Years ago I wrote about Makoto Kobayashi’s design process for ZZ Gundam1 but his last-minute design for that series’ titular mobile suit came at the tail end of a chaotic and rushed pre-production process. ZZ Gundam was approved for production in late 1985 (while Zeta Gundam was still in production) and scheduled to premiere in March 1986. This left staff very little time to prepare for the new series. The ensuing chaos ended up resulting in one of the more interesting footnotes in Gundam design history.
Unlike the original Mobile Suit Gundam , its sequels Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam  and Mobile Suit ZZ Gundam  did not rely on the work of a single mechanical designer. Kunio Okawara’s herculean effort on the original series was unquestionably groundbreaking, but for the show’s first sequel, director Tomino pushed for younger staff. Okawara helped with some of the initial design direction, but he stepped aside allowing young designers like Kazumi Fujita, Mika Akitaka, Mamoru Nagano, and Makoto Kobayashi to take the reins. It’s no surprise then that the mechanical design work in Zeta and ZZ were some of the most wonderfully eclectic in the history of Gundam.
On the topic of newcomers in mechanical design roles, that entire process brings to mind an interview with Kazutaka Miyatake about the production history behind Super Dimension Century Orguss and the original plan to use a couple of relative newcomers as mechanical designers (including an up-and-coming Kow Yokoyama) on the show. Those plans got derailed when the realities of pre-production crunch necessitated Miyatake take over mechanical design responsibilities (while working on the Macross movie!) to get things done under deadline. One can imagine, then, that using new designers may not have been the quickest method of getting animation-ready mechanical designs down on paper—the process for Zeta was highly iterative, with designs being passed around to many different artists for refining, for example—compared to having old-school workhorses like Okawara or Miyatake design practically everything.
Mamoru Nagano, who just a few years prior had spoken at the groundbreaking Declaration of a New Anime Century event, left his mark on Zeta Gundam with designs like the Hyaku-Shiki2 and Qubeley and was set to design the new Gundam for ZZ. Things didn’t quite go as planned, and despite turning in a new lead mobile suit that matched the design specs, the transformation aspects of Nagano’s design were deemed too complicated and Nagano ended up stepping down. Scrambling with a looming deadline, a small design competition was held to decide on a new design. In the end, it went to a design by Makoto Kobayashi based on a transformation process designed by TT Brain.
While Nagano’s design seems to have been the tentative design during the fall of 1985 before he stepped down in November, that design didn’t completely disappear and still appeared in Bandai promotional material. A video from Bandai’s showroom in 1986 (skip to 2:29) shows a model of Nagano’s ZZ Gundam design before cutting to some promotional material for the new series. In all likelihood, that model was the scratch-built model by Tohru Kobayashi that was featured in B-Club #4 (published on March 1, 1986)3. Interestingly enough, the promo material in that showroom video didn’t include any animated footage of the ZZ Gundam, though as Mark Simmons pointed out, there does seem to be a model of the final ZZ Gundam design on the shelf next to the Nagano version. Similarly, while B-Club #4 featured some extensive ZZ Gundam coverage, the only look at what would be the final ZZ Gundam was a couple of pages of rough drawings by Kobayashi and a cover illustration of the ZZ Gundam’s head that was clearly based on an earlier Kobayashi version and looked a bit different than what finally made it to TV screens.
Taking into account magazine publishing lead times, it seems reasonable to assume that in the early months of 1986, Sunrise and Bandai were scrambling to nail down the look of the lead mobile suit for their next series while the TV series premiere rapidly approached. Here’s more speculation: The model of the final version of the ZZ Gundam seen in the background of that aforementioned video might be one that Kobayashi sculpted himself.
The fifth issue of B-Club, published March 30, 1986, featured a “ZZ Gundam Proto•Type Design” created by Kobayashi originally intended to aid Bandai’s model kit designers.4 While rough around the edges and a very approximate version of the final design, this hand-built prototype was apparently built by Kobayashi in just five days. Despite its faults, it still got four pages of full-color coverage at the front of B-Club, suggesting that Bandai may have been a bit desperate for a model to promote their new series due to the last-minute mobile suit switch. Perhaps Tohru Kobayashi’s scratch-built model from B-Club #4 had been intended to do that for the previous design.
Tohru Kobayashi’s take on Nagano’s design must have been tantalizing, as over the years a number of scratch-built kits based on Nagano’s design have emerged. There were also at least two garage kits based on the design, redubbed ‘Whits Mirage’ in its resin form, and in at least one case sold under a Heavy Metal L-Gaim license at
Wonder Festival JafCon.5 Today these kits can go for big money on the second-hand market, with one selling last month for an eye-watering 130,250 yen (around $1,000 USD at time of publishing).6
Even without considering the more complicated combination and transformation gimmicks of Nagano’s ZZ, it’s hard to imagine his design headlining a mainline Gundam sequel. While it may be the closest thing to a “proper” Gundam that Nagano designed (for my money, it looks more “Gundam” than the earlier Hyaku-Shiki), it doesn’t seem to have the weight and presence that would be needed to lead a show designed to sell models and toys to kids. Furthermore, it’s a proper Nagano design in the sense that it’s got those spindly guns and narrow wings that no doubt would have been snapping off everywhere. The Kobayashi ZZ Gundam isn’t without its faults, but nearly 40 years on, it seems like they made the right call.
- Production Reference: Gundam ZZ in B-Club [Ultimate Mark]
- Production Reference: Gundam Wars II: Mission ZZ [Ultimate Mark]
- Production Reference: Gundam ZZ Memorial Box [Ultimate Mark]
- Production History: Mobile Suit Gundam ZZ [Ultimate Mark]
- Since then Mark Simmons has translated the primary source I used in its entirety, so… maybe go read that instead.
- The Hyaku Shiki had its origins in the earliest designs for Zeta Gundam and put to paper in August 1984. While it wouldn’t end up used as the lead mobile suit, Nagano’s concept of movable frames and complex joints defined the look of Zeta Gundam.
- This scratch-built model can be seen at the top of this article, but Mark Simmons also included scans of the entire two-page spread on his site.
- Again, Mark Simmons included that full feature article on his site so I’m not reproducing it here.
- Originally I’d said this was produced for Wonder Festival, but as @patrickqueshe pointed out on Twitter, it was actually sold at JafCon, a Wonder Festival competitor. By the early 1990s, Bandai-licensed models were no longer being approved for Wonder Festival as a result of the company’s “anti-WonFes” campaign it launched around 1990.
- Cheaper prices on the 1/100 scale kit show up on Yahoo Auctions someone keeps selling recasts. Buyer beware!