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April 13, 2015

Let’s discuss Gundam Build Fighters Try.

There’s a part of me that wants to load up this post with all the spoilers I can, and that’s largely because this is a sequel series.  Gundam Build Fighters Try is the second season, while the vanilla Gundam Build Fighters is the first; you can technically get away with skipping the first season, but I wouldn’t recommend it because of just how GOOD the first season is.  That puts me in a situation where I have to not spoil either season, but also where in order to explain what’s good, I have to spoil things in one, the other, or both.  For anyone who wants to go in blind, that’s a problem.

So I guess there’s only one way to handle it: to spoil as needed in the paragraphs to come.  For those who are already willing to give it a shot, here’s a spoiler-free rundown.  Is Build Fighters Try good?  Yes.  Did I enjoy watching it?  Yes.  Is it better than the first season?  No.  Are there flaws?  Yes.  Is this season enough to sour me to the franchise?  Not even close; I’m waiting with bated breath for the announcement of a third season.

Now then.  Let’s get started.  With more spoilers than you can shake a beam saber at.


The biggest offense Try commits is that it’s the follow-up to vanilla BF.  It was almost a given going in that it would be a step down, and that’s precisely because of how the first season ended.  Without going into grave detail, imagine if the last episode of an American Idol season ended with the top ten contestants forced into a Death Star trench run.  That’s the last episode of BF -- and despite the sheer level of insanity, it was an episode with all the scenes needed to bring out all of the emotions.  Speaking personally, I shed more than my fair share of tears -- and even thinking about what happened leaves me misty-eyed.

From what I’ve read, I’m not the only one who broke down -- which is a testament to just how powerful BF can be.  I’ll explain why near the end, but for now it’s worth noting that this is a series that has nothing to do with the war and drama of typical Gundam shows.  It’s all about people building their Gundam models (gunpla) and pitting them against one another through not-quite-magic-but-might-as-well-be particle dispersal.  It’s simple, it’s straightforward, and it’s more than just serviceable.  In the context, it makes for a solid backbone.

It’s just a shame that Try’s backbone is, by default, weaker than its predecessor.


You can still count on Try for some amazing visuals, but it’s painfully obvious time and time again that they’re not working with the same budget as the first season.  There are some shortcuts like speedlines and stock footage that get used in none-too-subtle ways, and there are times when characters can get off-model; one of the later teams looks so bad I couldn’t tell when they were quality and when they were…well, QUALITY.

I can’t confirm this for sure, but if I had to guess, I’d think that Sunrise split their budget three ways.  Try aired almost concurrently with another Gundam show -- G no Reconguista -- but also alongside a series called Cross Ange (which, from what I heard, is its own special brand of terrible that mashes the rape button with reckless abandon).  Not knowing how the anime industry works, I guess I can’t fault Sunrise for hedging bets; still, it seems like an iffy decision to not trust what I assume is the strongest of the three and make it even stronger.  Again, this is just my guess, but since I’m the type to focus on the story rather than the business surrounding it, let’s go all in with that.


Seven years after the end of vanilla BF, gunpla battles are a hotter trend than ever.  Our heroine, Fumina, wants to get in on the action and take the fight to the biggest stage she can reach -- the problem being that she doesn’t have the support to even make it to the preliminaries.  She’s the only member of her school’s gunpla battle club, and it’s days away from getting shut down.  But there’s still hope; she ropes in her old friend Yuuma and newcomer Sekai (quite literally, in the latter case) to become members of the club.  So begins the plastic-busting adventures of Team Try Fighters.

So yes, the core conceit of Try is that instead of BF’s one-on-one fights, things have shifted to a three-on-three format.  That has a lot of implications and requirements, but the understood change is that this season has to do one thing above all others: it has to put the focus and development on Team Try Fighters.  That’s at the cost of a lot of other things, but it’s a necessary evil to make sure the three main characters have a chance to prove why they’re the three main characters besides “because the plot said so”.  Did it accomplish that?  Well, yeah…mostly. 

Let’s start with the team’s founding member, then.


I’m inclined to say Fumina wins the Best Character Award by default, because she’s freakin’ cool.  It’s true that Sekai takes center stage as the team’s ace, but Fumina is the undisputed leader of Team Try fighters.  She’s the oldest and most seasoned member, to the point where she’s the one making strategies for the boys to follow -- and barring Sekai’s Leeroy Jenkins moments, they follow her orders without complaint.  Thinking back, it’s hard for me to imagine a single instance where she needs to be rescued, or falters, or is implied to be weaker than the other two; she’s got the skills on the battlefield and off of it. 

