Reviewby Lauren Orsini,
Gundam Build Fighters
Blu-Ray - Complete Collection
Middle-schooler Iori Sei wants to be the best Gunpla (Gundam plastic model) builder in Japan, no, the world! Only, he lacks the piloting skill to enter his creations into a Gundam Build Fighting tournament—an augmented reality game fought with real Gunpla that has taken the world by storm. When the immensely talented Reiji literally falls from the sky, Sei finally finds the perfect partner to pilot the Gunpla he is so good at building. With their powers combined, Sei and Reiji are set to dominate the world of Gundam building and fighting!
Let's address the elephant in the room: Gundam Build Fighters is a toy commercial. However, it's an amazing toy commercial with beautiful animation, innovative mecha designs, humor, and heart—one that I want to watch again and again, and have.
Since Mobile Suit Gundam in 1979, Gundam shows have always gotten the green light because Bandai bigwigs saw their potential as vehicles to market robot toys to kids. Fans can argue that what really makes Gundam great is the way directors like Yoshiyuki Tomino subverted this corporate mission with dark themes and anti-war messaging. But, it's also the toys. You can't love Gundam without also having a strong affinity for the powerful, dynamic machines that give the franchise its name. War sucks, but it gave these awesome mecha a good reason to fight.
This time, they don't need one.
Gundam Build Fighters puts those machines front and center while ditching the other storytelling elements that make your typical Gundam show much darker. The result is a love letter to the franchise, a celebration of all of its best characters and happiest times.
Our story centers on Iori Sei, possibly the most relatable Gundam protagonist ever, since he's a fan just like us. Sei also lives in Gundam fanboy paradise: his family owns a Gunpla store, his school has a Gunpla club, and the fictional game of Gundam Build Fighting—think Angelic Layer, but with Gunpla—is a worldwide phenomenon with arenas at every neighborhood arcade. Gunpla is everywhere in this world. It's part of courtship rituals, like when playboy world contender Ricardo Fellini offers up a perfectly built Gunpla to a lady who catches his eye. It's a major facet of the art world, where painters like Sei's love interest, China, express themselves by depicting and building Gunpla. There's a law enforcement system that combats “crime against Gunpla,” and it's just as hilariously tongue-in-cheek as it sounds. It's a status booster, where some notoriety as a Build Fighter can grant you respect—like with Sei's unofficial coach, Mr. Ral, a man who not only looks exactly like Mobile Suit Gundam's Lt. Ramba Ral in board shorts, but is addressed as “Lieutenant” by many other characters from all walks of life.
Mr. Ral is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to allusions, references, and nudges at the audience regarding the entire Gundam canon up to this point. There are dozens of rewarding cameos. Pause the show in Iori Models, and you'll notice that all the models for sale are real existing Gunpla. Look carefully at the reporter who interviews Mrs. Iori in a dream sequence, and you'll see she's Fran Bow, the journalist from Turn A Gundam. And always, as shown especially well in the penultimate episode “Gundam Eve,” these references are happy ones. Even if that character met a tragic fate in their original Gundam show, here they're seen building a model kit with their family, or enjoying the childhood they never got to have. It's clear that the team behind Gundam Build Fighters is comprised of Gundam fans itself, and part of the fun of watching the show is pointing out all of the Easter Eggs they've put in for us.
However, this isn't just a show for Gundam fans. While Gundam Build Fighters rewards you for knowing arcane Gundam facts, it does not penalize you if you don't. At the center of the show is a totally original story that does not rely on the drama or plot elements of previous shows. There are dozens of brand new characters to love, many of whom hail from different countries and are way more diverse than pilots older Gundam IPs have to offer, like female Gundam idol Kirara and African American genius Nils Nielsen. Like in most Gundam shows, it's a coming of age story. When Reiji, a character who comes from a fantasy world (and this is never satisfactorily addressed), comes into Sei's life and turns out to be a natural at piloting, the two team up to take on the world of Gundam Build Fighting. From there it's a story of their rise to greatness, a simple plot that includes one dangerous pitfall—if the show is going to last for 25 episodes, as we know it will, Sei and Reiji can't lose. That makes the story a bit more simple and predictable than your average Gundam story: normally, Gundam is made weightier and more tense by the fact that characters usually aren't fighting for fun, but have their lives on the line.
Still, Gundam Build Fighters battles are no less exciting. Here, the bulk of the energy comes from its gorgeous production values. Even if you don't recognize the original Gundam each Gunpla is inspired by, you have to admit they are stunning and rendered with detail. Even if you don't catch that most of the tournament matches are homages to previous Gundam battles, you will realize that they are intricate and suspenseful. This is a show that looks good, and sounds better—assisted by a high-energy electronic dance soundtrack and powerful opening and ending songs. Though it must be mentioned that the English dub is a total dud. Sei and Reiji sound like there's a 40-year age difference between their voice actors, and China sounds like a man who has never heard a woman speak attempting a half-hearted falsetto.
Gundam Build Fighters may be a 25-episode toy commercial, but when it comes down to it, so is every other Gundam show. This one differentiates itself with its optimistic escapism to a Gundam fantasy world where sensational fights can be fought during peacetime, and where Gundam pilots leave the battlefield as friends—and there is not one of these characters I wouldn't want to be friends with. The only problem with Gundam Build Fighters is that it leaves much of its mysterious unsolved, and the three bonus OVAs which come with the disc, which showed us little more than a glimpse of China's adult life, do nothing to wrap this story up. Give me more Gundam Build Fighters, and if watching it inspires me to buy toys, so be it.
Overall (dub) : F
Overall (sub) : A
Story : B+
Animation : A
Art : A
Music : A
+ A beautiful, melodic, high-energy toy commercial. Rewards fans for Gundam knowledge, but equally engaging as a “gateway show” for newcomers
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