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February 12, 2015

An Erupting Burning Valentine’s Post: Gundam Build Fighters

I don’t understand how this anime can even exist.

It should be impossible.  There is absolutely no logical reason as to why this anime came out the way it did -- or even the fact that it came out, period.  Like -- okay, the immediate understanding is that this thing exists to shill both the Gundam franchise and the tie-in merchandise.  It’s not about wars, political intrigue, or meditations on conflict.  The core thrust of the plot is literally “these people build Gundam models.  They fight.”  That’s it.  The bar has been set so low that Satan has to regularly pull it from between his hooves.

And yet, somehow, somehow, this anime -- in my earnest, humble opinion -- goes beyond that.  Way beyond that.  I’ll be honest: the primary reason I started watching it was because I heard the second season (Build Fighters Try) has what’s more or less Burning Gundam, AKA one of my favorite Gundams from my favorite franchise installment.  The secondary reason was that I’d heard an incredibly glowing recommendation from an anime blogger.  So I watched the first episode…and the second…and the third…and the fourth, and the fifth, and the sixth, and then the next thing I know, I’m choosing Build Fighters over sleep.

I don’t understand how this anime can be so good.  I don’t -- I just don’t.

There’s an argument to be made that Sunrise didn’t have to try with their colorful, silly, transparent merchandise-shill; they could have tossed whatever they wanted out and let the wolves feed on the carcass.  It's said that Gundam AGE was apparently reviled and more or less a money-sink, but the house of Gundam pretty much pushed out Reconguista in G just a breath later.  They weren’t in danger of having production halted.  The giant robot train would keep on rolling.

But if I had to draw a parallel between stories, I wouldn’t compare Build Fighters to any other installment in the franchise (except maybe Try or their apparent predecessor, Gunpla Builders Beginning G).  I’d compare it to Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.  The thing those two have in common is that they could both be reasonably called But They Didn’t; any number of shortcuts and clichés could have been employed, but both of them went above and beyond.  They made tweaks to established formulas where they could, and taken as a while their execution of even the basics are on such a high level that it makes for something familiar, but something unique.  And above all else, something exciting.   

As a reminder, this is a franchise that once gleefully put stuff like this on display.  And if nothing else, Build Fighters manages to top that.  Regularly.

What even is this anime?

So here’s the setup.  Our main character is Sei Iori, a Gundam fanboy who works at his family’s hobby shop.  As you can guess, the hot business isn’t just about building Gundam models (known in-universe and out of it as “gunpla”), but pitting them against one another using some new technology powered by “Plavsky Particles”.  As much as Sei loves gunpla and the battles that follow -- what with his MIA dad being a top competitor on the world stage -- he’s actually a pretty bad pilot.  But that changes one day when he meets the red-headed Reiji, a cocky kid who has tons of natural talent.  As such, the two of them team up and manage to ward off a bully looking to claim Sei’s latest model as his own -- and so begins their whirlwind adventure to try and take top honors in a global tournament.

Given what I said a couple of paragraphs ago, you’d think that BF is pretty much just a bunch of sound and fury -- a constant onslaught of spectacle that has to one-up itself with each episode.  Or, put simply, it’s a show that competes with G Gundam by being as stupid as G Gundam.  But that’s not the case.  BF is what G Gundam would be if it was actually smart.  If it actually had something to say.  BF goes beyond its predecessor by way of not only being thoughtful, but -- if you can believe it -- actually making sense, even if it forces you to play on its terms.

So here’s the overarching theme: BF is a show that teaches you that it’s okay to be an asshole.  And that’s awesome.

In a lot of ways, the show is about beating your opponents, and advancing to the next fight even if that means doing so by building a stepladder out of your enemies -- or in the show’s terms, out of the broken gunpla left behind on the field.  (I’m not exaggerating; these things are literally left in pieces at the end of plenty of fights.)  So I guess the show’s obvious push towards the thrill of competition and good sportsmanship slightly breaks down when you see not only how…well, zealous these people get during a match, but that BF is half-built on the pride of its plastic warriors. 

