The Spring 2018 Anime Preview Guide
Gundam Build Divers
How would you rate episode 1 of
Gundam Build Divers ?
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How was the first episode?
While I'm long past the heyday of my mecha fandom, I can still vividly remember a time when I collected Gundam Wing action figures and desperately coveted the bespoke controllers made for the Steel Battalion video game. That time period stretched from middle school into my early years of high school, and that version of me probably would have loved Gundam Build Divers. The show's plot and dialogue are geared towards a relatively young audience, and its constant franchise references appeal directly (and perhaps exclusively) to longtime Gundam fans. Unfortunately, all it does for me in the present day is offer up some flashy battle scenes with a sprinkling of nostalgia.
I actually found the half-length prologue to be the more engaging of the two episodes on offer, partly because it works well as a self-contained story. The space battle between professional teams is quite a sight to behold, and it features some engaging twists and turns as the players clash with one another. The rivalry between the two teams' captains relies a lot on telling instead of showing, but they're well-matched with the expert pilot going up against the clever strategist. Even though it lacks the life-and-death stakes of a real battle, everyone's obvious desire to win makes it an exciting fight to watch. Honestly, I'd rather watch a full series about these pro players than the standard coming-of-age story that kicks off in episode one.
Riku and his nerdy pal Yukki are reasonably charming, though not exactly unique in their personalities. They're an easy pair of characters for viewers to project themselves onto, whether you're in their general age range now or are old enough to harbor some nostalgia for those years. They get the episode off to a decent start, but things fall off from there. The series is a little too pushy in its delivery of the inevitable “buy more Gundam models” message, and the rules of the online world feel shaky at best. As convenient as it may be from a storytelling perspective, I just don't buy the idea of some newbie-hunting troll being able to waltz in and ruin the game's tutorial mission. The almost-magical elements that come into play once Riku encounters the mystery girl also feel like they've been crammed in for narrative purposes. The amount of hand-waving that goes on in this episode makes me worry about the show's ability to tell a coherent story in the long term.
I don't think Gundam Build Fighters is engaging or accessible enough to reach beyond its core demographics, but it should be a fun time for its intended audience. The action scenes are nicely paced and well-animated, and there's plenty of franchise trivia to soak up along the way. I just wish there was a way to get all of that without having to wade through yet another story about middle school kids saving the world.
I should probably open by acknowledging that the original Gundam Build Fighters premise never really appealed to me. I'm not a fan of robot battles for their own sake - I can enjoy giant robot shows, but it's generally because I'm invested in the character journeys and dramatic stakes underlining some given battle, and not that battle's own pyrotechnics. Build Fighters seems specifically designed for people at the far end of the giant robot spectrum - it essentially proposes “what if we had a bunch of giant robot fights with no emotional drama attached at all because we're just playing with toys,” severing the genre from my one potential point of entry. And on top of that, I have very little history with Gundam in general, meaning all of the franchise's winks to long-time fans are totally lost on me.
Without that personal connection to Gundam, or appreciation of robot fights divorced from emotional stakes, there really wasn't much that grabbed me in this premiere. After a half-length prologue episode focused on a major Gunpla tournament battle, we were introduced to Riku and his friend Yukio, and the rest of the episode was mostly spent watch Riku buy a gundam model, assemble that model, learn how to play a new Gundam-focused MMO, and participate in his first tutorial battle. The show's humor is broad, writing simple, and general storytelling definitely aimed at a fairly young audience. On top of that, many of the scenes clearly meant for Gundam diehards just felt like dead air to me (like the copious amount of time spent choosing between and assembling models before we even got to the action). Without any real stakes involved, or a motivation beyond “I wanna be great at this MMO,” watching Riku settle into this new game felt no more interesting than watching anyone else try any other new videogame.
All that said, if you're down for some no frills, no filler robot battles, Divers is certainly ready to please. The half-episode prologue seems almost designed to assure potential audiences that “don't worry, this will all get very exciting soon,” and it certainly does offer a well-executed series of battles. I appreciated how efficiently this opening segment established the competitive variables of the tournament, like the team sizes and objectives, giving me a tactical entry point for investing in its drama. And execution-wise, both that prologue and the first episode proper are blessed with dynamic color work, generally strong storyboards, and very consistent animation. Divers knows it is a show about making robots look cool, and it is very good at that.
Ultimately, I feel like my criticisms of Divers are almost irrelevant, since the show is so clearly not designed for me. I'd say “Build Divers would be a much better show if its constant robot battles were seasoned with real stakes and character drama,” but that's already the compromise the mainline Gundam series make, whereas this sub-franchise is clearly intended for more entrenched Gundam fans. While this episode's slow pacing and simplistic writing feel like general faults, its priorities are perfectly valid, and it pursues them with passion and tenacity. If you want to see Gundams smashing with a dash of general Gundam-lore fanservice on top, Divers seems ready to please. If the concept of Gundam sounds interesting but you're not already into the franchise, try Turn A Gundam, War in the Pocket, 08th MS Team, Unicorn, or any of the franchise's other genuine access points. This one's pretty strictly for the fans.
