In the long and storied history of Gundam, which incarnations of this venerable franchise do you think had the greatest impact on the world of anime in terms of critical acclaim, commercial success and broadbased appeal?
Before starting my response in earnest, I want to first explain that I’m not an expert on the Gundam franchise, and I’ve never been an especially big fan of the Gundam franchise. Since this question was posed to me, I’ll answer it. But my answer may differ from one which a devoted Gundam fan may compose.
In terms of influential relevance, the original 1979 Mobile Suit Gundam television series is unarguably the franchises’ most important entry. While giant robots had existed in anime for more the 15 years prior to 1979’s Gundam, the first Gundam anime revolutionized the established thought of the anime industry by introducing the concept that giant robots are merely inanimate pieces of machinery. Prior to Gundam, giant robots embodied principles of good and evil. They were either monsters or defenders of justice and freedom. Gundam introduced the idea that giant robots themselves were neither good nor evil; they were merely tools that humans used to advance their own political agendas. Today, the concept that a giant robot or suit of powered armor is merely an inanimate vehicle – as portrayed in anime like Gasaraki, Votoms, Gigantic Formula, Macross, Patlabor, and countless other shows – seems obvious and natural. Contemporary viewers accept this perspective without a second thought, never consciously realizing that the original Gundam anime is entirely responsible for introducing this concept to the anime genre.
The 1994 Mobile Fighter G-Gundam television series also deserves some mention, although its influence on the anime industry has been in a different form than the influence of “First Gundam.” The 1979 Gundam anime shook writers and animators out of their routine complacency, bringing a new philosophy to the development of anime. G-Gundam has not had a similar seismic effect on anime production. But G-Gundam is, never the less, the catalyst for development within Japan’s anime industry. The G-Gundam television series was the first Gundam anime that was not parody and not part of the long running “UC continuity” storyline. G-Gundam was the first complete re-boot of the Gundam franchise; the first self-contained continuity Gundam anime. G-Gundam established the precedent for later Gundam incarnations Gundam W, Turn A Gundam, Gundam X, Gundam Seed, and Gundam 00. Arguably G-Gundam represents a bigger landmark for the Gundam franchise alone than for the entire anime industry, but I would say that the divestment of the Gundam namesake has contributed to the growth of anime itself.
In terms of critical acclaim I must regrettably limit my observation to English speaking reactions because I don’t know which Gundam series are most highly praised by Japanese fans and critics. Among English speakers, the two titles most highly regarded may be the Char’s Counterattack motion picture and the 0080: War in the Pocket OVA series. The fourth Gundam movie is handsomely crafted and exciting, but not especially accessible for viewers not familiar with the Gundam and Z-Gundam stories. That leaves 0080 as the highly praised Gundam anime that’s also self-contained and accessible for new viewers. The 0080 series may have benefited from the fact that it’s relatively short, forcing its narrative to be cohesive and efficient. But while the 0080 series may be beloved, its impact on the Gundam franchise and anime in general is negligible.
Commercial success and broad appeal are virtually inseparable. There are two different Gundam entries that suit this criteria for the Japanese and American markets. The Mobile Suit Gundam Seed series probably holds the Japanese title for popularity and commercial success. If the criteria is limited to the animation alone, excluding sales of merchandise such as plastic model kits, the Gundam Seed series set DVD sales records in Japan. Unlike previous series that primarily interested only Gundam fans and hardcore otaku, the Gundam Seed series was popular among mainstream, casual Japanese viewers.
No other Gundam anime has rivaled the popularity of the Gundam W series in America. Although not the first Gundam anime to be officially released in America, Gundam W was the first Gundam series to receive a nationwide American television broadcast. Gundam W introduced countless Americans to the concept of Gundam anime, and created a tremendous number of devoted fans. By all accounts, widespread American interest in Gundam anime has declined with each proceeding series to be released in America. While Gundam W may not have made a major impact on the Gundam franchise in Japan, or Japan’s anime industry at large, the Gundam W anime must be credited with significantly expanding the franchise’s international consumer market and fan base.