Image: Gundam.info (Sunrise)
PrimerPrimer is The A.V. Club’s ongoing series of beginner’s guides to pop culture’s most notable subjects: filmmakers, music styles, literary genres, and whatever else interests us—and hopefully you.  

April 7, 1979 was the date of the Japanese premiere of Yoshiyuki Tomino’s Mobile Suit Gundam, a low-rated sci-fi anime show about giant robots that—in the 40 years since—has used the awesome power of merchandising to become a pop culture force that’s essentially on par with something like Star Wars here in the United States. When Mobile Suit Gundam debuted, most giant robot anime was about magical, sentient robots fighting against the forces of evil, but Gundam was more of an unflinching (yet still somehow kid-friendly) war drama that showed regular people interacting with more realistic machinery. Old mecha anime showed robots being operated by radio commands or fantastical energy, but mecha in Gundam were operated more like they would be in real life, with pedals and levers and tactile switches (paving the way for stuff like Robotech here in the West).

Since the original show launched, the Gundam brand has raked in money from video games and model kits, all while Japanese animation studio Sunrise has continued to crank out over a dozen sequels and spin-off shows. Despite this long history, understanding what makes Gundam special isn’t actually too hard. You just need to know where to start.


Gundam 101

So, what is a Gundam? The various shows have their own explanations, as they don’t all take place in the same universe, but the easy version is that it’s a specific kind of “mobile suit”—which is the generic term for a big, humanoid robot that a pilot can ride in like a tank. In the original series, mobile suits are used for war because future technology has made long-range equipment like radar and guided missiles useless, and they’re shaped like people because, well, it looks cool. Depending on the story, a Gundam is either a state-of-the-art, bleeding-edge weapon of war or an ancient, outdated piece of machinery that was left behind for being too exotic or dangerous.

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You can tell a Gundam from every other mobile suit because they typically have an eyebrow-like crest on the forehead, a red chin thing, and a primarily white paint scheme with occasional red or blue highlights. Some Gundams have wings, some have lightsabers, some can transform, and some carry big cannons that are the size of an oil tanker. However, the easiest way to identify a Gundam is by figuring out which character in a given show is the “good guy.” If they have a big robot that totally shreds every other robot, that one is probably the Gundam. You may also recognize the Gundam from its cameo in Ready Player One.

The nebulous definition of what a Gundam actually is has allowed Sunrise to design countless different variations on the basic design for different shows, which has also allowed it to merchandise the Gundam brand to oblivion. Gunpla—a portmanteau of “Gundam” and “plastic”—is a line of model kits that has been around almost as long as Gundam itself (though the name is a more recent invention), with pretty much every single mobile suit that has ever appeared on any show having been available in different scales with different gimmicks and using different advances in plastic mold technology at some point. Merchandise is so important to the Gundam brand that the official website spends a significant amount of time detailing the different beverages available at the Gundam cafes in Japan.

The other very important thing to explain is that there are two kinds of Gundam stories. Well, there are as many different kinds of stories as there are stories themselves, since every creative team puts a different spin on the basic concept (there are space operas, Band Of Brothers-style pieces on the daily lives of soldiers, and Pokémon-style kid adventures), but each of those stories falls into one of two categories: the “Universal Century” stories that composes the main canon and the ones that exist outside it—I’m going to call them “Alternate Universe” for the purposes of this guide.

All of the Universal Century stories are tied in some way to the original Mobile Suit Gundam, while all of the others take place in their own universes and generally have no connection to any other series beyond the appearance of at least one Gundam and a number of specific tropes and direct aesthetic callbacks that are present in every Gundam story in one way or another. Most of these revolve around the hero of Mobile Suit Gundam, Amuro Ray, and his masked rival, Char Aznable. Many Gundam stories involve a longstanding feud between two characters, with one of them typically donning a mask and being associated with the color red, a direct callback to that central relationship from the original show.

The final lesson that’s crucial to understanding Gundam is that every series, from the bleakest drama to the silliest side story, is deeply and enthusiastically anti-war. The action in Gundam is often thrilling, and the high point of some shows is the way shit blows up real good, but the cool robots are really just a trap to lure action and sci-fi fans into recognizing that war is stupid, the people who fight in wars are often being used as nothing but tools of some powerful person’s greed, and the toll that war takes on soldiers, civilians, and the environment is rarely—if ever—worth it. Sometimes this deeper message doesn’t even try to be subtle, like in one movie where an exciting battle is intercut with civilians on the ground being crushed to death by the giant bullet casings flying out of a mobile suit’s enormous machine gun. The imagery couldn’t possibly be more on the nose, but sometimes the best anti-war message is the one you don’t have to think about too hard.

