The MS-06 Zaku II: An Enduring Eye-Con

At the sight of this image, without any establishing context, a sound begins to play in your mind. It is the deep, reverberating hum of a mono-eye snapping to life, a sort of low-pitch mwaaaa which no onomatopoeia can truly do justice. There’s no sound quite like the menacing hum of a cyclopean death machine locking its gaze on the audience, jolting the viewer. This is the sound of sinister intent. This is the clarion call for battle amongst the stars. This is the sound of the Zaku II preparing to do what it does best – wage war.

For over thirty-five years the Zaku II has been terrorizing Federation soldiers, Earthnoid sailors, and anime fans on screens across the globe. One of the most recognizable villains in not just Gundam, but all of anime, this mobile suit has entrenched itself in the pop culture consciousness. Like any good soldier, the Zaku II has refused to yield ground in the face of new trends, design ethos, and the fickle tastes of the masses. Unlike many designs from contemporary and subsequent works, the Zaku II continues to be a hugely popular look for villains of the Gundam franchise. This workhorse is often imitated, referenced, or added to, but never truly surpassed, and certainly not traded in for a newer model.

But what makes this look so iconic? What makes the Zaku II stand the test of time, where other designs come to look dated or old fashioned? What accounts for the Zaku II’s evergreen appearance when many of its peers have been cast aside?

zaku_art001
Early Zaku II design by Kunio Okawara.

It could be nostalgia. Nothing is ever truly out of style in our current media landscape. In an age of increased volume and access, many seek to differentiate their tastes from “the crowd.” One of the havens of this identity crisis is the old school badge, which carries with it a certain disdain for modern tastes and an air of timelessness. “The ancients had it right all along,” a self-proclaimed old school fan might say. “They were in tune with the powerful ley lines and could sense the phases of the dancing stars. In their manner I too worship the Old Gods,” they state, just before prostrating themselves at the base of diecast idols and chanting mecha theme songs in deep eldritch tones. The idea that the work of yesteryear is always superior to today’s output is the refrain of many fans looking to stand apart from the masses. The Zaku II could be one such totem – a mark of pride in the way things were, a stalwart bulwark against the ceaseless tide of “lesser” designs and fleeting styles.

It could purely be product placement. Bandai likes to sell toys, and has no qualms with writing entire arcs – or honestly, entire shows – around the premise of pushing plastic models. The survival of the Gundam franchise is owed to the sales of its toys, and it is in the best interest of the company to keep its products in the public eye. The Zaku II is a “grunt” or “soldier” type robot, whose true effect can only be felt in combat units displayed in formation on a shelf or desk. This translates into multiple sales of the same SKU, and that is the sort of phrase that keeps coffers full and cigars triumphantly lit. Ensuring that a decades-old design stays fresh in the minds of consumers is certainly one way to cut down on the development of new mecha, which requires more intensive creative processes and a great deal of risk in cost of development.

desert_zaku-takani
Zeon forces in the desert by Yoshiyuki Takani.

Both of these elements are clearly factors in the Zaku II’s longevity, but neither tells the complete story. The real truth has more to do with its inherent qualities as an artistic work, and more specifically the the design ethos of one man – Kunio Okawara.

Okawara is a true titan in the annals of anime. To say that his work has profoundly altered Japanese animation is just shy of an understatement. Few artists can say that their work has defined the genre they work in. Fewer still can lay claim to works that tower over national monuments, political statues, and modern architecture. 

Okawara was the first mechanical designer in anime. While artists clearly created mechanical objects for anime well before his arrival, he was the first to actually be credited with the title in the production notes of a show. As such, his work is not to be taken lightly. In the modern era it is not particularly in vogue to cite titles, experience, or recognition as sources of credibility. Yet, ethos of sufficient consistency and uniqueness does carry weight. To be recognized so highly by the notoriously conservative Japanese business culture should be enough to make anyone take notice.

One critical expression of Okawara’s skill is his work with physical models. Not satisfied with a simple sketch or print of a potential design, he goes the extra mile and builds physical representations of his work. In his own words,

“I’ve loved creating things ever since I was a kid , so in order to inspect and validate my mechanical designs I would often hand craft models of them. Around the time I worked on Daitarn 3 I had just become a freelancer. I would create models of my designs and take them to various sponsors and toy companies using them as part of my presentations. My hope was that visualizing the designs in real life would give them a better idea on how the eventual toy would look like.

I like to think of a robot’s transformation sequence as a puzzle. Since toys have safety standards, simplicity was required. With as little complexity as possible I often liked to create transformations where the silhouette would undergo the biggest changes.

Some designers often shy away from such things, but for me personally, I am very fond of thinking up transformation and combination sequences. I really enjoyed figure it all out like a puzzle. I found salvation during the golden era of robot anime in the 1970s and 1980s.” [1]

It is precisely this attention to the potential realness of something that gives his work the ring of truth. As a viewer, there’s a sense that Okawara’s designs could actually be a tangible construction, because in some way they already are. These wholly fictitious creations begin to take on a sense of verisimilitude from having once been true, real objects. Machines look like they can stand because at some point they walked this earth, even if only a small portion of it. Not unlike the bones of prehistoric beasts in a grand museum, they evoke a sense of vivacity even as they stand motionless on the page.

zaku_art004
Zaku attack by Syd Mead.

Okawara is responsible for the entirety of the Zaku II’s design, except for its single cyclopean eye. Every other aspect of the suit is down to his talent, both artistic and mechanical. The eye itself is a contribution from none other than Gundam director, Yoshiyuki Tomino.

