Translator's Note: The following "Project Gundam" feature appeared in Vol.6 of Futabasha's Great Mechanics magazine, published in October 2002. This ongoing series looked at the mechanical design process of early Gundam works, with this installment focusing on the main mobile suit of Gundam ZZ.
The account here seems slightly jumbled when compared to earlier descriptions of the ZZ Gundam's design process, but it includes sone useful context about the business and merchandising situation, as well as extensive quotes from several of the people involved.
"Anime janai! Hontō no koto sa" (1)
The broadcast of Mobile Suit Gundam ZZ began on March 11, 1986, taking over from the previous Mobile Suit Z Gundam and accompanied by an opening theme that overturned the image of the preceding Gundam series. (2)
From our present point of view, of all the iterations of the Gundam series, Mobile Suit Gundam ZZ is the one about which evaluations are most divided. It's a work which tends to have a strong image as a failure, but looking at the way the overall Gundam series has changed and evolved with the times, it could also be called an exemplar of a certain type. So what kind of effect did Mobile Suit Gundam ZZ have on the subsequent Gundam series?
Composition & Text: Makoto Ishii
The start of Gundam ZZ was first reported in various anime magazines and modeling periodicals as the story of Mobile Suit Z Gundam was approaching its climax. Reports of a transforming and combining mobile suit designed by Mr. Mamoru Nagano, the character design baton being passed from Mr. Yoshikazu Yasuhiko to Mr. Hiroyuki Kitazume, and "the aim is a light Gundam" came as a shock to veteran fans of Mobile Suit Gundam (henceforth, First Gundam). At the same time, it also foreshadowed that the dawn of a new era was imminent for the Gundam series.
Thus, the broadcast of Mobile Suit Gundam ZZ began with a mixture of anxiety and anticipation. Many of the viewers who watched the work as a continuation of Mobile Suit Z Gundam couldn't hide their confusion at the impact of the opening theme and the style of the first episode. This "new Gundam" had betrayed their expectations.
How did Mobile Suit Gundam ZZ end up becoming a work that was so bewildering to viewers? This was heavily influenced by the style of the long-awaited sequel Mobile Suit Z Gundam.
Eccentric characters, a complex background of internal conflict within the Federation Forces, setting in which one-off transforming mobile suits appeared one after another, drama whose narrative presentation provided little catharsis, and an atmosphere which gave the impression of a dark story. In short, Mobile Suit Z Gundam was somewhat difficult to understand, and some longtime fans who hoped for the return of First Gundam's atmosphere called it "a departure from Gundam."
On the other hand, the new viewers who had responded to Mobile Suit Z Gundam's underlying theme of "acknowledging reality" were steadily developing into a fandom later known as "Generation Z." In other words, a generational change was taking place in the fandom. Now, with the start of Mobile Suit Gundam ZZ, Gundam was entering a new stage.
Looking at it from the production side, it may have been inevitable that Mobile Suit Gundam ZZ was launched as a successor to Mobile Suit Z Gundam. Even before the production of Mobile Suit Z Gundam began, Director Tomino was saying "If we restart Gundam, it will be a long series that runs for about two years."
It was around October 1985 that Sunrise and Bandai began discussing the idea of producing Mobile Suit Gundam ZZ as a sequel to Mobile Suit Z Gundam. Considering that work on the next program normally starts about six months before the broadcast begins, this timing wasn't at all premature.
At the time, the broadcast of Mobile Suit Z Gundam had passed the halfway point and was about to enter its third cours. However, there was a problem. After the start of the program, the briefly strong sales of related merchandise had begun trending downward. Mr. Katsumi Kawaguchi, then in his second year working on product development with the Bandai Hobby Products Department, recalls that time.
"Nowadays, Mobile Suit Z Gundam is highly regarded as a work, and the merchandise is also popular. But during the broadcast, we started seeing a merchandising decline around autumn. Nonetheless, it had been decided that Z Gundam would run for four cours, and to Bandai the Gundam brand was too valuable to abandon. So we told the Sunrise side, 'We want you to do another sequel and continue the Gundam title.' At that point we began discussing what we should do after Z Gundam was over. From then on, there was also talk within the company that 'the story of Z Gundam is too difficult' and 'the story is too dark.' Based on those opinions, we talked with Sunrise about how we should proceed in the next year after Z Gundam."
