The Gundam that Wasn't

Syd Mead - Gundam Movie 1983

I've made no secret of my desire to make #AGundamForUS, but longtime reader Lee recently called my attention to a little-known failed Hollywood production that almost brought us a live-action Gundam movie in 1983.
But the most ambitious and obscure of these false starts came relatively early in the franchise's history in 1983, before any proper sequels had been produced: a 1983 Hollywood-produced live-action Gundam film that would bring together the designs of visual futurist Syd Mead and CGI effects from the pioneering team behind The Last Starfighter.
The origin of that project can be traced further back to 1980, an eventful year for model kit manufacturer and Gundam series sponsor Bandai. That year saw 35-year-old Makoto Yamashina, eldest son of Bandai founder Naoto Yamashina, take over as company president. The younger and more aggressive Yamashina sought to operate Bandai in a way patterned more after an American company, going so far as to fire many of his father's senior executives and replace them with younger people closer to his age.
It was also the year Bandai began releasing affordable ¥300 model kits based on the Mobile Suit Gundam series, and soon found they had a hit despite the show's premature end. Nicknamed “Gunpla,” a portmanteau of “Gundam” and “plastic model,” their success kicked off the “Gunpla Boom” that would go on until the middle of the decade. Together with Gundam's newfound popularity via subsequent re-airings, Gundam was able to rise from cancellation and make early strides toward the media and merchandising juggernaut it's become. With the proven success of Gundam at home, Yamashina had his sights set on bringing the franchise to the American market with a feature film. In 1983, Bandai went to Hollywood.
Company representatives brought the property to Lion's Gate Film, an independent film company founded by director Robert Altman (not to be confused with the contemporary Lionsgate Films, founded in 1998). Lion's Gate hired screenwriter Chip Proser to write the screenplay, who agreed with the condition that he could he could make his directorial debut on the film. Readers may be more familiar with projects Proser was involved with in the latter half of the ‘80s; he handled the major page one rewrite of Top Gun (1986) and wrote the initial screenplay for the Martin Short sci-fi comedy Innerspace (1987). At the time, he was largely known as a script doctor specializing in science fiction and military scripts. Proser was flown out to Japan to meet with executives and see the source material (likely the compilation films). After about a week or so in Japan, he returned to the US and got to work putting together pre-production material.
Being a fan of artist Syd Mead, Proser was pleased to find out that he actually lived very close by and approached him to paint renderings of two scenes: one from the opening scene of the film where enemy mobile suits attack a space colony, and one of the climactic battle where the Gundam and its allies attack an enemy base. While Mead is now familiar to Gundam fans as the most prominent mechanical designer for the 1999 anime series Turn A Gundam, his involvement with the Lion's Gate Project marks his first time working on the franchise in any capacity. In addition to his scene renderings, Mead also drafted mobile suit designs: a design of the Zaku II (referred to on the project as a “Zak”) created for the sake of CG modeling, and an unfinished piece depicting the Gundam's head and torso.
Syd Mead Gundam

Perhaps the projects most ambitious distinction was the idea to use CGI for the majority of its effects at a time when it was almost entirely unheard of to do so. What would a big-budget attempt at a CGI-animated mobile suit have looked like in the mid-’80s? The company consulted with this in mind was the only one that had accomplished anything like that: Digital Productions, the effects company then finishing up work on The Last Starfighter (1984), which boasted entirely CGI starfighter battles instead of traditional miniature work.
Syd Mead - Zaks

A Gundam movie written by the co-writer of Top Gun with effects by the team behind The Last Starfighter? Sign 1983 me up!

Sadly, it was not to be. No one's sure exactly who's to blame for the original Gundam movie deal falling through. It was likely a result of Bandai not having locked down all the rights yet. In any case, we can't have nice things.

Then again, perhaps our luck is about to change.

Reminder: You can now get the mind-blowing conclusion to my acclaimed Soul Cycle in digital and paperback for less than the regular price print version. Same goes for the whole awesome series!