Tomino’s contribution in the form of the mono-eye is not insignificant. When humans look at a living creature, it is instinctive to look to the eyes as a focal point. The first true measure of someone — in life as well as fiction — is often found in the eyes, a fact which animation has known quite intimately for many years.

The singular eye of the Zaku II communicates a clear message to the viewer.

It is inhuman.
It is the other.
It is the enemy.

This simple flourish stakes out the Zaku II as a villain, something wholly apart from the protagonists. The lone eye gives it a sense of a singular purpose, driven to only fight war and bereft of sympathy or remorse. Unlike the facial features of many of the Federation mobile suits, the Zaku and its kin are monstrous in their appearance — the singular eye does not invoke humanity, compassion, or understanding. It demonizes the mecha and its pilot and turns them into a bestial other.

Even the way in which the eye operates emphasizes this feeling. The eye is essentially incapable of operating along its y-axis, instead only able to move horizontally. This back-and-forth tracking motion mimics a predator searching for prey, like a great cat hunting in the tall grass. It is quite literally a shifty-eyed villain, further distancing itself from the heroic mobile suits the audience is nominally supposed to cheer for.

zaku_art003
Zaku monoeye by Kazutaka Miyatake of Studio Nue.

The Zaku II’s mouthpiece adds to its distinct style. Instead of a standard mouth or facial covering, the Zaku II sports a small protrusion connected to tubing. Here Okawara gives it the appearance of scuba equipment, evoking thoughts of a slow-moving figure swimming through the murky depths of the sea. Given the bulk of traditional diving equipment, this further heightens the feel of the Zaku being a large, sturdy machine, rather than a nimble waif like its Federation counterparts.

Proportion plays a large role in the Zaku II’s imposing image. Bulky shoulder guards, wide legs, and a rounded skirt/mid-section make the Zaku much more intimidating than similar mobile suits in its class. Though technically all mobile suits are robotic and armored in some way, the Zaku II elicits feelings that it is “wearing armor,” unlike the GM or RX-78 which appear to be more straight-lined and skeletal. These effects give it a look similar to medieval European knights. Spikes across the left shoulder add a sinister flair to the Zaku II’s design, marking it as a brutal warrior bereft of nobility.

Okawara dressed the Zaku II with the trappings of wars long past. Unlike their more noble counterparts in the federation, these weapons evoke feelings of dreadful invaders from across time. The Zaku II’s rifle has a top-mounted circular ammo drum, very reminiscent of the Degtyaryov machine gun used by the Soviet Union for the majority of the 20th century. It sports the hefty heat hawk axe, calling to mind various low-born warriors in the form of Japanese yamabushi, Mongol invaders (who favored the curved saber but were also known for using axes), peasant soldiers, or the “barbarians” in most western conceptions. Although samurai did uses axes on occasion, the ancient and modern vision of the samurai warrior — overtly referenced in the form of the RX-78, the Zaku II’s primary opponent — is one of a sword-wielding noble warrior using finesse and skill to overcome brutal or vicious foes. Some variants of the Zaku II also carry one or two Sturm Faust single-shot rockets, which are direct copies of the Wehrmacht’s panzerfaust that saw wide use in World War II.

zmp50d
Degtyaryov machine gun on the left, the Zaku II’s ZMP-50D machine gun

Rounding out these more specific elements are two broader design choices that help the Zaku II make a lasting impression on the viewer — color and asymmetry. The Zaku II, like many great villainous foot troops, stands out because it is monochromatic. It is incredibly easy to remember the color scheme of the Zaku, as it is almost completely green – with the exception of some of its equipment and the stark pink eye on its black visor. Unlike the incredibly busy and specific color schemes of the RX-78, GM, Rick-Dom, or other mobile suits, the Zaku is easy to conjure in the mind’s eye in part because the brain only needs a single hue to do so. This is not unlike the stark white of Stormtroopers from Star Wars or the shining chrome of Battlestar Galactica’s Cylons.

The asymmetry of the Zaku’s structure also helps give it enough texture to be interesting. The unique shoulder guards help break up the mirrored layout of the rest of the suit. The left shoulder pad is rounded with large protruding spikes, while the right is a more rectangular L-shape that extends down much of the arm and torso. These additional features are aesthetically pleasing and illustrative of the Zaku II’s nature as a machine of war, where often times the tools soldiers are given do not have the luxury of redundancy. Many of the Zaku’s contemporaries — which are supposed to be weapons of war — are made all the more toy-like and forgettable by their symmetry, such as the incredibly awkward-looking Guntank and Guncannon.

“It’s been almost 40 years since I entered this industry. I feel that I’ve been able to keep going this long because of the joy I get from seeing things in my imagination take an actual form that can be touched and experienced.” [2]

The enduring popularity of the Zaku II is a testament to its design and the great minds behind its conception. While nostalgia and marketing play some role in its enduring visibility, these factors alone cannot account for its continued visibility. The cyclopean eye, sense of weight, mixture of historical influences, color palette, and asymmetry all provide a fertile soil for the seeds of inspiration and imagination to take root. These qualities did not come from mere happenstance, nor is its success a fluke. The careful precision with which Kunio Okawara combines these disparate influences and ideas is precisely why the Zaku II was — and is — a beloved fictional character in its own right.

Where so many other robots of yesteryear have fallen by the wayside or look hopelessly dated, the Zaku II remains an enduring icon for Gundam, mecha anime, and science fiction as a whole. Okawara’s inspirational work shows that sound design principles last more than just One Year – they are truly timeless. 


References

1. Interview with Kunio Okawara from the Sankei Newspaper
2. Creator’s Sight: Kunio Okawara