Living on the Edge of Gundam

During my semester abroad at Sophia University, I’d spend a lot of my off-hours in Mandarake. Throughout my many treasure hunts deep within its dark corridors, I’d always be on the lookout for Gundam books. As a Gundam fan, I’ve always wanted a couple of nice art books, but unfortunately online stores hardly have comprehensive collections, nor nice prices. Since Mandarake is essentially where all anime merchandise goes to die, their various branches tend to have relatively robust collections of Gundam books. I managed to snag a few good Gundam-related scores while lost in Mandarake’s labyrinthine arrangements of bookshelves, one of them being the subject of this post: Edge of Gundam, or in Japanese, Sano Hirotoshi Gundam Gashuu, which is, as you may have guessed, Gundam illustrations by a man called Sano Hirotoshi.

Edge of Gundam cut an imposing figure amongst the myriad of other Gundam books surrounding it. Since the Gundam section is mostly populated with factbooks bearing very straightforward Japanese titles, Edge of Gundam stood out amongst all the other spines with its somewhat cryptic English title. Pulling it out revealed a monster of a cover featuring the title of the book rendered in loose brush script, with everyone’s favorite RX-78 striking a pose up front, painted in varying values of turquoise. This bombshell of a cover, coupled with English cover copy mentioning things such as “art works” and “illustrations,” led me to believe that this would be a most dangerous collection of artwork. Turns out I was right.

But the book doesn’t put its best foot forward in its opening pages. Edge of Gundam opens with pictures you’ve probably already seen if you had browsed any UC Gundam fansite in the early 2000s. They’re pretty common images that were used for disc jackets in the LD boxset for the original series. They’re certainly not bad images, and the book isn’t at fault for including them, but it’s not exactly what one’s looking for when they’re treasure hunting.

Thankfully, the book offers up the goods in short order after those opening pages. To get an idea of what I’m talking about, please click on the thumbnails throughout the review to see these works at full size.

The best way to approach this review is to split the work up in two parts, the first of which is the cel-based artwork. This artwork makes up just under half of the work in the book, and while it does consist of disc covers you’re probably already familiar with, it also includes images used in magazines that I personally have not seen before. And it’s not as if these works we’ve seen before don’t deserve closer consideration, especially when blown up to a high resolution for this book. Sano’s style is deep in that late ’90s cel-based aesthetic: colors are dark and rich, with the otherwise flat cel-shading enhanced by liberal applications of airbrushing. For the 0079 disc covers, Sano offers up a more modern approach to the original series’ late-70s-early-80s designs by giving them more detail, and having them really pop out as 3D figures as opposed to flat, cartoonish forms. A couple of these drawings are actually just scenes from the show redone in that slick ’90s style.

However, things change as we move into the illustrations made for magazines–magazines with names like RPG Magazine and Game Gyaza, which were apparently both Hobby Japan spinoffs, if Wikipedia is to be trusted. So, as one can imagine, there’s a subtle shift in tone to appeal to the readers of these slightly more hardcore magazines. The brighter colors used in the disc jacket covers that allude back to Gundam’s original candy-colored aesthetic are gone, replaced with darker, more severe colors. The robots also seem to have taken on more visible wear and tear–now our favorite mecha are riddled with dents and scratches, looking like actual tools of war as opposed to heroes and villains in a kids show. However, as the book progresses, this battle damaged aesthetic begins to prevail amongst all the artwork for the newer UC OVAs, as those series obviously had stark realism in mind from the beginning. As such, in any 0083 or 08th MS Team picture in the book–be it for a magazine or a DVD cover–the robots are clearly damaged to varying degrees, sometimes covered head-to-toe in dents and scratches.

Upon looking through Sano’s cel works, one thing that stood out to me were his G-Gundam LD covers. I had seen these pictures before on the show’s US DVD covers, but seeing them in this context allowed me to take serious note of their high technical quality. A quick look at Sano’s resume reveals that he is primarily a key animator, and that experience shines through in a lot of his work, but particularly in his G-Gundam covers. These works burst with kinetic energy by way of their movie poster-esque composition and dynamic posing of both the robots and characters.  Truly explosive pieces of work.

However, despite all the praise I’m lavishing on Sano’s cel work, it’s in some ways what one expects out of artwork from the ’90s. It’s all very well done, but it’s not where his artistic prowess is really allowed to let loose. That can be found in the second set of works in this book: his paintings.

Between Edge of Gundam’s beautifully painted cover, along with the rough and loose ink drawings used to open each section of the book (divided by series), I shouldn’t have been surprised when the book hit me with Sano’s first fully painted work, but nevertheless I was blown away. Free of the artistic constraints imposed by cel artwork, Sano splatters the page with paint, resulting in astonishingly rich works brimming with personality and texture. While not strictly realistic by any measure, Sano brings that gritty real world attitude that fans have pushed upon Gundam for years to life with his wild brush work and keen attention to detail.

His paintings vary in their use of color, brush strokes, and abstractness. The works made for RPG Magazine and similar publications tend to focus more on putting the robots into context, placing them in distinct locations and situations. My favorites of these portray the robots in action, such as Zakus dropping in on land, attacking a Federation cruiser, or Doms traversing the mountains. Sano’s rough yet competent brush work brings these situations to life, bestowing the suits with lots of movement, and making backgrounds blurs of details you can only just put together. Forest settings are typically nothing more than well placed wispy brush strokes, while space is typically loose water colors speckled with white paint for stars. In one absolutely stunning and cinematic piece of work that extends over two pages, the Black Tri-Stars prepare for their assault on Whitebase, backed by choice applications of paint against an otherwise abstract watercolor background creating a particularly cold and dark mountain range at night.

