Japan Weekly: Robots Gone Big

Die hard fans of mecha anime culture know full well that the term “Gundam” is an abbreviation of “Freedom Fighter Gunboy,” the title of the original series during its conceptual phase. To the uninitiated, it might seems like a mispronunciation of “Gangnam,” the viral K-Pop song that has enchanted the modern world for an hour longer than the 15 minutes of fame Andy Warhol once envisioned.  The prominence of “Gangnam-style” over “Gundam-style” signifies that the Korean Wave (韓流Hanryū) has reached Tsunami-sized proportions in Japan’s own backyard, making Hokusai’s wave seem like a mere eddy.  A visit to the bank reveals that the cultural currency exchange rate of the yen to won is 9 members of the long-legged Girl’s Generation to every 48 members of their AKB counterparts.

Perhaps Japan’s government recalled its robot hero to Diver City Tokyo Plaza after a year-long sabbatical at Shizuoka to fend off the incoming enemies of its pop culture.  Arriving in full life-size glory, model number RG 1/1 RX-78-2 Gundam Ver. GFT is a colossus standing tall at 32 m by 11.5 m (105ft by 37ft), spray painted to perfection by the giant hand of God.

To visit the behemoth statue, alight at either Tokyo Teleport or Daiba Station (台場).  Surely Dragonball’s Goku prefers the former, and while he may arrive instantaneously with the touch of his forehead, humans can expect to travel at least 25 minutes from Shinagawa station.  Transportation fee to and from your abode is all one needs to pay to see the towering Mobile Suit warrior, though there is a ¥1000 premium option to get full access to the entire exhibition including Dome-G, the IMAX 360-esque movie theatre, along with 1/1 –scale bust of Mobile Suit Gundam Seed Destiny ZGMF-X20A and Core Fighter, interactive picture studio, and cell art museum.

We only recommend the paid tour to hard core enthusiasts, as casual fans will benefit most from the free entry into Gunpla, the world’s largest collection of Gundam plastic models covering over 90% of all models in existence dating back to 1980.  The plastic figurines are organized loosely by date of production, and there is a dramatic transition from the primitive monotone figures released during the shows nascence to the exquisitely detailed models requiring many coats of paint.  There is a sense that the curators wanted to democratize the experience and save the best portions of the tour for free, a benevolent gesture to the fans for the 30th year anniversary and a noble attempt to sow the seeds for the next generation of Gundam loyalists. Located inside a modern mall and adjacent to a sprawling park, Gundam Front is a terrifically affordable way to spend a lazy afternoon with the children in tow or on a romantic geek date at night as the robot’s outdoor cinematic performances run hourly until 10pm.

Your reporter caught the last evening show, and under a picturesque starry night painted by Van Gogh-san himself, longed for the day when Gundams will roam the earth.  Japanese mecha anime is subdivided into two broad classifications: Super Robots, ala Mazinger Z, are characterized by their pseudo-invincibility, puissance on the battlefield, and ability to power up further by combining with other units to form a robot goliath.  Gundam, in contrast, belong to the realm of Real Robot, circumscribed by their vulnerability, utilitarianism, and realism.  For example, Gundam are apt to run out of ammunition, take critical damage and malfunction during the heat of battle, whereas their Super Robot brethren are rarely ever subject to such precarious situations.

In many ways, the fragility of Gundam is reflected in modern day Japan, one year removed from a devastating triple earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear plant disaster.  The country is currently embroiled in bitter land dispute with Asian neighbors China and Korea, struggling against economic deflation, and held hostage by a stubbornly strong yen.  In 2010, its economy was overtaken by China and slipped into the #3 spot.

Optimistic pundits believe the panacea to Japan’s economic and geopolitical malaise is no doubt its soft power, dubbed “Cool Japan,” as the country’s cultural currency has risen pari passu with the yen.  Gundam Front Tokyo is testament to Japan’s innate ability to produce remarkable creations with unparalleled attention to detail.  The giant replica actually moves its head during the hourly shows, giving hope to futurist otakus that one day Japan will once again embrace nuclear energy after the Fukushima debacle and actually power up the entire Gundam to realize the anime’s vision.  Just as a little school girl can, for a brief moment, imagine herself to be a princess at Tokyo Disneyland, mech enthusiasts can fantasize about piloting a life size Mobile Suit. For ¥2500 you can actually go inside the life-size ZGMF-X20A and vicariously defend Earth against the ZAFT hordes before the employees in their cute uniforms forcibly remove you from the cockpit.  And despite China’s attempt to recreate the splendor, inevitably the giant knock off fails to capture the imagination of Gundam Front’s masterpiece, not simply because of the terrible paint job, but because the rise of China is akin to the arrival of a Super Robot, predictable in its invincibility. Overtaken by the Chinese juggernaut with perpetual 8% GDP growth, Japan is truly a Real Robot, endearing in its weakness and frail beauty.

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