Gundam Build Fighters: When Toys Come to Life

Gundam Build Fighters [Sunrise, 2013], as a glorified toy commercial, stands at the fascinating intersection between art and commercialism. As most involved in the anime fandom know, these foreign cartoons are almost always little more than an advertisement for their source material, and Gundam Build Fighters has the slightly more unique distinction among them by being an ad for model robots rather than an narrative product.

This in mind, it is all the more marvelous that Gundam Build Fighters is simultaneously a triumph of creative narrative entertainment and intelligent advertising—but more than that, it’s a beautiful affirmation of the importance of fun, play, and sheer joy. How incredibly ironic that such a blatantly commercial enterprise should leave us with the final message that to sacrifice the love of something in the pursuit of material success is the worst kind of destruction that can be inflicted on our souls.

Gundam Build Fighters

Perhaps the thing I love most about Gundam Build Fighter is that it requests a single suspension of disbelief from the audience and then proceeds to honor the viewer’s commitment completely, without misusing it. I’ll be the first to admit it: the premise for this anime is absurd, hilariously so. This is literally a show about a worldwide tournament in which adults and kids alike battle with toy robots animated by a mysterious particle. It shouldn’t work as a story, but it’s so superbly executed that each step further into what ought to be silliness comes as a logical progression from what came before—where speeches about the wonders of Gunpla sound as genuine as speeches on human rights and the glorious bombast of the final episode’s epic toy robot war is nothing but a triumph of the human spirit.

And it is that same human spirit, the same child’s need for freedom and for fun, to which Gundam Build Fighters speaks and which the show affirms. We may live in a leisure culture, but we so often know little (or perhaps we have simply forgotten) about the pure joy that playing can offer to us.

Gundam Build Fighters

Nowhere in Gundam Build Fighters is this championing of the playful spirit more evident than Sei and Reiji’s repeated encounters with Team Nemesis’ Embody System. The name of the system itself, most likely referencing the system’s ability give visual form to the normally invisible Plavsky particles, serves even better as a tangible, physical expression of the win-at-all-costs mentality the system imposes on the user. Aila, who uses the system from her very first battle onwards, has been infected by the system’s effects—she literally embodies a lack of passion. She doesn’t care about Gunpla battle; she’s merely doing what she has to do to survive and she’s miserable because of it. She hasn’t been freed by the games. She’s been trapped by them.

So, when Aila encounters Reiji, a personification of freedom—both in personality and in his ability to go where he wants and do what he wants because he likes it—of course she would be attracted to him, as the true free spirit he is. After all, Reiji represents everything she wishes she could be. But when Nemesis uses the Embody system to override her unwillingness to encroach on Reiji’s joy in the battle against Fellini and Reiji’s fury descends upon her in the aftermath, to Aila it is as if freedom itself has scorned her. The pursuit of success while sacrificing all else has driven her one escape from her.

For Reiji, the answer is simple. “You weren’t doing it willingly?” he says. “Then you should quit.” Aila protests with the reality of her situation, but Reiji’s responses are far less about confronting reality then they are about freeing yourself within it. Is it unrealistic or unfair of him to demand she join him in the world of play when she doesn’t have the means to survive on her own? I say no, because I think the implication is that Aila has been dependent on Nemesis for so long that she’s compromised her own freedom to break out of her situation. Don’t misunderstand me here: Aila is not at fault. This is simply the tragedy of her situation. And I think, the the larger context of the show’s world, we can allow ourselves to pass over the questions of realism to confront the issue Gundam Build Fighters is really getting at.

Humans can’t live without love. And love is something given freely.

Gundam Build Fighters

Reiji’s statement at the end of his and Aila’s conversation, “I’m always serious,” echoes a sentiment expressed by Mr. Ral early in the series, when he declares of Gunpla Battle:

“Gundam plastic models… Gunpla. Building them or fighting them, it all depends on you. Unlike the Mobile Suit Gundam story, we’re not in a state of war, and we don’t have to put our lives on the line. It’s just played for pleasure. But… No, for that very reason… People can be enthralled by Gunpla and Gunpla Battle. Because it’s a game, they can take it seriously!”

This is a choice the characters in Gundam Build Fighters make. But you have to be free before you can truly make a decision. Reiji frees Aila by defeating her on equal terms, by treating her like an human opponent rather than as a tool. None of this would work if it weren’t superbly executed (it is) or if Gundam Build Fighters didn’t truly care about its characters (it does, and it expects you to do the same). This show truly loves its characters, and while its commitment to humanizing Sei and Reiji’s challengers doesn’t approach the level of a show like Chihayafuru or Ping Pong, it makes up a lot of ground through simple charm.

Gundam Build Fighters

The Embody System shows up again in Reiji and Sei’s penultimate battle with Yuuki, this time as a perversion of his declared intention to cast aside the Second Meijin’s brutality in favor of a style that can open up the world of Gunpla to others. Once again, with the usurpation of freedom comes the loss of passion and love that inspires Yuuki to reach out to others and share his own joy. The Star Build Strike, a symbol of love for Gunpla and Sei’s liberated creativity, is the medium through which mindless pursuit of success is crushed as the false image of happiness that it is. The playful spirit perseveres in the face of unrestrained desire for success.

There’s not much more I can say about Gundam Build Fighters beyond that. To dissolve into a simple discussion of technical traits and functional characteristics would be a disservice to this show—which presents as compelling a case for the importance of play and passion as I have ever seen. Suffice it to say that this anime is a quality production in all aspects, one so totally and genuinely committed to its ridiculous premise that it commands identical commitment from the audience and rewards it.

Gundam Build Fighters

For me, Gundam Build Fighters has been an immensely engaging and valuable watch. This is a show with a lot of love to give—to Gunpla, to its characters, to fans of the Gundam franchise, to hobbies, and to love itself.

As a student on the cusp of entering the working world, the messages of Gundam Build Fighters resonate even more deeply with me. I don’t want to pass out into the real world and find myself drowning, obsessed with material success at the expense of love and freedom in my life. Even if I am able to preserve some part of my life, be it as trivial and seemingly silly as building model robots, I think that space of freedom is valuable and well worth the sacrifices I may have to make to preserve it. That’s the spirit of freedom and the playful passion Gundam Build Fighters exemplifies and believes in. And that’s something I want for myself, and for others as well.

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