The Comics Classroom: GUNDAM: THE ORIGIN and Why Mecha Still Matters

Is there a series of words cooler than “giant robot?” Even to this day, at almost 35 years of age, I can think of few things which make as excited as when I am talking about the mecha genre of manga.

While this classification of material crosses over into a lot of areas, particularly TV and film, I want to keep my hero-style hot-blooded passion for this subject focused on a particular narrative universe, that being the Gundam franchise. Considering the recent news about Brian K. Vaughn penning the script for a live-action Gundam film, I think it is more timely than ever for people to dig into comics which deal with mecha.

If I have to introduce anyone to giant robots, Gundam: The Origin is one of its best exemplars, and it is a staple which has endured because of its capacity for humanity as well as for violence. The Gundam: The Origin series also draws upon the content which is sure to inspire the film that Vaughn will be writing, either directly or at least in a spiritual manner.

Giant Robots, Super Robots, and Mecha

For the purposes of making things more clear, let me detail what mecha is and how these terms came to exist at all.

By doing this, I’ll help you have a better grasp of why Gundam has remained an important staple in the mecha mythos. If you want to be technical, mecha refers to a large robot suit or vessel which is piloted from within by a person. This is a key distinction as a robot is, typically, an un-manned machine which may or may not have its own sentience.

On Japanese TV, the origins of the genre come from two primary sources, although it can be debatable which one is more crucial. The first source is the 1952 Astroboy series from the “god of manga” himself, Osamu Tezuka. Astroboy focused on a story in which, ala Pinocchio, a scientist creates artificial life after the death of his son. The manga itself is both lighthearted and amazing, but it established early on that there were social ties at work with creation and that the nature of machines was not inherently one of ‘creator’ for or against the ‘created.’

Tezuka’s android Astro is a character in his own right, with thoughts and feelings. The nature of the relationship between Astro and his creator, Dr. Tenma, forms the core of the manga’s emotional basis. In addition to Tezuka’s Astroboy, the manga work of Mitsuteru Yokoyama was also critical to the mecha genre. Yokoyama would create Tetsukin 28-Go in 1956, a manga in which a boy detective uses a remote control to operate Tetsukin 28, a WW2 weapon which is converted to fight criminals and other foes.

Interestingly, both these prolific manga works would be distinctly post-war, meaning they would be inspired by the nature of Japan during and after the US occupation.  Concerning the impetus for Tetsujin 28-Go’s creation, Yokoyama explained how “When I was a fifth-grader, the war ended and I returned home from Tottori Prefecture, where I had been evacuated. The city of Kobe had been totally flattened, reduced to ashes. People said it was because of the B-29 bombers … as a child, I was astonished by their terrifying, destructive power.” (Millennial Monsters: Japanese Toys and the Global Imagination).

According to Robots that Talk and Listen: Technology and Social Impact, Yokoyama also was inspired by the 1931 Frankenstein film and that the human who controlled Tetsujin 28-Go, for good or evil, was the one who was responsible for his actions, not the machine itself. The idea of war playing to strongly on the genesis of Tetsujin 28-Go, and also on many of Tezuka’s works, would be critical for future textual conversations about ‘what’ a robot or mecha was meant to do.

While Astroboy laid the groundwork in manga for raising awareness of the social bonds between creator and creation, as well as how fathers and sons tie into the mythos of innovation, Tetsujin 28-Go established the background themes of war and conflict within the ‘robot’ genre. Tetsujin 28-Go having been initially designed a Japanese doomsday weapon which was converted to peace by the Allies is no small detail to overlook.

Still, so far what has been presented are androids and robots, but when did the idea of a piloted machine, a mecha, come to exist?

That would be largely the work of famed manga creator Go Nagai. He pioneered the entertainment push for robots on syndicated TV and in print through manga which did, among other things, have a piloted machine with humans inside and to also have these machines transform. Nagai’s penultimate contribution to the evolution of the true “giant robot” genre was Mazinger Z, a series about a giant robot who fights off the forces of evil that seek the enslave the world.

While I would love to gush more about Nagai and his numerous contributions to the genre, the most important one was this: giant robots were weapons of peacekeeping which could be used by any person, hero or anti-hero alike, which engaged in combat against non-humans. This main idea was the heart behind virtually every single of Nagai’s stories, stories which inspired legions of imitations and parodies.

Between 1972 and basically 1979, Nagai constructed the aesthetic of the giant robot genre as a force for serial entertainment. While there were numerous works which emerged after Nagai’s Mazinger Z, Gundam was different and remains different.

