While Transformers has always been more of my thing, I can’t deny how iconic, sleek, stylish, and in a few cases, weird the designs of Gundam are. (I’m looking at you, Bearguys.)
Yoshiyuki Tomino’s famous franchise, Gundam, found its start as the Sunrise anime Mobile Suit Gundam on 7 April 1979 (1979-1982). The show came to define a generation, other mecha series, and the sci-fi genre as a whole even to this day.
The first run of the original anime was actually canceled due to low ratings in spite of its cultural significance, but all of that changed with Bandai’s line of ‘Gunpla.’
The Gundam name has since branched out into other forms of media such as figurines, film, manga, novels, and video games. In fact, the figurine/model robot (also referred to as Gunpla, a play on Gundam and ‘plastic model’) industry is heavily dominated by the classic white robot and its many variations.
Speaking of different media, it was only natural for those in charge of the franchise to try to reach out to a younger demographic with their products. With plenty of money and time on their hands, a wide array of showrunners and studios have put their own spin on the Gundam formula throughout the years.
The forty-second series in the franchise, the follow-up to Gundam Build Fighters (2013), Gundam Build Divers (2018), is one of the more recent of these shows that incorporates classic Gundam aesthetics along with modern technology with a twist.
Gundam Build Fighters was the first show to focus exclusively on the Gunpla aspect of the franchise rather than big galactic battles and the human cost of war. In a similar vein to the likes of Beyblade and Medabots, Fighters emphasizes building and customizing one’s Gundam model for the sake of friendly competition.
In other words, the characters in this show live in a world parallel to our own where the original anime is acknowledged and said to have risen to fame as it did in real life.
The grounded ideas introduced in Fighters were taken further for isekai-inspired spiritual successor Gundam Build Divers and Divers’ second season Re Rise (2019-ongoing).
This writer is all for Divers’ take on Gundam post-series after series on the serious side. The stories and worldbuilding chosen for Divers and Re Rise are and always have been ideal for merchandise… and the same goes for the new running trend of Gundam waifus.
It should come as no surprise that the Gundam franchise, being mecha-oriented, is very much geared towards boys and men with the only female representation in shows often being love interests, sidekicks, and villains. Though we haven’t quite reached the point where girls and women getting to lead and partaking in the same fun is mainstream for the series, there have been vast improvements in Divers and Re Rise.
What Is Gundam Build Divers?
As mentioned earlier, Divers acts as a spiritual successor to Fighters, reframing its take on Gunpla as an online multiplayer game called ‘Gunpla Battle Nexus Online’ (GBN).
Those who partake in GBN are referred to as ‘Gunpla Divers,’ players of all ages and identities with the ability to transfer themselves and their Gunpla into the game’s virtual reality, isekai style without the life-or-death drama.
So, if you fancy your fun, light-hearted isekais, this series may be worth checking out.
Our hero, middle school student Riku Mikami, encounters a Gunpla Diver during a playthrough and later forms a Gunpla Diver team set on being the best (as is the seinen/shounen way).
To my surprise, more than half of Riku’s team is made up of interesting young women.
Who Are the Ladies?
The first of Riku’s female friends is classmate Momoka Yashiro, a headstrong girl whose round, vaguely soccer-related Gunpla, Momokapool, follows Gundam’s tendency to give their ladies cute partners. Furthermore, Momoka’s in-game persona is catgirl Momo.
Considering Divers’ status as a show meant to appeal to young men, I can’t say catgirls are too out of the ordinary. However, including female characters who exhibit traditional feminine traits or tropes isn’t a bad thing. Far from.
Momoka has her own shtick of liking cute things and sticking to her guns, whether those guns be her hobbies or defending her teammates. She’s a great example of a girl who acts her age while sporting a combination of cutesy and strong.
And to add to that, Momoka isn’t immediately framed as a love interest.
There’s a reason why the ‘Smurfette Principle’ trope exists. When a female character is the female character in a cast, it often comes off as corporate, an easy, obligatory move to have a love interest or supportive sidekick in the mix.
Momoka’s very much her own person.
