Wednesday, September 25, 2019

REVIEW: Gundam Build Fighters

I’ve never been a huge Gundam fan. Most of the franchise is made up of military dramas, which aren’t my usual cup of tea. I was all about G Gundam when it aired on Toonami, but that’s because it was more like an action battle anime than a mecha drama. So when RightStuf let me pick from almost any Gundam series for review, I had a few options. Relive the wonderful weirdness of G Gundam, check out a more traditional war epic, or try something completely different. I went with the third option.

DISCLAIMER: I received a copy of Gundam Build Fighters courtesy of RightStuf, Inc.
Opinions are my own.

Sei Iori, is a young Gunpla builder who dreams of entering the Gunpla Battle World Tournament, where a revolutionary Gunpla Battle System allows builders to battle their plastic model creations for real. Sei has high Gunpla building abilities, but he doesn’t know how to control them in battle and is continually defeated. When he meets Reiji, a mysterious boy with superb Gunpla control skills, they team up to take on the World Tournament -- and win!

A few years ago, an old friend was comparing Digimon to Gundam, claiming every Digimon series had an analog Gundam. The six-part movie series, Digimon Adventure tri., was similar to Gundam Unicorn’s format and structure. He also said, “Just like Appmon is Build Fighters.” I had never heard of Build Fighters before, but if it was supposed to be the Gundam equivalent of Appmon I assumed it was a more toyetic SD Gundam.

But whenever I looked up images from Build Fighters, it just looked like another Gundam show - but with bright, happy, present-day teenagers? I was curious, but never curious enough to actually watch it. Like I said before, I never got into Gundam. It wasn’t until the second series (hilariously named Try because my friend was totally right about the Digimon connection) that another friend was tweeting about finally getting into the series themself. And that’s when my eyes were opened.

Gundam Build Fighters is an anime series made specifically for me. It features all of my favorite tropes and amplifies them by a hundred. The result is something that is hilariously absurd yet still poignantly beautiful.

Taking a page - or maybe a whole chapter - from the likes of Yu-Gi-Oh!, Build Fighters is a story about the “serious business” behind Gunpla battles. It’s not just a game for kids. There are Gunpla battle clubs at schools, Gunpla battle tournaments at the local and national level, underground Gunpla battle fight clubs, Gunpla battle sabotage, Gunpla battle monk training, a Gunpla Battle Idol, even an international Gunpla battle mafia.

Everything in this show is taken so seriously and it’s very rarely called out as being too serious. Unlike Yu-Gi-Oh!, where a children’s card game is the equivalent of professional football, Gunpla are still treated like toys for kids by a number of characters, but the main characters rarely ask, “That’s a thing?” when presented with a new part of Gunpla battle culture. It’s all a part of their world. It’s ridiculous to us, but it’s normal for them. That’s what makes this show hilariously brilliant.

Because it takes place in the “real world” where the Gundam anime series all exist, many familiar Gunpla models show up. While the main characters all modify and kitbash their own creations, there’s plenty of iconic designs scattered throughout that fans of any and all Gundam series will be able to recognize.

But don’t feel like this might not be your show if you’re not a Gundam fan. As I said, I’ve only ever seen G Gundam and while I did squeal with excitement whenever a Gunpla from that series showed up, I still enjoyed every single episode. Of the two main characters, Sei is a hardcore fan who can recite anime dialogue and trivial fun facts while Reiji isn’t even from our world so he doesn’t know the first thing about Gundam. Both characters work as perfect audience avatars for longtime fans and newcomers watching their first Gundam series.

Build Fighters features some of the most fun I’ve had with a cast of characters in a while. Sei Iori totally subverts every trope about main characters in shows like this. He doesn’t have magical Gunpla battle talent - in fact he has no talent at all. Instead of being absent of only in the first episode, his mother is a constant figure supporting him throughout the series. They even try and pull a “famous dead dad” story on you before pulling the rug out from under you.

The partnership between Sei and Reiji does have some similarities between characters like Yugi and the Pharoah, but Reiji’s bizarre magical mysteries were barely a big deal for one early episode and then isn’t brought up again until the final episodes. It’s like the show is saying, “Yeah, he’s from another mysterious world. Let’s go Gunpla battle and put in a pin in that for twenty episodes.”

Rounding out the cast is China, the love-interest who follows in the footsteps of other characters from shows like this by always being around. There’s also plenty of international characters who embody stereotypes and cliche names of their home countries to the point where it borderline parodies the trope.

Are you a fan of romance anime? Well, you are now! Build Fighters features over half a dozen romantic subplots I honestly thought it was going to end with an “Everyone married each other and had kids” anime epilogue. So many minor examples of creepy perverts and misunderstandings and “We’re not dating!” end with “We’re totally dating” by the end of the series. I’d be shocked to learn of any fanships associated with this show because there are too many canon ones to keep track of.

The series also seems to lack a traditional villain. Virtually every character our heroes cross paths with ends up as one of their healthy, competitive rivals. One character is painted as the ultimate rival with his bombastic Seto Kaiba costume and weird VR headgear, but Sei and Reiji aren’t buying it. It’s just a game and at the end of the day, your enemies can still be your friends. The result here is a large and colorful cast of wonderful characters who stick around long after they’re eliminated from the tournament.

Yes, this is a tournament show. I don’t usually like tournament arcs in shonen battle anime and I shows like Yu-Gi-Oh! can get boring when they’re just nonstop tournaments, but Build Fighters gets around the repetitiveness of an anime that’s only about battles by taking time outside of the arena to develop both the characters and the Gunpla battle culture. I always say these kinds of shows are only as good as the stuff that happens when characters aren’t battling and Build Fighters is at its best when characters are just hanging out or getting into hijinks.

That’s not to say the battles are boring. The animation here is crisp and bright and the Gunpla battles use virtual battlefields, so if you just showed someone footage of the fights they would have no idea it was from a show about middle-schoolers fighting with magically animated plastic toys.

Additionally, the tournament gets around the monotony of endless single-elimination fights by shaking up the matches in the earlier rounds. To make it to the top 16, combatants must earn enough points in large group battles, team battles, a massive battle royale with every single participant, there's even a Wacky Races episode and I may be imagining things but I swear there was a baseball battle at some point. I really wanted them to be dropped on an island with Field Power Bonuses, but you gotta save something for Season 2.

Gundam Build Fighters is a hilarious tale on the serious business tropes of shows like Yu-Gi-Oh! and Medabots, while still taking itself seriously enough to tell a great story with a large cast of fun characters. Every episode is full or references for longtime fans while still being accessible to newcomers.

Gundam Build Fighters is available on DVD and Blu-ray from RightStuf Anime. Both collections contain episodes 1-25 with English and Japanese language tracks and with special features including Clean Openings, Clean Endings, Battle Selection, Japanese Trailers, and Commercials. RightStuf ships all of their products in high-quality packaging to ensure cases, discs, and collector's items arrive in perfect condition.