When you consider that the original Gundam series was essentially nearly canceled, going from 52 episodes to 39 and then negotiated to 43, well, a casual observer would wonder how this whole thing spawned what it did. Like any good property, Gundam is open to reinterpretation and reinvention and it’s embraced that to varying degrees over the years, engaging each generation in different ways and targeting different audiences. That makes it highly accessible and really engaging in that regard since fans can be totally into one area but not another.
Gundam, at its core, is a story about humanity and hope against the ravages of war and all that it can cause. With many of the creators growing up with the cultural changes that stemmed from World War II, the theme of war has been a staple of anime and science fiction in particular. Gundam expanded upon it with less clear good versus evil, showcasing dark deeds on both sides in order to protect their people, and worked through very different views of how society should work. While the world spent the Cold War thinking of how humanity would end should it become a hot one, the Gundam universe explored how it could happen on a solar scale and that even being free from the gravity well meant that our natures are still very much apparent. Mixing in the idealism of youth and the hope of those wanting for peaceful days that they’ve never seen, the franchise takes a pretty hard look at the cost of war in a way many other series never do, as there are a lot of characters that tend to be killed along the way.
A lot of this is broken down into the various “eras” that exist for the property. These eras are essentially self contained continuities where the show reinvented itself, no longer constrained with the way the show was setup and designed in the late 1970’s. Within each there are a range of different properties that interconnect but standalone from the other eras, essentially giving us a very fun multiverse that they finally found a way in the last few years to bring together into one show. The first era of which is…
This is the granddaddy of them all as it’s where the original series ran and was then compiled into three films that became very popular. It set the template for many series that followed the original Mobile Suit Gundam series as Zeta Gundam carried over characters and introduced new ones and then Gundam ZZ did the same. This era established the significant and strong anti-war themes of the franchise that’s in all of them while showing the ramifications of war, the toll it takes on people of all stripes, and the environmental damage as well. It’s in this area that we got the most in terms of TV episodes with three series in the 40-50 episode range, six compilation films, and a standalone feature with Char’s Counterattack in 1988 and Mobile Suit Gundam F-91 in 1991.
This is also the era that for me produced the best standalone material with the OVAs that were produced. My introduction to the franchise was through Mobile suit Gundam 0080: War in the Pocket and then Mobile Suit Gundam 0083: Stardust Memories, which dug into side stories and really told tighter works. Later, we’d get the 08th MS Team that further explored the toll war takes without having to deal extensively with long arcs and complicated movements. The ability to narrow into these smaller areas, and in the films as well, is one of the franchise’s strengths.
The Universal Century was definitely the biggest of all of the eras, but as time went on creators wanted to put their own imprint on things and even the main man behind it all, Yoshiyuki Tomino, wanted to explore different ways to deal with the franchise. After about fifteen years or so of stories, the idea to reinvent the franchise was big - and driven by the potential for a range of new model kits and toys to be marketed. While the collectors continue on with the Universal Century, offering up new Gundam timelines and separate universes with their own appeal alongside variation of the Gundam itself and a range of new mobile suits meant expanding what could be sold - creatively as well. That in turn would bring on new mechanical designers and storytellers, many of which grew up watching the original.
While the franchise spent most of its time in the Universal Century era, things began to shift in the 90’s as other eras came into play. Arguably one of the most popular ones is the After Colony era, where we were introduced to the Gundam Wing franchise. This TV series saw big ratings on Toonami and made superstars out of the main cast of English voice actors at the time. It didn’t have the same follow-up as the UC era but it produced additional works with an OVA and film compilation version. Gundam Wing is likely the most well known among larger segment of fans because of its strong push on Cartoon Network that helped to elevate anime being taken more seriously in the early 2000’s.
