Gundam Build Fighters is a guilty pleasure of mine. It’s definitely a kids’ show, but like Dragon Ball, it still manages to get me hyped. Maybe that’s just a symptom of me being a kid in an adult’s body, I dunno. From the characters to the plot to the fights, everything fits together in this oddly satisfying way. Even as a newcomer to Gundam, it still captured my imagination, and watching it parallel to Gundam 00 made me really appreciate the attention to detail the creators had when designing the show. It’s truly a love letter to the Gundam franchise, but what I really love is how it made me buy toys.
Build Fighters has a really simple premise. Something something, science magic lets us battle with toys. That’s literally it. It’s a show that knows what it wants to be, as well as what it needs to be to accomplish that goal. Lighthearted for sure, but earnest. It would be easy for Build Fighters to exist solely as a cash grab, but it’s plain that a lot of love was poured into the project. You’ll find references to Gundam series both old and new sprinkled throughout the series: from Ramba Ral to the infamous Aznable Zaku Kick. Honestly, the show is just plain fun. As a shounen, it hits all the requisite notes: young protagonists, mouthy rivals, epic battles, and the obligatory cute love interest(s). As a marketing tool, however, the show is actually more subtle than you might realize.
Build Fighters is just about as meta a story as you can get. It’s a world where the Gundam anime franchise is just that: an anime franchise. Gunpla Battle is just another way for hobbyists to enjoy their fandom in a more immersive way, and that’s what makes it interesting. By lowering the stakes from world domination to table domination, the show can have a plot that’s both engaging and easy to dive into. It also changes the focus of the Gundam: rather than building new robots as a back-and-forth chess game to win a war, it’s to express oneself on the battlefield to the fullest, in order to gain a satisfying victory. Note that I said satisfactory victory: as personal as each Gunpla is, each battle is even more so. The characters pour out their very souls into each part, weapon, and paint job. Like Pokemon, each battle represents not only the power of the Gunpla, but the heart of the builder, and the bond between the two. Making the stakes so personal lends a LOT of character to these characters, and you grow attached to each of them.
This attachment to the characters is what defines the Gundam franchise, and it’s what makes the sale of Gunpla so powerful. We as the fanbase look at each pilot similar to how film lovers look at celebrities: their personalities and quirks are what make them so real to us. While we’ll never really be able to meet Char Aznable, we can enjoy his tenacity and lion-hearted spirit through Gundam and through building Gunpla. Taking the time to snip, sand, and snap together that MG Zaku is a much larger commitment than simply buying a figure off of a shelf, and that personal commitment to the process is what makes Gunpla so addictive. We might not suffer the loss of family or friends like Amuro Ray, but we can find inspiration in his struggle and connect with him a little more as we put together that RX-78, bit by bit.
Build Fighters takes this idea one step further by showing the characters throughout their building process. We see Sei work on his Build Strike Gundam repeatedly over the series; rebuilding, reshaping, refining. His patience and hard work pay off with explosive results by the end, and we love that. We’re happy with Sei, and we love his success. We’re inspired by it, and we want to emulate it in our own lives, through Gunpla or otherwise. It’s the classic Hero’s Journey, packaged and made palatable in a shiny plastic shell. Starting with nothing, improving slowly, working towards our end goal. The journey is long, hard, and full of battle, but the end is satisfying. In the end, Gunpla – like life – are only defined by the work we put into them. It’s a personal journey of self-expression, one that’s enjoyed by middle-school boys and middle-aged businessmen alike. The possibilities are endless; opportunity is rampant. And in the words of Meijin Kawaguchi, “Gunpla is freedom”.