'Gundam Wing' may be|
the next big thing in toys
February 17, 2000
By Franklin Harris
They're gathering in New York to figure out what the Next Big Thing will be.
Wading though the press releases coming out of the 97th annual American International Toy Fair, you get the impression that everything has a shot at being the next hot toy, 2000's answer to 1999's champ, Pokémon. But that's just the toy manufacturers' hype.
I'm willing to bet that the big item of 2000 will be yet another Japanese import, based on yet another popular Japanese cartoon.
In March, Cartoon Network will add "Gundam Wing" to its popular, action-oriented cartoon show, "Toonami." And in May, the series will hit the home video market, both on VHS tapes and DVD.
"Toonami" is already home to another cartoon that some think will soon eclipse "Pokémon" in popularity, "Dragonball Z," which averages 1.7 million viewers per episode.
"Toonami" also features the anime imports "Sailor Moon" and "Ronin Warriors."
But "Dragonball Z" is old news. It has been around since before "Pokémon" mania began. It's popular, but the Next Big Thing must be something new, at least to American audiences.
"Gundam Wing" is only a small part of a phenomenon that has been around in Japan since 1979. The "Gundam" franchise is Japan's equivalent of "Star Wars," a sprawling space epic that has spawned its own industry of licensed merchandise.
According to the Gundam Project Web site, www.gundamproject.com, the "Gundam" universe presently encompasses eight television series, eight movies and four direct-to-video series. That's not counting the numerous comic books, novels and, of course, toys.
Set at various times in the future, the different "Gundam" series depict a series of civil wars between Earth and its outer-space colonies.
The ultimate weapons in the space wars are the Mobile Suits, giant, humanoid robots with human pilots. And Earth's greatest Mobile Suit is the Gundam.
What sets the first series, "Mobile Suit Gundam," apart from other cartoons is its attention to character and scientific detail. The heroes of Earth are not all good, and the villains in the rebellious colonies are not all evil. In fact, in later series Earth and the colonies switch roles.
Meanwhile, "Gundam" doesn't flaunt the laws of physics. In space, people are weightless. The colonies are cylindrical space stations that must rotate in order to create the illusion of gravity. The Mobile Suits, unlike heroes in American action movies, sometimes run out of ammunition.
American fans have gotten by with fifth-generation bootleg videos for 20 years. The "Gundam" franchise's owner, Bandai, has been slow to bring the series for America. And until recently, the only authorized "Gundam" merchandise in the United States was a three-volume series of novels by "Gundam" co-creator Yoshiyuki Tomino. Published in 1990 and 1991, the novels are long out of print.
But over the past year, Bandai has released three of the "Gundam" films and two of the video series to North American home video. Viz Comics and Mixx Entertainment have published "Gundam" comics. And Toys 'R Us has begun test marketing Gundam model kits online and in its California stores.
Now comes "Gundam Wing," the first "Gundam" series to be broadcast on American television.
Like the other "Gundam" series, "Gundam Wing" features a civil war, giant robots and space combat. But like anime series that have already come to the States, like "Voltron," it also revolves around a cast of young people, each assigned to his or her own robot.
By the time "Gundam Wing" arrives next month, expect the merchandising campaign to be underway, with toys available everywhere by fall. That should help those of you who like to do your Christmas shopping early.
'Mononoke' comes home
Since most of you didn't get a chance to see "Princess Mononoke" when it was in limited theatrical release, here's good news: Disney plans to release the film June 13 on home video and DVD.
A sweeping, mystical tale from Hayao Miyazaki, Japan's most celebrated animator, "Mononoke" features the voices of Gillian Anderson, Minnie Driver and Claire Danes. According to The DVD File, www.dvdfile.com, the DVD will be an anamorphic, widescreen transfer. There is no word as yet as to whether it will feature an alternate, Japanese-language soundtrack with subtitles.