What’s it about? Riku is a middle schooler who loves Gundam shows and building plastic model mecha. Now he’s going to venture, or “dive,” into Gundam Battle Nexus Online, the hit virtual-reality MMORPG. But when he encounters a mysterious girl in the digital world, he starts to realize there’s more at stake than winning or losing GunPla battles.
Want to understand Gundam Build Divers? Watch these 20+ shows first. This is a show with nearly 40 years of material to reference, which it readily does. The result is catnip for Gundam fans, and a whole lot of confusion on top of a generic plot for everyone else.
Don’t get me wrong: I loved this episode’s cute character designs, flashy mecha battles, and quick pace. But I’m a Gundam fan. Half the fun for me was watching new characters fall in love with a franchise I’ve adored for years. The show is full of Easter Eggs for diehard fans, and just about everything is a reference to something that came before. But if you’re not part of Gundam’s core group of fans, I can see how that might get exhausting, and quickly.
To understand Gundam Build Divers, you need to understand where it comes from. First, there’s the original material of the Gundam multiverse. If you’ve seen even one Gundam show, you know they center around a young man who has a knack for piloting a humanoid robot from an internal cockpit. This concept has been so successful, it’s been reiterated over and over since Mobile Suit Gundam in 1979. In Build Divers, protagonist Riku builds a toy model of his take on the titular mecha from the 2007 Gundam show, Mobile Suit Gundam 00.
There are still traditional Gundam shows about a boy and his mech coming out (most recently, Mobile Suit Gundam: Iron-Blooded Orphans and Mobile Suit Gundam Thunderbolt), but starting in 2010, Sunrise began creating anime about Gundam fans. Model Suit Gunpla Builders Beginning G was meant to be a standalone OVA about a middle school kid who is obsessed with Gundam (just like you, target viewer!) and uses an interface similar to Angelic Layer (if you’re old) or Sword Art Online (if you’re young) to battle opponents virtually, using the real-life Gundam model kit he’s created. Fans ate up this TV-length commercial, and it led to multiple full-length series about fans building plastic models of their own.
Gundam Build Divers is the latest in this series of love letters to the Gundam fandom, thickly laying on the references to dozens of previous Gundam shows while hawking the joys of Bandai Hobby’s plastic model merchandise. The newest wrinkle here is that in Divers, fans log into a virtual-reality MMORPG where they can customize their avatars however they like (so it should be no surprise that there are lots of furries).
The first episode follows our protagonist, middle-schooler Riku as he goes on his first “dive” into the VR world with his Gundam model. I see a lot of potential for interesting character designs in the VR avatars. The first person he and his friend Yuki encounter is a flamboyant pro named Magee who refers to themself as oneesan (big sister). So far, they’re treated as a respected talent—let’s hope there are no uncomfortable jokes later. The kids also meet a fat character with a unicorn horn… who turns out to be just a bad guy, unfortunately.
It’s difficult to describe the story without relying on the Gundam canon, but I’m doing this for you even if the show does not: in a plot that apes at least one previous Gundam show, Riku meets a girl who has a mysterious power to communicate with Gundams. It’s already clear she’s not going to be a pilot herself though, but a tool to help Riku become the strongest Gundam pilot in the universe, or something.
I have this inkling because of an exchange Riku has with his female classmate: she’s a skilled soccer player who gets the ball all the way across the field, but then it’s Riku who actually scores the goal. The only other woman we meet is Nanami, the clerk at the Gundam store, who insists her patrons know more about Gundam than she does and even pronounces the name of a Gundam series wrong. So far, the women in Gundam Build Divers are helpers but not heroes. (If you’d like to see a woman take center stage, there’s Gundam Build Fighters Try, by the same director as this show, which stars a female Gundam fan.)
Gundam Build Divers brings gee-whiz VR technology to a franchise that has always fetishized the future, leading to an upbeat story that contains all the optimism of Gundam and none of the angst. It utilizes decades of content into a generic plot, imbuing layers of Gundam references and meta-meaning on top of the barest original basis. If you’re not catching those references, you’re just getting a cookie-cutter battle show with strangely detailed mecha designs. Gundam fans are going to love this, but it’s going to come with a steep learning curve for everyone else.