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Why Did Gundam Wing Become So Popular in the West?
To be honest, Gundam Wing is neither terrible nor great. Flawed is the perfect term for that, or call it mediocre when compared to other series. Starting with the characters, they are not entirely bad, only they lack any significant development. Can you believe that? The writers and creators didn’t even bothered giving them side stories until the series scored a blockbuster hit in later years. As for the story, it had a lot of holes and some claimed it’s silly at some point. The pacing is not smooth and actions tend to slow down. By otaku standards, Gundam Wing was never meant to be a classic.
But it won the hearts of its western audiences.
Despite of its many flaws this is one of those series I’m really fond of. In fact for me it ranks as number two with Gundam 00 as number one. And I know a lot of 90s kids like me feels the same way. Childhood nostalgia should be a reason why we are so attached to this piece of poorly made series. Nostalgia taken aside, there is a good reason why Gundam Wing became a cult classic.
What Came First Before Gundam Wing
The west already got mecha animes even before Gundam Wing. Macross came to the US as the edited Robotech in the 1980’s while the Voltron series goes a year earlier. But mostly young kids are exposed to Saturday morning cartoon and superheroes. These light hearted shows are not exactly bad, but viewers are in for a treat as more animes came to the west.
The Dragonball Series, Sailormoon and other wild and woolly Japanese shows offered something new. An alternative to the kid’s cartoons back then. In fact being unique is one of the selling points of Japanese anime. And when it’s Gundam Wing’s turn to make a show in the west, kids are in for a new and different viewing experience.
Gundam Wing is Different
At least during that time its story, aesthetic and themes was never been seen in the west. Yes, anime otakus will dismiss the Wing series as a pale attempt for a UC rebirth. Yet for the western fans Gundam Wing was new and interesting. People might be familiar with the Macross (Robotech), but it is clear that this is no Robotech or Voltron ripoff. From the characters, the mech designs and even the story, Gundam Wing is a class of its own. And the fame of other animes like the DBZ series gave this anime a boost
Again, being exposed to the fantastical elements of most animes and cartoons, viewers are amazed on how real Gundam Wing felt. Yes they already got Macross in the early years, but it focused too much on space battles with oversize aliens. No one is complaining but the battlefields of Gundam Wing were more down to earth.
For one thing it was a human versus human duel; soldiers riding into battle in their powered mechas that have all the limitation of real war vehicles. The human pilots themselves were not superhumans, they are flesh and blood preteens that could get injured or killed. Even the settings look real as the mood and atmosphere reminded one of WW2 Europe. For the western fans realism added a new depth to the show. And for the fans spoiled by Dragonball Z and various Magic Girls series, a realistic action adventure offers something new.
The Patriotic Theme
I heard from an online commentary how the patriotic message resonated well to the western audiences. For a 90s kid educated to love one’s country, the fight for freedom themes rang a bell. If you are a conservative, the characters’ struggle mirrors that of War of Indepence. If you’re a liberal, you will see the series as a fight from an oppressive regime. In the end without knowing it, Gundam Wing touched an important western ideology and in the process help it connects with its viewers.
Okay screw the themes and the realism. We knew what we came here for. Sometimes the viewers don’t care much on the plot if they saw a lot of explosions and gunfights. And the Wing series delivers that. In fact the whole story started with a bang, literally. It opened with a transformable space plane piloted by a mysterious young boy blowing a couple of robots. As you can see it’s all about action, and for me the Wing series still holds the record for the best battle scenes. I mean look at how the robots blew each other.
The fights were fast. The fights were furious. The fights were fights! In fact this might be the reason why later Gundam series failed to match Wing’s success. Simply they lacked the firepower of our beloved mecha anime. It would be years until another series will match Wing’s intense battle scenes, and that will be the Gundam 00.
Classic Mecha Design
The mecha designs will hook you if you never saw a Gundam before. Again Voltrons, Transformers and Macross are what the west knew of robot designs back then. Again I see nothing wrong with them, but wait until you see the mecha designs of the Gundams. They don’t become classic robots for no good reason. The fierce samurai face, the boxy but streamlined amour, the V-fins all in all made them a wonder to look at. And then the Wing series added its own twist like extending dragon arms, wings, missiles and Gatling Guns, beam scythes, everything. Even a hardcore otaku will admit that the Gundam Wing’s mechas are classics.
The Lead Characters
Back then I never really realized how anti-Amuro Heero is. We will discuss more of that later on. But what set the Wing pilots apart from the traditional Gundam cast is their Bishounen designs. Unlike the traditional shounen look of Amuro Ray, the Wing pilots have pretty boy look. And looking good has a boost to the show’s popularity. For the guys the pilot designs look detailed and cool. For the girls, they just love their boy band appeal. And during those years yaoi is already a thing, and the Wing pilots became favourite targets. This might explain why the Gundam Wing has a lot of female fans.
The Characters are Twisted
But character designs are nothing if they are virtual cardboards. You got to make them appealing to the viewers, give them a life of their own. For the Gundm Wing pilots, they have poor character development, yet one should admit that they are interesting. Again western viewers are always exposed to idealized heroes of Saturday morning cartoons and even the anime they saw shows a lot of Mr. Nice Guys. There is nothing nice about the wing pilots however. I mentioned before how anti-Amuro they are.Their pretty boy exterior greatly contrasted their dark interiors.
They are unstable, murderous, suicidal, rebellious and fierce. Just look on how one will go in a rampage and who could forget Heero and Relena’s first meeting. They even tried to kill each other.
Simple and Straightforward Plot
Gundam Wing is not as deep as most anime but it is good enough for the western audiences. Not only that the action makes up for the plot, but the not so complicated story line made it easier for the viewers to catch up. Do note that most of the Wing’s audiences back then are young viewers who only care about past paced action, character designs and giant robots. They are okay with a simple plot if they found it entertaining. In fact I could say that the simple plot goes well with the action.