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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC



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Big Bots, Big Business

Aug. 24, 2015

Anime fans will recognize characters from the sci-fi series, Mobile Suit Gundam. It's one of the most successful animes to air. For 36 years viewers have been watching the giant space robots do battle. And the most dedicated fans have been splashing out on figurines and creating works of art. They're even taking part in a Gundam Builders' World Cup.

Marie Yanaka joined Aki Shibuya and Sho Beppu in the studio to talk about the world of Gundam.

Beppu: Marie, this is very nostalgic for me. I was a big fan as a child.

Yanaka: Well, Gundam is just as popular now, or perhaps more so if you look at the business side of things. Plastic figurines dominate the hobby market in Japan.

Shibuya: It's doing well abroad too, right?

Yanaka: It's doing very well. I'll tell you more about that later but first a look at how seriously people are taking the franchise here.

The Gundam TV series debuted in 1979. It's the story of a space war fought by giant robots. In the cockpits of the robots were humans. They abandoned Earth and moved to outer space only to get caught up in a galactic war. The concept caught the imagination of viewers and became a phenomenon.

Fifteen years ago, the spinoff: "Mobile Suit Gundam SEED" hit the screens. The characters were younger and more handsome and they reeled in a new generation of female fans.

The franchise cemented its status as a cultural icon this year when one of Tokyo’s top art museums put on a Gundam show. It features original cells from the TV series and a giant Gundam head displayed as a piece of art.

And while Cairo has its Sphinx and Copenhagen has its mermaid, Tokyo’s Odaiba district now boasts a full-size Gundam robot. Each evening, the statue is illuminated and episodes of the show are screened in the open air.

Nearby, a permanent attraction called "Gundam Front Tokyo" offers fans the chance to see a life-size bust of a robot.

Hiroshi Shimada the manager at Gundam Front Tokyo says 51-percent of the customers are from abroad. He says about 45-percent are from other parts of Asia, including China and that around 6-percent are from the US or Europe.

The Gundam Front complex also features what’s called "Gunpla Tokyo", “Pla”, as in plastic. The room showcases nearly 1,000 plastic models.

The first Gunpla model kits went on sale 35 years ago. They were white, and fans would painstakingly paint them in the tiniest detail. The manufacturers say people don’t have time for that these days so the models are much easier to assemble.

Katsumi Kawaguchi from BANDAI says that with other plastic models, people needed to glue the parts together and paint them. But with Gunpla, you only need to click the parts together and put the stickers on. He says that the biggest difference is that even first-timers find it easy to make Gunpla.

All Gunpla models begin life in a factory in Shizuoka prefecture in central Japan. The designers use the latest technology to make sure all the pieces click together perfectly. They use 3-D imaging software for the designs and 3-D printers for the prototypes. They say they have to turn out new models quickly whenever a new character debuts and that the printers are proving invaluable.

Then it’s time to make the molds for mass-production. And though every one of the models is made in Japan, more and more are ending up abroad.

Marketing manager, Yoshinao Takahashi says overseas markets account for 30-percent of Gunpla sales. He says that they're rising mainly in Asia and that sales have roughly doubled in the 5 years since 2010. To cater to the growing international audience, the official website now has information in English, Chinese and Korean, as well as streaming the latest shows.

The company that makes gunpla organizes events abroad. The latest is called "Gundam Docks at Hong Kong II". The highlight of the event is a Gundam statue in Hong Kong's Times Square. People at the event are snapping up the Gundam goods. The company is predicting sales will be twice what they were 2 years ago when they held a similar event.

The Gunpla makers have been winning recognition for their passion and skill. A recent spinoff anime series called "Gundam Build Fighters" puts them, rather than the robots, at the heart of the storylines.

And there's even a World Cup for Gunpla builders. The 5th edition takes place this year. People will compete in qualifying rounds all around the world, hoping to reach the finals in Tokyo this December.

Marie Yanaka traveled to Otaru in Hokkaido Prefecture to meet a young champion in the world of Gundam building.

Mei Hata has won the Japan qualifying round in the “14 and under" category every year so far. She placed second in the finals last year. Hata’s father is a fan from the original Gundam generation. He says the world of Gundam still excites him.

Mei Hata says she first started building Gunpla by watching her father. She said that it looked fun.

Hata became enthralled with Gunpla. When she found a rusty automobile in her neighborhood, she painted her Gundam models to look rusty.

For this year’s World Cup, she's trying to depict one of the best-loved scenes in the Gundam universe.

Her father says that he doesn't have to face her directly. He says that it can be hard for a father to say what he wants to a daughter if he’s facing her, but when they're sitting side-by-side and chatting while doing something, he can ask her things that would otherwise be difficult.

She says that she wants to be better than her father someday.

She also says that she's not obsessed with being the world champion and that she wants to build a Gundam model that inspires people to think about the story that lies beyond it.

The people who grew up with Gundam are now passing on their passion to a new generation, and the future of the franchise looks brighter than ever.

Beppu: So Gunpla seems to have reached the realm of traditional arts and crafts?

Yanaka: Yes. Mei says she's been taking lessons from a man who used to own a model shop in her neighborhood. She calls him "master". Mei's certainly exceptional. But the people who produce Gunpla are making the models more approachable, more flexible and easier to build, to draw new fans in. It's important to make the joints as flexible as possible. Fans want to pose their Gunplas to mimic the characters in the anime. If you compare the versions sold in 2001 and the latest models, they have the same number of parts but their movements are so different.

Shibuya: The strategy reminds me of Star Wars, raking in money with figurines and games.

Beppu: And the storylines are more than just good versus evil. The characters have complex emotions and failings and that's what resonates with the viewers.

Yanaka: Right. And now it's gone beyond the world of "otaku", or people with an obsessive interest. There's talk of making a full-size, movable Gundam in 2019. Katsumi Kawaguchi, the gunpla marketing manager I spoke to, says it might be thrilling to build more than one and let them fight each other.