Incidentally, Reiji is a good 90% pride (and 10% lazy dolt).  He’s not such a tyrant that he’ll refuse to show anything like good cheer or offer his thanks to those who help him out, but he’s the sort that takes no flak from anyone.  He’s a free spirit who does what he wants -- and thanks to jumping into the world of gunpla, what he wants is to prove how much of a Cool Guy he really is.  Being dealt his first defeat is what kicks off both a chunk of the plot and his character arc; it’s true that he learns about the world and the people around him -- his partner Sei most of all -- and comes away with something gained, but at his core he’s in it to win it.  And eat lots of food.  And sleep.  Shut up, it’s an endearing character trait.

What’s important to note about BF is that even if Reiji is the ace pilot, Sei’s presence as the team’s “mechanic” is given as much importance -- if not more.  That’s the way it should be; the show puts weight behind the fights, but the competitors are in an arms race where failure to keep up means losing before they even enter the ring.  Reiji doesn’t even try to build a gunpla until the back half of the series, so it’s up to Sei to figure out what needs to be done as both the mechanic and Reiji’s support mid-battle. 

Because of that, Sei embodies the other half of the show’s core concepts -- namely, passion.  He’s the Gundam nut, and he’s the one with aspirations of gunpla battles to start off (lack of talent aside).  He’s the one who locks himself in his room for days to put the finishing touches on his models, and the one who dreams up new designs when he should be paying attention in class -- well before he’s even qualified for the actual tournament.  There wouldn’t even be a show without Sei, let alone a team.  And the show recognizes this, even if it doesn’t outright say it.  Even if it didn’t, I certainly would; with technical skills and creativity like Sei’s, I wouldn’t be surprised if he won just by virtue of appearing on a big enough stage, and attracting the eye of some major corporations.  No doubt he’d make one hell of an engineer if he put the plastic away.

In the same sense that Sei and Reiji can’t do anything without each other, the show wouldn’t work unless it shouted its two themes -- passion and pride -- from the rooftops.  BF would have you believe that passion is useless without pride, and pride is useless without passion…and in a sense, it’s kind of right.  Sei at the story’s outset may have the drive to fight, but without the belief in himself, his dream nearly ends before it starts because he’s in danger of handing his baby to some smarmy doofus. 

And on the flip side?  Reiji may have natural talent and the guts to show it off, but he’s directionless.  He’s got nothing to fight for beyond the incidental butting of heads…but once Sei gives him something to aspire towards, he goes full tilt.  Likewise, once Reiji gives him faith in his skills, Sei decides that he doesn’t want to be in the shadows or let someone steal his glory.  Well before show’s end, they both want to fight, and fight their hardest. 

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the wonderful world of foils.  Enjoy your stay.  I know I have.

The ideas of BF might seem pretty far-removed from all but those who see the script for the average Pokémon episode as a holy decree.  But it’s worth noting that, really, the stuff in BF can’t be THAT far-removed from competitive gaming.  Starcraft players, Counter-Strike players, DOTA2 players -- hell, the example that comes immediately to mind is the fighting game community. 

Spend some time on Eventhubs (during, in-between, or after tournaments) and you’ll get a glimpse of countless personalities talking about why they fight and what they do -- to say nothing of the documentaries floating around about Street Fighter and Smash Bros. players.  The games they play are still that at their core, but they’ve also transcended that to become something full of meaning.

There are fighters online and off -- in eSports and national leagues, no doubt -- that do what they do because of their passion and pride.  It takes the mix of the two to make a person say “Look at me!” and “Look at what I can do!”  Competition is as much a mental struggle as it is a physical one, meaning that those who want to grasp victory had better reach for it with their hearts and minds as well as their bodies.  Because of that, there’s something incredibly resonant and honest about BF

The drive to be recognized -- to even have the right to be noticed -- is something that anyone can feel, whether they’re competitors or not.  People have passion, and people have pride; they want success, and they want good experiences to call their own, even if (or especially if, in BF’s case) it’s from the thrill of a good game between friends.  Given that, the show speaks to some universal truths, even while it masquerades as a kiddie merchandise-shilling vehicle -- and ends up surprisingly mature as a result.

