar ages, and through hindsight it ends up highlighting what made Flit unique in the first place. As it turns out, though, Gundam AGE isn’t doing so well in the ratings, and it apparently has failed to reach the kids demographic it was trying for in the first place. At this point, it’s pretty easy to just say that the mistake was marketing to kids, that they shouldn’t have repulsed the older fanbase through the kiddier designs and the like, and that the solution is more UC (or things similar to the Universal Century stories), but I think this would be a huge mistake.

Putting aside the fact that this is not the first time that a good Gundam series has disappointed in the ratings (see Gundam X and even the original Mobile Suit Gundam) and just assuming that nothing the show does now will turn it around, the kind of risk that Sunrise took in gearing Gundam AGE towards a younger demographic is, in my opinion, the healthiest kind of failure there is. Well, if you consider it in terms of profits lost I’m sure there would be some disagreements, but what I mean by healthy failure is that they didn’t have to do this, but saw that there is a potential market from a new generation far removed from the original 1979 anime, and made a concerted effort to appeal to it. It reminds me of Sunrise’s recent hit, Tiger & Bunny, because that show was a surprise hit to even Sunrise themselves, and I have to wonder if it encouraged them to take more risks. Obviously I don’t know if AGE was in planning before or after T&B, but there seems to be this general spirit of experimentation which I’d rather not see stifled because of this setback.

When Sunrise did research into why kids weren’t getting into AGE, they arrived at the conclusion that kids these days don’t understand or know about wars and space colonies. It seems like an odd result, but assuming that this is the problem (or perhaps more accurately that modern kids don’t care about space war by default), the thing I want to point out is that there are ways to work from this information without just abandoning it entirely. If the children of Japan today are ignorant of wars and space colonies, then perhaps one of the goals of a Gundam which targets them should be to introduce those concepts  as if they were entirely new. In other words, if it’s unfamiliar, make it familiar.

Perhaps an easier solution would be to just find out what the kids like and transform the premise to fit the current trends, but I don’t think the solution has to be an all-or-nothing endeavor, even if Gundam AGE may have toed the line too much. Heck, I think looking back at the previous alternate universe of G Gundam could provide some nice possibilities, not so much because of the martial arts aspect, but the premise of having Gundams from various nations each with their own special abilities, which isn’t that far off from the cast of a collectible card game/monster battle show.

Age in Gundam AGE

Two Gundam AGE posts in a row! Why not?

I’ve been thinking for a while now about how Gundam AGE shows that it’s an anime made with younger viewers in mind. There are the more youthful-looking characters, and the choice of colors used in the show, and the toy line which tries to diversify well beyond just “model kits,” but I realized that it also handles the younger characters in a particular manner that appeals to kids a lot more than adults.

Essentially, in the world of Gundam AGE, adult treat the opinions and ideas of children as seriously as they do the words of adults. Whenever Flit or Emily or anyone else has something to say, they’re willing to listen and not patronize them, as if the kids may know something that they don’t or may have simply forgotten in the process of becoming adults. It’s a feeling that I think most people can remember from when they were kids, that maybe the adults in our lives overlooked something that we knew to be absolutely right. Kids don’t want the adults around them telling them that they’ll “understand when they’re older” or that they need to wait a few years before they can say anything of value.

Heck, teenagers don’t want them from adults, and people in their 20s don’t want that from the people older than them either. It’s probably more relatable than I first realized.

So what’s really interesting about this, then, is the fact that Gundam AGE has that generational theme, that we’ll eventually be seeing the first arc’s children turn into adults, and then see how they handle their offspring and the new ideas they offer. I can’t say for sure, but it’s almost like the show was built for this.

The Thrill of Average Characters in Gundam AGE

Ever since the original Gundam and its relatively stark look at war, the idea of the “average soldier” has been a prominent part of the franchise. Here, the lowly soldier with a photo of his loved ones back home getting stabbed through the cockpit as he screams his girlfriend’s name is a recurring image, but in reality such figures are rarely given a spotlight. Even the “everyday grunts” that comprise the titular “08th MS Team” often seem above-average. In Gundam AGE though, two characters in particular have made “averageness” a joy to watch.

