The Art of Gundam

Mori Art Centre, Tokyo

published in Madblogs, Madman Entertainment, Melbourne, November 2015

As numerous exhibitions explode across Japan this year in commemoration of the 70th Anniversary of the end of WWII, it's no surprise that the Gundam franchise now enjoys its moment in the museum spotlight to celebrate its 35th anniversary. Starting with the first TV series Mobile Suit Gundam in 1979, visionary Yoshiyuki Tomino created a war drama dressed as science fiction. This is the opposite of so much American sci-fi cinema, which since the 50s’ has been the reverse: sci-fi invasion imagined as warfare on American soil. Japan’s mirror reversal of this ‘imagineering’ is rooted in Japan’s disengagement from military aggression—an edict drafted into their still-controversial constitution under American post-war pressure. Hence, anime has long been proliferated with futuristic imaginings of how their non-aggressive Self Defence Force might actually develop. What we casually presume to be sci-fi is for the Japanese an argument for national defence.

The Gundam phenomenon—covering 18 TV series, 7 OVAs and 3 movies to date—exemplifies this conundrum. On the one hand, it is eerily conservative in its promotion of military logistics, warfare technologies and team psychology; on the other hand it has come up with amazingly inventive re-interpretations of those same topics. In its exhaustiveness, The Art of Gundam perfectly clarifies this schism.

Installed at the Mori Art Centre in Tokyo, The Art Of Gundam is an impressive large-scale immersive affair. More than a nerdy bombardment of original artefacts (though there’s an incredible array of original artwork on display) the exhibition channels visitors through a series of rooms, each designed for particular impact and purpose. The first room functions as part-indoctrination/part-assimilation into the world of Gundam. You take a seat in a theatrically designed stage set as if you are in the central command of the White Base ship. Facing a huge 4k screen which simulates the craft’s aft panorama window, we participate in a routine yet dramatic conflict of assigning the RX-78-2 Gundam to battle some Zeon forces and safely guide the ship into neutral territory. The 4k screen is ceiling-to-floor and is designed to fit into the surrounding room’s architectural: all the other walls are festooned with space craft interior design, and lights flash everywhere. The soundtrack is deftly mixed across the space, matching the onscreen battle which is enhanced by an array of strobes and red lights. It’s all a bit corny, but if you’re there for the theme-park ride, it’s a lot of fun. Most importantly, it stays true to the straight-faced seriousness of Gundam, and never ventures into camp or kitschy winks to the audience.

This prepares you for the respect accorded the artists, craftspeople and designers who brought the Gundam world to life. One room features the mechanical designs of Kunio Okawara and others working on the early Sunrise series. Here you can track the genesis and development of these seminal robotic figures, clearly perceiving how they were influenced by samurai armour and courtly feudal attire. It never ceases to amaze me how complex these mecha designs are. The huge audiences who pored over these designs clearly knew their machines inside-out, with the first Gundam — the RX-78-2 — attaining near mythical status. But moving past mere otaku box-ticking, the exhibition’s careful selection and presentation of these framed originals allowed even non-otaku to appreciate their beauty. Another room featured just about every original painting from Gundam’s VHS/LD/DVD releases, film posters, limited edition box sets and manga tie-ins. All pre-computer, these paintings are breathtaking peaks of Japanese brushwork and airbrush technique.

Yet another room required an ability to read Japanese: it featured all the original scripts, synopses, treatments and storyboards from various series and episodes. Of particular interest was the full genesis of the Gundam concept by Tomino, displayed through a set of narrative charts which from the outset outlaid the Gundam social universe, character family and narrative arcs. It was clear that from the very beginning, Tomino was thinking of the big picture. Yet one didn’t need to understand Japanese to witness the scanned original cels and storyboard sheets which, set synchronously side by side on large screens, showed you how planned and detailed the storyboards were in shaping the drama of the final animated scenes.

Adjoining this were swathes of original storyboard sequences, pre-production sketches, and final painted boards. Strangely, the painted background boards were fascinating in their emptiness. They hauntingly captured the perfectly designed world of future life in space, setting the perfect sterile backdrop for the heated human drama that unfolds throughout Gundam’s military melodrama. Of course many of the background boards were of fantastic space-scapes and gleaming spaceships. One memorable water colour features a panorama of a huge crystalline Space Colony hurtling toward New York City at sunset, about to decimate a chunk of the North Eastern seaboard.

And an exhibition like this wouldn’t be complete with a decent amount of space devoted to the massive promotion of toy robot figurines produced by Bandai as part of Tomino’s revolutionary venture in funding his ambitious sci-fi TV series for Sunrise. Apart from displaying every Gundam model made into a model-toy assembly kit, a number of key figures were encased in boxed dioramas, covered by sheets of Fresnel lens plastic. The effect was vertiginous as you peered into the boxes and the distorting lens made the figures seem to jump out in enhanced 3D. A very plastic theatrical effect, but the kind of thing that has been crucial in bring the world of Gundam to life.

Text © Philip Brophy 2015. Images © Sunrise & Yoshiyuki Tomino