Gunpla, a portmanteau of the anime program Gundam and "plastic modeling," is the art of taking a flat-pack home-assembled toy robot and making it something three-dimensional and unique.
Customizing toys, basically.
People paint their tiny giant robots strange new colors, weather the mecha beyond all recognition, and even build all-new parts to better fit some obscure design goal. It's a huge hobby in Japan, with 20-meter Gundam statues standing over the Gunpla store in Odaiba, Tokyo, and estimates of over half a billion model kits sold since the 70s.
"Gunpla is freedom," we're assured in Gundam Build Fighters, one of Bandai's better 26-episode toy advertisements. SYFY WIRE sought out to investigate that promise at the Southern California Gundam Modeling Competition last Saturday, and see if freedom was truly achieved at the show.
The SCGMC has been running for seven years now, getting bigger every time – this year drew over 186 entries, attracting participants from as far as Virginia and Boston to visit a little town near Disneyland and show off their stuff. It's one of the biggest mecha model shows out there, attracting a surprisingly diverse base of participants and gawkers.
This is expected to be the last year hosted by the Fullerton Community Center – a lovely venue, with a billiards room, but a venue the competition is quickly outgrowing. The main organizers, Angel and Clem, give one the impression of anxious parents: sincerely checking in with each visitor, always asking for ways to improve the event.
The best Gunpla displays can take advantage of any number of unexpected skills, beyond assembly and paint. The winner of Best-in-Show, Wandering Eye, by an artist known only as Lynx53, featured the wrecked head of a Zaku (sort of a bad guy grunt mecha) with a moving, flickering eye and a steam generator installed in the base, piped out through the head. Lynx53, like many of the contestants, was a little shy, but his hard work paid off – even the circuit board embedded behind the display base, controlling the shuddery eye, was painted and weathered to match the Zaku's head.
At SCGMC, like most Gunpla competitions, the entries are split into several categories – by the size and scale of the robots, by the anime series they're from, and the skill level of the entrant. Surprisingly, there were only three models in the Star Wars category, despite Bandai recently picking up the license. The focus was firmly on the 40-year legacy of Yoshiyuki Tomino's Gundam.
The business aspect of a hobby event, like this or any comic convention, will be either depressing or inspiring. SCGMC was one of the lucky ones. One vendor, Jun, sold a number of resin models he makes as a part-time job for his company, jokingly named Super Indoors Men Pro. Resin is sort of a stage up from plastic model kits – they're often molded and manufactured by fans and hobbyists as labors of love, because they're cheaper to manufacture (hundreds of dollars as opposed to tens of thousands) but require much more care than plastic.
Many attendees at SCGMC had been building since childhood, such as Hazel, a twentysomething who was introduced to the hobby by her brother and has built upwards of 70 robots in the decades since. A mystery man known only as Orange told SYFY WIRE he started modeling some 40 years ago and was proud to be the only entrant working in soft vinyl/PVC – with a statue of Eleking from tokusatsu classic Ultra Seven, a real deep cut in this modern age, when the kids are more into The Walking Dead and The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer.
Yet Orange himself was most impressed with the beginners bracket. That grouping was stuffed to the brim with people coming into the hobby later in life and showing off some newer and stranger ideas, like a Buzz Lightyear custom color scheme and a Christmas village invaded by robots. The beginner entrant responsible for the drunken robot diorama pictured above, CorrsollaRobot also submitted a sugary-sweet cupcake-like construction; "I'm not giving up my pink," she said, with a gaze of steely determination.
One highlight of the show, for the doting grandparent in all our souls, is the 12-and-under category; when you spend your time customizing children's toys, it's wise to keep perspective. One entrant, Jack, was so eager to talk about his robots and his plans to "climb up the ranks" that he ran across the competition room and back in the middle of a sentence. His grandmother Susan, who brought him, was almost as excited as Jack to see other kids in the junior bracket who shared his hobby.
"He's very protective of his models," she explained. "I took him to a Gundam club back home but they were all much older, and I don't think he felt very welcomed. Here, it's like night and day."
Jack made off with third prize in his category, and gave off a big whooping cheer. A much quieter cheer came from Mr. Jiang, on the 1/100 scale first place winner being announced. He explained to us, with his eyes lit up (not literally, we should specify, given the nature of the event), that the winner used his resin pieces. But on being congratulated, he grew bashful again and started pointing out all the further modifications the builder Ned had made.
During the awards ceremony, in a rather surreal corner, a trio of men watched, cosplaying in the uniform of Zeon, the antagonists of the original Gundam series. They had submitted a number of figures of their country's trademark mono-eyed robots that were awaiting judgment. The Zeon Appreciation Society hooted at their victories, and patted each other on the shoulder, commiserating, when a piece failed to place.
The joy of a modeling show is not unlike the joy of a metropolitan art walk. In less than a block you can see tremendous diversity in terms of artist, approach, and even medium. This is all put to the service of the most universal human impulse of them all: the desire to own a giant robot.