By Andrew Osmond.
Gundam is one of the biggest anime franchises, and the most confusing – tracking the dozens of individual titles can be harder than learning the Periodic Table. Gundam Wing, however, stands out for two reasons. One is that fans know it as “the Gundam with the cute boys,” which I’ll get to later. The other is that Gundam Wing was the gateway Gundam for a generation of TV viewers in America and Britain.
As with institutions like Ghibli and the (Power) Rangers, we “got” Gundam many years after it began in Japan. While SF anime like Gatchaman, Yamato and Macross were adapted for the West in the 1970s and 1980s, the original Gundam in 1979 missed out. Not surprising, really. Even the craftiest adapters would have had trouble repurposing Yoshiyuki Tomino’s grim future as a jolly kids’ space show. By the time Gundam Wing hit American TV in 2000, the Gundam franchise was twenty-one years old and Wing was old news in Japan – it was shown there in 1995.
Gundam Wing wasn’t exactly on “mainstream” TV in America, but it still had a plum platform. Cartoon Network had launched in 1992 and was quickly established as a pay TV channel for cartoon fans, and not just the little ones. Adult animation’s profile had risen through the 1990s in America, fuelled by “Golden Age” Simpsons, South Park, and even Toy Story and a spruced-up Disney. Gundam Wing was shown as part of a Cartoon Network programming block called Toonami, which specialised in action-adventure animation and was shown in afternoons and again after midnight.
Gundam Wing was broadcast in America beside such shows as the CG-cyberspace ReBoot and the milestone Batman: The Animated Series, as well as more anime imports: Dragon Ball Z, Sailor Moon and multiple Tenchi Muyos. Gundam Wing was also shown on Toonami in Britain – this was around 2001, when Toonami was part of the UK’s Cartoon Network, before becoming part of the spinoff CNX channel. Judging by an archived line-up, Gundam Wing was shown in Britain at 9.25 pm – a far better slot than most anime get on Japanese TV now! As in America, it was shown beside Tenchi Muyo and Dragon Ball Z, but also the science-fiction-y Batman of the Future, aka Batman Beyond.
If anyone reading this saw these broadcasts, and especially if they were your first introduction in anime, please share your memories below. At least in America, Gundam Wing played well. The 49 episodes were run through twice, and even the sequel Endless Waltz video series had an airing. Indeed, Toonami showed other Gundams in Wing’s wake. In 2002, it screened the earlier G Gundam (see below), which had three Cartoon Network runs; it also screened Gundams which had been made for video in Japan. Cartoon Network even delved back in time to show the original TV Gundam from 1979.
New viewers who saw the first Gundam after Gundam Wing would have had an interesting lesson in franchise evolution. The two series have so much in common. They have giant fighting robots, of course, the iconic Gundams. They’re set in not-so-distant futures where some people live on Earth and others in the cylindrical space colonies envisaged by American scientist Gerard K. O’Neill. They’re space adventures where the conflicts are human; there are no alien or pan-dimensional menaces, but people fighting for power, territory or the people they love. There’s no reassurance that the wars are just, or that one side is “right”. Attractive characters do bad things, and furiously try to kill each other. The outlook is Game of Thrones, not Star Wars.
Before Gundam Wing, the great majority of Gundam anime were set in a shared universe, linking back to the first show. But in 1994, Sunrise – the studio home of the Gundam franchise – opted to make an “alternative” Gundam series, not tied to the fifteen years of continuity. That series was G Gundam, widely regarded as one of the most eccentric Gundam shows. Like the later Hetalia, it was a battle of outrageous national stereotypes.
Gundam Wing, made a year after G Gundam, was another “alternative” Gundam show, but it took a very different approach. As explained above, Gundam Wing shares many of its premises with the 1979 original, and it goes even further to assure old viewers that they’re on familiar ground. It does this by cloning the most famous Gundam character of all. At the very start of Gundam Wing, we’re introduced to a suave, gold-haired commander in a red jacket and an eye-concealing helmet. It’s like a James Bond film introducing a bald man in a wheelchair stroking a white cat.
