The Mobile Suit Machinations of Kazuhisa Kondo, A Translated Interview

The enormity of the Gundam franchise has allowed more than a few creators to carve out their own niche amongst the slick corporate projects, putting their own spin on an otherwise monolithic formula of earthnoid-vs-spacenoid warfare. In the heady days of the late 1980s—when Gundam OVAs were a novelty, the hottest thing was a serialized photo novel1 in the pages of Model Graphix, and Bandai’s plastic model kits were still rudimentary—creators played with what Gundam meant and how it should look, bucking the established style guides long before the alternative continuities hit airwaves in the ‘90s.

Thanks in large part to the Mobile Suit Variation2 series first released in 1982, Gundam models were an inescapable part of hobby magazines for that decade (things haven’t really changed since). The pages of B-Club and Model Graphix were filled with custom versions of familiar mobile suits, but these custom paint jobs just paved the way for original comics, stories, and photo novels to further expand the world of Mobile Suit Gundam. Model Graphix had Masaya Takahashi and Hajime Katoki’s Gundam Sentinel and B-Club had Kazuhisa Kondo and Makoto Kobayashi.

Gundam comics that played with the concept of what Gundam was had been around at least as long as M.S.V., with Plamo Kyoshiro, the first story to experiment with the idea of kids battling it out with custom gunpla, appearing in the pages of Comic BomBom in 1982. Perhaps not coincidentally, M.S.V. would be unveiled in the pages of that same magazine later the same year.

A few years later General Products partnered with Bandai to release a tankoubon-sized comic anthology called Cyber Comics that featured plenty of original stories and riffs based on the Gundam series. The most famous (if only for reportedly inspiring a certain TV show directed by one Yasuhiro Imagawa), was Motoo Koyama’s Hidden Shadow of G — a retelling of the Universal Century with ninjas. Around the same, the aforementioned Kondo and Kobayashi were regularly publishing short comics in B-Club, wherein they had no qualms about creating stories with familiar mobile suits placed in situations that bore little resemblance to the original animated versions. Even Zimmerit favorite Kow Yokoyama got into it with a short color comic titled Before G that took place in U.C. 0075, four years before the original show.

While most of his comics were strictly illustrated, Operation Buran was a mix of traditional illustration work and model kit photography, featuring a number of the 1/220 scale kits based on his designs.

Thirty-plus years on, this era of Gundam side-stories and comics is fascinating because much of it feels so different than what Gundam has become. Even Katoki’s Gundam Sentinel, which rocketed him to mecha stardom and had a resounding impact on how the franchise would look for the next few decades, was a lowly photo novel in a hobby magazine. Similarly, the first Gundam OVA, War in the Pocket, redesigned seemingly every aspect of the One Year War, effectively updating the series from its late ’70s TV roots. It seems a little incredible now that side-story projects could have such a huge impact on the franchise as a whole, and it doesn’t feel like hyperbole to say that aesthetic modern Gundam was born in the pages of Gundam Sentinel and the videotapes of Gundam 0080: War in the Pocket.

Through his comics The Revival of Zeon and work on War in the Pocket (where he’s credited with “Visual Setting Assistance”), Kondo helped pioneer a more militaristic look for the One Year War that relied on real-world accouterments and heavy-handed World War II analogies. While it seems clear that the intention of Gundam’s original creators to draw comparisons between the One Year War and World War II didn’t extend far beyond a line about “Hitler’s tail” in the original series, the aesthetics of the One Year War took a distinctive turn near the end of the 1980s. Either as an intentional marketing move by Bandai/Sunrise to appeal to the entrenched surface-level fascination with fascist aesthetics in otaku and modeling spheres or simply as the result of more modelers getting involved in the production of official Gundam merchandise, the design sensibilities of the One Year War quickly leaned towards real-world mid-century military hardware and uniforms, and particularly in the case of Zeon, Nazi Germany.

Three decades on, this can get uncomfortable real quick — just ask anyone who’s been at a fan gathering when someone decides to unfurl a Gundam 0083-styled Zeon flag. But it’s worth mentioning that the late ‘80s saw first- and second-generation otaku, who had grown up watching Gundam, begin to land positions on anime productions or get picked up professionally to draw manga. The aesthetics of Nazi Germany ran deep in ‘80s otaku circles, from Luftwaffe and Wehrmacht model kits in Hobby Japan to anime, including everything from Urusei Yatsura 2: Beautiful Dreamer to Cream Lemon. There is, perhaps, an argument to be made about the otaku fascination with fascist aesthetics being a purely surface-level obsession (though I have no interest in making it), but the broader point here is that it was only a matter of time before it made it to Gundam, too. While that design direction started to creep in with the grittier designs in M.S.V., it was Gundam 0080 that properly codified it.