One reason why Mobile Suit Gundam became a hit was that it was a work that could withstand adult appreciation. To be sure, there were places where the difficulty of the story left children behind. But at the same time, children responded with sensitivity to the creation of a high-quality drama, and even if they didn't understand the story, the fact is that they also became devoted to Mobile Suit Gundam. As for Mobile Suit Z Gundam, it retained the same aura of "an anime that can withstand adult appreciation." But the situation didn't unfold as it had back then.
"Thanks to the success of the movies, Gundam had already transformed into a character that even children recognized. In that respect, our expectations may have been too optimistic. As a result, with Z Gundam we began to see a decline in a brand that had previously boasted steadfast popularity, and there was confusion within the company, as people said 'It wasn't supposed to be like this.' Thus there was talk that, to some extent, the upcoming new Gundam also had to consider children as part of the target demographic. So we said to Gundam's producer, Mr. (Kenji) Uchida, 'How about a light Gundam that will be easier for kids to understand?'" (Mr. Kawaguchi)
As a result, a path was opened to the birth of a Gundam which could be called a return to the starting point.
The "transformation" gimmick that was characteristic of Z Gundam's mobile suits had already been taken as far as it could go in that work. The idea that the only way to add more dynamism was a "combining and transforming" gimmick arose spontaneously as the overall project, including programming and merchandising, progressed.
Even before the production of another new Gundam was formally decided, Bandai had started working towards the creation of a transforming and combining Gundam. Bandai's Boys' Toys Department (now Toy Department 1) asked Shindosha designer Mr. Mika Akitaka, who was working on Gundam setting creation at the time, to come up with ideas for a new Gundam. However, this was still quite vague, and even the combining concept hadn't yet been decided. This is how Mr. Akitaka recalls the time when he received the request.
"It wasn't a commission where they specified, 'We want this kind of Gundam, so please base it on that design.' It was something like 'It looks like there's going to be a new Gundam, do you have any interesting ideas? If the plan is interesting, we'll adopt it.' Since I'd also been involved in mobile suit setting and designs for Z Gundam, when I was wondering how to surpass the transformation idea that had been exhausted in Z Gundam, it naturally led to the idea of combining and transforming."
When it came to designing the ZZ Gundam, as with the Zeta Gundam, there were many rounds of competitions with several designers. Looking at the rough designs that were drawn back then, there were many that pursued the transforming Gundam idea. But ultimately, it was the combining and transforming plan proposed by Mr. Akitaka that saw the light of day.
"I was in middle school during the broadcast of Mobile Suit Gundam, and what really impressed me at the time was the G-Armor. So personally, I was loudly pushing the idea that the new Gundam should combine and transform, and the image I had in mind was a G-Armor that combined and separated to become a Gundam. I think that, at the time, other designers were also planning their own unique concepts as well. Then, after we exchanged design plans a few times, they eventually decided to go with a combining and transforming Gundam."
With Bandai spearheading the process, the keywords of "light Gundam" as the style and "a Gundam that combines and transforms" were presented, and this was proposed to the Sunrise side as a concept for the next series. Mr. Koichi Inoue, who was then involved in the development of each project at the Sunrise planning office, recalls the situation at the time.
"The order from our sponsor Bandai was that 'Since Z Gundam was dark, we want the next Gundam to have a lighter style.' Director Tomino would be creating the story and drama, so we left the content of the work up to him. As for what the Sunrise planning office was doing in the meantime, it became our job to decide the direction of things like the setting for the so-called mobile suits. Though Director Tomino gave us orders regarding the image of the mobile suits as characters, like 'it should feel powerful,' he didn't give us any detailed instructions about the overall mobile suit systems."
Thus, at the Sunrise planning office, discussions were taking place about the basic principles of the main mecha and the mobile suits that would appear in the story, asking "What kinds of systems should be incorporated in the new Gundam?"