In Gundam Wing, this character is officially not Char Aznable, the wily mastermind of the early Gundam anime, which were, after all, set in a different continuity. The Wing character is called Zechs Merquise, and he’s ostensibly fighting for an Earth authority – which is rather a twist on Char, who was often fighting against Earth. But it’s not much of a difference, given that the “real” Char used multiple names, and switched sides swiftly as circumstances demanded. Wings eventually reveals Zechs’ secret backstory, which is not the same as Char’s but has glaringly obvious parallels. Basically, Zechs is a Char, confirming that the character transcends continuity, like James Bond, umpteen American superheroes, and several manga characters (Tezuka’s, for instance).
As if to further assure Gundam fans that little has changed, the first episode involves Zechs fighting an enemy mecha suit during a plunge into Earth’s atmosphere, reworking a memorable battle in part 5 of the first Gundam, involving Char. As noted, Zechs works for an authoritarian Earth, which is keeping space colonies under its thumb. Unlike the first Gundam, there isn’t a full-blown war yet, but the rebel colonists are dispatching fighter pilots in powerful mecha to wreak havoc on Earth. These mecha are, of course, the Gundams. Zechs seemingly wins his own fight, with the Gundam plunging into the sea, but its pilot, a teenage boy called Heero, survives. Meanwhile, four other boys land on Earth in their own Gundams, ready to wreak havoc – yet strangely, they’re unaware of each other’s existence.
It’s these five cute teen boys – Japanese-descended Heero, Duo (American), Trowa (Russian), Quatre (Arabic) and Chang (Chinese) – who’ve become Wings’ most enduring image. Visually, they’ve been compared to a boy-band, while the Anime Encyclopedia suggests they were inspired by the Saint Seiya fighting-boys franchise which never clicked in Anglophone territories (a Netflix remake CG remake has just been released). The boys were obviously put in to woo female viewers, including those with intense interests in cute youths, celebrated in fanzines. Just a year after Gundam Wing, Sunrise made Vision of Escaflowne, another mecha show with many elements targeted at females.
One point made less often, though, is that the boys in Wing may be cute but they’re emphatically killers, launching deadly attacks against umpteen Earth-based targets. An early episode plays up the horror of an Earth-based commander when the young cadets she’s training are all wiped out in their dorm by one such attack. Of course, the violence was edited down in many of the Western TV screenings, but reportedly the late-night Toonami screenings in America, around midnight, were uncut.
It’s strange to think that Gundam Wing was airing in America in 2000 and 2001 – its second screening ended in May 2001. This is a show that could be seen easily as having terrorist protagonists, who wipe out people en masse in burning buildings, without the killers being presented as clear villains. Surely Cartoon Network would never have bought such a show after 9/11, when the station truncated a run of the 1979 Gundam (which is about war rather than terror) and skipped the “Cowboy Funk” episode of Cowboy Bebop.
In Japan, meanwhile, a different thread of Wing may have influenced a later anime. In the series, Heero occasionally uses a fake identity to pose as a student at an aristocratic school, meaning to kill a girl who saw him after his first Gundam battle. (The girl becomes pivotal to the series and its secret histories.) Perhaps this inspired the set-up in a Sunrise show made a decade later – Code Geass, whose rebel hero Lelouch relies on his identity as an aristo student.
Meanwhile, the Gundam franchise has continued making “alternative” series to tweak tropes, including Gundam Seed in the 2000s and Gundam: Iron-Blooded Orphans, written by Mari Okada, in the 2010s. In America, Orphans was screened on a revamped Toonami block, now part of Cartoon Network’s “Adult Swim” programming. As of writing, Toonami screens in America on Saturdays with a mix of shows unimaginable at the time of Wing, including Rick and Morty, Attack on Titan and The Promised Neverland. Alas, there’s no such line-up on British TV…
Gundam Wing is released in the UK by Anime Limited.