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By Thomas Wheeler

Gundam remains to this day one of the most popular Japanese "pop- culture" concepts. It has been called, not inaccurately, the Japanese Star Wars, since its inception in the late 1970's. Through a wide range of incarnations and alternate universes, the basic theme has remained the same -- piloted robotic battle suits, somewhere in the general vicinity of five to eight stories in height, in pitched battle against each other (or in the form of a contest in the case of G-Gundam), all without neglecting the human side of the story. It's probably this combination that helped make it as popular as its been.

An attempt was made to bring it to the United States, and for about four years, it was decently successful. Among the most popular products were the 5" scale action figures, known in Japan as "Mobile Suit in Action". Unfortunately, for the toymaker in question, Bandai, this presented a problem. They wanted to sell more of the figural model kits, which didn't fare as well over here. We're lazy Americans. We don't want to have to put together our toys.

Fortunately, even though Gundam is not presently available in the standard toy stores here in the States, the "Mobile Suit in Action" line DOES continue in Japan, and it's not impossible to acquire the toys through certain online retailers here in the USA.

One of the most recent Gundam animated series was entitled GUNDAM SEED. Considered by many longtime fans to be an updated version in some respects of the original Mobile Suit Gundam saga, set in a different universe with different characters, it was a decent success, and was also the last Gundam series to be aired in the United States on Cartoon Network -- admittedly in a timeslot normally reserved for insomniacs and people who love Starbucks.

A handful of Gundam SEED action figures were released in the United States, but the line came up short once Bandai decided to cancel their Gundam marketing in the United States. Fortunately, however, the line has continued in Japan, with some remarkable specimens.

With rare exception, most Mobile Suits in any given Gundam series are more or less humanoid in appearance. That is they have a head, resting atop a body, with two arms out to the sides, and two legs below. There have been occasional exceptions, but this has been the general rule.

So along comes the BuCUE, and -- sheesh, is there a leash law in the Gundam universe?

If a typical Gundam mobile suit more or less mimics the human form, then the BuCUE just as clearly imitates a canine form. It has a somewhat elongated head out front, with a fairly long neck, a largely horizontal body, and four legs, very much in a canine style, complete with "paws", even!

But anybody thinking that the worst thing they'd have to worry about when facing a BuCue is whether or not it would shed on the furniture had better look again. Apart from having the same massive size as a humanoid mobile suit, the BuCue has a couple of immense cannons, jet wings, and there are treads on the backs of its legs, so that if need be, the BuCue can transform into a treaded, tank-like vehicle.

In Gundam SEED, a cadre of these things made life pretty difficult for the good guys during some desert combat. A friend of mine tracked down some background information on the BuCue:

The TMF/A-802 BuCUE was developed by ZAFT for use on Earth, particularly for use over rough terrain. The suit's use of four legs makes it able to traverse rough terrain with ease, and gives it greater stability in battles. The BuCUE can also convert to using caterpillar tracks located in its legs for high speed assaults. Aside from its impressive mobility, the BuCUE is well armed. It uses a powerful twin barrel railgun as its main armament, which can also be swapped with a large multibarrel missile launcher. For close range attacks, the BuCUE has a twin bladed beam saber that it can carry in the suit's mouth. The BuCUE sees action on several fronts during the war between the Alliance and ZAFT, most notably under the command of Andrew Waltfeld, the Desert Tiger.

ZAFT, for the record, are pretty much the bad guys in Gundam SEED, although as with most Gundam series, that line is a little blurry.

Toywise, the BuCue is an impressive piece of work. Excellent detail level, and of course an astounding level of articulation, as one has come to expect from Gundam figures. I am also convinced that no details on the BuCue have been hand-painted, a growing concern in a number of toy lines, and one which I suspect on Gundam, although I am not certain. It would seem to me to be nearly impossible to hand-paint the tiny details on one of these complicated toys in any sort of mass-production setting.

The BuCue has an interesting color scheme. Although most "primary" Gundams and mobile suits in any given series tend to stick to -- well, primary colors, the BuCue is predominantly a steel blue in color, with grey articulation joints, some dark grey elements, and yellow and red trim. It has a single eye staring out from its head, reminiscent of the Zakus from the original Mobile Suit Gundam. The "one-eye" feature has been used on other mobile suits, and always to generally creepy effect. It certainly works here.