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With those important notes in mind, we’ll be breaking this guide down between the Universal Century and Alternate Universe shows and storylines that make the best entry points.


Introductory course

Universal Century: Mobile Suit Gundam

There’s no better place to start than the beginning. Mobile Suit Gundam (1979) establishes the rules of its universe and lays the groundwork for every UC story that follows, even ones that take place decades later. Here’s the basic version: MSG takes place in UC 0079, so 79 years after mankind has developed space colonies that orbit the Earth. Before that, history progressed just as it did in our universe, which is only really relevant in the sense that all of the same wars that were fought in our history were also fought several centuries prior to the events of MSG. One interesting detail that sets MSG apart from other mecha anime of its era is that, while the mobile suits all have names (like Gundam or Zaku), they also have cold military designations (like RX-78-2 or MS-06 Zaku II) that add to the idea that this is all just hardware and not anything magical.

The entirety of MSG takes place during what is called the One Year War, a conflict between the unified Earth Federation government and a group of space colonist rebels called the Principality Of Zeon. The Federation are basically the “good guys” by default, mostly because they just want to uphold the status quo, but also because the power-hungry Zabi family that runs the Zeon forces have a nasty habit of doing awful shit like dropping an enormous colony on the planet that obliterates the entirety of Australia. That being said, the Federation is only marginally better, with its own supply of super-weapons and tendency to make backroom deals that put maintaining its own power over actually protecting people.

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The main plot of the series centers on Amuro Ray, the teenage son of a scientist who is helping the Federation design a new mobile suit called—wait for it—the Gundam. When a squad of Zeon troops led by a hotshot ace named Char Aznable try to attack Amuro’s home colony, he uses his secret knowledge of his father’s project to pilot the Gundam and fight them off, inadvertently getting himself and his friends conscripted into the Federation military. Char, who becomes Amuro’s longtime rival, happens to be on a mission of his own: He’s actually the long-lost son of a political leader who inspired what became the Zeon movement, and he wants to execute the Zabi family because he believes they killed his father in a power grab (they totally did).

The animation in MSG isn’t great, but the story holds up nicely, especially in a series of compilation movies that came out later and condensed the plot down to a more manageable length. Also, after checking out MSG, there’s a prequel miniseries called Mobile Suit Gundam: The Origin (adapted from a manga of the same name) that follows Char from his childhood to the moments right before the start of the series. The story is mostly interesting for the way it gives some of the Zeon characters a bigger spotlight, but its kinetic and stylish mobile suit battles are the best part.

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Alternate Century: New Mobile Report Gundam Wing, Gundam Wing: Endless Waltz

Thanks to Cartoon Network’s Toonami block airing the show in the late-’90s, the Gundam show that most Americans are probably already familiar with is Gundam Wing (1995-1996). Fortunately, it’s a very good entry point for non-Universal Century Gundam stories, taking place in an entirely separate timeline called “After Colony.” Unlike MSG, Wing isn’t about warring factions, focusing instead on a team of five young Gundam pilots who are sent by revolutionaries living in space colonies to dismantle the corrupt Earth government—an inversion of MSG’s plot, in a way. The five pilots are all teenagers, like Amuro, and one of them quickly develops a rivalry with an enemy ace who has a mask, uses a fake name, and wears a red uniform. Unlike Amuro, though, the pilots in Wing are all super cool teen boys with cool hairstyles that more or less count as personalities.

As great and influential as MSG is, Wing is arguably the best place to start with Gundam. It’s faithful to the core themes of a Gundam story, specifically the futility of war and the idea that true evil doesn’t necessarily exist, but it repackages them with a very teenage “us against them” attitude that has broader appeal than a war story. Not all of us can relate to literally picking up arms to fight for your home, the way Amuro does, but who hasn’t felt like they and their friends are the only ones who can see how corrupt and heartless the people in power are? Also, there’s a scene in which the female lead invites the main Gundam pilot to her birthday party, and he responds, “I’ll kill you,” in a completely flat monotone. It’s beautiful.