She’s a character that adheres to the philosophy of the Build Fighters universe, and in more ways than one.  The fighters in this series are craftsmen as much as they are combatants; the thing about BF is that nearly all of its models are based on Gundams that have already long since appeared in the franchise, albeit modified (Team QUALITY uses a bunch of Zakus, for example…and it goes about as well for them as you’d expect).  Meanwhile, Fumina decides to build her own original creation -- the Winning Gundam -- that packs an incredible number of special weapons and can support Sekai and Yuuma’s gunpla by tossing them parts.  And then she upgrades to the Star Winning Gundam, which can fight better on its own and can more or less henshin.

But the best part about Fumina isn’t her fighting or building skills.  It’s the fact that, in true BF fashion, she’s a secret asshole.


There would be no show if not for Fumina’s desire to be number one.  Contextually, I get the idea; gunpla battles are fun, but it’s not as if the only place to do that is in some major tournament.  So she wants to fight against the big dogs and prove her worth to everyone, including the woman who inspired her to become a top-class battler in the first place.  It takes a lot of moxie to even think about going the distance, and even more to be willing to crush down anyone that tries to take the crown.  But does she care?  Well, she hesitates in one episode thanks to extenuating circumstances, but she’s not the type to back down from a challenge. 

Fumina wants to be the star (incidentally, her surname is Hoshino and “hoshi” means star).  In fact, part of her character development is about her embracing her desires, and going after what she wants.  The original Winning Gundam has some tricks and makes for a hell of a support unit, but compared to Sekai and Yuuma’s models she doesn’t have the tools to fight on her own.  She’s a backup dancer for the sake of supporting the team, but she learns firsthand that leaving it to the others hurts the team, and betrays herself -- a stark contrast to the girl who started the club in the first place. 


I’d say that the crux of her character is “awakening to and pursuing desires”.  It’s not just about being the best battler ever; there’s a minor subplot where Fumina starts developing feelings for Sekai, and gets jealous whenever one of the other girls approaches him.  Thankfully it doesn’t reach a point where it’s all about romance and blushing faces -- it plays out more like platonic respect than all-out love -- but there’s an argument to be made that Fumina pushes so hard to win because it means keeping a promise with her childhood friend Yuuma…which by extension means that the two of them can stay close to each other.  I pay as much attention to shipping as I do the average brick, but story threads imply that Fumina’s slowly realizing that there’s a whole world beyond gunpla and becomes better for it.

The biggest obstacle for her character arc is that of the three main characters, she doesn’t get her cathartic rival battle -- or even a dedicated rival to begin with.  Sure, she gets to fight it out with a couple of characters, and by season’s end she has one in Gunpla Academy’s (don’t ask) Shia Kijima, but her first rival battle is “resolved” way too quickly, the second is more or less a prelude, and Shia is only a rival because the show pretty much goes “All right, you two are rivals now.”  It’s baffling, because Try shows that it’s more than capable of playing the long game with its rivals.

Which brings us to team member number two: Yuuma.


Fumina may be the best character by default, but Yuuma gets the most extensive character arc of the bunch.  He starts at a way lower point than anyone else -- he’s callous and stoic (relative to anyone in the BF universe), and would rather make gunpla as art to be locked inside a case than avatars of simulated warfare.  The reason for that is because prior to the start of Try, he had his best model mangled and his spirit broken; it reached a point where he put distance between himself and Fumina, and all but broke their promise of heading to the nationals. 

If Fumina is all about pursuing hopes and dreams, Yuuma is all about what happens when those hopes and dreams get broken -- and what gets left as a result.  You can see it in his trademark Lightning Gundam; he’s not just the team’s sniper because he’s good at it, but because he doesn’t want to get hurt again.  And remember, these fighters are putting parts of themselves on the line when they have gunpla battles, for fear of their models getting wrecked -- so it’s no wonder that Yuuma would keep his pride on the rear lines by design, not just from the perspective of an artist.  Even though he gets roped back into the battle scene, it doesn’t make his pain go away.  There’s something remarkably honest and affecting about that; anyone who’s known failures small or large can probably identify.