Getting the BuCue into an even stance is a little tricky. It's almost a case of the figure being too articulated for its own good. That, and I suspect most action figure collectors aren't used to dealing with something that has FOUR feet. But it is possible, and the BuCue looks great in any Gundam display. Enabling the "treaded" feature of the BuCue is a relatively simple matter of bringing the legs up, and snapping one portion of the treads down so they're even with the ground.

The BuCue is a highly distinctive Mobile Suit because of its four-legged configuration. I've been told it was scheduled for release in the United States before the Gundam SEED line was ended domestically. It's a shame it never came out. I suspect its distinctive look would've helped to sell it quite well. It's also an "army builder". You can have more than one BuCue.

Then there is the LaGOWE. Also a four-footed, somewhat canine-looking Mobile Suit, but if the BuCue is the attack dog, then the LaGowe is the take-no-prisoners wolf. Here's the background on the LaGowe:

TMF/A-803 LaGOWE was developed by ZAFT as an improved version of the BuCUE. The LaGOWE was one of the first ZAFT mobile suits developed with beam weapons in mind, and is equipped with two powerful beam cannons on its back as well the ability to use the same beam saber as the BuCUE. Unlike most mobile suits, the LaGOWE features a two seat cockpit, accommodating a gunner as well the pilot. The LaGOWE appears in limited numbers during the war, mostly assigned to ZAFT unit commanders. One such unit falls in the hands of ZAFT commander Andrew Waltfeld, the Desert Tiger, who pilots one of these fierce machines with his girlfriend Aisha against the Earth Alliance's Strike Gundam.

The first thing one notices about the LaGowe is its color. ORANGE Gundams or Mobile Suits are a distinct rarity in the Gundam universe for some reason. But the LaGowe is very orange, with a limited amount of yellow-orange trim, and some dark grey around its articulation points, and some black in its weaponry.

The second thing that I noticed is that, unlike my expectations, it doesn't reuse parts of the BuCue. This is certainly to Bandai's credit. They probably could have reused quite a few parts from the BuCue, and only nitpickers would've noticed. Then again, it's entirely possible, if not probable, that there's plenty of nit-pickers in the Gundam universe that would've screamed bloody murder if the LaGowe had been little more than a repainted BuCue. I think the only part that was reused was the neck.

Certainly the head could not have been reused regardless. The heads are just too different. For all of its otherwise somewhat canine appearance, the LaGowe's head looks more like the robotic version of a triceratops. There's something of a fan shape to the back of the head, and an immense spiked horn on the top of its head, along with what I think are antennae out to the sides.

Virtually everything about the LaGowe is larger than the BuCue. The body, the four legs, the feet -- which are also a very different style than the "paws" of the BuCue -- even the treads on the backs of the legs are larger.

The wings certainly are, and here is where we come to one of the things that makes all Gundam toys as cool as they are -- tons of articulation. The LaGowe has it, and in some respects where you might not expect it. There are what appear to be four cables running up the feet into the lower legs. These move with the figure. Each wing has two jets in the back. These are poseable. The two guns on its back not only raise, lower, and swivel, their barrels rotate. And there's a small device on the top of the gun turret that also moves independently. There's an additional jet on the LaGowe's -- well -- rear end that also moves.

Preparing the LaGowe to operate as a treaded vehicle is relatively simple. The legs fold up and the treads fold down just a bit.

Paint work is excellent, although there's a few places where aim was just a little off. Nothing all that serious, and at least I don't see any indication of hand-painted detailing. I remain concerned about this to some degree, but I would think on something with as intricate detailing as a Gundam figure, it would be nearly impossible. Still, I may have encountered it on other toys. But not the LaGowe.

Gundam action figures are no longer sold in the United States through any major outlet. You're not going to find them at Toys "R" Us, Target, or Wal-Mart. But some online shops that specialize in toys with collector interest do carry Gundam in some quantities.

By the way, don't be too quick to throw the packaging away. Gundams come packed in very nice boxes, but tucked inside a fold in the interior backing of the box is a bio-card for the figure, and a small product catalog. Granted, they're in Japanese, but the photo work is good.

If you're able to track one down through an online store or -- heck, if you're in or on your way to Japan or certain nearby areas -- and you're any sort of Gundam fan, you'll definitely want to add the BuCUE and LaGOWE to your collection! They're both impressive and distinctive Mobile Suits that have my highest recommendation!