Rating: 3Gundam Build Divers is a clear effort to bottle the lightning that made Gundam Build Fighters so infectiously joyful. It's the franchise's latest attempt at harnessing fans' nostalgia and enthusiasm for the Gundam multiverse and turning it into a self-insert fanfic filled with references to beloved artifacts from the shows that came before this one. I hate to say it, but it's Ready Player One for Gundam fans. It features lots of aspects from Gundam shows I like, but it's yet unclear if this show has its own heart, too.
Stylistically, this show looks like Try except even more cartoony. The opening theme is the sort of electronic power anthem that is going to make great gym music, and which follows the same aesthetic as Try and Build Fighters before it. It's worth noting that director Shinya Watada worked on Try before directing Build Divers, so it's reasonable to expect a bunch of similarities there. Try was weak because it attempted to tell the stories of far too many characters—in that show, battles involved teams of three. Since Build Divers is one-on-one, I'm hoping we'll return to memorable personalities in the same vein as Build Fighters. Already, there are some eye-catching designs: Riku's flamboyant navigator, Magee; the horned, heavyset villain that targets our rookie protagonist; and the cat-eared fursona of Riku's soccer club pal.
Once again, the plot centers around a middle schooler who's mad for Gundam and building Gundam model kits. Unlike Sei or Reiji though, Riku could be anybody. So far, he's a viewer avatar without any of his own specific traits… except the obvious possibility that he is this universe's version of a Newtype, the Gundam Chosen One. Though all the cards are stacked against him in a battle he was tricked into accepting (and honestly, who is realistically as gullible as Riku is here?) he still manages to beat the odds with an almost supernatural power. Could it be the mysterious girl that he found and let into his cockpit had something to do with that? I dunno, does Char Aznable have mommy issues? (By which I mean, almost definitely.)
That mysterious girl reminds me intensely of Tiffa from After War Gundam X, but that's not the more interesting thing about her. I'm calling it now that she is Reji and Aila's daughter. You know, the two characters in Gundam Build Fighters that wound up in a mysterious dimension, the ones that interacted with the show's Plavsky particles? She looks so similar to the character we suspect to be their daughter from the TV special, Gundam Build Fighters Try Island Wars. Also calling it now: the “cyberspace dimension” where this game takes place isn't the internet at all, but teleportation to wherever Reiji came from. To telegraph that from episode one betrays the fact that underneath all the flashy references and cool mobile suit designs, Build Divers itself is a pretty generic premise. It's going to live or die by its characters and their conflict.
Gundam Build Divers is a thirty-minute commercial for Gundam shows and model kits. But that doesn't mean that commercial isn't working on me. It looks beautiful, sounds great, and is full of Gundam universe Easter Eggs for fans who pause the show on crowd scenes (like I did). But if I want to see Gundam, why don't I just watch other Gundam shows instead of this offshoot? That's what I'll be looking to future episodes to tell me. I suspect there's more than the pilot lets on: it's nothing like the Prologue that got teased this winter, and doesn't even show any of those characters yet (though they are in the opening). If this show wants to be anything more than Gundam fanservice, it'll need to reveal an originality it has yet to offer up.
Gundam Build Fighters already showed us the thrill of fighting battles with Gundam models, but it had one small problem – you knew that the characters weren't actually in the mechs. Well, Gundam Build Divers has that problem licked: it's not just a Gundam show, it's also a VRMMO story! That's actually a great combination, because part of the allure of science fiction is the thought that it happens in the future, meaning that it's potentially attainable. Even if you're not a Gundam enthusiast, the idea of piloting one is appealing, and that's what this show builds on. Even though the focus is clearly going to be on battles (the entire prologue is about a virtual match), the show is careful to mention that fighting isn't the only thing that you can do in the in-world game, which not only leaves room for sequels and marketing spin-offs, but also makes it clear that our heroes may be focused on the fighting but that's their choice: this kind of Gunpla is for everyone.
Riku himself is the basic spunky young male lead we've been seeing in this style of show forever, although he definitely appears to be a little more naïve than some of his predecessors. His decision to help the obviously bad dude setting out to trap him is so very clearly the wrong one that we have to question his intelligence. That the guy turns out to be a newbie killer is no surprise, nor is the fact that Riku has the pluck and strategic senses to take him out, thus establishing a villain for the first few episodes. None of that really takes away from the fun of story, although it's kind of a silly thing for Riku to do, even in a kids' show.
Where the episode falters a little is in the more magical elements. The sparkles that denote Riku being mystically lead to the correct model to build are a bit much, as is the inclusion of the Magical NPC character, the be-mulleted blue-haired girl. She appears to awake when Riku declares his intention to play the game and mysteriously turns up on the tundra when he begins, giving me the awkward feeling of being in a Gundam story written by Reki Kawahara. (It isn't, just to clarify.) It's as if the show is trying to shoehorn in elements of other popular VRMMO franchises in order to be more in line with current tastes, but that's not something that it really needs to do. Gundam has enough pull that a story about a game where you pilot its mechs is a solid enough concept without trying to throw in bizarre fantasy subplots.
The prologue (episode 0) isn't strictly necessary to watch before you jump into episode one, although it does introduce Riku and Yuki and the battle system. Presumably both Rommel and Kyoya will return later on in the main series, which is why I would suggest watching it if you know you're going to stick with the show, plus it has some spectacular animation. All in all both of these episodes are a fun introduction to Gundam's next phase, and I'm hopeful that the odder elements will even out going forward.
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