Gundam Build Fighters

Type: TV Series
Episode Count: 25
Genre: Science Fiction / Mecha / Tournament / Comedy
Vintage: 2013-2014
Date of Review: May 13, 2014

Sei Iori is an expert at building Gundam plastic models, but when it comes to pitting them against one another in Gunpla Battle…he sucks. Enter the mysterious Reiji, who knows nothing about Gundam or Gunpla, but proves to be a natural ace at the game. Soon, the two friends are off to face their destiny as they race towards the World Championships.

Much like Model Suit Gunpla Builders Beginning G from three years before, Gundam Build Fighters is essentially one giant commercial for Gundam plastic models (Gunpla). I mentioned my intense dislike of obvious product placement in my review of that series, but I can forgive Gundam Build Fighters for the same reasons. Bandai made it clear from the get-go that the show is a big promotion for model kits; brief ads for Gunpla appear before and after each episode, and real-world kits complete with the official packaging are often built and discussed within the episodes by different characters. The entire point of Gunpla Battle is to assemble kits and customize them, and modeling skill is shown to be just as important as combat.

A second and more important reason is that Build Fighters has a surprisingly good story surrounding all of that shameless product placement. The characters are great, the tale is engaging, and the show’s secondary function is a nostalgia trip for longtime fans. Build Fighters may skew towards a younger audience (as did Mobile Suit Gundam AGE), but it is positively loaded with references to past series for us old folk. The episode “Gunpla Eve” in particular has enough cameos to make your head explode.

On the surface, Build Fighters seems like a natural extension of the aforementioned Gunpla Builders. However, the two do not take place in the same universe; Gunpla Builders and its model kits are directly referenced later on in Build Fighters, though. The battle systems depicted in the two shows are also very different. We’re obviously much closer to a Builders-style battle game here in the real world than actually animating our models with magic particles. Regardless, for a venerated science fiction franchise to veer off into tournament territory and have the story actually work instead of being just a boring weekly commercial break is a tall order, indeed.

So what does make Build Fighters succeed, other than the expected fantastic-looking mecha fights? As with most good stories, it’s the characters. Sei’s enthusiasm for Gunpla is infectious, making him an eminently likable character from the start. Contrast that with Reiji’s aloofness, arrogance, and ignorance of modern culture, and you’ve got quite a duo. They don’t always get along, but real world friendships are just like that. Following them on their journey from local battles to world championship matches, as well as exploring the various conspiracies and other subplots that come up along the way, enriches the characters and the overall story.

Beyond our protagonists, Build Fighters has some fantastic secondary characters. There’s a wannabe idol known as Kirara, who has her adoring fanboys design Gunpla for her. (I still think Gunpla Idol Kirara should be its own show, or at least an OVA.) We’ve got the veteran battler Mr. Ral, who bears an uncanny resemblance to a classic Gundam character. Finnish champion Aila Jyrkiäinen balances on the line between antagonist and tragic case. And, of course, there’s every real man’s hero: Ricardo Fellini. Who uses the Wing Gundam Fenice. Painted in the colors of the Italian flag. And he’s a lothario. Who wears a pendant. And tools around on a motorscooter. We haven’t seen an ethnic stereotype this ridiculous since Mobile Fighter G Gundam! On the flipside, there’s only a few unlikeable characters in Build Fighters, but even they are treated with a degree of comedy.

Which brings me to my next point. Another pleasant surprise is that Build Fighters is legitimately funny. The interactions between Reiji and Aila, immortalized on Reddit as “The Meatbun Chronicles,” are often hilarious, as are Fellini’s continued attempts to woo beatiful women…with Gunpla. Sei’s obsession with all things Gundam results in eye rolls from some of his peers, but laughs from the viewers. Finally, some of the more exaggerated expressions in Build Fighters are just priceless, even by comedy anime standards. The show is not a sitcom by any means, but the humor simply makes it more fun to watch.

If I may touch briefly on the visuals, it should come as no surprise that Build Fighters is one of the best-looking Gundam series. Animated in colorful and sharp high definition, the character designs really pop, and the vibrant backgrounds help make the world of Build Fighters feel lived-in. Quite a change from the usual starfields, broken cityscapes, and other grimy locales of more traditional Gundam series, huh? Lest I forget (like anyone would let me!), the Gunpla Battles are absolutely jaw-dropping. Just wait until you see the fight between the [spoiler redacted] and [I told you, spoiler redacted!]! Mobile suits new and old look amazing with a crisp, modern design that breathes new life into mecha previously unseen for decades.

The music in Build Fighters is all over the map…and for once, that’s a good thing. Parts of the score evoke video game music, specifically that of fighting games, which is quite fitting for a show about a tournament. The music is more subdued during dramatic or everyday life scenes. Different characters have their own themes and other leitmotifs; for example, Mediterranean accordion music often accompanies Fellini’s appearance. During Gunpla battles, there’s thumping electronic music that again is reminiscent of action-packed video games. This effectively makes the action all the more intense, even during some of the more ridiculous matches. Gunpla baseball, anyone?

Aside from breaking some new ground in the storytelling department, Gundam Build Fighters has a few other aspects that make it stand out amongst the rest of the franchise. It’s the shortest regular Gundam series, clocking in at only twenty-five episodes. Build Fighters is also the only series where nobody dies! (There’s a few OVAs with shorter running times and no body count, but nothing like an ongoing series.) Finally, Sunrise saw fit to release the series stateside…for free. Every Monday, when it aired in Japan, Sunrise would also post the episode to YouTube, in high definition complete with English subtitles. (They are currently working their way through other languages.) Most Gundam fans would’ve gladly paid for the episodes on a streaming subscription service or a storefront like iTunes or Amazon, but for Sunrise to fork ’em over for nothing? Can’t beat that, and I hope this business model continues in the future.

Due to its focus on Gunpla rather than the usual science fiction drama, as well as the younger target audience, Build Fighters was predictably divisive amongst the Gundam fanbase. However, it was to a much lesser degree than I had feared. Build Fighters has its haters, but they seem to be few and far between; I was shocked! Even most of those who disliked the show didn’t seem to vehemently deride it, either. They just decided that a nontraditional Gundam series, for better or for worse, just wasn’t for them. I can respect that.

There is one strike against Build Fighters: due to the series’ unusually short tenure, many of the plot threads were rushed to completion, often without adequate explanation. That could be construed as a really serious problem, but due to the show’s lighthearted nature and more comedic/toyetic focus, it’s fair to overlook it. (Or just beg Sunrise for a second season.) UPDATE 5/15/2014: At the 53rd Shizuoka Hobby Show, a mere day after this review went live, a Gundam Build Fighters sequel was announced! It could be a new season, it could be some OVAs, but it’s good news either way. Perhaps we’ll get some more answers to the show’s mysteries, after all.

Build Fighters turned out to be the most fun Gundam series I’ve seen thus far, and I’ve seen most of ’em. I give it the highest possible recommendation to fans and newcomers alike. Now just try to resist building a Gundam model kit of your own after watching it.

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