Because of that, the crux of Yuuma’s character is “fighting to reclaim lost pride”.  At the outset, Yuuma’s the sort of person that treats Fumina less like a friend and more like a boss -- someone to respect, but someone with an intimidating amount of power.  Conversely, he treats Sekai (idiot hero that he is) like a toddler that can’t be trusted to use the big boy potty.  But as time passes, he opens up and lets them stand on the same level as him -- or rather, he realizes that they’re equal, and he doesn’t have to project his weakness so obsessively.  In other words?  Fumina’s his old friend, and not some unattainable ideal he has to scrabble at from the trenches.  And Sekai’s his partner, not someone he has to insult to feel marginally better.

You can even see his transformation in his fighting style.  Save for the 360-no-scope specialists out there, sniping and close-range combat don’t exactly go hand in hand.  But as time passes and Yuuma develops, he goes from the cautious type to quite possibly the team’s most hot-blooded member -- charging in with a furious scream when all else fails, and taking some of the most desperate actions necessary to win a match.  In a late-game episode, he’s willing to chop off his gunpla’s arm and empty a full clip into an enemy’s face; the Yuuma at the start would have puked a waterfall at the sight of the Yuuma at the end.


You can thank his rivals for that -- because he gets not one, but two of them that span almost the entirety of the season.  On one hand, there’s Minato Sakai, a cocky artistic builder who’s had it out for Yuuma for ages, and worms his way into a top-ranking spot just for the chance to prove his superiority.  On the other hand, there’s the Gunpla Academy’s Adou Saga, AKA the one who broke Yuuma’s spirit in the first place -- and breaks it again at the season’s halfway point.  For a show where nobody can die, Yuuma’s loss is actually pretty tragic.  I mean, what would you do if you had your dream broken, and then years later you came back refreshed and ready for more -- only to have your dream broken again by the same guy?  You would not be all right.

Thanks to a timely assist from gunpla battler Michael Jordan (don’t ask), Yuuma realizes the power and potential he still has -- the power and potential he inadvertently built into his Lightning Gundam.  He’s had his pride all along, even if he’s given it plastic form; once he realizes that he can still go further, he does go further.  He gets his rival battles, and they’re more than just cathartic; they’re a joy to watch on multiple levels.  When he finally gets his runback against Adou, he’s actually thankful to the guy who started him on his long, painful, but ultimately rewarding journey.  His smile makes it all worth it…and a cute moment he has with Fumina beforehand.

And that brings us to Sekai…who is, unfortunately, the weak link of the team and the season.


One of the things that I liked about the first season was that neither Sei nor Reiji, the two leads, were pared down to their obvious archetypes.  Sei was more than just the shy kid with talent, and Reiji was more than just the idiot hero.  But Sekai feels like he was pulled straight from Dragon Ball Z; he’s not very bright, but he’s a good guy who loves to fight.  Only in this series, at least three girls show extreme affection towards him -- and of course, he doesn’t even recognize their advances.  So the relationship that Sei and China had last time gets booted into the stratosphere.

What really bugs me about Sekai is that his entry into the series -- and his position as the team’s ace -- steps away from the philosophy set up beforehand.  Sekai uses the Build Burning Gundam as his weapon of choice, but the problem is that he didn’t build it.  Sei did, and Sekai only got his hands on it by sheer luck.  He’s co-opting someone else’s pride and joy as his own, with a fraction of the appreciation that it demands. 

On top of that, he doesn’t even try to fix the Build Burning until way later, which means that when it comes to upgrading or outfitting the model, he doesn’t -- meaning he’s stepping away from a key factor of the entire series.  And it means that instead of relying on preparation, forethought, and strategy, he just relies on the brute force you’d expect from any number of Shonen Jump productions.


A lot of people have called out Sekai/Try for relying too heavily on ass pulls to resolve most situations, and I can see why.  Fumina wins her fights by turning her models into walking arsenals beforehand.  Yuuma wins his fights through superior skill or throwing everything he has at an opponent.  Sekai wins just by overwhelming the enemy with raw power.  Instead of relying on tactics or capitalizing on his gunpla’s abilities, it just comes down to him throwing around as much energy as possible. 

I don’t think it’s usually as much of an ass pull as others suggest, though; in one instance he goes up against Junya, an old friend who trained under the same martial arts school -- Jigen Haoh style, taught by…well, you’ll see -- but Junya turned his back on the teachings in the hopes of gaining more power.  As a result, Junya faces Sekai with a multitude of new styles and attacks gained -- but Sekai perseveres and shows him the merit of Jigen Haoh by attacking with an updated version of the infamously-moronic Burning Seven.  It fits thematically, because Sekai’s showing his old friend the worth and potential of their school…by summarily beating him with every technique in his arsenal, and ending with a Burning Finger.

