Gundam Wing is synonymous with any anime fan who grew up watching Toonami. It was our first real exposure to Mobile Suit Gundam in the west, introducing us to the wonderful world of bishounen pilots, political strife, and the king of all giant robots: Gundams. It was an instant hit, debuting on March 6th, 2000. In a little over a week, it became the highest rated program on Toonami. Yet, for most anime fans, it is their first and last experience with the franchise as a whole. Despite a strong start, Gundam was never able to capture the popularity that Wing inspired in its original run. So what exactly caused Gundam to fade away into obscurity in America?
No-win scenario: Gundam Wing was the best and worst choice to bring over first
Bringing Gundam Wing first to America seemed like a smart choice. You see the majority of the Gundam franchise ties into the original 1979 series canon and is referred to as the Universal Century. Gundam Wing, alongside G Gundam and After War Gundam X, was the first of three alternative universe series created during the franchises 15th Anniversary in the mid-90s. Before that, Gundam stories were exclusively told within the UC timeline.
The logical conclusion would be to bring over a standalone title, with Gundam Wing being the obvious choice. G-Gundam was a super robot anime, barely resembling the mature and grounded story telling of the rest of the franchise so that wouldn’t work. And After War Gundam X? Three Gundams. Gundam Wing? Five Gundams. Like I said; it was an easy choice. A large cast of likable characters, some of the most iconic Gundam and Mobile Suit designs, and a deeper story than anything we’d seen yet on Toonami. It was a classic in the making.
Now had Bandai brought over the original Mobile Suit Gundam first, I promise that it would have been pulled before it finished airing. It was slow with poorly aged animation. So many episodes, with the new mobile suit of the week, felt like toy commercials. Against Dragon Ball Z, Bandai had to bring their A-game. Gundam Wing was the right answer. Yet there is an inherent issue of localizing a standalone title; There is nothing to continue showing after it ends! You have over 20 years of history to animated Gundam series to bring to America, yet you can’t do a thing with them because they are all built on the backbone of Gundam ‘79.
Bandai could have released G Gundam and After War Gundam X right after, but the issue of continuation would still exist. That’s exactly what happened after G Gundam was inevitably brought over. From the start, it was a no-win scenario. Gundam missed out on the best chance to popularize itself during the anime boom of the 80s. Had ’79 been released back then, even in a highly edited form such as Macross, it would still place Gundam in a better spot than it was after the end of Gundam Wing.
After War Gundam X should have been the next Gundam series to air
With how well Gundam Wing hit it off on Toonami, why wasn’t the next logical step to bring over the series that aired directly after Wing in Japan? After War Gundam X shares a lot of similarities with Wing, they are standalone series which share the same art director and were both met with lukewarm reception by Japanese audiences! Sounds like a perfect fit for America audiences.
After War Gundam X is like a what-if story, in which the constant state of war in the Universal Century eventually leads to a catastrophic event, killing off the majority of Earth’s inhabitants. It’s an enjoyable series with some wonderful characters and mobile suit designs, the plot is always moving forward, and it includes one of the most well-developed romances seen in the franchise. I would go as far to say that it is way better than the monotony of Gundam Wing, with its boy band cast and excruciatingly slow plot.
Some would bring up the fact that is was canceled as a testament to the quality of Gundam X, but I need to remind you that this series came out in a post Neon Genesis Evangelion world. Regardless of how Japanese audiences felt about the ending to the original television run of Evangelion, it forever changed the perception of mecha anime. It subverted all of the idea set forth by Gundam and it was difficult viewing the series in the same light. After War Gundam X seemed pedestrian compared to Eva. Just another shallow entry in the long running Gundam franchise. It isn’t hard to imagine why viewers would lose interest.
Sharing the same art director is the important element for America. Character designs in Wing and X are fairly distinct from the rest of the series up to that point. They took on a more contemporary anime aesthetic with those larger unrealistic eyes we all love. In contrast, UC series tend to go for a more realistic and mature art direction. The similar art styles of Wing and X was certainly a more natural transition than going from Wing to 79, yet Bandai decided to go with ’79 regardless. They were in a rush to start merchandising the Universal Century in America. The sooner they acquainted western fans with the UC timeline, the better. Who would have thought airing a series from 1979 after Gundam Wing might be a bit of a jarring experience?
Why the hell didn’t they air the Mobile Suit Gundam film trilogy instead of the television series?
If Bandai was hell bent on introducing the states to Universal Century, bringing over the full Mobile Suit Gundam television series was an incredibly short-sighted way of doing it. Mobile Suit Gundam began airing on Toonami on July 23rd, 2001, shortly after the end of the Gundam Wing rerun. While ‘79 didn’t have the best animation to start with, coming off of Gundam Wing exemplified its shoddy animation tenfold. Kids only had to catch a glimpse of the show to know it was ancient and a severe visual downgrade. As shallow as that might sound, we had all been spoiled by Wing and it was difficult to adjust to.
Airing the compilation film trilogy would have been the best way to introduce fans to the Universal Century. The films cut out the majority of the inconsequential monster of the week footage and it was all the better for it. Many of the super robot elements such as the Gundam Hammer (despite being called a hammer, it is a mace) were cut out, fitting more with the real robot tone of the rest of the series. Somehow, Sunrise was able to maintain a coherent plot, despite the more complex nature of a Gundam story. I generally never recommend compilation films over a full series; however, the film trilogy has an air of competency you just never see in these types of productions.
Toonami could have made it into an event, similar to the airing of Gundam Wing: Endless Waltz. Nothing would change on Bandai’s side in terms of merchandising sales, and Cartoon Network wouldn’t have had to fully commit to airing all three films if it wasn’t a success. I honestly believe people would have been more receptive to the original series had it aired this way.
Would Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam have had a chance in the US?
The biggest issue is that even if it ‘79 was well received, where would they go from there? Gundam Wing would finish rerunning around May 2001. Even if they aired the ’79 film trilogy over the next few months, it would still place us relatively close to September 11th, 2001. I can’t imagine a series essentially revolving around terrorist trying to overthrow the government would have a chance on the network. So, then what? Was this the end of the road? Not quite.
After the weak reception of 79 on Toonami, it was given another chance on Adult Swim. But due to low ratings, it was pulled before it finished its run. This doesn’t mean that the audience of Adult Swim was less receptive of the franchise. On the contrary, Adult Swim would eventually air all of the UC Gundam OVAs such as War in the Pocket, Stardust Memories, and the 08th MS Team. They even aired Char’s Counter-Attack, despite it taking place after two full television series!
In a world where we got the film trilogy instead of the full series, it’s not hard to imagine the trilogy rerunning on Adult Swim maybe a year later could see some great results. If that were to happen, I’d expect the doors to be slammed open for Zeta Gundam’s arrival. The darker elements of Zeta that might not have fit well with Toonami, but would go perfectly alongside shows like Cowboy Bebop and Trigun. Gundam could have remained as a constant on the network, with many more series having been brought over, and maintained a larger following in the US. At least, I hope that’s how things might have turned out.
After G Gundam, it felt like Gundam vanished from the face of this planet. All the toys and model kits went away, the games were hard to find, and none of my friends ever talked about it. I stopped watching Cartoon Network regularly by the time Gundam Seed aired on Toonami so I missed out on it entirely. If I hadn’t caught 00 randomly on TV one day, I’d of thought America would never see another Gundam series again.
While It’s nice to think of what could have been, the one thing I can tell you with confidence is that the death of Gundam in America was a result of the incredibly poor timing and release of the original series after Gundam Wing. Just goes to show how one bad move can ruin an entire franchises popularity in the west.