As I’m sure you all can tell by now, I deeply love the Mobile Suit Gundam franchise. That love extends beyond just the shows, though; I am also an avid collector and builder of Gundam plastic model kits (or gunpla, as it is more commonly known).
Gunpla has an extensive history; it is inextricably linked to the success of the franchise as a whole. Mobile Suit Gundam debuted in 1979, and the first model kits started releasing the very next year. Bandai’s model kits were significantly more popular than the Gundam toys being produced by Clover, the show’s sponsor, although these original kits were far from the quality of kits we have these days! The first line of models featured a maximum of three colors, requiring glue and paint to build and finish. That said, they were very popular, and pretty much every mecha and ship from the original Mobile Suit Gundam was turned into a model.
These kits gave the show a second life. Suddenly, people wanted to see the show that inspired these cool models; Gundam started to gain a whole new viewership. Many of these new viewers were older than the show’s initial target audience, and therefore had a better understanding of and appreciation for the complex, adult themes of the show. This wider audience subsequently caused the Gundam theatrical trilogy to do extremely well, and that–paired with excellent model kit sales–paved the way for Zeta Gundam and the subsequent forty years of tv shows, movies, video games, and so on.
In 1982, Sunrise (the studio that produces Gundam) capitalized on the popularity of gunpla with a manga called Plamo-Kyoshiro, about a young boy who loves to play “Plamo Simulation,” in which players can control and battle plamo (plastic models). Plamo-Kyoshiro is the clear inspiration for what would, decades later, become the Build sub-series of the Gundam franchise–shows like Gundam Build Fighters and Build Divers. Kyoshiro also contributed to an important milestone for gunpla: the Perfect Gundam (a modified version of the RX-78-2 Gundam, piloted by the manga’s protagonist) was made into the first-ever gunpla to feature system injection, whereby different sprues or individual model pieces could be molded in different colors. This level of color separation (which has only gotten better over the years) drastically reduced the need to paint kits!
Bandai kept improving model kits throughout the ’80s, introducing polycaps for better articulation in a kit’s joints, as well as switching over to snap-fit assembly. In the ’90s, they introduced their various ‘grades,’ which is how kits are still delineated to this day. There are four main ‘grades’ of gunpla: High Grade (HG), Real Grade (RG), Master Grade (MG), and Perfect Grade (PG). There are also No Grades (NG), which are kits that don’t fit into one of the other categories (whether that’s because they’re at a weird scale, have a lack of articulation or complexity, or some other reason).
High Grades are the easiest grade. They are built at 1:144 scale (relative to the giant robot they are based on), putting them at roughly five-and-a-half inches tall or so. They are generally show-accurate, but might need a few touch-ups; the color separation isn’t quite as good as the other grades, but it’s still mostly pretty solid. They are also a bit less complex and detailed than other grades, but again–they still look fantastic, and they are a great way to hone your skills before taking on the higher grades!
Real Grades are the same 1:144 scale as HGs, but they are more detailed and complicated to build. I haven’t actually built any real grades myself, so I can’t speak on them too much, but they’re generally sold as “MG detail in HG scale,” and from what I’ve seen, that’s accurate. They’ve got good articulation and that extra level of visual polish that distinguishes them from their cheaper HG cousins.
Master Grades are a bit bigger at 1:100 scale (roughly seven inches tall, depending on the kit) and a heck of a lot more detailed than HGs. I’m just starting to really get into MGs myself (I’ve done mostly HGs to this point, because the High Grade Build Fighters line has a ton of kits that I like) and I have to say, they are a blast! There is a higher level of complexity to the build, which just makes it all the more satisfying to see come together, and the degree of detail is astounding. Plus, while a couple inches doesn’t sound like a lot, the bigger scale really makes a difference!
Finally, there are Perfect Grades. These are big guys, being made at 1:60 scale (about a foot tall). They’re also very complex, extremely detailed, and quite expensive; I personally haven’t built one due to their price tags, which are in the hundreds of dollars. That said, the ones I’ve seen look amazing, and I can’t wait to get my hands on one someday.
Modeling is one of my favorite hobbies. It’s a great way to relax; if I’ve had a bad day or am feeling down, there are few things that comfort me more than sitting down with a new kit, putting on a podcast, and just losing myself in the work for a bit. Plus, at the end of it, you have an awesome display piece!
Modeling is easy to start, too. HG kits are pretty cheap, and all you really need for your first kit are some plastic nippers. Once you’re ready to get a little more involved, there are other tools you can pick up–spudgers, filing boards, liner pens, and more.
The beauty of gunpla is, you can do as much (or as little) as you want with it. Just want to do a straight build of the model and put it on your shelf? Nothing wrong with that! Want to go a little bit further, giving it panel lines and a top-coat? Awesome! What about a full custom paint job? Or why not ‘kit-bash’ parts from multiple models together and create your own unique suit? There are even people who scribe their own lines onto a kit or build whole parts from scratch using pla plate. Gunpla is a lot more than a fun way to enjoy a beloved franchise; gunpla is a form of creative self-expression. Gunpla is freedom.