But even then, it doesn’t really make things more interesting.  If Sekai can just pull super moves out of a hat, then doesn’t he more or less have an I-Win Button for every situation?


The ironic thing about Sekai is that in spite of being “the hot-blooded one”, he almost comes off as redundant.  Both Yuuma and Fumina have no problems letting their passion run wild, so it’s not as if there’s a massive contrast in characters.  Really, Sekai’s a step down from G Gundam’s Domon Kasshu; whereas Sekai’s just a kid that really gets into the fighting spirit, Domon was a man who acted calm at times, but was really a wellspring of anger and hatred.  Plus, an entire arc of the story was devoted to showing just how stupid (if not dangerous) it could be to fight solely with rage and hot blood. 

He grew as a character, but started from an interesting place to begin with.  And even if he made up new attacks, or had the Burning Finger as his trump card, he learned new moves after extensive training and forethought.  He could adapt and improvise under extreme duress; this is a man who broke out of a mechanical cobra’s grip by willingly dislocating one of his shoulders -- and still won.  Beyond that, Domon’s theatrics made him a hell of a guy to watch.  Sekai may have the passion, but he doesn’t have enough passion to shout a pseudo-haiku at the top of his lungs.

Basically, Try wants to be G Gundam in honor of its twentieth anniversary.  The problem is that it only goes 50% ham when it should have gone a full 2000%.


With all of that said, I have to admit that I’m more willing to forgive Sekai than most.  It takes much too long for it to happen, but he does get his character development -- and it was enough to at least partially redeem his presence in the show for me.  His crux is a reflection of the opening theme’s lyrics: “surpassing limits”.  At the outset, gunpla battles are just a risk-free way for him to fight and improve; he’s not doing damage to his body, but just some dumb plastic model!  Perfect! 

Except the more he plays, the more invested he becomes -- and it’s not long before he realizes that he actually has just been relying on brute force instead of understanding the precious item he’s been entrusted with.  I’d argue that he should have gone even farther, but he learns firsthand that he’s got some glaring weaknesses.  Sekai fighting on solid ground = no problem; Sekai fighting in space = complete disaster.  At least, it’s a problem before he resolves his weaknesses in a couple of episodes.


The builder aspect of Sekai’s character does come in eventually, and it’s a major benefit to everything we understand about him.  The Build Burning is a top of the line machine, and Sekai didn’t even know what a Gundam was at the start of the season; it’s no small wonder, then, that Yuuma shoos him off when it’s time for tune-ups or repairs. 

That justified isolation makes Sekai realize just how much he’s been missing out.  He’s got the battle part down, but he can’t experience the joy of creating something with his own two hands.  He realizes that he’s a stranger in a bold new world -- a poser.  A pretender.  Nothing more than a brute with a spiffy toy.  Once he has that realization, he resolves to do better -- and actually shows off the fruit of his labors by season’s end.  Well, with a little help, but he’s on his way.


There’s still one big wrinkle to Sekai that can’t be ignored.  When it comes to fighting, Sekai has just one mode: full blast.  He’s always hot-blooded, and he’s always gung-ho -- and the Build Burning actually responds to that.  Using a phenomenon called “assimilation”, Sekai draws out/unleashes more power from his gunpla, which means (to use one of anime’s most popular concepts) that he’s always Super Saiyan by default. 

The problem?  Going into assimilation mode means that Sekai’s mind deludes itself into thinking that whatever damage his gunpla feels is damage he feels in real life.  If he gets strangled (and he does), he feels like he’s getting strangled.  If he gets slashed in the back, he’s crippled for the rest of the match.

So theoretically, in spite of gunpla battles being risk-free on paper, Sekai ends up putting his life on the line every time he jumps into a match.  And to be honest?  I kind of wanted him to die in the ring.


Not that I’m advocating the death of minors, of course.


I’m just saying it could have worked.


…Well, anyway, let’s move on.

The one thing this show absolutely had to do was give the audience three good leads to follow -- and for the most part, it succeeded.  (Even if you can’t stand Sekai and his penchant for stealing the spotlight, he’s still just one of the three.)  Unfortunately, that came at a price; there’s so much focus on the main trio that a lot of the other stuff -- characters, events, and the like -- get shortchanged.  The first season had a good balance with its cast, showing off ally battlers, rival battlers (major and minor), officials, love interests, and even family members.  In Try, we’re lucky to get a glimpse of Fumina’s mom.

