Why Isn't Gundam Bigger In America?
by Justin Sevakis,
"Gundam Dunham" asks:
The new series, Mobile Suit Gundam: Iron-Blooded Orphans has premiered on Toonami, and it's being toted as the second (if not the third) coming of Gundam in the United States, which begs me to ask this question, will America ever going to take notice of Gundam? Several previous Gundam shows were aired on cable TV in the US, only to be shuffled around the schedule or cancelled due to low ratings. What will it take to get America hooked into the science fiction gospel of Gundam, and will its popularity ever be as big over here as it is in Japan?
Ah yes, Gundam... The perennial Japanese household name that Americans just never seem to be able to get into. We had our brief moment of hope when Gundam Wing aired on Toonami back in the day, but beyond that, no other Gundam series seems to have made much of an impact, except perhaps Gundam Seed.
Following up the attractive characters and easy-to-follow soapiness of Gundam Wing was a tall order. I do think that attempting to follow it up with the original series was a huge mistake. While the original Mobile Suit Gundam TV series was ostensibly taken off of Cartoon Network due to its violent content after 9/11, the truth is that it really wasn't finding that much of an audience there. By that time, the show looked very old, and Yoshiyuki Tomino's famously out-there storytelling just wasn't hooking the more fringe anime fans. I've long had a theory that if an anime franchise isn't introduced to Western fans within 15 years of its release, it's probably never going to find a huge audience. This is especially true of pre-digital TV anime, which simply look and feel nothing like anything produced today.
And with that, the heat of the Gundam brand slowly dissipated. The remaining shows in the franchise were of widely varying quality and age, and many prominently featured complicated politics between warring interplanetary nations that don't make for accessible viewing. Fringe fans in the US tend towards character-driven stories, whereas most Universal Century Gundam focuses on politics and war in general pushing the story along, while the characters race to adjust to the new circumstances they find themselves in. It seems like a minor difference, but when characters aren't running the show, things tend to get pretty grim and depressing, in a way that's frustrating and desperate for many viewers. There's a striking difference in how audiences react.
Anime fans back in the mid 90s and earlier may have cut their teeth on mecha shows, but from the 2000s onward, mecha series have been something of a hard sell to American fans. We had a handful that really rose above (Eureka Seven, Code Geass and Gurren Lagann, among others) but many quality shows that were initially thought to be big deals ended up as either middling (Gasaraki, Yukikaze) or outright bombing in the US (Patlabor, Gravion, Gaogaigar). It appears that when mecha are front-and-center, only a small subsection of otaku are interested. To get the mainstream fans to show up, the show has to be about the characters. Mecha can be in the background, but can't be too prominent.
I have some small amount of hope for Mobile Suit Gundam Unicorn RE:0096, the TV recut of the highly successful and very high budget OVA series from a few years back. That series looks amazing, is compelling and easy to follow, and also has a good dub (assuming it can be easily retooled for the new edit). Other easy jumping-on points like Gundam Build Fighters could work too, if it gets on television.
But getting fringe fans to pay attention to a show, no matter how good it is, is really really rough. Getting on Toonami or another broadcaster only does so much -- if it doesn't catch fire, there's not a whole lot you can do but try again when another series comes around. Ultimately you can only try so many times before the brand itself is soiled: the name makes people go "oh, that. I don't like that." I hope we aren't at that point with Gundam.
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Justin Sevakis has worked in the anime business for over 20 years. He's the original founder of Anime News Network, and owner of the video production company MediaOCD. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.
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