Synopsis: In the future, Mobile Suit Gundam has taken the world by storm, and building small models of them called Gunpla and having them fight each other has become everyone’s favorite past time. Sei Iori is skilled at making Gunpla and dreams of competing in the Gunpla World Tournament but his skills as a fighter leave much to be desired. However when he has an encounter with a mysterious boy named Reiji, he finds that Reiji has an incredible natural talent for Gunpla battles, and together the two of them decide to compete on the world stage.
Mobile Suit Gundam has long stood at the top of the mecha genre, and almost every incarnation of the franchise has enjoyed massive success due to it’s compelling depictions of space-faring war dramas. At the same time though, it’s success has also been partially due to the fact that it’s robot designs are really cool, and it’s sold countless numbers of plastic model kits throughout the decades. Given all that, there’s been a few attempts to cater the franchise more directly towards kids in order to sell more kits, but they’ve generally proved unsuccessful and this show’s predecessor, Gundam AGE stands as the most infamous example, having been a commercial failure the likes of which the franchise had never seen before. So needless to say that when Sunrise announced yet another attempt to market Gundam towards kids as it’s next project, audiences were pretty skeptical, but where others before it had failed, Gundam Build Fighters managed to succeed.
So what exactly is it that makes Build Fighters work? Well first and foremost it’s in the fact that it’s extremely honest about what it is. Whereas Gundam AGE tried to have it’s cake and eat it too by attempting to have both the serious war drama aspects of the other Gundam incarnations, and enough kid-appeal to sell toys, Build Fighters drops any and all pretenses of seriousness by opting to be a more straightforward kid’s show. It knows exactly who it’s for and runs with it, quickly establishing itself as a shonen-style tournament series, equipped with a fun cast of characters and a solid dynamic between the lead characters, Sei and Reiji, that feels extremely reminiscent of Yugi and Yami Yugi from Yu-Gi-Oh as the two use their individual talents and opposing personalities to strengthen each other. Of course that means the series is chock-full of the kind of goofiness you’d expect from that kind of thing, and sometimes gets a little too out there for it’s own good (looking at you Gunpla mafia guy) but it knows where to draw the line and even manages to avoid falling into the trap of trying to tell a “serious” story with it’s absurd premise rather in favor of focusing primarily on the toys it’s trying to sell.
This actually leads into another one of the show’s larger strengths in that it’s genuinely dedicated towards having a good time. Around the beginning of the series, one of the characters asks how anyone can be expected to take a battle involving toys seriously, and it feels like a question that the show is almost asking itself, as the attempts by similar series to do so are usually what turns people off to them. However it responds in earnest by saying that the characters can take it seriously because it’s a fun game to them, and that sense of spirit becomes the show’s core mantra. It goes almost out of it’s way to show how passionate the characters are about what they’re doing and it’s kind of refreshing to see something like this enforcing the importance of having fun without having to resort to the awkward attempts at fantasy that shows of this genre so often rely on. In fact, the show displays a surprisingly negative stance towards taking this stuff too seriously, and it helps that rather than having some evil overlord caricature for it’s villain like a lot of similar kid shows, the bad guy here’s just a greedy jerk who wants to keep making money off of selling toys (way to bite the hand that feeds you guys). This bit of self-awareness isn’t exactly unique, but it does give the series a bit of an edge, and it’s a stance I wouldn’t mind seeing toy shows take more often.
For everything I’ve said here though, the real key factor towards Build Fighters winning formula comes down to the fact that it makes Gunpla battles look pretty darn cool. We’ve all dreamed that the toy robots we’d smash into each other as kids, were could really duke it out someday, and this show brings that childhood fantasy to life in the most over-the-top way possible. Director Kenji Nagasaki and his team of staff (who would later bring us the My Hero Academia anime adaption) really know how to bring out the best in action sequences, and each of the show’s fight scenes are a spectacle to behold as it holds absolutely nothing back in making them as energetic as possible. Adding to the effect is Yuuki Hayashi’s musical score, which carries just as much impact as the fights themselves and many of the show’s tracks really help to boost it’s sense of flair (not to mention the series also has the ever reliable J-rock band, BACK-ON handling it’s opening theme songs and bringing their A-game for both). The overall visual presentation here is so fantastic that I can honestly say I’d totally play Gunpla Battle if it were a real thing, and for something that effectively exists to sell toys, that’s about the highest level of praise you can give it.
RightStuf has recently put out a release of the series courtesy of their partnership with Sunrise, which includes both a Blu-Ray and DVD release. I bought the latter and it’s a fairly standard set that include a few basic extras such as clean opening and ending animation, and the original Japanese commercials. Out of these the most interesting one is an extra called “Battle Selection” which serves as a nice little compilation of the show’s best robot action highlights. It’s also worth nothing that the release does also technically include the dub, but it’s an Animax Asia dub rather than one done in the US and the quality is so poor that I couldn’t really recommend watching it outside of mild curiosity. Still, it’s nice to have at least and the release is a pretty good bargain for the amount of episodes it contains so if you enjoyed the series, I’d recommend picking it up.
So in the end, Gundam Build Fighters succeeds by doing the one thing a lot of other similar shows ironically don’t: trying it’s darndest to make you think that what it’s selling is the coolest thing ever. This sense of passion might not make it totally immune to some of the same goofiness as things like it, but it’s certainly infectious, and it’s hard not to get caught up in it’s high level of energy, and even higher-level presentation, as the robot fights alone are almost enough to sell the show. It might be a blatant toy commercial, but it’s certainly a good one, and for that reason if nothing else, it’s definitely something worth checking out.