The first is Largan Drace, the man who was originally meant to pilot the Gundam, but who ends up in a regular ol’ robot when Flit takes the Gundam as his own. With actual military training but no notable reputation, Largan is pretty much “just another soldier,” but the fact that he is aware of his skill level while being both humble/confident about it actually causes him to shine through at a fair level which says “I’m a side character, but I’m also important in my own way.” He’s even the person who, upon injury, suggests Flit take the Gundam in his stead in the first place. While Largan has no special abilities to speak of, nor any exceptional talents, his behavior and integrity make him an excellent representative of the average soldier.

The second is Adams Tinel, who sits in the bridge of the Diva as Navigation Officer. Loyal to the Federation and thus torn by the fact that the Diva’s captain, Grodek Ainoa, is very much a rogue and a man willing to use almost any means to achieve his goals, Adams has shown his character in contrast to Grodek on a few occasions now. From this, we know that if given a path of light or a path of darkness, he will always choose the former, such as when he informs the Federation of the Diva’s situation in fighting the enemy despite fact that Grodek is a man wanted for treason. However, his goal in doing so is not to tattle, or to show his loyalty, but because he honestly believed that trying to get the Federation’s support was the best course of action. Adams plays by the book and does so without being a wet blanket, and in a series full of characters so fully intent on achieving their goals, his sense of restraint is notable and admirable.

A common complaint with many anime characters is that they are too average and therefore too boring. Largan and Adams show however that playing by the rules and doing okay does not disqualify a character from being interesting. Instead, they show that there is a big difference between average and bland, and when it comes to both main and side characters, the approaches taken for them are valuable lessons.

Why I Think Gundam AGE Episode 1 is an Excellent First Episode

After one episode, Gundam AGE has convinced me to watch it. I don’t mean that it’s done enough that I’m willing to give it another few episodes, or even that I’m going to watch because I’m aware that Sunrise mecha series tend to take about 13 episodes for the story to “really” begin. What I am saying, rather, is that just this first episode makes me want to see the show through from beginning to end. While not perfect, in my opinion Gundam AGE has an incredibly solid first episode to the extent that even if the show turns out to be awful, I can still point to the very beginning and say, “That… was an excellent introduction.”

There are multiple reasons for why I think so highly of that first episode, but probably the biggest among them is the main character himself. As a small child, Flit is shown as having suffered a tragedy at the hands of the UE, the “Unknown Enemy.” As a 14 year old, he is clearly driven by the trauma of his past, wishing to do something to not only continue his parents’ legacy (they were Mobile Suit creators) but to never let the same thing happen again. He is motivated to act to such a degree that he creates the Gundam itself. Whereas most Gundam protagonists in the past have come across their units through a quick series of twists, Flit has been actively working towards its completion for what I can only assume has been years. He is shown to be a brilliant scientific prodigy who had to grow up a little too fast, and yet is still a kid at heart. The way he tries to convince his classmates of the impending threat of the UE shows pretty much everything about him, a mix of intelligence, dedication (possibly obsession), and the feelings and thoughts of a 14 year old boy.

Flit is a character that I can get behind. He feels like he has room to grow, and at the same time already is something of an inspirational character.

And all through this, though he has experienced tragedy, he does not feel as if he is defined as a tragic character. In fact, perhaps thanks to the show’s aesthetics, from its bright color palette to its more rounded character designs, the entire show feels fun and vibrant in a way that doesn’t negate the weight of its more serious aspects. In a way, it reminds me of the first episode of Heartcatch Precure!, which also won me over immediately. Even the shot of the space colony felt more impressive to me than it has in years;I could sense the wonder that is living in a space colony, even after being a Gundam for over a decade now. A lot happens in this first episode, both in terms of growing the story and setting up a path for Flit that feels like one he has determined for himself.