The Ophian Rising - Brian Niemeier


  1. Brian,

    Super interesting. I wonder what impact it would've had on the Star trek movies and subsequent scifi movies?
    I bet they'd still have the space opera, pulp charm. And fun to watch.
    O well there's a new generation to try.


  2. It might have lead to mechs being more popular in the west at a far earlier time. Unfortunately, Gundam's popularity in the west came too late to really make a cultural impact. If it had hit around the same as Robotech it might have been able to stake territory.

    Unfortunately, it's too late now.

    Can't say that wouldn't have been an interesting movie, though.

    1. Gonna differ with you slightly. Yes, Bandai missed getting in on the ground floor of the Action Figure & Breakfast Cereal shilling juggernaut that was the 1980s cartoon scene. If you wanted to carve out a place in the zeitgeist of Gens X and Y comparable to Star Wars, He-Man, and G.I. Joe, you needed an early-to-mid 80s blockbuster SF flick or failing that a Saturday morning/after school TV show with a top shelf tie-in toy line. Gundam had the latter.

      Childhood is definitely the best time to hook an audience, but there is a silver medal demographic: college kids. Their identities aren't set in stone yet, they express themselves through media consumption, and unlike preteens, they have their own money.

      Bandai stumbled into a rare second chance to break big with Gens x & Y ca. 2000, and they blew it. They clearly didn't expect Gundam Wing to blow up on Toonami, and when it did they were totally unprepared to follow up on its success. They could've caused a sensation. Instead they wound up with a fad.

      I chalk it up to Bandai's (even then) outdated IP-guarding policies that bordered on paranoia. I remember seeing Gundam X models for the first time at ACen 2000 and asking the Bandai rep about this intriguing new series. He refused to tell me anything about it. Dumb move.

      If I'd been on Bandai's marketing team at the time, I'd have said, "Holy cow! Look at these US ratings for Wing among 14-26 year olds. We've got a smash on our hands and a small window to exploit it. Let's negotiate a deal with Cartoon Network to air Gundam X (Wing's natural successor) in the US and whip up some molds for an extended Gunpla line."

      Instead, Bandai waited over a year and followed Wing with the original MS Gundam, which American viewers found confusing, what with the sudden backward jump from late 90s to late 70s animation. The show got cancelled under the pretext of the 9/11 attacks, and Bandai wrongly concluded that Wing had been a fluke.

      If they'd followed up with X, which was a an alternate history retelling of the One Year War done in Wing's aesthetic, it would have eased viewers into MS Gundam, which could have been presented as a prequel or sorts to X. It also would've given them a year for the 9/11 shock to die down, giving MS Gundam a clean slate to work with.

      Finally, I'm not so sure it's too late. Ever time my young Gen-Z nephews come over, they gravitate to my Gundam models. The IP is intrinsically appealing. It just needs someone to market it right #AGundamForUs.

    2. I do contend that if Seed was actually good, Gundam would have regained its flagging popularity. While the airing of the original was bizarre (a movie airing of the trilogy might have eased them in) and the tonal shift with G was a 180, the audience was still there. But they fumbled it. Gundam had a prime slot in one of the biggest blocks in animation at the time and wasted it with the pure sleeping pill that was Seed.

      There was no coming back after that.

    3. Good point. Gundam Seed was where I checked out. Looks like I wasn't alone.

  3. I finally got around to watching the first of the Gundam compilation movies and can finally understand what all the fuss is about. It really is very good.

    I can also understand and appreciate the reversal of Gundam's opening you did with your X Seed preview, too.

    1. You made a wise viewing decision. They don't call Gundam "The Star Trek of Japan" for nil.

      Good eye, by the way. the first Combat Frame XSeed novel is in many ways a negative image of Mobile Suit Gundam that branches off into its own thing.

    2. Brian,
      when you mean negative image are you referring to something like a photographic negative from film cameras or another usage?

      Still looking forward to the book :)