Mainichi Daily News: WaiWai - Gundam robot craze still a powerful force in modern-world galaxy

Little boys across Japan -- like children all over the world -- love their toy robots, especially if they came from the Mobile Suit Gundam series. One difference, judging by Yomiuri Weekly (2/26) is that Japan's little boys are actually fully grown men in their 30s.

Gundam, the name given to a series of giant robots made out to be realistic war machines, has been a part of the Japanese hobby landscape for over a quarter of a century, but now is also a powerful player in the country's business world, especially through ganpura, the plastic models of robots that appear in the series.

Mobile Suit Gundam first appeared in April 1979, when it was shown in an anime TV series that spanned 43 episodes screened across almost a year.

Ganpura popped up in July 1980 -- after the TV series had finished -- and was soon attracting huge lines of elementary and junior high school pupils looking to buy the models. By 1981, 25 million ganpura sets had been sold.

Now, 26 years since the first ganpura sales, periodical re-runs have kept Mobile Suit Gundam as a powerful force not only in the galaxy, but also in the consumer goods sector, with ganpura alone boasting of more than 1,000 different types of products, the weekly says.

With ganpura prices ranging from 3,000 to 30,000 yen, simple calculation means a single sale of each gunpura product alone and you're looking at 370 million yen. A new factory making only ganpura is set to open in February.

Yoshihiro Karino, marketing manager at Bandai Co., which makes the Mobile Suit Gundam models, has few doubts about why ganpura is so popular.

"We listen to what people making the models have to say," Karino tells Yomiuri Weekly. "(Our success) is the result of continuous, detailed improvements made on a daily basis."

Karino continues: "Over 26 years, we've taken into account ideas made by people who actually make ganpura and put them into practice to create a healthy cycle."

Despite the Gundam adoration across Japan, few fans can boast of having actually seen it when the show first aired in 1979 as ratings were hardly worth talking about. The Gundam phenomenon really only exploded with the ganpura, the weekly says.

Now, though, Gundam is influencing society in many ways. Late last year, Gundam was the subject of an art exhibition held in Tokyo's Mori Museum of Art. And the Gundam touch is being felt in even more ways.

Takayuki Furuta, creator of the humanoid robot morph3 has gathered together under his wing at Chiba University's Future Robotics Technology Center a group of researchers interested in robotics, a vast majority of who joined in the study because they envisage making their own, fully operable Gundam.

"There are lots of guys here for who Gundam is synonymous with robots," Masaharu Sakigawara, head of the center, tells the Yomiuri Weekly. "They imagine crafting something like Gundam and carry on their research into such things as artificial intelligence or walking functions."