I bring up this admittedly well-worn point because the interview that follows provides one of the only examples I’ve seen of an official interview, included in an official Gundam product no less, explicitly mentioning this uncomfortable design choice and, at the very least, hinting at the implications therein of rooting for Zeon.

The translated interview below was included in the manual for Advanced Operation3, one of the PC-98 Gundam strategy games previously covered on this site years ago. In it, Kondo explains his rationale and reasoning for how he presents mobile suits in his stories4 and the real-world logic he uses to approach giant robots.

Given that the primary attraction of and Gundam strategy game is the mobile suits, it should come as no surprise that most of this interview is focused on the mobile suits Kondo chose to include in his work. Of particular note is how much the interview focuses on his original suit designs, like the Goblin and The O-II, which were unique to Kondo-based Gundam projects.

Interview With Kazuhisa Kondo

Advanced Operation
PC-98 Game Manual
Translated by Maud Duke

Today we will be conducting an interview with illustrator and mangaka Kazuhisa Kondo about his version of the world of Mobile Suits.

Nice to meet you. So, since a new Gundam simulation strategy game is in the works, I’d really like to hear your thoughts on Gundam’s setting.

Thank you. Personally, regarding mobile suits, I try to portray them not as something extraordinary, but as armaments. I was given a lot of creative freedom with Revival of Zeon, so maybe I can share my knowledge on that subject.

When you say ‘armaments’, what do you mean…?

Plainly speaking, mobile suits are a step up in evolution from armored vehicles, so they’d excel at countering tank units. But tanks are more effective in taking down infantry, in addition to being more cost-efficient. And when it comes to seizing cities and occupying territory, infantry is the best choice. So no matter how advanced mobile suits get, tanks and infantry are never going to disappear. And since the suits are expensive to outfit and maintain, it’s probably not practical to deploy a large number of them as front-line units.

So in your mind, what is a mobile suit division like?

Right. I guess it’s better described as a division in which mobile suits are used. Also, as parts run short and engineers are forced to work with what’s available, I’d imagine you’d see a lot of facelifts and minor model changes to the units over time.

In those front-line battles, would you say that Zeon has an edge over the Federation army, which attacks with a large number of units?

Well, it’s true that Zeon holds the advantage at first by having more advanced mobile suits, but there’s a point to where the Federation is able to overwhelm them through sheer quantity. Plus, the operating cost ratio decreases as the suits get more sophisticated.

So to make up for that, you have units like the Goblin.5

The Goblin was developed as an emergency measure, so it can’t match suits like the Marasai in terms of overall strength, but they become ubiquitous due to excellent cost performance and situational usefulness. And to make up for the shortage of units.

So in what sort of situation would a massive, high-powered suit like The-O II be deployed?

Well, you could use a mighty unit like that to storm a base all on its own – if anything, it’s an extremely valuable unit to be used by an ace pilot. But Mobile Suits are weapons, so they aren’t indestructible. It’s actually inevitable they’ll be destroyed eventually. So not every mobile suit can be a fancy unit like The-O II. Though in the show, just one Gundam turned the tide of the war… [laugh] But in real life that’d never happen. Cost-effective grunt units that can be manufactured in large numbers are indispensable. The-O II is a big-money unit, but that doesn’t mean you can take down a whole force with just two or three of them. By the way, this is a bit of an inside story, but The-O II was actually a byproduct of the Breda. [laugh] Meaning the Breda was my attempt to reenvision The-O6, but it ended up being way too much of a departure [laugh] and thus The-O II was made.

I see. So in the context of the manga, the Federation’s Z Gundam would be a special-purpose unit…?

Yes. The Z Gundam can transform, so I think it would be structurally unsuitable for close-range combat. But it’s very high-mobility, so it would go around the flank and initiate a surprise attack.

How underhanded.

Yes, underhanded. Zeon has the edge in a one-on-one fight after all. I think the fact that Zeon started making suits like the Gaplant goes to show how devastating it was to their army.

Would you say anti-aircraft weapons are mobile suits’ weakness?

I wouldn’t go that far. But they might have a little bit of trouble with them. The only reason the Z Gundam was able to win so easily was because it was attacking from behind.

Oh, that’s right. In your work, some of the units used by the Titans appear as part of Zeon’s army, like the Marasai and Gaplant…

Well, the Titans basically fill in for Zeon, right? In fact, I recall that in the behind-the-scenes documents of the TV show, the Titans top brass was made up of remnants of Zeon. And those suits are styled like Zeon’s design-wise. The Titans used Hizacks, so clearly they used Zeon’s suits at times, but developing GMs would probably be a better use of resources, and it’s not like they wouldn’t have the parts for it. So I ended up putting those suits on Zeon’s side… [laugh]

They definitely are a better fit for Zeon. 