"In Z Gundam, this work went in the direction of eliminating the mobile suit concepts from Mobile Suit Gundam. That included the Core Fighter, and systems that let the mobile suits separate and exchange parts. Now that we'd exhausted the gimmicks of transformation and giving them big guns, the revival of the Core Fighter became the basis for the creation of a new Gundam. At exactly that point, a plan for 'a G-Armor that can turn into a Gundam' was submitted. The direction of the project also followed the flow of 'After you do transformation, combination is next, right?'"
"Meanwhile, since the development of Z Gundam was so serious, it inevitably became a high-target work. So there was also the idea that we had to consider a lower age group as well. In creating works, Sunrise's methodology was 'the drama is high, the products are low.' Our approach was to make them so that the dramatic content could be enjoyed even by older viewers, while the products were a hook for children who had to stretch a little to watch it. But with Z Gundam, both the drama and the products ended up being high-target, so it became a challenge to bring that back. As a result, we decided to go with a gimmick-laden combining and transforming Gundam."
The challenge of lowering the target demographic, which was a shared understanding between Bandai and Sunrise, and the combining and transforming Gundam which had been proposed in response to this. Thus, the foundation had been laid for the birth of the ZZ Gundam.
At the stage when the combining and transforming concept had been decided, a "new Gundam" design competition was held under Sunrise's leadership. This competition was a distinct step from the previous ordering of idea plans.
As 1985 was coming to an end, Sunrise began formally ordering design plans from various designers. The title of the new series, Mobile Suit Gundam ZZ, was also decided around this time. Mr. Mika Akitaka, Mr. Mamoru Nagano, Mr. Kazumi Fujita, Mr. Hideo Okamoto, Mr. Makoto Kobayashi, and Mr. Yutaka Izubuchi all participated in this design competition. As they designed the external appearance of the ZZ Gundam, Sunrise provided this concept to the designers:
∗ It should separate into top and bottom parts and contain a Core Fighter
∗ It can transform from flight form to mobile suit without separating or recombining
∗ It should separate into two different flight forms
At this point, the transformation concept had been decided, and the job of the designers participating in the competition was to figure out what kind of design it should have. This transformation concept was based on the one created by Mr. Akitaka at Bandai's request, and then submitted to Sunrise. After that, the gimmick had been refined through a repeated process of trial and error.
Meanwhile, it had been decided that Mr. Fujita, who designed the Zeta Gundam and other main mecha in Mobile Suit Z Gundam, would be stepping down. The plan was that the main mecha design for Mobile Suit Gundam ZZ would be done by Mr. Nagano. Thus, Mr. Nagano's design roughs were published when the decision to produce the program was announced. The published design was the one that Mr. Nagano had submitted for the design competition.
However, in the end, it was decided that a Gundam designed by Mr. Makoto Kobayashi would be the basis for the final draft. Mr. Inoue explains why they decided on Mr. Kobayashi's design.
"The determining factor in the design decision was the giant mega particle cannon in the forehead. That really had an impact. Mr. Kobayashi's unique illustrations also had a strong sense of presence. At the time he was creating examples of MSVs and other plastic models, and was active in the modeling magazines, but he could do design jobs as well. We also wanted to find new talent, so we asked him to draw some mobile suit designs."
"The design he produced then became the basis for the ZZ Gundam, and I remember how powerful the impact of the mobile suit form was. The fact that its strength was like that of the first Gundam, but more massive, became a major factor in the decision. In contrast to the Zeta Gundam, whose design emphasized speed, the overall power of its design made it easy to distinguish the mobile suits. That was also a big part of it."
After this, the work of cleaning up the design for use in animation production began. As mentioned above, it had been decided that Mr. Fujita was stepping down, and then Mr. Nagano also departed as mecha designer for various reasons. Ultimately Mr. Akitaka, who had been drawing mobile suit setting alongside Mr. Fujita on Z Gundam, was asked to clean up the ZZ Gundam, and it began to approach the final draft. So what was the specific nature of Mr. Akitaka's work?
"At this stage, Mr. Kobayashi had already turned his ZZ Gundam design into a three-dimensional model that even included the transformation mechanisms, and also precisely fulfilled Sunrise's order. But he hadn't designed a Core Fighter, and with the technology of the time, it wasn't possible to make a product that reproduced the complex three-dimensional curved surfaces and the transformation using tiny hinges that were incorporated in Mr. Kobayashi's model. Thus, I arranged it so that it could be manufactured, while also inserting a Core Fighter."