Sadly, these more active works aren’t the bulk of his paintings in Edge, but that’s made up for by something more subtle. As one flips through Edge, the paintings become more bleak and quiet, highlighting a lot of the tension and emptiness that comes with war. Certain earlier paintings pop out with bright colors and lots of attention put towards making the robots look as beat up as possible, but later paintings take on darker colors with less saturation, and take advantage of the natural texture and flow of the watercolors to help depict the wear and tear on the mecha. Subject matter shifts to things like robots floating in space, robots waiting for something to happen; robots heading into battle; or simply robot wreckage floating in space. Depictions of actual battles are rare. One favorite of mine depicts the Guncannon with its back towards the viewer, with some Zeon aircraft coming at it over the mountains at night. The piece’s dark colors mixed with the foggy quality of the water colors gives it an overwhelming sense of foreboding, even if you know the Guncannon could take those jets easily. Another favorite has Zeon mobile suits emerging from underwater with caution in the dead of night, again brought to life by deep, dark shades, and a somewhat frightening abstract background.

Dark colors pervade across all of these bleaker, and in some cases mundane pieces. At times priority is given to etching out every detail of the giant space rocks the Feddies and Zeeks choose to make their bases in, while the robots are just small, incidental details. Similarly, images of wreckage are almost beautiful in the way forms interact visually against the backdrop, and simply work as design elements to guide your eye across the aftermath of a brutal battle.

Sano will sometimes paint things in near monochrome to further push this idea of bleakness across. Some of the works I mentioned earlier–the Doms in the mountains, the Zeon suits emerging from the sea, and the Guncannon against the Zeon planes–are all mostly dominated by varying low values of purple and blue. In the Guncannon painting, the only other real prominent color is the red of the Guncannon, while the only other color in the painting of the Zeon suits rising from the water is the red of their mono-eyes. To give another example, a couple of desert-themed images are painted in only varying shades of brown. Rather than give you all the information, Sano effectively uses artistic shorthand to get his point across.

As the book progresses, the images made for RPG Magazine and Game Gyazan become less about atmosphere and more about glorifying the machines. These works are approached in the same way as the previous ones, but there’s slightly more variation in the colors, and the robots are lavished with the same fetishistic detail as his cel-based works, made only richer by his wild and wonderful paint work. Naturally, as the pieces start to focus more on technical details, the brush work becomes more calculated, but nothing ever ends up looking too clean. Images similar to these are also used for pinups and as special promotional artwork. A fine example of one of these robot glamor shots depicts the GP02 from 0083 flying through space, but its shield, bazooka, and boosters are big enough to break out of the tightly framed background. Naturally, the robot is meticulously detailed, and the watercolor space backdrop is somewhat magical for how simplistic it is.

Edge has a number of paintings that were featured in a magazine called AX. Composition wise, these paintings are all more in the tradition of old movie posters. I mentioned movie posters earlier in the review, so let me explain myself: I’m talking about the older, painted movie posters of 30 or 40 years ago. Basically, these posters would take various scenes and characters from the film and blend them together into one very over-the-top poster. Take a look at old James Bond posters or Star Wars posters to get a general idea. In the case of Edge, these images usually result in Sano mashing a few robots together into one drawing, and having them look menacing. While these paintings are certainly cool to look at, they lack the same atmosphere and meaning present in his other work. Since some of these paintings are essentially exercises in design, Sano sometimes goes back to his habit of painting in near-monochrome, but rather than err on the side of dark colors, he lets more lights come through in order to give his compositions more visual flare. However, despite being lighter, his characteristic brush work keeps everything highly textural, rich, and grounded. Some of the best examples of these movie poster-like works were actually made for Game Gyazan, and are usually simpler, featuring just one mobile suit and its pilot. Favorites include Char with his Z’Gok, and M’Quve peering out from in-between the legs of his Gyan. Some of the better pieces from AX feature characters in addition to mecha, including one stark red piece featuring, Char, Sayla and the Gundam as it looks off into space.

Yes, in addition to robots, Sano draws some people as well. His people typically stay consistent with their original designs, but erring slightly more on the side of anime realism. Every now and again he lapses completely into his own style, which is good, but you can’t tell who the characters are out of context. Their faces being mostly covered by helmets doesn’t help much either, I suppose. When space allows, sometimes Sano signs his works with a small wispy drawing of a woman with a single teardrop below her eye. This same woman can be found in the book’s inside cover, and on the back. It’s one hell of a signature.

The last handful of pages is devoted to interviews and commentary matched to some black and white drawings by Sano, one of which is a discussion between Sano and Yasuhiko Yoshikazu. Sadly, I can’t read any of it. There’s also a collaboration between him and a model maker, where the model maker sculpts a Zaku based on Sano’s design, and Sano paints it.

Across Edge of Gundam, Sano proves himself as a highly talented individual. His works have solidarity, dynamism, and tons of detail. But more so than everything else, his works overflow with a brand of drama and gravity–as well as overwhelming attention to detail–that is simply not seen today, even in mainstream mecha artwork. Edge of Gundam is both a stunning portfolio, and a wonderful artifact from a bygone era.


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