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The story continued in Endless Waltz (1997), a sequel movie that takes place shortly after the end of the series and features truly absurd new designs for all of its Gundams (why would a robot need wings with feathers?). It really hammers in the idea that the Gundams—like all weapons of war—do more harm than good, with some of the pilots celebrating the end of the fight in the main series by launching their suits into the sun. It also ends with an audacious note that says all warfare has been definitively abolished in the After Colony universe, which is a little cheap and cheesy, but it’s also something that, say, Star Wars could never do. Wing and EW actually put in the work to establish that even its worst antagonists often have good intentions, and it’s refreshing to see a war story that suggests the arc of history could and should bend toward pacifism. Also, just listen to the song in this sequence and try not to get hyped.


Intermediate course

Universal Century: The 08th MS Team, Zeta Gundam, Gundam ZZ, Gundam Thunderbolt

With the base knowledge of the One Year War and the Universal Century established, the Gundam options open up considerably. Zeta Gundam (1985) is a direct sequel to the events of MSG, with the Earth Federation making a full-on heel turn and a new rookie pilot grabbing a Gundam and joining up with a band of rebels—one of whom bears a suspicious similarity to Char—against the increasingly fascistic Federation regime. Gundam ZZ (1986, pronounced Double Zeta) is a sequel to Zeta, but the story begins to feel less essential as it moves further from the familiar motivations of the initial Zeon/Federation war.

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Instead, the best stories to explore here—and arguably the best stories in the entire Gundam canon—are the ones that take place concurrently with MSG’s depiction of the One Year War but don’t directly involve the major players of that saga. The 08th MS Team (1996) miniseries is easily a high point of the entire franchise, setting the action in a jungle on Earth and focusing on a ragtag group of Federation troops who stumble upon a secret Zeon super-weapon—all while the squad’s leader hides the fact that he and the sister of a high-ranking Zeon officer have fallen in love. It’s basically Romeo And Juliet set during a sci-fi interpretation of the Vietnam War, and if that doesn’t imply a story about the inherent futility of combat, nothing does. On top of that, one of the soldiers is an aspiring pop songwriter, which is a very fun detail, and 08th MS Team features a spectacular showdown between the eponymous squad and a single Zeon pilot in the ruins of a city that makes the whole show worth watching (though it is worth watching anyway).

Another good story here is Gundam Thunderbolt (2017), which is more or less a critique of the friendly-ish rivalry between Amuro and Char. Set near the end of the One Year War, it’s about a cocky, jazz-loving Gundam pilot locked in a desperate, protracted battle with a Zeon sniper who is a member of a division exclusively staffed with soldiers who suffered grievous war injuries. Both sides in the conflict end up looking like monsters in Thunderbolt, showing just how dangerous that kind of endless one-upmanship can be when taken to an extreme.

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Alternate Universe: Mobile Suit Gundam: Iron-Blooded Orphans

Iron-Blooded Orphans (2015) is an interesting case among Gundam shows. Like Wing, it doesn’t feel particularly dedicated to very many aspects of the original series or the established tropes (even if it does have a cool bad guy in a mask and is implicitly anti-war). The show is about a group of children working for a private military company on Mars, several centuries after a big fight between the Earth and its space colonies—though not the same fight as in the Universal Century stories. The kids quickly rebel against their cruel bosses (partially thanks to a long-forgotten relic from the war called a Gundam) and take over the company for themselves.

The kids, now professional mercenaries, get swept up in a movement to protect the rights of people living in space against an oppressive pro-Earth regime, and they repeatedly have to face the horrors of war and the horrors of growing up, which becomes more complicated when all they’ve ever known is combat. The clever hook in IBO is that the basic premise can be read as a critique of the Gundam trope of the teenage ace pilot who becomes a war hero overnight. MSG doesn’t spend a ton of time on the psychological toll that all of the fighting takes on Amuro (especially after some of the early fights), but IBO is primarily about that psychological toll and the way children can become desensitized to violence. It unfortunately has a weird relationship with its female characters, like the crew members on a weird polygamist ship that everyone just accepts as a normal thing or the underage girl who is chastely engaged to an adult man, both of which are extremely off-putting.

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Advanced course

Universal Century: Gundam 0083: Stardust Memory, Gundam F91, Char’s Counterattack

Gundam 0083: Stardust Memory (1991) is one of the more visually impressive Gundam shows, with some of its creative team going on to work on the indelible anime classic Cowboy Bebop, but its story is too ingrained in the backstory of the Universal Century to have much of an impact for anyone who isn’t already versed in Gundam lore. As indicated by the title, it takes place several years after the One Year War when an infamous Zeon veteran named Anavel Gato (who is awesome) sneaks onto a Federation base to steal an experimental Gundam with a nuclear warhead. 0083 is meant to establish why and how the Federation become fascist villains, which is why the “good guys” have a nuke so long after the war. Gato’s eventual use of the nuke is secretly coordinated by Federation officials to justify a crackdown on Zeon remnants.

