As anyone reading this blog can surely tell, I’m obsessed with the Gundam franchise. I love just about every series I’ve watched (except for Wing and–controversial as this might be–08th MS Team), but one of my absolute favorites is the series that brought me back into the fandom as an adult: Gundam Build Fighters.
Build Fighters is not a typical Gundam series. It’s actually quite far outside the franchise’s typical milieu. Most Gundam shows are philosophical examinations of the nature of conflict, the effect of war on younger generations, and the importance of environmental conservation. And, you know, how cool it is to watch giant robots fight.
By contrast, Build Fighters is a lighthearted show about a near-future in which gunpla (that is, Gundam plastic model kits) can be temporarily animated to simulate combat at no danger to the kit’s ‘pilot.’ It’s fun and goofy and basically serves as a series-long commercial for the many, many model kits produced for the franchise.
And yet, somehow, this is the show that turned me into a hardcore Gundam fan.
I was familiar with Gundam before jumping into Build Fighters. One of my closest friends has been a massive fan of the franchise since we were kids; I watched his copies of Char’s Counterattack and Stardust Memory, and he introduced me to great games like Federation vs. Zeon and Encounters in Space. In fact, he’s the one who recommended that I give Build Fighters a try… way back when it first started airing. I checked out a few episodes at the time and then got busy and forgot about it.
Then, last year, I was bored and depressed and, for whatever reason, I started thinking about Gundam. I found out that Build Fighters was available for free on YouTube through the GundamInfo channel (which is the official Gundam channel, by the way, and it hosts several series at a time–it’s awesome to be able to watch multiple series for free, no piracy involved), so I decided to give it a shot. I remembered enjoying the few episodes I’d seen years ago; why not try it again?
I fell in love immediately.
I should note that, as wonderful as it is, Build Fighters is not actually a good starting point for Gundam. It’s a show for and about fans of the franchise–it takes place in (more or less) the ‘real’ world, and the characters are all fans of Gundam who like to build and battle with gunpla. There are innumerable little in-jokes and references that you’ll completely miss if you aren’t familiar with the preceding series.
Despite that, though, it won me over wholeheartedly, and I’ve been devouring every piece of Gundam media I can get my hands on since. Why? What made this show so effective?
First off, while it is chock-full of shout-outs and nods to previous shows, it doesn’t make the franchise itself feel totally impenetrable. There’s a major character who doesn’t know anything about Gundam, and he acts as an audience surrogate, giving other characters reason to explain the basics of the franchise so newcomers won’t be lost. I still missed tons of Easter eggs on my first viewing, but I at least got the gist of what Gundam was about.
Secondly, it’s just so fun. The whole show is one big tournament arc; there are stakes, yeah, but they aren’t massive–no one is going to die if the heroes don’t win their next match. That helps set a light, enjoyable tone; the show isn’t about reflecting on the generational divide or whatever, it’s about seeing the cool new gunpla the antagonists are using, learning about gunpla building techniques, and just generally basking in the abundant enthusiasm our protagonists have for Gundam.
Outside of Gundam, I don’t actually watch a ton of anime, so it took me a while to realize what set Build Fighters apart from the other shows in the franchise. It wasn’t until my wife started watching Haikyu!! on Netflix that the core difference struck me. I was surprised to see her watching a show about volleyball, and when I asked her about it, she said, “Yeah, I don’t really care about volleyball, but they care about it so much that it’s fun to watch.” That’s when I realized that Build Fighters was so different because, despite its cinematic mecha fights, it wasn’t a real robot show like the other Gundams. It was a sports show.
There’s just something infectious about the ardor characters have for their sport in shows like that, and Build Fighters is no exception. In Haikyu!!, the characters treat volleyball so seriously it’s almost comical; Build Fighters does the same for robot anime and plastic models. There are special academies dedicated to model building; there’s an undercover gunpla tournament referee; there’s a character who regularly screams that “Gunpla is freedom!” It’s all so charmingly over the top that you can’t help but get swept up in the fervor.
It’s also worth noting that the fight scenes themselves are frequently astounding. Any fan of Gundam knows that the franchise has had some incredible battles in its long history, but I’d argue that Build Fighters features some of the absolute best. The animation quality is excellent, and the fights themselves are tense and engaging. Plus, since this series exists in the ‘real world’ and every model kit is fair game, you can see match-ups that would never happen in a regular Gundam show, like the Wing Gundam facing off against a Qubeley! There are also cool, modified versions of fan-favorite suits; since every mech is actually a model kit, characters customize and kitbash just like model builders often do in real life.
At the end of the day, Build Fighters is just a great show. It’s built around a fun conceit, it’s got charming characters, the tone is perfect to ease new viewers into the universe, and the fights are some of the best I’ve seen. Like I said, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it to someone who’s never watched Gundam before, but honestly? If you’re looking to break into the franchise, there are worse places to start. Just make sure you watch it again after you’ve seen some of the classic series–I guarantee you’ll get a lot more out of it on repeat viewings!