The other big post-UC era is that of the Cosmic Era, which is made up of the Mobile Suit Gundam SEED properties. This era had two big main series and a variety of compilation specials that brought in a different set of fans. While the shows have always had appealing characters, this one went more outside the norm with the level of appeal to female viewers through the designs while also capitalizing on changes to animation in the early to mid-2000’s where digital was brought in more, colors brighter, and a greater dynamic in storytelling through character interactions. The Cosmic Era began to reach more outside the core audience to see who else might be into it while still retaining its strong use of the mobile suit battles themselves.
While there were a lot of big eras out there with lots of works produced, some never got further than the single show - and sometimes these were among the best. The 1994 TV series Mobile Fighter G Gundam remains my all-time favorite just because it shook things up and went with the approach of having fun in the designs across the board, going for a worldwide fight tournament.
The 1999 TV series Turn A Gundam went with a storyline that takes place a thousand years after the Universal Century - sort of - and goes for an almost agrarian kind of mobile suit experience that worked an intriguing blend of styles. The last few years saw a few other standalone eras that involved shows such as Gundam Reconguista in G and the Toonami broadcast of Iron-Blooded Orphans.
Within this realm we also got what I think is one of the most engaging of shows with Gundam Build Fighters. With an honesty about selling toys, the premise is all about Gundam’s being just that, model kits that are used in competitions that the characters engage in within sanctioned tournaments. Through this we see them using a range of mobile suits from every corner of the Gundam franchise within all sorts of settings. Bringing them together in this way was something that gave everyone a taste of an era that may never have been revisited otherwise and it found a creative way to blend them all while hinting at something larger. This series is only now being released here and a follow-up series, Build Fighters Try, continues the storyline.
Renewed Universal Century
For the most part, outside of some minor OVA material, the Universal Century was closed off for pretty much the entirety of the 2000’s in favor of all the new eras and attempts to broaden and chase after other markets. That began to change in 2010 with Mobile Suit Gundam Unicorn that went back to this era and toldl new tales. That brought about a new OVA series in the past year with Mobile Suit Gundam: The Origin as well as a short online miniseries with Mobile Suit Gundam Thunderbolt, which is coming out in a theatrical compilation.
For many, the belief was that the UC timeline would likely not be revisited for a long time as so many other variations were produced and that the creators felt that the stories were closed with this era. The return to it has brought in a lot of new interest in the older works, which is something that fans new and old alike are able to get into thanks to all the new releases.
While there is a renewed focus on the Universal Century, the other eras are being re-explored as well. The biggest one at the moment is Mobile Suit Gundam: Iron-Blooded Orphans, which had its first season last year and currently has a dub being produced and broadcast on Toonami. This series shifts things up a bit by moving us about three hundred years after the main “Calamity War” that kicked things off and it, like the Universal Century storylines, takes us back to some of the real truths of war in a blunt way. With modern audiences taking a more realistic look to some degree at war compared to when this franchise first started, a look at the long term ravages of war through poverty, slavery, the rise in child soldiers and how they’re impacted psychologically, is pretty intense. With writers having a greater and more detailed view of these elements within the real world, Mobile Suit Gundam: Iron-Blooded Orphans ends up having a starker feeling about it which makes those slivers of hope that populate nearly every era all the more engaging.
A second season is scheduled to debut this fall.
The beauty of Mobile Suit Gundam is that it can tell so many stories within each era and yet each can expand and tell so much of its own as there are endless tales to be told. For fans, the exploration of each of these eras can really highlight the differences but also the similarities; to see the themes that are echoed across them as the real takeaways of the franchise. Yet within each of them there’s also just some simple but great storytelling with compelling characters, difficult situations, and explorations of what it’s like to grow up within these struggles and how it can shape you - and how you can shape events. Each era stands alone but are part of the greater whole that is the Mobile Suit Gundam franchise. At the core of it all is the sense of hope amidst all the chaos and each era holds onto hope more than anything else. Exploring that hope in all the eras produced so far, and the many more that are yet to come, is something that Gundam fans embrace.
Chris Beveridge is the editor-in-chief of The Fandom Post where he covers anime, manga and a whole lot more every day. He got into the anime game with AnimeOnDVD.com back in the late 90’s and has been covering it daily ever since.