Forget New York, let alone Tokyo: as reader Greg Whistance-Smith points out, the wildly popular Japanese anime show Mobile Suit Gundam has rather bizarrely chosen quiet Edmonton, Alberta as the backdrop for its two-part season finale.
One of the peculiar honours shared by the world’s major cities is a knack for getting destroyed on screen. Residents of London, New York and Los Angeles have seen their cities fantastically ruined by natural and manmade disasters alike. None have experienced this quite as frequently as Tokyo: radioactive monsters, giant robots, supernatural forces and earthquakes have taken turns smashing the city in films and television shows for the past 60 years. Meticulously depicting a city’s demise is, if nothing else, a declaration of its importance: these places are worth destroying.
In Edmonton, a quiet city at the northwestern tip of the Canadian prairies, those images of mass destruction seem exhilaratingly foreign. Edmonton is often forgotten not just in discussions of cities but in discussions of Canadian cities; or else it is humorously acknowledged as a place with endless winters and harsh, Soviet-like architecture. Those half-truths noted, the city nevertheless has its gems, among them an incredible river valley, one of the world’s biggest universities (the University of Alberta), and a thriving arts scene, including the world’s second largest fringe festival after Edinburgh. It’s one of the youngest cities on the continent, with a median age of 36.5, and the northernmost city of more than 1 million people.
Yet even here, peace couldn’t last: giant robots finally arrived to tear up the place. This spring, the latest iteration of Mobile Suit Gundam chose Edmonton as the location for its two-part season finale. One of the longest-running anime series, Gundam features giant robot battles interspersed with state politics. The show has a vast international following – and one astute Edmonton blogger, Nopy, quickly noticed the location.
Unlike Vancouver and Toronto, which often host crews from American film and television productions, Edmonton is rarely used as a filming location, and seeing it depicted in fiction is extremely uncommon. Having it serve as the backdrop in a classic anime series was utterly surreal, not to mention deeply amusing. The location was even called Edmonton in the show’s fictional universe, removing any shred of ambiguity.
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Most of the fighting took place along the city’s main street, Jasper Avenue. A number of locations are used, as well as an establishing shot from the east edge of the city, and a redesigned version of a government building. A few signs are tweaked – my favourite is Scotiabank becoming BankBank – but many of the city’s better-known locations were strangely absent: the classically domed Provincial legislature, City Hall with its glass pyramid, and the sprawling West Edmonton Mall, the largest in North America.
Why the series chose Edmonton is unclear. It may be that the bland building design made the place desirable: drawing Edmonton would be similar to drawing Japan’s own postwar vernacular architecture. It’s also interesting to note that while the animators may have reproduced the buildings, they didn’t reproduce the North American sprawl. Instead, Edmonton’s buildings were rearranged into aerial views much more reminiscent of Japan’s distinctive urbanism.
Like many cities, Edmonton features a large and growing anime convention, and this summer’s attendees will likely be taking costumed photographs at these no longer quite so bland locations. Edmonton may have been ignorable a few months ago, but now we’ve finally made it, earning our place among the great cities worth destroying.
This feature originally appeared in The Guardian.