I could totally start comparing this anime to older versions of Gundam. Flit, with his seeming “paranoia” and technical skill, is like an Amuro who has discovered his motivation in life at a much younger age. Emily looks like Sayla Mass and acts like Frau Bow. The kids in Flit’s class remind me of the kids from 0080: War in the Pocket. The first activation scene takes on a significantly different meaning because of how Flit created the Gundam and so knows all of its ins and outs, and it makes me recall the scene in Char’s Counterattack where Hathaway takes about the legend of Amuro and how “he knew how to pilot it as soon as he got in.” But Gundam AGE feels so fresh and energetic that I find comparing it to other Gundam series should only be seen as a fun exercise and not as a wellspring from which to initiate constant criticism. Endlessly drawing parallels to previous iterations will only make it more difficult to see what Gundam AGE does well from the very start.

Before the series began, the promotional material stressed the generational aspect of Gundam AGE and I was actually surprised to see it hardly ever discussed among the buzz. I found it to be the most intriguing and attractive part of the concept, and while it obviously has yet to fully take effect, the generational theme has already been establishes just from this episode. The concept of the “Gundam” is passed down from Flit’s parents to himself, and I can only assume he will do the same in the future. The Gundam is spoken of in almost mythological tones, a robot from long ago that saved the world and changed everything. Seeing that scene, I could only think that, in a way, the status of the Gundam in the world of AGE mirrors the legendary status of the Gundam franchise itself. I would not be surprised if the kids watching AGE see Gundam as this piece of history that they’re told is one of the most significant pieces of anime history, but feels strangely distant, like it comes from another time. By having the Gundam take this role, Gundam AGE episode 1 really does make it seem like a Gundam for a newer generation.

Also, the robots look cool.

Gundam’s Jetstream Attack

Gundam has undergone many changes over the years, either creating sequels or alternate timelines where new stories can be told, and every incarnation inevitably leads to some complaints that the franchise is heading in the wrong direction and that it can’t capture the magic of an older, more beloved series (often times this is considered to be Zeta Gundam). At the same time, people also complain that the series which try to play off of the old classics are too bogged down in their continuity. It seems almost impossible to fulfill all of the criteria set for a new Gundam (especially when you take into account the blame that is often placed on the fans themselves for not liking a certain series), and I think Sunrise and Bandai have realized this too. This time around, they’ve decided not to put all of their Mobile Eggs in one basket, and given everyone what they want, separately.

Gundam Unicorn, currently running, is an OVA series which acts as a direct sequel to the film Char’s Counterattack, seeks to capture those old UC fans who were never quite comfortable with the feel of later series such as Gundam W and Gundam 00, or even the later Universal Century timeline series such as Gundam F-91 and V Gundam. The character designs harken back to an 80s aesthetic and the plot itself is such that it appeals most to people who are already invested in its universe.

Gundam AGE is an all-new TV series in an entirely original universe with very modern character designs (sometimes regarded as “kiddy”), a generational motif that could potentially give it a wide appeal, and a merchandising system that is updated for the age of Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh!  Unlike Unicorn, it requires no prior knowledge of Gundam, and seems designed to capture fans unfamiliar with the franchise.

Gundam: The Origin is an anime adaptation of a manga based on the original anime. First Gundam is unique relative to even its direct sequels ina number of ways, and it could both introduce the original beloved story to new fans as well as appeal to those people who enjoyed Gundam decades ago but never became “Gundam Fans” per se.

Given this multi-pronged assault, I have to wonder why some fans still complain in the direction Gundam is going. Never mind that Gundam AGE isn’t even out yet, I can understand why someone would look at AGE and think, “This is so not for me,” but you’re literally getting something for non-fans, something for old hardcore fans, and something somewhat in the middle. The only logic I could see behind being against this approach is that the three anime muddle the image of Gundam, compromising its overall artistic merit. I disagree with that as well.