Speaking of things that don’t work without an established familiarity with the One Year War, Char’s Counterattack (1988) takes place a decade after 0083 and is the definitive end of the Char/Amuro saga. It features a resurgent Zeon faction trying to punish the Federation for its many evils, which naturally means that an older Char and Amuro have another big mobile suit fight. It’s mostly just a payoff to things that happened in Mobile Suit Gundam, missing a chance to elaborate on how these two characters may have changed in their decades of feuding.

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There’s also Gundam F91 (1991), which is an extremely interesting failure. Envisioned as a proper follow-up to MSG, F91 takes place in UC 0123, decades after the One Year War has faded into history. Though a chunk of the full series was scripted out, issues at Sunrise required the entire plot to be condensed into a single movie. What is there happens to be pretty engaging (if occasionally nonsensical), but it’s hard to ignore that a whole lot of it is directly ripped from Star Wars—for instance, the masked villain is somebody’s secret father, and the score echoes John Williams’ work so clearly that we can only assume nobody at Lucasfilm is aware F91 exists. (Please don’t tell them.)

Alternate Century: Mobile Fighter G Gundam

How can one describe something as utterly mad as G Gundam (1994)? The show is ridiculous, hilarious, wildly offensive, and also kind of awesome. It’s Dragon Ball Z with robots and a truly unbelievable level of ethnic stereotypes, and it absolutely should not be anyone’s first exposure to Gundam. The basic setup is that humanity has largely moved into space and abandoned the very concept of war (so far so good) and replaced it with an Olympics-like event every few years where every country builds its own Gundam and drops it on Earth for a big battle royale (still good). The last Gundam standing is the winner, and its country then gets to control the universe. The problem is that some people still live on Earth, and the show wastes absolutely no time in addressing that the Gundam fights have completely ravaged the entire planet, meaning even this safer alternative to warfare is still deeply stupid and destructive. That’s all good!

Here’s what’s not good: Every country’s Gundam—except Japan, if you can believe that—is built on varyingly hurtful stereotypes. The American Gundam is a football-playing surfer cowboy with boxing gloves. Canada’s Gundam is a big lumberjack. Holland’s Gundam is a big windmill. Kenya’s Gundam wears a robe that looks like a zebra. Mexico’s Gundam has a sombrero and some cactus-like armor, and in the original Japanese dub it was called—we’re very, very sorry for this—Tequila Gundam. It’s all fucked up, but the show is such pure, uncut bananas that it kind of works in context. It’s hard to recommend G Gundam without a lot of caveats, but it’s so outlandish that a well-informed Gundam aficionado has to experience it.

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Miscellany

If that seems like a lot of Gundam content already, just be aware that there is so much more. We mentioned manga, but there are also books, video games, more Universal Century spin-offs, and more Alternate Universe stories. The most prominent other thing in Gundam, though, is Gundam Build Fighters (2013) and its own series of sequels and spin-offs. Those shows are a gross attempt to directly cash in on the popular Gunpla line of Gundam model kits, typically taking place in a universe where people buy Gundam toys and make them fight like Pokémon.

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The essentials

1. Mobile Suit Gundam: The first series, the one that established the key themes and aesthetic tropes that have carried Gundam for these past 40 years. A mecha anime classic, if not the mecha anime classic.

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2. Gundam Wing: The most approachable Gundam series, requiring the least amount of established Gundam knowledge and with the most merits as a stand-alone story. It drags a bit and some of the animation is clearly stretching a budget, but it has a nice message about pacifism.

3. The 08th MS Team: The high point for the whole Gundam brand. It’s a cool, gritty war drama that is also a love story, elegantly walking the line between making its fight scenes look cool and making it clear that fighting is actually bad.

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4. Iron Blooded Orphans: Proof that Gundam, even after decades of stories, can still put new spins on the basic idea of “war can seem exciting, but it’s actually very bad.”

5. Mobile Fighter G Gundam: It must be seen to be believed. Audacious in nearly every respect, it bends the definition of what a Gundam series can be as far as possible without breaking anything.

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