...What the hell is this anime?

I already summed up the majority of the plot -- there’s a big dumb tournament, and two kids want to win the whole thing.  It’s not exactly Shakespeare; in fact, I’d say the show is at its weakest when it actually tries to have a plot.  There’s this undercurrent about Reiji’s identity and just how turning plastic models into fighting machines actually works, the latter of which in all honesty is pretty interesting; it turns the company behind gunpla battles into an ersatz Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, and it’s discussed that cracking the secrets of that technology could mean it’d see use as military weaponry. 

Buuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuut when the show’s trying so hard to be one thing, and even shuffles the majority of its B-plot aside for all but a few minutes in a few episodes, it’s obvious which one a viewer should care about more.  In any other story, that would be a problem.  But you know what?  I don’t need an explanation as to what the Plavsky Particles really are, because I’m so invested in the fights and relationships between these characters.  The plot is simple as all get out, but that simplicity and transparency works to BF’s advantage.  By design, it’s a stupid-ass show, but its execution is its saving grace.

And I don’t just mean that story-wise.  Because you see, this anime is absolutely gorgeous.

Okay, let me be fair.  There are times when scenes and episodes are off-model; episode 20 is one example that comes to mind.  But that’s forgivable when you remember that episode 19 features a pivotal battle, and has visuals that threaten to rival Gurren Lagann (so I guess we know that 19 had one hell of a price tag).  Even so, there are more episodes with good animation than there are bad, to the point where the bad ones stick out solely because there are so many good ones.  And those good ones -- those good fights where no expenses were spared -- feature moments so unbelievable that I’m forcing myself to keep the spoilers to an absolute minimum.  I will say this much, though: some of the scenes in BF sell a level of brutality that even the direst of battles in the more serious Gundam installments couldn’t match.  If the gunpla were humans, there’d be one hell of a mess to clean up.

So if you’re looking for an anime with the oft-sought “epic fights”, then BF is for you.  But it goes beyond that.  The aesthetics are clean and simple, but embellished enough to give everyone a hint of pizazz.  I seriously doubt I need to mention the amount of color in display in any given frame.  The music is fantastic, too; sometimes it’s hard to notice in the heat of battle with fighters chatting it up, but head over to YouTube and you probably won’t be disappointed.  And if you’re a diehard Gundam fan, you are in for a treat.  I nearly shat a brick when a palette-swapped Allenby Beardsley showed up, and that’s just one of the G Gundam references on display.  Gundam Maxter’s one of the later competitors, and the unfortunately-designed Tequila Spike Gundam stands sentry on a store shelf.

I’m surprised they had the restraint to keep him from shooting tacos.

There’s a lot to love about BF -- and believe it or not, there’s even more that I could mention beyond the previous 2300 words.  Remember what I said earlier?  They could have called this But They Didn’t: The Series, and I stand by that.  So many things are done right, and it all starts with the characters.  Opinions may vary, I know, but in my case, BF is in the optimal position.  That is, I can’t pick a single favorite character out of the cast because everyone is uniformly amazing.

So you know what?  Let’s turn on Trans-Am mode and run through not only the characters, but a laundry list of some of the things BF does right.  So if you’ve got any appropriately-triumphant music in mind, now’s your chance to play it (though if I may make a humble suggestion…).  Strap in, people.  We’re about to have a ball.


--It would have been way too easy to make Sei into a shy kid who hides in Reiji’s shadow, but he’s more or less grown out of that before the end of episode 4.  He’s still fairly nice, but if pushed, it’s surprising how hard he’ll push back.  Then again, you can’t blame him, because nearly everyone around him is completely insane…which he ends up commenting on way early in the series.  And continues to comment on.