In basic terms, then, the “robot” genre has the following types by the 1970s:

1. The Android Genre (such as Astroboy)
2. The Traditional Robot Genre (such as Tetsujin 28-Go)
3. The Giant Robot Genre (such as Mazinger Z)

In time, especially by 1979, “super robots” were genre on their own. These machines were frequently piloted, often passed down through families, they fought aliens and they were so powerful that their capabilities seemed more in line with magic than with science. For example, Go Nagai’s Mazinger Z begins introducing Greek gods as characters into the plot, or having the various mecha utilize world-devastating power. Somewhere along the way, robots took up the place in Japanese pop-culture which superheroes occupied in the West, hence the idea of a “super robot” genre.

Tomino’s Comment on Humanity

If Go Nagai was the man who popularized and pop-culture’d the giant/super robot genre, mainly through violence against aliens and even dinosaur empires, then it is Yoshiyuki Tomino who re-focused the energy of the genre towards a different brand of story. Tomino’s work on Gundam in 1979 brought forth a story with few clear-cut villains, although the ones who were made in such a manner were clearly modeled on dictators of the Reich and Imperial manner.

The forces of Zeon are a frightening amalgamation of Germany and Japan’s worst wartime natures, yet they were also as human as they were nefarious. Unlike Nagai, Tomino’s Zeon antagonists were flawed humans who fell in love, betrayed their own ideals, saw the error in their crimes and at were also in conflict with others. Still, whatever they were, they were not aliens or monsters. Few stories until this period had human on human war, and this was what Gundam was all about.

In summary, the story of Gundam and Gundam: The Origin is one where cyclical violence prompts a space colony, espousing dreams of independence and control over its neighbors, to declare war. This was covers both space and the terrestrial theaters, but it is fought with violence and heroism. The Federation, the dominant governing body of Earth and the non-Zeon colonies, struggles to overcome Zeon’s initial assaults, one of which kills billions.

To combat Zeon’s use of humanoid mecha weapons, the Federation develops the Gundam, a machine made of experimental armor and armed with laser weapons. Together with a civilian crew aboard a powerful starship, White Base, the Gundam is brought into conflict with Zeon again and again until the war ends.

Tomino’s legacy for the Gundam universe revolves as much around why and how one fights as it does what one fights with. It is undeniable that the Gundam is one of many weapons which turns the war in the Federations’ favor, but the various men and women who pilot mobile weapons have their own dreams and goals which constantly intermix in clean and messy ways as the war goes one. Ultimately, the story of Gundam is as much about humans as it is machines, hence why it has had such staying power in a genre frequently defined by giving mecha more and more borderline supernatural powers.

Gundam: The Origin, the Old Story in a New Style

The complication with trying to become familiar with the giant robot genre is that content access has a limitations. Some shows and manga have not been translated, some shows have names which are too similar, some manga was once published through US outlets but have ceased being in print, etc…. And, even if you, dear reader, were to use terms like “Gundam” and “Nagai” as a guide to try and get into the genre just for manga alone, you’d still find problems because these properties are now decades old and have spawned spin-offs, re-makes, and more.

This is the beauty of Gundam: The Origin. The run contains twelve volumes, each one hardbound and printed in durable stock paper of a much higher quality than one might expect. Each volume tends to run around 29.95, so while they’re on the more expensive side of the comic market, they’re in editions which are built to last.

The core story of the main Gundam plot is complete in these volumes from start to finish and they are capable of helping new readers figure out what other kinds of Gundam stories they want more of. The main universe of the original Gundam series is called the “Universal Century.” If you enjoy that setting, the Gundam: Thunderbolt manga which is being translated and released right now might be right for you! If you don’t care much for the main “U.C.” setting, don’t worry, because Gundam exists across a kind of multi-verse of content with something of every story for all audiences.

In some ways, re-releasing the original Gundam series was a risk because it is a completed story. If you are familiar with names like Amuro and Char, the story may not be one you need refreshing on. Still, the story was re-adapted to clean up some continuity issues, to expand on the character of Char in great detail, and to basically ensure that Tomino’s vision survives into the next generation through a more easily accessible medium.

I was fortunate enough to have heard Tomino-san speak at the University of Houston when he visited around 2005. I recall being fortunate enough to have asked him his inspiration for the Gundam machine, to which he answered that both NASA and rockets has captured his imagination. He concluded his answer by saying how the very things which inspired him to conceive Gundam were still going on around us and that, in a way, every generation could conceive of the same story today because space exploration and innovation remains part of our culture.

