For the anime-obsessed in the United States, Gundam didn’t start on April 7, 1979 like it did for viewers in Japan — it started on March 6, 2000 with the premiere of Gundam Wing on Toonami.
Gundam up to that point was already one of the most successful anime franchises in history, but had yet to make its mark in the U.S. That would change sometime before the turn of the millennium, as Bandai Entertainment, preparing to present Gundam to American consumers, approached Cartoon Network. After making a presentation in which it spoke of Gundam’s enduring popularity in Japan, Bandai left Cartoon Network with the first eight episodes of Gundam Wing. One person who was particularly excited about getting that first handful of episodes was Jason DeMarco, the current Executive Vice President of Adult Swim and one of the creators of the iconic action-animation programming block Toonami, which was beginning to surge in popularity thanks to Dragon Ball Z. DeMarco, a long time enthusiast of anime and giant robots, had been waiting years for this opportunity.
Throughout the 1990s, DeMarco had been searching for anything Gundam related to no avail. “I knew of it and read all about it, I was hunting around Japanese hobby stores and video stores for Gundam in the ’90s,” DeMarco said, speaking to IGN in his office in Atlanta, where two perfect grade Gundam models he personally built reside on his desk. “Back then you had to go to cons and if you got lucky somebody might have fansubs that they were selling that they weren’t supposed to, but I never was able to get my hands on any of it.” After years of searching, Gundam would end up coming to him, and it did not take him long for him to get hooked.
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“It’s hard not for me not to be interested in a show involving giant robots. Just watching the seven or eight episodes we had, we were like, ‘Oh yes, we got to put this on TV,’” he said. A major aspect of the series — and Gundam as a whole — that appealed to DeMarco was the manner in which the Gundams were presented.
“It was a more realistic approach to using giant robots as weapons of war when compared to the things that we as Americans have been exposed to, which are your Voltrons and all the ’70s fun giant robot stuff.” After finally getting his first taste of the Gundam universe, DeMarco and his team got to work preparing to show us what we had all been missing.
Gundam Wing’s two-minute cinematic trailer, made up of the first 15-20 episodes of the series, was written by DeMarco, tackling the script as if trying to promote a war epic and not an animated series. Edited byJonathan Rej, it expertly builds up tension until it explodes in a barrage of bullets and primal screams. It also features the authoritative and timelessly engaging voice of Optimus Prime himself, Peter Cullen. Altogether, the trailer served as an epic introduction. It featured missiles blowing up spaceships; the iconic moment where Lady Une drops General Septum off a plane and then shoots him while he’s falling; all five Gundams fighting, slashing, shooting and destroying anything in front of them, and that final line uttered by Trowa Barton, pilot of the Heavyarms Gundam: “Those who have laid eyes on a Gundam shall not live to tell about it.”
“We always knew that we wanted to do a big badass trailer for this,” DeMarco said. “We just wanted to make sure people understood that this wasn’t the sort of same cartoon that they had been used to seeing; this was a different beast, this is Gundam, it’s almost a genre unto itself, and luckily there were no grown-ups around to tell us, ‘You can’t do that for a kid show.’” The trailer was so well received that Bandai itself used it to promote the brand.
Mobile Suit Gundam Wing, the sixth official Gundam series, directed by Masashi Ikeda and Shinji Takamatsu (uncredited), written by Katsuyuki Sumizawa, and featuring mechanical designs by Hajime Katoki, Junya Ishigaki, and Kunio Okawara, originally aired in Japan in April 1995. It is the only series in the After Colony timeline and follows five Gundam pilots from different space colonies as they journey to Earth to combat both the Earth Sphere Alliance and the Order of the Zodiac (OZ). Their ultimate goal is to destroy both military organizations, who have been oppressing the colonies with military force for decades.
After months of editing the series to remove any blood and language not allowed on a children’s TV network in the middle of the afternoon — “spending months and thousands and thousands of dollars that we wouldn’t be able to spend now,” DeMarco said — Gundam Wing premiered and was an instant hit. In its first week, it was the highest-rated program on Toonami. It would also air late at night uncut, on Midnight Run, which showed unedited versions of Dragon Ball Z, Tenchi Muyo! and Outlaw Star. DeMarco describes that block as being, “in a way, a kind of test run for Adult Swim.”
On November 10, eight months after Gundam Wing’s premiere on Toonami, Cartoon Network aired the OVA Endless Waltz. It was the second highest rating in the history of Cartoon Network at the time, with only the premiere of the third season of Dragon Ball Z topping it.
Besides working on the anime and making it fit for air, DeMarco and his team also produced the advertisements for the Gundam model kits that would appear on Toonami. “We got to legally, for our jobs, play with the models and put them together,” DeMarco said, “and then shoot dioramas with them fighting each other. It was a fun time all around.”
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Bandai was so pleased with how DeMarco and the team at Toonami handled Gundam Wing, it opened the vaults and allowed them to show other Gundam series in their lineup: Gundam 0080, 0083: Stardust Memories, The 08th MS Team, G Gundam, Gundam SEED, and even the original Mobile Suit Gundam.
Gundam Wing had two broadcast runs, the first from March to November 2000, the second starting in March 2011 and ending in July of that year. Its popularity didn’t come close to something like Dragon Ball Z, but its impact on anime fandom in the West is still being felt now decades later. In a July 2019 video by Crunchyroll documenting the rise of Gunpla, it was noted that the best-selling model kits in the West (to this day) are for Gundams that appear in Gundam Wing (Deathscythe, Heavyarms, Wing Zero); in 2012, nerdcore rapper Richie Branson released The Wing Zero LP, an album dedicated to the series featuring song titles like I Think I’m Heero Yuy and After Colony 195.
Gundam Wing’s successful run on Toonami not only affected anime culture in the West, but also back in Japan. “I’ve been told by a lot of creators that it definitely helped them get their next job or it helped them get money when they needed it; ultimately what more can you ask for? A lot of people who work in TV don’t get that, it doesn’t come full circle like that. All of us at Toonami consider ourselves very lucky and very blessed.”
It’s been a few years since the last official Gundam series and while DeMarco — whose personal favorite mobile suit in Gundam Wing was the Tallgeese, piloted by Colonel Zechs Marquise/Millardo Peacecraft — feels that Americans don’t appreciate giant robots as much as they used to, he still does. When Bandai and Sunrise once again decide to add another chapter in the Gundam saga, DeMarco will be more than happy to add it to the Toonami lineup. “I love Gundam and as long as I have an opportunity to put some badass giant robots on TV, then I’m going to do it,” he says. “Till they tell me I can’t do it anymore.”
March 6 Update: Heavyarms Gundam quote attribution changed to the appropriate character and removed Turn A and Gundam X from the list of Gundam shows aired on Toonami.
Christopher L. Inoa is a freelance entertainment and animation reporter who once spent an entire weekend writing an essay on the history and legacy of Daffy Duck. To see his latest thoughts on anime, cinema, and Liverpool FC, follow him on Twitter.