"The order at the time was that they wanted it to transform perfectly even at 1/144 scale. It had been frustrating for Bandai that, because the Zeta Gundam's transformation mechanisms were so complex, they couldn't create a product that transformed perfectly in 1/144 scale. So with the ZZ Gundam, they decided to revise the design to make a complete transformation possible even at 1/144 scale."
"I drew detailed designs over and over again, adding to the design and adjusting the gimmicks so that they meshed at the parts level. It felt like I was fine-tuning the design for production as I polished it to completion. In the end, however, they never released a plastic model that transformed perfectly at 1/144 scale. Still, the High Complete Model that was released at the time could transform properly even at 1/144 size."
"Meanwhile, the reason why the overall form looks so rectilinear is that the curved surfaces of Mr. Kobayashi's design would have been difficult to reproduce in a product with the technology of the time."
Normally, the design decisions for an animation work largely reflect the director's wishes. The Gundam series was certainly no exception, but when it came to the ZZ Gundam, the views of the sponsor Bandai were also extremely important. Meanwhile, what kinds of instructions did Director Tomino give regarding the design of the ZZ Gundam? According to Mr. Inoue, who served as an intermediary between Bandai, Mr. Akitaka, and Director Tomino,
"He was certainly concerned about the face. As well as the characters, the protagonist's mobile suit also has to look good onscreen when its face is shown in close-up. So with the ZZ Gundam, he had an especially large number of orders regarding the design of the face."
"He seemed to like the impact of Mr. Kobayashi's design, and he was quite particular about the shape of the head, whose balance had changed along with the transformation mechanisms. As for the mobile suit concept, while he said he'd try to make good use of what he was given, he was very concerned about the dramatization."
Thus the design of the ZZ Gundam reached completion.
The ZZ Gundam's design was burdened with a variety of demands and aspirations. To broaden the audience, to rebuild the merchandising which had begun to decline, to return to the starting point, to create a new image for Gundam... Looking back on the design now, we might wonder whether the idea of a Gundam that could withstand these excessive pressures was embodied in the ZZ's oversized equipment and powerful form. But in the end, it couldn't create a merchandising revival, and a variety of measures were taken to prop up the program as it entered its second half.
A representative example was the question of how to merchandise Mobile Suit Gundam ZZ products and sell them in large quantities without raising costs. In the second half of the program, the molds of mass-produced mobile suits that had appeared in the past were recycled to create new variations. Among these releases were the Regelgu, an improved Gelgoog, and the Gaz-L and Gaz-R which reused the Galbaldy Beta's molds.
Bandai also issued many orders compared to Mobile Suit Z Gundam, such as situations featuring lots of mass-produced mobile suits. But Mobile Suit Gundam ZZ was ultimately unable to stop the downward trend in both audience ratings and merchandising, and thus the program came to an end.
From this viewpoint, Mobile Suit Gundam ZZ may indeed have been a failure. Looking back, Mr. Kawaguchi of Bandai says, "Because the planning started while Z Gundam was in the middle of its broadcast run, the lack of preparation time meant that we couldn't really dig into expanding the target audience." So, as part of the Gundam series, was Mobile Suit Gundam ZZ just a fruitless exercise?
By way of a conclusion, we could say that although it was an unusual work for the Gundam series, it also had a great influence on the later series.
The design of the Zeta Gundam, which eliminated many of the elements of the first Gundam, made its identity as a Gundam ambiguous. By once again including the common symbols of a V-shaped antenna and beam sabers on the back, the ZZ Gundam's design determined the subsequent standard Gundam form. Moreover, this was the work that first established the basic format of designing by adding a concept to the Gundam base. And the birth in this work of the "Gundam Team," made up of the ZZ Gundam, Zeta Gundam, Gundam Mk-II, and Hyaku-Shiki, laid the foundation for the element of competition among multiple Gundams that would be fundamental to the later Gundam series.
