Giant robots are serious business in Japan. Construction has just finished on a 59-foot Gundam robot in Yokohama, and it’s not even the first. If you’ve been to Odaiba, Tokyo where Toyota’s MegaWeb showroom is located, you have probably seen the life-sized Gundam robot standing in the front plaza of a nearby shopping mall. The original one, erected in 2009, was called the RX-78, and if you think that name sounds suspiciously similar to the name of a certain Mazda sports car, you’d be onto something!
Gundam is one of the most influential pieces of pop culture in Japan. The series, about a future in which wars are fought with robots several stories tall, has taken countless forms in manga, anime, film, and video games. There have been so many series and spinoffs there is no humanly way to keep track of them all, and it’s even inspired Hollywood knockoffs. According to Wikipedia, Gundam the 15th highest grossing media franchise of all time, just below Batman and above Barbie.
Gundam was created by Yoshiyuki Tomino and launched in April 1979 in an anime series called Mobile Suit Gundam. So technically, Gundam aren’t robots at all, but enormous suits of armor, controlled by mirroring the movements of the human pilots sitting inside them. And the signature mobile suit that kicked off the series, the Optimus Prime of the Gundam universe, is the RX-78.
As the story goes, the Mazda RX-7 was the favorite car of the designer of the mobile suits, Kunio Okawara. The timeline of Gundam’s creation would have coincided well with the introduction of the SA22C RX-7, which launched in spring of 1978 in Japan. The rotary-engined sports car was deemed quite futuristic at the time, and its novel power source was just the type of technology that would have intrigued a man like Okawara.
Or, perhaps he was inspired by Mazda’s Jinba Ittai engineering philosophy of making cars feel like an extension of the driver’s body as well. Or maybe he figured that in 200 years the evolution of personal transport would go from cars to walking exo-skeletons the size of a small apartment building.
Unlike the cartoons most of us grew up with, Gundam had a fully fleshed out universe, and the suits had incredibly detailed specs, thorough engineering, and enough backstory to make George RR Martin green with envy. Okawara was so good at serving up robots, for Gundam and other franchises, that the anime world essentially invented a brand new career category for him. Okawara is now known as the first mechanical designer in animation.
The RX-78 isn’t the only Mazda reference. In a 2002 series, another mobile suit debuted with the name GAT-X105 Strike Gundam. And, as Mazdafarians know, X105 was the project code of the FD3S Mazda RX-7. The robot does look like an evolution of the RX-78, so perhaps the name is more than a coincidence. There have been zillions of Gundam suits throughout the franchise’s history, and there could be many more references littered throughout the Gundam universe. Maybe some Gundam otaku can enlighten us to them.
As for the life-size RX-78 statue in Odaiba, it was taken down in 2017 and replaced with another, called the RX-0. But that doesn’t mean the iconic RX-78 is gone for good. A new RX-78 just finished construction in Yokohama, and this one, it is said, will be able to walk. The 59-foot statue will be part of an attraction called Gundam Factory Yokohama, sort of like a Gundam theme park. The first tours were supposed to begin in July, but scheduling has been impacted by the coronavirus. Those events have been canceled, though the grand opening in October is still going forward as planned.
The Gundam world goes by a different calendar than ours, so it’s not entirely clear when the RX-78 was supposed to have been created. Most believe that it’s sometime in the 22nd century. So, essentially,the Mazda rotary sports car you’ve been clamoring for will come back; you’ll just have to wait until 2140 or so.
The RX-78 debuted in the year 0079 in Gundam lore. The “78” part of the name could be a reference to the year it was developed, but it seems it could have just as likely been a callback to the RX-7’s inaugural year.
The legacy of Gundam cannot be understated. It has been a powerfully influential force for Japan, and has so permeated Japanese culture that even car designers have been shaped by them. The most prominent example was Shiro Nakamura, Nissan’s head of design until his retirement in 2017, who specifically cited Gundam as an inspiration for the R35 Nissan GT-R. What better metaphor could there be for Japan’s ultimate supercar killer than a colossal mechanical weapon that you wear?
It all comes full circle in the end: the robot that was named after a car goes onto inspire actual cars. And now, the next time your friends snap a photo underneath the giant Gundam, you’ll know the tidbit of JNC trivia connecting it to some of Japan’s greatest sports cars.