Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Truth about X-Rounders

In the latest (12th) episode of Mobile Suit Gundam AGE, we were introduced to the term for this AU's version of Newtypes--"X-Rounders." In the context of Gundam Age, an X-Rounder is an individual capable of tapping into the X-Region of the brain (something normal humans are incapable of) and achieve a limited form of precognition. It's not a difficult (or unexpected) concept, but it has spawned a small amount of confusion, derision, and--most interestingly--a rumor regarding a failed anime series from 1975, led by Yoshiyuki Tomino, called X-Rounder: a war epic about three generations of psychic soldiers fighting an unending war, the show crashed and burned so hard it was responsible for the rather poor state of Tomino's career in the late 70's.

I thought I'd take an opportunity to briefly address the confusion, the derision, and the truth about this forgotten gem of 70s briefly--it's better, I think, to nip crap like this in the bud.

First: the confusion. Basically: what is an X-Rounder? Well, from what we've seen so far, they are similar to the newtype concept, but also different in that they are far more limited. The litany of newtype powers is endless, and seems to grow with time. Newtypes can see the future, commune with the dead, summon ghosts, brainwash oldtypes, perform telekineses, etc., etc.

These X-Rounders on the other hand... so far, they only have a single power--precognition. Limited to only a few seconds. It's possible they're starting out "weak" so we can see them evolve in subsequent generations, but for now, X-Rounders are a very conservative form of newtype. Crazy psychic magic has always been a part of Gundam, but it's seldom been one of the franchise's strengths--even in the golden years of Tomino.

Second: the derision. Yes, the name is silly. While not quite on the same level as "Full Frontal," or "Mister Bushido," X-Rounder is yet another Engrish-term us native speakers are unable to speak aloud (or even think of) without cringing. On the surface, it sounds like little more than a shallow attempt to craft a "cool" term to appeal to the younger generation of viewers that compose Gundam AGE's target audience. Delve a bit deeper, and it doesn't exactly get better--the notion that human beings can tap into unused portions of their brains to achieve extra-sensory perception has been around for decades, if not centuries--and it has been used by countless con-artists and charlatans, from TV psychics to scientologists, to bilk foolish people out of their money.

We've all heard it, right, the theory that "human beings only use 30% of their brain, no one knows what the other 70% does," right? (Or some variation thereof). Well, this pseudo-science bullshit has not only been debunked, it was NEVER entertained. The truth of the matter is that human beings DO only use a small portion of their brain... for conscious thought. What does the rest do? It governs subconscious activity. It won't let you see into the future, or read another person's mind... but it will make sure your lungs remember to breath and your heart remembers to beat.

Arguably far more important tasks than ESP.

So, yes: easy to deride. Easy to make fun of. Easy to stack into that big pile of "reasons to dismiss AGE without giving it chance," alongside the "kiddy" character designs and fairly lackluster presentation. Which, coincidentally, leads directly into my third and final subject:

According to the rumor (which apparently originated in /m/ just the other day, but has rapidly spread), in 1975 Yoshiyuki Tomino began work on a groundbreaking anime series called "X-Rounders." Featuring a multi-generational story dealing with the horrors of war through the eyes of psychic robot pilots, its synopsis reads similarly (or identically) to that of Gundam Age. The show featured a similar "dream staff" as 1979's Mobile Suit Gundam which included the famous Leiji Matsumoto (of Yamato fame). Tragically for all of us, this revolutionary anime project crashed and burned after producing a single 20-minute episode. It's failure nearly sank both Tomino's and Matsumoto's careers, and saw many people lose their jobs. It was seen as such an embarassment that no one ever speaks of it, and records of its existence are almost impossible to find.

