The legendary Japanese animated science fiction Gundam phenomenon officially hit the West in 1998. ‘Mobile Suit Gundam’, the brainchild of Yoshiyuki Tomino, began life in April 1979 on Japanese TV. At the time there was nothing particularly new about fighting robots in Japanese animation, however in Gundam the robots were not mythical invincible beings but ordinary machines operated by complex human characters – not just ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’. Introducing human and mechanical vulnerability plus the sophistication of moral ambiguity into sci-fi proved to be a hit, and the series has evolved ever since. The legend is still developing and is still as popular as ever. The latest incarnation of the Gundam story is a movie that came out last month called ‘Mobile Suit Z Gundam II – The Lovers’.
I went to the Gundam Art Exhibition ‘Gundam: Generating Futures’ at the Ueno Royal Museum, Tokyo. There was a 10-minute wait to get in and an air of enthusiasm and excitement amongst those waiting. At 1,300 yen it wasn’t cheap, but I was prepared to forget about the money and be dazzled by high tech dreams of the future.
The style of the exhibits was fairly much what I expected. There was Photoshop pop-horror art depicting the terrible wars of the future between humans and aliens. There was a mammoth model of a female fighting machine that took up a whole room. She was on her hands and knees, issuing what looked like a mighty cry, right fist raised to be smashed down on some hapless enemy. There was a replica Gundam spaceship. There was Gundam art that blended sci-fi and traditional Japanese art. There was a small ‘bedroom’ on a spaceship with a screen on the wall projecting the faces of anonymous Japanese boys. But 1,300 yen’s worth? No.
The exhibition was no doubt purposely minimalistic in its layout. However, the relative smallness of the space meant that it came across less as minimalism and more as sparseness and lack of material. Also, the curators had obviously made the decision to make the exhibition as faithful to the story as possible by immersing the viewer in the myth rather than presenting it as a pop artifact. This meant that there was virtually no objective explanation of the exhibits. It was all fantasy presented as fact: great for those who are familiar with the background of Gundam, but for those like me who wanted a peep behind the scenes there was nothing. There was a voice guide available for an extra 500 yen. Perhaps it provided a wealth of background information, perhaps not. I was not prepared to fork out what would have been a total of 1,800 yen to find out.
Not only was the content itself rather thin on the ground and the nitty-gritty on it lacking, but I was disappointed by the technological level of the displays. It seemed as if little had changed since 1979. The atmosphere distinctly lacked the cutting edge feel that I expected. It was more like walking through a second hand electronics shop than the ‘corporate lab’ vibe I’d been looking forward to.
There was a Gundam shop at the end of it all selling Gundam models, postcards, books and various Gundam souvenirs. Gundam models were selling like hotcakes, but sales of the commemorative book seemed sluggish.
If ‘Gundam: Generating Futures’ is an accurate rendition of the future, then may something else beginning with G please help us!
If you’re going to go to Ueno, you’d be better off checking out the rich array of human cultural artifacts from the past that are housed in the area’s many museums.
‘Gundam: Generating Futures’ is on until December 25 at the Ueno Royal Museum in Ueno Park, Mon-Thu 11am-5pm; Fri, Sat & public holidays 11am-8pm; Sun 10am-6pm.
Adults 1,300 yen; high school & university students 1,000 yen; elementary and junior high school students 500 yen. Voice guide (Japanese only) 500 yen.
Gundam Toys from Japan
Buy Gundam books from Amazon.
Ueno Park Tokyo Guide
Tokyo Tower Area Guide
Gundam exhibition website
Official Gundam website
Artist Tenmyouya Hisashi's website