The fifty-four-foot-high Transformer-like mecha — replicated right down to its double-nozzle jet pack — sits as the centerpiece of the Green Tokyo Gundam Project. This towering robot is intended to raise funds for the Tokyo Metropolitan Government’s push for a more environmentally friendly future:
Except this mecha is not a Transformer. It is a full-sized replica of Gundam RX-78-2, an offshoot of the 1979 Japanese cartoon series Mobile Suit Gundam, and the older cousin of Transformer Optimus Prime.
Optimus Prime is perhaps the best-known character from the Transformers universe. His robot form — as any 5-year-old can tell you — transforms into a cab-over-firetruck. In July, the movie sequel Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen became the first film of 2009 to gross more than $300 million at the U.S. domestic box office. Optimus once again leads human troops and his own team of Autobots — including newcomers Arcee, Sideswipe, Jolt — to fight the Decepticons in this latest installment of the Transformers franchise.
“Living in Japan can suck at times,” says one Japanese Transformers fan, “especially when we have to wait until last to be able to see Transformers.” The new Transformers movie isn’t due out in Japan until August 2009.
It should come as no surprise that the original Transformer toys, known as Diaclone, were created in Japan before being turned into a global phenomenon in the early 80s by the U.S. toymaker Hasbro. The original Diaclone designs came from Mobile Suit Gundam and ushered in a new era of anime.
The original name of the Japanese series was Freedom Fighter Gunboy, or simply Gunboy for the gun the robot carried. The name morphed into Gundom — a combination of "gun" and "freedom" — and ultimately Gundam.
Which is cooler, Transformer or Gundam? “I feel that some of the Gundam anime designs of late have been lacking imagination,” says our young Japanese fan, “but the new transformer designs are most coolsome.”
Which is cooler, Transformer or Gundam?
Unlike the radioactive Godzilla (Gojira) — a mutant byproduct of the Atomic Age who attacks and attempts to destroy Tokyo in numerous B movies — RX-78-2 is a freedom fighter and no less a symbol of the greening of space-conscious industrial Japan than the Toyota Prius.
“The theme of ‘Mobile Suit Gundam’ contains a passion for the environment that matches with Tokyo’s plan to expand the city’s green areas,” says Yasuo Miyakawa, managing director of the Gundam Character Works department at Sunrise Animation, the creator of Mobile Suit Gundam. “From its beginning, the series told of a time when tension existed between people on earth and those who migrated to outer space as a result of the planet not being able to accept further population growth following environmental degradation and damage incurred by industrialization.”
“Gundam brought the animation level up to the real world and fascinated young adults,” explains Keiji Yamaguchi, a creature developer at Industrial Light & Magic whose work appears in both the 2007 and 2009 versions of the Transformers films. “It also raised the animation culture from that of being geared towards kids’ toys to sophisticated storytelling. There was no more cheesy fantasy. It did not cheat the kids, and it did not take their smarts for granted.”
Like RX-78-2, most Gundams are large, bipedal vehicles controlled from cockpits by a human pilot. The majority of these "mobile suits" have a cockpit in the torso of the mecha, with a camera built into the head to transmit images to the cockpit.
Here’s a short cartoon video from the Gundam series showing RX-78-2:
Kunio Okawara, the designer of the full-scale Gundam, was responsible for the mechanical designs of the original RX-78-2. His highly realistic mecha are pilot-controlled vehicles capable of locomotion that can wield a sword, fire a rifle, and mobilize into a fighter plane.
The giant RX-78-2 constructed for the Green Tokyo Gundam Project will be able to pivot its head and spray mist and emit light from fifty locations. “Each gimmick,” says director Miyakawa, “is made to challenge what the old-school fans envision, or what old-school fans fantasize about, and turn it into the real thing.”
The Japanese are clearly obsessed with the idea of giant robots – in some cases, so much that they became "otaku" or "obsessive geeks.” Such is today’s cultural meme that these machines are seen as positive forces –- and, unlike the terrorizing monster Godzilla, they don’t glow in the dark.