Well, I’m a Zeon man myself. Zeon has superior technology but they always lose. They just can’t win. I think it’s natural for Japanese people to want to root for the underdog. So that’s why Zeon can’t be allowed to win. [laugh]

Don’t you think Zeon resembles WW2-era Germany?

I definitely was aware of that when drawing the manga. Especially that part about having better weapons but never winning.

So speaking of technology, what do you think about units developed for use by Newtypes, like the Elmeth-type G1, the G2, the G3…?

Those would probably be deployed as part of an independent squadron of Newtype soldiers.

So a regular army wouldn’t use them?

Nope. Even in the real world, modern stealth aircraft need to be used by soldiers properly trained in stealth. So yes, special-purpose machines like that do exist in real life, but making a suit designed for use by Newtypes means investing a lot of resources in training the pilots. And since only Newtypes can master them, they won’t be able to operate at 100% of their potential.

I see. Indeed, the Elmeth and G3 don’t seem like units that can be handled by regular soldiers.

The application of mobile suits in my manga is a little different from the TV show, so it’s probably a bit confusing. But in the show, the enemy side plays Zeon’s role so the enemy mobile suits and mobile armors look and feel like Zeon suits. Even in the Titans’ case. Putting those suits on Zeon’s side was just me making adjustments in my own fashion.

By the way, in Revival of Zeon, the only jets that appear are the transformed Z Gundam and Gaplant, but is there a reason for that?

Yeah, you’re right… [laugh] Well, they are there, even if they don’t appear in the manga. It’s just that personally, I can’t see the aircraft from the TV show as being designed for anything but space battles, and it’s hard to imagine them in flight on the planet’s surface. So I didn’t want to use the Dopp and stuff.

Because you can shoot them down using only turrets, with the Magella Attack.

Right, you can even destroy a battleship with that. And radar is useless with Minovsky particles around, so you can only fight what’s within your field of vision. Making mobile suits a lot more useful than planes. That about sums it up.

Speaking of which, do units like the EWAC Zaku exist in the Revival of Zeon setting?

Of course they do. Surely they’re scouting out areas where there’s a high concentration of Minovsky particles. [laugh]

Going for wool and coming home shorn.

Anyhow, mobile suits would never have been developed if not for war breaking out, and I think this also applies to the real world, but war might ultimately be the perfect catalyst for the advancement of machines. Like the stealth planes from the Gulf War. But the fact that humans use them, and the things they use them for, that’s where the problems come from. Whether mobile suits or nuclear weapons in the real world. As long as humans have control over those things, I want to believe the worst-case scenario won’t occur.

Well said. Thank you so much for your time today.

Well, that’s the interview. How was it?

Thank you for your respectful answers to our questions, even the silly ones.
Please come back again and talk with us about model kits.

Special thanks to Tom Aznable for providing the scan of this interview. 

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  1. All the rage during the 1980s in hobby magazines like Hobby Japan and Model Graphix, photo novels were illustrated stories that used photographs of model kits (usually involving a hefty amount of scratch building) in lieu of traditional illustrations. Think Gall Force Star Front or SF3d.
  2. Building off the huge popularity of their Gundam model kits and the lack of a new sequel, Mobile Suit Variation was a series of kits that presented never-before-seen mobile suit designs from the One Year War. With design work by the original series’ mechanical designer, Kunio Okawara, the characters and mobile suits in M.S.V. worked their way into Gundam lore as well as any animated iteration. For a modern series influenced by M.S.V., look no further than Gundam Thunderbolt.
  3. For a rough idea of how quickly this particular idea caught on, consider that Advanced Operation was released in 1992, just three years after War in the Pocket.
  4. Like a true military otaku, he mentions their importance within the broader spectrum of combined forces — an idea present in the original Mobile Suit Gundam but largely ignored in sequels and spin-offs that transitioned to combat comprised entirely of giant robots
  5. Of all of Kondo’s original mobile suit designs (and there are quite a few!), the Goblin is perhaps his most iconic and appears throughout his work that takes place around Char’s Counterattack. Short, squat, with huge armored skirts, the Goblin stays true to its namesake and represents Kondo’s approach to Zeon mechanical design.
  6. The Breda was Kondo’s attempt at envisioning The-O as a ground-based mobile suit, though the resemblance isn’t as obvious as you’d expect.