But before I go any further, let's examine a few of the elements supposedly found in this lost gem from the earliest years of Tomino's career.
  • The focus of the story is a war lasting centuries
  • Psychic humans called X-Rounders fight the war in space
  • The robots used are simple, gray-colored craft with manipular arms instead of arms/legs
  • The protagonist changes over the course of 3 generations
  • First generation protag is basically Amuro, second generation protag is Char, and third generation protag is a Judau.
Sounds pretty cool, huh? All of a sudden that "X-Rounder" term doesn't sound so stupid after all. All of a sudden that animation doesn't seem that bad, those character designs aren't so insufferable. After all, if Gundam AGE is actually a remake of a classic-but-forgotten series from the 70s, campy Engrish terms and simpler narrative mechanics are to be expected, right? Instead of being insufferable, AGE is now entirely tolerable--because it's retro, and because it's Tomino.

Unfortunately, this "X-Rounder" series is a complete and utter pile of bullshit. Such a project never existed. No production company was associated with a title with any similar name (or concept)--and remember, back in the 70s, anime wasn't the industry it is today, and there weren't a whole lot of people producing it--and no record of it exists in the entirety of the Internet. It has never been mentioned by anyone currently involved in the production of Gundam AGE, nor has it been discussed (or even referenced) in any of the hundreds of Japanese blogs discussing AGE on an episode-by-episode basis, or in the tens of thousands of posts discussing each episode week-to-week.

Again: the project never existed.

But this farce is very appealing to many fans of the mecha genre for a couple of reasons. First, it hints at an even earlier genesis of the "real robot" genre that Tomino spawned in 1979, with an even "grittier" and "realistic" story than that of Mobile Suit Gundam. Second, and most importantly, it re-casts Gundam AGE in a new light.

Many long-time Gundam fans simply refuse to give Gundam AGE a chance, some refusing to watch it out right. These people proffer a number of reasons, from complaints about the art style to pacing to the actual content of the narrative, but none of them are valid (for fans). The sad truth of the matter is that many people refuse to give Gundam AGE a chance because they do not think it fits in with their notion of what a Gundam series ought to be. But this notion of it being a remake of a classic Tomino series? It allows them to shuffle off those nasty pre-concieved notions and (perhaps) view Gundam Age more objectively. Instead of dismissing it outright as an embarassment to the franchise, something not worth their time or consideration, this farce forces them to approach Gundam AGE the same way they would any other classic anime from the 70s.

And you know what? Something amazing happens when you do that. AGE genuinely feels like a product from that early era, because that's precisely what it's supposed to feel like! The art design, the narrative, everything is a call-back to the earliest days of the real-robot genre. From its inception, Gundam AGE was meant to be a Gundam series to appeal to ALL fans... the old fans, the young fans, and the middling fans. The first generation was to be a throwback to the 1970s-era robot animation, similar to the classics of that era. The second generation was to resemble more the golden era of the real-robot genre in the 1980s (hence the transformable mobile suits and Zeta/ZZ-inspired mecha design), with the third and final generation catering to the style of robot anime of the midd 1990s and later.

So while this forgotten Tomino classic is pure fiction, and a lie that, like most lies infesting English-speaking fandom, is sure to never die, it's also a very productive fantasy. It manages to both reveal (and tear down) the preconceptions and biases of many fans, revealing a hypocrisy all-too pervasive in modern fandom. But more importantly, this fantasy might also allow many people to enjoy (or at least entertain) a show they might have otherwise ignored entirely--and that is a truly remarkable thing.

Oh, and why wasn't Tomino's career doing so hot back then?

Well, he wasn't exactly the easiest guy to work with.


  1. Yeah, it was pretty obviously a lie.

    I kinda doubt something like this will change anyone's mind, though. It's gundam: it's gonna get lotsa hate whether it deserves it or not.

  2. It sounds kind of silly, but it's not like it's English so awful I want to slam my face into a desk each time I hear it.

    Like Full Frontal.

  3. Alas, it doesn't make AGE any less terrible. It's like the terrible, terrible fanfiction about Gundam Seed Destiny that tries to fix the series.

  4. You'd have a point... if Age was actually terrible.

    The biggest (legitimate) complaint that can be levied against the show so far is that it's too much of an archetypal Gundam show.

    You know, the same basic complaint that levied against 00, Destiny, and Seed--only in those cases it came after incoherent storytelling, shoddy animation, inconsistent characterization, and general directorial clusterfuck.