I was always very inspired by that answer, even if it is also true that Gundam is now a heavily licensed and controlled franchise which means it is also highly economic. Gundam: The Origin is a means of capturing the lighting that had inspired Tomino at the start of the robot genre, one which had not yet seen Gundam deviate and cross-evolve into the mixture of genres it is today. I love many different Gundam settings, but the core story, the genesis seed which made all others possible, is preserved through the Gundam: The Origin series.

How We Capitalize and Engage With War

“Peace sells … but whose buying?” reads some of the more iconic lyrics from the band Megadeth. War and violence, in all its myriad of forms, is and will probably always remain some kind of popular. I love the genre of superheroes, but they often resolve conflicts through their fists and the emotional repercussions are ones which we’re still muddling through how to talk about smoothly.

And, where popularity is concerned, then there is an economic angle. I can point out the fact that super-heroes are licensed IPs, and Gundam is no different. Gundam is a narrative which, over time, became heavily merchandized as a means of sustaining its popularity.

The TV version of the Gundam story, now one of the most popular anime titles of all time, was originally cancelled before it could even finish airing. It was, among other things, toy kits and models which served as a means to keep the property afloat while it found its legs in other ways. The fact that this genre survived through toy sales was not lost on the facilitators of the brand who eventually capitalized on what was popular in a strong way.

Gundam toys are a serious hobby, yet this was clearly not the end goal Tomino had in mind when he concluded the main Gundam story. I cannot think of many writers who began their story worlds with the intention of designing a franchise during the Golden Age of comics and the foundations of modern manga, although I am aware of which ones fit that mold more than others. What was important about the Gundam’s journey was actually that, in time, the machine’s purpose was to conclude and that the pilot, Amuro, needed to leave its cockpit to be with the friends and family he had encountered throughout the story.

As I mentioned earlier, humanity, the bonds of love shared between people, was the heart of Gundam, not the machine for which the series drew its title. Likewise, the core Gundam story was not one built of express interest in serialization, although that is what it turned into with time. Still, the heart and passion of the main Gundam story remains laid bare in Gundam: The Origin, and because of its earnest examination of war as being a terrible thing to endure, for all sides, it endures.

“What” should mecha be used for? Tomino’s answer seems to be peace, yet his story makes it clear that the problem is that this means conflict and, thus, war. The cyclical nature of what lead to Zeon’s desire to independence, and what eventually turns the Federation into tyrants through the later Gundam UV narrative, is why Gundam remains important. Tomino’s story does not make lofty ideals of war, but rather he presents it as something which all sides, heroic and villainous alike, survives.

I say “survives,” because Tomino is rather famous for being the equivalent to George R R Martin, i.e.: he sort of enjoys killing characters. Gundam was not the worst series to showcase this, but he freely kills Federation and Zeon characters alike to show how violence begets violence with no end, and that this carnage does not discriminate. Still, through it all, love endures and finds root in the plot through romance, through children, through tears and through family.

Gundam: The Origin is ultimately a re-created look at a story from when impact of the second world war was still fresh in the hearts and minds of a previously conquest-driven nation. Tomino’s legacy shows the introspection that occurs after war, when art and design turn towards re-focusing collective energies to new social endeavors. In the same way that Tetsujin 28-Go was important for its post-war plot, Gundam is no different.

Post-war Japan was pushed into a position of pacifism because of both their own actions and because of the fact that they were occupied and under constant observation until 1952. This American presence required stories about war and conflict to either focus on non-human aliens or to be more critical of what violence against other humans costs. Authors like Tomino and Nagai would have been the first generation to come of age during a Japan free of the US presence, yet one certainly, socially, changed by it. American comics, I would argue, have a different legacy, one where conflict is ultimately still seen as the final arbiter of right and wrong.

Gundam: The Origin is the kind of comic with a different perspective on violence, war, and how we celebrate conflict through art. These kinds of issues are also at the heart of many of the best “super robot” genre comics and shows, but Gundam is the one which infused a much-needed dose of introspection on violence and war into a genre which could have quickly come to only service stories where humanity used violence to emerge victorious over aliens.

While Go Nagai established the super robot genre, it was Gundam that infused it with the capacity to endure beyond pop-culture alone and to be literature with staying power for generations. Gundam: The Origin is the modern inheritor of that burden and it is widely available, thus allowing Western readers the chance to enjoy it, contemplate it, critique it and comment upon it.