When I first started thinking of ideas for this column, I thought right away of Gundam in America. It's a very strange story, and Gundam fans in Japan might be a little mortified to hear it.
Very few in America knew what Gundam was at all until the mid-90s, when the runaway success of Dragon Ball Z (nobody in America knew what Dragon Ball was until the mid-90s either) inspired Japanese companies to take a big bet on boys' anime in America. See the previous post on Toonami for more on this.
The first Gundam anime to appear on American television was actually Gundam Wing, and it was a huge success: the improbable robots and weaponry, the overpowering teen angst... it was just what kids seeking a “more mature” but still action-packed cartoon after school wanted to watch. While the boys in the audience were completely oblivious to the pretty-boy angle, the girls were not.
The American broadcast followup for Wing was G Gundam, the really crazy one that transformed Gundam into a beautifully overwrought kung-fu melodrama. Both shows are fondly remembered among geeks of my generation, but as the first contact, Wing in particular heavily colored views of just what a Gundam was. To us it was no ordinary weapon of war, it was a shining, invincible killing machine. The exact opposite of the original Mobile Suit concept. The enemy grunts' terrified cry of “It's a Gundam!” lives on forever.
The original Mobile Suit Gundam, you ask? What the heck is that? The whole story is too long to tell in this column alone, but the original 1979 series was run on TV in 2001 and, as you might expect, it absolutely flopped. Like the original, the show's run was even cancelled before it could finish broadcasting. The circumstance was extraordinary, however: the September 11th attacks in New York led the network to pull the show because it depicted war, which everybody was, of course, very anxious about at the time.
Even had that not happened, Mobile Suit Gundam was no great success here: not the anime, not the toy line and not the plastic model kits. As much of a classic as it is, it was just the wrong show at the wrong time for the wrong audience. Kids were absolutely not interested in watching anime from 1979 after school. From there, Gundam fizzled out from a potential mainstream phenomenon into merely a popular niche in the small American anime fandom. In short, though the world was impressed by the Odaiba Gundam, though I have a friend who likes to dress up like Quattro, Char Aznable and Amuro Ray have close to zero cultural capital here in the States.
So try it out, if you're ever walking the halls of an American anime convention. Just ask someone “What Gundam is your favorite?” They're as likely to mention Wing as they are Seed or 00. Even more likely, they probably won't even know what you're talking about...