Gundam ZZ is a work that was ultimately evaluated as a failure. But we shouldn't forget that the knowhow and reflections that resulted from it were applied to the later productions Char's Counterattack and Gundam 0083, leading to the further flourishing of the "Gundam" genre.
"Gundam" can be understood as a genre whose image was gradually acquired through the accumulation of many generations, based on the impact of First Gundam. In that sense, from a present-day perspective the work called Gundam ZZ and its mecha represent a fumbling effort, a transitional work on the way to the completion of that image. And for that reason, we can also say it made a great contribution to creating the "weightiness" of the Gundam genre.
(1) In English, "It's not anime, it's the real thing."
(2) The broadcast actually started on March 1.
ZZ Gundam early plans
Presented here are early idea plans for a "new Gundam" ordered by Bandai from various designers. At the time, detailed specifications had yet to be decided, and these were drawn with the image of a Gundam surpassing the Zeta Gundam and its concept of transformation. As a result, in addition to the transforming and combining concept, other Gundams were drawn with more elaborate transformation mechanisms or specialized option parts. To some extent, we can see here the free imaginations of the designers.
☆ Captions are listed below from left to right ☆
▵ A design plan drawn by Mr. Mika Akitaka. A smaller Core Gundam combines with G-Armor parts to form the completed Gundam. Not only is this an interesting idea, but it's notable that the form of the legs and beam rifle is already close to the final draft.
▵ A Gundam specialized for transformation, drawn by Mr. Kazumi Fujita. It transforms into a form resembling the mobile armor mode of the mobile suit Bawoo that appeared in ZZ. The large verniers in the legs, and the overall impression of sharpness, seem like an extension of the Zeta Gundam's evolution.
▵ A design plan by Mr. Hideo Okamoto. As in Mr. Akitaka's plan, the base Gundam combines with a G-Armor. The leftover G-Armor parts are attached in a form like the Vifam's "sling pannier" to support the Gundam's movement.
ZZ Gundam design competition
ZZ Gundam designs submitted to a design competition conducted by Sunrise after the transforming and combining Gundam concept was decided. The basic transformation process was already completed, and the question now was what kind of design to apply to it. We can see that, because of this transforming and combining concept, the designers were trying to combine a sense of overall massiveness with the sharp image of the Zeta Gundam. The design by Mr. Makoto Kobayashi on the next page was also submitted at this time.
☆ Captions are listed below from left to right ☆
▵ A second plan for the ZZ Gundam by Mr. Mika Akitaka. While it's descended from the previous plan, its sturdy physique and the cannons on the shoulders have a strong impact.
▵ Mr. Kazumi Fujita's refined version of the ZZ Gundam design drawn by Mr. Mamoru Nagano. The image of the proportions is greatly altered.
▵ A draft by an unknown artist submitted at the same time. While retaining the design image of the Zeta Gundam, it also implements transformation and combination. The shape of the shield resembles the final draft.
ZZ Gundam final design
The final survivor of the design competition in which so many designers had participated was the design plan drawn by Mr. Makoto Kobayashi. The details of the design were changed due to issues with product development, but even compared to the final draft, we can see that its impactful form was retained. By the way, Mr. Kunio Okawara, who designed the first Gundam, did not participate in the ZZ Gundam design competition. This is strong evidence that the goal was the creation of a new Gundam by new talents.
☆ Captions are listed below from left to right ☆
▵ Mr. Makoto Kobayashi's design plan was the determining factor in the design decision. Its sturdy form, and the sense that it retained the image of the first Gundam, gave it a stronger impact than the other design plans.
▵ A head design close-up by Mr. Makoto Kobayashi. As well as its form, the idea of a huge mega particle cannon installed in its head connects it to the final draft.
▵ The final draft of the ZZ Gundam, based on Mr. Makoto Kobayashi's design, and cleaned up by Mr. Mika Akitaka with product development in mind. The quadratic curves of Mr. Kobayashi's design were hard to reproduce in three dimensions with the technology of the time, and so it gives the impression that it's generally made up of straight lines.
Mobile Suit Gundam is copyright © Sotsu • Sunrise. Everything else on this site, and all original text and pictures, are copyright Mark Simmons.