--I actually like that Reiji’s kind of an asshole.  They could have just made him a cheery competitor (a pseudo Goku, as is the standard), but his swagger and aggression is what makes him stand out in a good way.  It’s not to the point where he’s intolerable; it’s to the point where it becomes a part of his charisma.  That’s cool.

--What’s this?  A young female character in a 2013 anime that isn’t just pandering to moe tastes?  It’s more likely than you think.  Meet China Kousaka (and you’d be forgiven for subconsciously pronouncing it like China the country instead of “chee-na”), and she’s great, too.  She’s soft-spoken and reserved, and her development from wallflower in the background to outspoken supporter is so lightning-fast that it cuts out all the chaff related to her archetype.  That is to say, it’s WAY before the show’s end that she’s not only willingly hanging out with and helping Sei, but even manages to tease him at times.  Also, dat smile.

--What really makes me do a spit-take is that, yes, Sei and China do end up having that kind of relationship.  But again, it cuts out all the chaff, and even manages to do so with subtlety.  At the start of the series the two of them are called out for being boyfriend and girlfriend.  You’d expect Sei to overreact, but he actually doesn’t.  China actually seems all for it.  In the middle of the series, though, Sei DOES overreact…because it means he’s actually getting closer to this girl

The end of the series has them both turning red at the mention of being an item, but their interactions up to that point have had them interacting without a hint of awkwardness, appreciating each other’s company, and just flat-out building their chemistry whenever the chance arose.  Christ.

--Okay, remember how I said I can’t choose a favorite character?  I lied.  It’s Mr. Ral.  He’s a Cool Guy who gives sage advice to the boys, knows Gundam as well as Sei, and (spoilers) actually manages to give a Mafioso a taste of some moves straight outta WrestleMania.  Also?  Fanservice?  Nah, man.  It’s all about the Ral-service.

--I don’t want to be that guy, but…damn it, I just have to take a moment to appreciate that there’s a black guy in an anime who isn’t a 2D clown.  Granted Nils Nielsen is ostensibly stereotyping Japanese culture via his martial arts and samurai-themed gunpla, but off the battlefield he’s as level-headed and sharp-witted as it gets.  Though now that I think about it, it isn’t confirmed in-universe that he’s black…but he’s got dark skin and dreads.  Let me have this.

--Mao and Fellini are rival fighters that are hilarious in their own right, albeit for different reasons -- Fellini for being a wannabe ladies’ man, and Mao for being…well, Mao.  (He’s one of those characters that almost always keep their eyes shut, which in anime land is rarely a good sign.)  That said, neither of them are pure joke characters, because they reinforce the show’s themes as they go along.  And the beats of their arcs are as effective as they are powerful.  One of Mao’s moments genuinely made me misty-eyed, while Fellini…well, let’s just say he gets put through his paces

--Sei’s mom Rinko is pretty much the embodiment of hilarity, even when (and sometimes especially when) she’s giving her son some support.  Though I guess according to The Laws of the Internet, I have no choice but to bring up her looks.  In which case, I’ll let Combofiend speak for me, post some pictures, and leave it at that.

(Still ain’t got nothin’ on Ral-service.)

--A lot of the character-based stuff after that moves into spoiler territory, so I’ll hold off on going into detail.  Still, it’s worth noting that even if it’s obvious who’s going to make it into what round, the show does a spectacular job of making the extra fighters more than jobbers -- to the point where they legitimately give one main character after another a hell of a time on their way to the next battle. 

--On that note, winning in BF doesn’t always come down to shouting the loudest or pulling some hidden power out of nowhere.  Each gunpla’s abilities are built in before the match and/or referenced mid-match; more to the point, victories are had because one fighter outsmarted another.  There’s a Gundam from 00 at one point, and it can do exactly what you’d expect a Gundam from 00 to do.

--You know you’ve got a good series on your hands when even the one-off idol gets character development.

--Again, trying to avoid spoilers here, but I can confirm that there is a char.  Two of them, technically.