This carries over directly into the fact that the three-on-three format just barely gets capitalized on.  It’s true that there are good moments throughout (the Crossbone Gundam fight, and some sneaky tactics between Fumina and Yuuma), but the battles tend to break down into one-on-one fights, or the occasional three-on-one rush.  The reason for that is because Try doesn’t have the time to develop another solid team of three -- not even the ultimate rivals of the Gunpla Academy.  So while most of the matches have one ace that gets his or her time to shine, the other two are usually the definition of cannon fodder.  They don’t even try to make them more than goons.

Still, it’s hard to give Try too much guff; if it has one advantage over vanilla BF, it’s that -- even if the spirit of honest, friendly competition lives on -- some of the battlers are, until they’re redeemed, total assholes.  Sometimes, you’ve just gotta have that heel.


There really is no better way to sum up how I feel about this second season: yeah, it’s got some problems, but it’s still a good show at its core.  What it does well, it does really well, and it’s enough to make me forgive some of those shortcomings -- as any story should.  But there’s something more to this show (either season) that I’ve realized, and it’s part of the reason that I personally can get so much out of it.  See, there was a review post on Anime News Network not too long ago that didn’t look too fondly on one of the later episodes; the reviewer du jour interpreted Sekai’s realization of the appeal of gunpla as a naked attempt to shill merchandise.  It’s a fair assessment, I suppose; as a wise man once said, gotta get the cash, gotta get the dough.

For a while now I’ve been wondering whether or not I’m secretly a sucker for merchandise-driven shows.  I can go on and on about Kamen Rider (and some Super Sentai installments, to a lesser extent), and you could argue that I’m reading WAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAY too deeply into BF.  That’s very possible.  Probable even.  But you know what?  You know why I like shows like Kamen Rider and BF?  It’s simple when you get down to it.

These people actually give a shit.


These people actually give a shit about what they’re doing.  Are they playing with (and promoting) toys?  Yes.  But in-universe, in-context, that doesn’t matter.  Men, women, children, and even elders alike choose to give their pride form and follow their passions.  They’re motivated to go as far as they can using whatever means they can -- strength, skill, knowledge, heart, whatever.  They have an end goal that they’re all pushing towards, and just so happen to do so in a way that’s fun for an audience to watch.  That’s really all I could ever ask for.

We live in a world where characters across any number of mediums can’t be arsed to have any emotional investment in what’s going on around them.  Chosen ones get plucked out of obscurity to save the day, but with none of the appreciation that comes from the struggle therein.  Designated heroes harass and slaughter their way to victory because of a minor slight that gets forgotten a third of the way in.  Delusions of grandeur are used to mask the sheer blandness (if not stupidity) of the men and women we’re supposed to be rooting for.  Disaffection, cynicism, and sarcasm are used to deal with situations that have long since started wearing out their welcome.

We live in a world where one story after another tries its best to convince us that giving a shit just isn’t cool anymore.  And stories like BF try to fix that.





All hail the Tryon 3.

Fumina, Yuuma, Sekai, and all the rest are putting their pride on the line to claim more than just victory.  They’re out to seize and secure their joy.  Their youth.  Their hope.  And above all else, their fun.  It’s hardly as noble a cause as stopping some mad tyrant or protecting the earth, but in the context of BF, we don’t need that.  We just need to see people coming together to do battle, and letting their hearts roar out loud.  It may sound childish, and it may not be realistic, but by being so purely focused on that goal -- by speaking to sensibilities on levels shallow and deep -- a show like BF becomes about more than just shilling toys.

The first lines of the opening theme are, according to official translations, “There are no limits.  There are no absolutes.”  The characters in this show strive to live by that belief, using their gunpla and the battles that follow to facilitate that.  But even with the furious howls and fighting plastic that’s a staple of this spinoff franchise, BF isn’t trying to deceive you.  It isn’t trying to spout nonsense.  It’s honestly trying to have fun, whether you read deep into it or just enjoy the pretty colors. 

It’s not begging you to run out and buy all the playsets and toys.  It just wants you to come along for the ride -- and put on a great big smile. 

So one question remains: what’s wrong with that?


Bring on season three, Sunrise.  I’m ready for it.  We all are.

…Also, not to dilute the potency of the last few paragraphs, but my theory is that we’ll see the third season once they figure out how to top the fanservice purveyors of season one’s Rinko and season two’s Mirai.



Credit where credit's due -- anyone who can figure that out has the power to take an intellectual dump on theoretical physics.


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