As for Riku’s other catgirl persona-bearing friend, Nanami Nanase, she’s self-sufficient in her own right. Nanami, known as Nami in-game, is an employee of a popular store called ‘The Gundam Base’ despite her lack of Gunpla knowledge. While I’m personally not a fan of female characters being written as clumsy or naïve in the hopes of making them endearing, Nanami is older than the rest of Riku’s team.
Nanami being an ‘older sister’ type who’s out of touch with modern technology is rather fitting and adds something interesting to the team dynamic. Not every group of teens in anime have parental or sibling figures looking out for them.
Remember when I mentioned our hero meeting a Gunpla Diver? That Diver happens to be a mysterious girl named Sarah.
Sarah immediately gave me Nia from Gurren Lagann vibes upon seeing her design, her angelic features, and unusual name for a Japanese context being viewers’ first hint at her true nature.
In fact, due to plot reasons, Sarah is given a Gunpla armor set of sorts and more or less acts as her own Gundam model.
This physical and thematic contrast between armor and human vulnerability is core to the Gundam franchise; Sarah’s empathy comes through despite the daily hardships of adolescence and in-game violence the team faces, no matter her current form.
The enigmatic oracle or gentle ‘wise woman’ of a group is also a prominent trope used for female characters, but like Nia, Sarah’s got layers. She’s not just a mysterious object for the sake of it.
And last, but not least of Divers’ main ladies is this writer’s favorite Aya Fujisawa.
Aya, known as Ayame in-game, actually starts out as a spy sent by an influential Gunpla player to scope out Riku and friends. With time, Aya’s kunoichi persona gives way, and she grows to care for the group.
I absolutely love kuuderes as I think they make for fantastic character arcs in which the kuuderes in question learn to move past old issues, open up, and trust.
I’m hard-pressed to say Divers has a true antagonist as it’s about competition as well as the ups and downs of a virtual world more than anything.
If anything, Aya is a temporary obstacle.
As short as Aya’s arc is, her cool aesthetic and Gunpla based on a model from the older Mobile Suit Gundam Unicorn series (2010-2017) still made a statement. Like Momoka, she loves cute things but doesn’t let that faze her when she’s in battle mode.
What Is Re Rise?
Unfortunately for viewers attached to Riku and friends, the second season of Divers, Re Rise, focuses on a different team altogether. While this decision didn’t, and still doesn’t, sit well with every Divers fan, Re Rise does bring interesting new concepts to the table.
Re Rise made Gundam history by being the first Gundam series to take place in present-day (2019-ongoing), a decision made by Sunrise’s subsidiary, Sunrise Beyond, so as to celebrate the franchise’s 40th anniversary. The show takes place two years after Divers’ season finale as a result.
Re Rise introduces a new and improved GBN game as well as a more serious tone, its new protagonist, Hiroto Kuga, and a handful of other ‘solo divers’ uncovering a hidden world in the code.
On one hand, Re Rise’s plot has more meat to it than that of Divers from the get-go. On the other hand, its core cast is severely lacking in female characters.
Thankfully, Hiroto’s lone female ally has quite a lot going for her.
Who Is She?
That female ally is May, a solo diver who feels like both a mix of and spiritual successor to Aya and Sarah.
She’s calm, collected, and dislikes nonsense of any kind. She’s not without emotion but has a strict way of doing things post a near-death experience years ago.
Speaking of past hardships, what makes May and Sarah so similar are their ‘unusual’ names and use of Gunpla armor/temporary bodies. The decision to subject these two to bodily harm may very well be grounded in female-centered tropes if not for the fact they retain their identities and emerge from their respective trauma stronger than before.
May’s Gunpla is the WoDom Pod, a model based on the ‘Scarecrow’ suit from the older Turn A Gundam series (1999-2000), a far cry indeed from previous female characters’ robots of choice with its intimidating drone-like appearance.
However, the reliable May is far from a drone. Without spoiling too much, let’s just say Sarah’s legacy allows for more nuanced stories to be told with her ‘successor.’
In the end, the Gundam franchise still has a ways to go.
There’s always room for improvement when it comes to fully realizing female characters in present and future series… or realizing Gundam has a female demographic willing to partake in Gunpla no matter how profitable and historically significant the franchise has been to boys and men alone.