--Time to go way back for a minute.  Last year I did a post on Infinite Stratos, a mecha harem anime -- that’s a harem with a mecha element, not an anime with robot girlfriends -- that’s about as terrible as you’d expect.  One of the things I said is that it could have been stronger if it focused less on going on dates with a guy as smart as a bowl of oatmeal and more on the clashes between a strong lead and a similarly-prideful match.  By extension, they could have dropped the serious/military aspects of the plot and just made it about people training for a sport.  Pride and Prejudice and Mechs was what I called it.  And guess what?  That’s this animeAnd it’s great.

--Reiji ends up meeting his match, and while you could argue that it’s the typical romantic progression, it’s done in such a way that A) the tweaks make it original enough, and B) it’s so entertaining to watch that it’s hard to care.  Even then, it’s not as if either character gets their…well, character diluted; they both stay willful and independent, only with heavy subtext between them.  It’s as much about respect and friendship as it is love; two people coming together to enjoy something is the key focus in BF…which extends to the entire show.

I’ll be honest.  I’ve seen a good chunk of Gundam 00, but I couldn’t bring myself to finish it or even care about finishing it.  It’s not the worst anime out there.  Not by a long shot.  But in its first season, after a certain point I had to struggle to care about what was going on until a certain, Louise-filled point.  It doesn’t say good things about a show when I care more about its antagonists (Cool Guy Sergei Smirnov chief among them) than I do about the leads…that didn’t do any favors for themselves by having generally the same personality at the outset.  It’s still a step above SEED, though, because the most important things I remember from that are Kira looking sad, recycled footage of Murrue’s bouncing breasts (consistent tone?  What’s that?), and Kira slapping a lady.

There’s a strong argument to be made that Gundam, if not anime in general, has an image problem.  With the former, it’s easy to lump it into the stereotype of “a bunch of emo pretty boys” -- or if you’re deep in the rabbit hole, “fujoshi bait”.  G Gundam was a firm stand against that stereotype (skintight suits aside), but you have to remember that that installment is just months away from being twenty years old.  The series that followed it?  Well…

There’s no doubt that there are detractors on either side of the tonal fence.  It’s not enough to bring the franchise to its knees, but it does pose a problem: what do you do when it seems like nothing you do is right?  What happens when one camp is shrugging you off for tossing out kiddie fare, and the other half lambasts you for trying to be too serious and edgy? 

In Sunrise’s case, I guess you can put out two shows at once and hope for the best.  But even then, considering that one of those shows is BF/BF Try, it makes me think that they took a different approach.  Instead of trying to directly please an audience, they just went “Screw it!  Let’s just do whatever the hell we want!”  And in doing so, they gave plenty of people exactly what they wanted…by giving them something they didn’t even know they wanted.

But I could be reaching here.  Because if nothing else, BF gives me something even I didn’t know I wanted.

I like this show because even if there are plenty of thoughtful undercurrents, even if there’s some high-level execution, and even if it’s a technical marvel, I don’t have any problems overlooking that.  What I’m going to remember months down the line is the sheer level of passion that the fighters and their series of origin showed off on a regular basis.  In a world where big blockbuster movies threaten to ruin the majesty of giant robots, this show reaffirms just how friggin’ awesome they really are.

The passion in-universe is incredibly important, even beyond just winning fights or showing off how cool gunpla battles can be.  It’s about building a sense of camaraderie through united interests -- a bond that gets sparked by seeing these models, the physical embodiments of each player’s pride, take on lives of their own.  That emotion’s on full display in the show, and it bleeds out into the real world for any given viewer.  As it should. 

The purpose of art is to make an audience feel an emotion -- and when the characters are putting every last shred of their hearts on the line just for the sake of feeling the rush of battle, then it’s hard not to get excited too.    And that’s what makes Gundam Build Fighters smarter than it looks.  It’s a back-to-basics show that excels where every story should: in awakening the passion within anyone.  Within everyone.

I don’t know how this anime can exist, but I’m glad it does.  And with that, I’ve got one thing to say.

See you guys soon. 

Happy Valentine's Day, everybody.  Let the love run wild.

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