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Giant Gundam gives Tokyo ‘green’ ally

Gundam on Odaiba
Gundam on Odaiba

TOKYO (TR) – Starting on July 11 prominent Tokyo landmarks — with their fixed steel columns and beams — will likely be feeling a bit inadequate as a new, mobile player is set to rise up and illuminate the capital’s skyline.

Near the Rainbow Bridge, on the man-made peninsula of Odaiba, a “life size” rendition of a Gundam robot will stand guard as a representative member of the influential “Mobile Suit Gundam” television series, which this year is celebrating its 30th anniversary. The eighteen-meter-high armored figure, replicated right down to its double-nozzle jet pack, sits as the centerpiece of the Green Tokyo Gundam Project, an event that intends to raise funds for the Tokyo Metropolitan Government’s push for a more environmentally friendly future.

Along with its numerous off-shoots and films, the sci-fi animation is set in an uncertain period of conflict in which robot vehicles, or “mobile suits,” are captained by children and used as weapons.

“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 program’s creator. “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.”

Organizers are expecting 1.5 million visitors to arrive at Shinagawa Ward’s Shiokaze Park through the end of August to view (free of charge) the thirty-five-ton fabrication of fiberglass and steel up close and mingle at the surrounding booths and stalls selling robot models and t-shirts. A portion of the proceeds will be donated to the Green Tokyo Fundraising Campaign, an organization which will utilize the 800 million yen it hopes to collect by 2010 for such activities as the planting of roadside trees and establishment of lawns within schools.

The event is also being backed by the committee organizing Tokyo’s proposal to host the 2016 Olympics and Paralympics. The Green Tokyo Gundam Project Web page explains: “Everybody will be working together to revitalize Tokyo’s water and forests, and in 2016 we would like to welcome the athletes to a green environment that will allow them to maximize their performance.” From August 1, the left shoulder of the robot will be adorned with the group’s logo promoting the bid, whose result will be announced in October.

Media reports covering the progress of the construction began to surface in early June. A few hundred fans were estimated to have flocked to the park each day to see the robot being assembled piece by piece from its boots upward to the helmet. Yet it wasn’t long before the number reached into the thousands, many of whom were seen snapping photos.

With white limbs and a blue, yellow and red torso, the giant robot is based on the inaugural RX-78-2 Gundam. In spite of the existence of dozens of variations appearing over the three decades, Sunrise did not hesitate in making its selection. “With this being for the anniversary, nothing besides the RX-78-2 would properly represent the mobile suits of the Gundam series,” explains Miyakawa.

Yoshiyuki Tomino is the director of the series, which debuted in Japan with the 43 episodes that were broadcast between April 1979 and January of the next year. The franchise has since sprouted numerous sequels and amassed an astounding popularity, as evidenced by the robust sales results for robot models, video games and compilation DVDs for Namco Bandai Holdings and its subsidiaries. (On the same day it debuted late last month, the DVD “Mobile Suit Gundam 00 Second Season 5” sat at the top of the daily Oricon anime rankings.) High-definition versions of the first “Mobile Suit Gundam” film and its two sequels, released in 1981 and 1982, are being screened at six theaters across Japan until July 17 to commemorate the anniversary.

Tomino believes the key to success is connected to the human element within the “mobile suit” concept. “I think we were able to give the Gundam series a completely different color, one that differentiated it from other robot stories that targeted children,” the director said this week at a press luncheon in Tokyo. “In fact, we do not talk about Gundam as a series of ‘robot stories’ but rather ‘real robot stories,’ a slightly different sub-genre.”

Kunio Okawara was responsible for the mechanical designs of the original RX-78-2. His highly realistic mecha — a term that describes pilot-controlled vehicles capable of locomotion that in this case refers to the Gundam characters themselves — can wield a sword, fire a rifle, and mobilize into a fighter plane. For Odaiba, the RX-78-2 will be able to pivot its head and spray mist and emit light from fifty locations. “Each gimmick,” says Sunrise’s Miyakawa of the features, “is made to challenge what the old-school fans envision, or what old-school fans fantasize about, and turn it into the real thing.”

Okawara’s work has influenced many designers within the animation industry. Keiji Yamaguchi, a creature developer at Industrial Light & Magic whose work appeared in the 2007 film “Transformers” and its follow-up released earlier this year, graduated from the same art school, Tokyo Zokei University, as Okawara. Yamaguchi says that the original Gundam incarnation was so revolutionary compared to other robot animations of the time that in addition to living up to the expectations of a highly regarded alumnus he felt additional pressure while creating “Transformers” characters like Optimus Prime.

“Gundam brought the animation level up to the real world and fascinated young adults,” explains Yamaguchi. “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.”

Fans from all quarters of the metropolis are gearing up for the unveiling, with Nippon Travel Agency even selling tour packages that include rooms at the nearby Grand Pacific Le Daiba hotel.

Ayako Otsuka, owner of the tiny Gundam-themed bar Eclipse, located within Shinjuku Ward’s historic Golden Gai district, says that her interest in the series lies in the fact that the stories connect at the everyman level. “The protagonist’s weak points are exposed, and he is not eager to fight — he is forced to fight,” she says from behind her counter, adorned with a few colorful robot figures. “He gradually matures but even in the end he has no aim or objective. I find this situation very interesting.”

Note: This report originally appeared in the Japan Times on July 10, 2009.