Why Did Gundam Wing Become so Popular in the West?
To be honest, Gundam Wing is neither terrible nor great. Flawed is the perfect term for that, or you may call it mediocre when compared to other series. Starting with the characters, they are not entirely bad, but they lack any significant development. Can you believe that? The writers and creators didn’t even bother giving them side stories until the series scored a blockbuster hit a few years later. As for the story, it had a lot of holes and some claimed it was silly at some points. The pacing is not smooth and action tend to slow down. By otaku standards, Gundam Wing was never meant to be a classic.
But it won the hearts of the Western audience.
Despite of its many flaws, this is one of those series I’m really fond of. In fact, for me, it ranks as number two with Gundam 00 as number one. And I know a lot of 90s kids like me feels the same way. Childhood nostalgia should be a reason why we are so attached to this poorly made series. Nostalgia put aside, there is a good reason why Gundam Wing became a cult classic.
What Came First Before Gundam Wing
The West already got mecha anime even before Gundam Wing. Macross came to the US as the edited Robotech in the 1980s while the Voltron series aired a year earlier. But young kids were mostly exposed to Saturday morning cartoons and superheroes. These light hearted shows are not exactly bad, but viewers were in for a treat as more anime came to the West.
The Dragonball series, Sailor Moon, and other wild Japanese shows offered something new. An alternative to the kids cartoons back then. In fact, being unique is one of the selling points of Japanese anime. And when it was Gundam Wing’s turn to air in the west, kids were in for a new and different viewing experience.
Gundam Wing is Different
At least during that time, its story, aesthetic, and themes had never been seen in the West. Yes, anime otakus will dismiss the Wing series as a pale attempt for a UC rebirth. Yet for the Western fans, Gundam Wing was new and interesting. People might be familiar with Macross (Robotech), but it is clear that this was no Robotech or Voltron ripoff. From the characters, the mech designs, and even the story, Gundam Wing was a class of its own. And the fame of other anime like the DBZ series gave this anime a boost.
Again, being exposed to the fantastical elements of most anime and cartoons, viewers were amazed at how real Gundam Wing felt. Yes, they already got Macross a few years earlier, but it focused too much on space battles with oversized aliens. No one is complaining but the battlefields of Gundam Wing were more down to earth.
For one thing, it was a human versus human duel. Soldiers rode into battle in their powered mechas with all the limitations of real war vehicles. The human pilots themselves were not superhumans, they were flesh and blood preteens that could get injured or killed. Even the settings look real as the mood and atmosphere reminded one of WW2 Europe. For the Western fans, realism added a new depth to the show. And for the fans spoiled by Dragonball Z and various magical girls series, a realistic action adventure offers something new.
The Patriotic Theme
I heard from an online commentary how the patriotic message resonated well to Western audiences. For a 90s kid educated to love one’s country, the theme of fighting for freedom rang a bell. If you are a conservative, the characters' struggle mirrors that of the War of Indepence. If you’re a liberal, you will see the series as a fight against an oppressive regime. In the end, without knowing it, Gundam Wing touched an important Western ideology and in the process helped it connect with its viewers.
Okay, screw the themes and the realism. We knew what we came here for. Sometimes the viewers don’t care much on the plot if they saw a lot of explosions and gunfights. And the Wing series delivers that. In fact, the whole story started with a bang, literally. It opened with a transformable space plane piloted by a mysterious young boy blowing up a couple of robots. As you can see, it’s all about action, and for me, the Wing series still holds the record for the best battle scenes. I mean look at how the robots blew up each other.
The fights were fast. The fights were furious. The fights were fights! In fact, this might be the reason why later Gundam series failed to match Wing’s success. They simply lacked the firepower of our beloved mecha anime. It would be years until another series could match Wing’s intense battle scenes, and that would be Gundam 00.
Classic Mecha Design
The mecha designs will hook you if you never saw a Gundam before. Again, Voltron, Transformers, and Macross were what the West knew of robot designs back then. I saw nothing wrong with them, but wait until audiences saw the mecha designs of the Gundams. They didn't become classic robots for no good reason. The fierce samurai face, the boxy but streamlined amour, the V-fins. All in all, they were a wonder to look at. And then the Wing series added its own twist like extending dragon arms, wings, missiles, gatling guns, beam scythes, everything. Even a hardcore otaku will admit that the Gundam Wing mechas are classics.
The Lead Characters
Back then I never really realized how anti-Amuro Heero is. We will discuss more of that later on. But what set the Wing pilots apart from the traditional Gundam cast is their bishounen designs. Unlike the traditional shounen look of Amuro Ray, the Wing pilots have pretty boy looks. And looking good has a boost to the show’s popularity. For the guys, the pilot designs look detailed and cool. For the girls, they just love their boy band appeal. And during those years, yaoi was already a thing, and the Wing pilots became favourite targets. This might explain why Gundam Wing has a lot of female fans.
The Characters are Twisted
But character designs are nothing if they are virtual cardboards. You got to make them appealing to the viewers and give them a life of their own. For the Gundm Wing pilots, they have poor character development, yet one should admit that they are interesting. Again, Western viewers are always exposed to idealized heroes of Saturday morning cartoons and even the anime they saw shows a lot of nice guys. There is nothing nice about the Wing pilots however. I mentioned before how anti-Amuro they are. Their pretty boy exterior greatly contrasted their dark interiors.
They are unstable, murderous, suicidal, rebellious, and fierce. Just look at how one would go on a rampage and who could forget Heero and Relena’s first meeting. They even tried to kill each other.
Simple and Straightforward Plot
Gundam Wing is not as deep as most anime but it is good enough for the Western audience. Not only did the action make up for the plot, but the not-so-complicated storyline made it easier for the viewers to catch up. Do note that most of Wing’s audience back then were young viewers who only cared about fast-paced action, character designs, and giant robots. They are okay with a simple plot if they found it entertaining. In fact, I could say that the simple plot goes well with the action.