Friday 29 January 2016

Anime REVIEW: Mobile Suit Gundam

Mobile Suit Gundam

It would be pretty hard to be anime fan without ever having heard the words “Mobile Suit Gundam”. Far more than just being the Bandai’s ultimate action figure and model kit (gunpla) cash cow, the original 1979 series from Sunrise and creator Yoshiyuki Tomino helped define the mecha genre and ushered in the subgenre of “real robot” anime. In 36 years Gundam has expanded into numerous series, films and novels spanning various continuities, but this is the point where it all began – the Universal Century. Gundam’s main timeline, and for many fans still considered the very best.

Amuro Ray
From a time when a 16 year old boy would just get in the robot

It’s the year 0079 of the Universal Century. The Principality of Zeon has declared independence from the Earth Federation, launching the two sides into a conflict known as the One Year War. Directly affecting every continent on Earth as well humanity’s various space colonies, the war has already claimed countless lives. While Zeon currently have the upper hand with their Mobile Suit weapons, on the Side 6 colony the Earth Federation are preparing their newest weapon – the RX-78-2 Gundam.

When a Zeon reconnaissance team member attacks the colony most of the Federation crew are killed, leaving 15-year-old civilian Amuro Ray no choice but to pilot the Gundam in an attempt to neutralise the situation. Joining the crew of the mobile battle station White Base – also manned by civilians caught up in the attack, Amuro turns the tide against the Zeon forces. One man standing in his way is Char Aznable, Zeon’s infamous “Red Comet” who also has his own secrets and vendetta in this war.

The RX-78-2 Gundam
Now go out and buy multiple versions of me

Mobile Suit Gundam may be widely recognised for its robots, but in reality the series is so much more than that. The mecha are simply tools of the show’s true source of brilliance – the setting of the One Year War. Although Mobile Suit Gundam primarily focuses on a small cast of characters, the widespread consequences of the conflict are constantly felt throughout its themes – be it growing up, responsibility, family, betrayal and more. It’s also a series where few characters are safe, with plenty of deaths on both sides that can come at a moment’s notice.

The ambiguity of the war’s two sides is mainly thanks to characters, none of whom really fall into a conventional sense of good/evil and right/wrong. Amuro and the White Base crew are undoubtedly the ‘heroes’, yet in the earlier episodes of the series are prone to so much bickering and bouts of childishness (Amuro especially) that they can’t always be viewed in such a positive light. On the other side, characters who may initially perceived as ‘villains’ are some of the most engaging and sympathetic. The sheer charisma of Char makes it almost impossible to not consider him one of the best characters, while aging Lieutenant Ramba Ral beckons possibly the most gut-wrenching arc of the entire show. Even the Zabi family – Zeon’s heads of state and the closest thing to outright bad guys, have moments where they make sure their wives and children and sent to safety before they meet their fates. To have such mixed emotions about both sides is what makes Mobile Suit Gundam such gripping viewing.

Char's Zaku II
So great they made a cake of it

Then of course there are the robots. Lots and lots of robots. It isn’t hard to see how Bandai were able to turn this series into a multi-million toy franchise, as it boasts so many memorable, visually striking and most importantly iconic designs. The Gundam itself is of course the template for everything that would follow, but special mention should really go to the various mono-eyed Zeon suits that also populate Mobile Suit Gundam. From Z’Goks and Rick Doms to the more iconic Goufs and Zakus, there varied yet at the same time uniform suits leave much more of an impression than you hear them being given credit for.

However the Gundam franchise didn’t initially start out as the juggernaut that it is today, and back when it originally aired the series struggled with popularity. So much in fact that its sponsors wanted to cut the show down from its originally planned 51 episodes to only 39, however Tomino and co. were able to bring that number back up to 43. It was only when Bandai stepped in later that the ball really began rolling. The loss of eight whole episodes had a rather large impact on the ending of the series, resulting in some of its most important plot threads feeling rushed and not given the attention they deserve. The worst offender here is the arrival of Lalah Sune, who bursts onto the scene as a key character with very little context. Along with her comes the idea of “Newtypes” – Gundam’s next stage in human evolution. It’s undoubtedly the most fantastical element of the show, but has very little explanation behind it and as such the viewer is simply left to just piece it together themselves. The relationship between Char and White Base crew member Sayla Mass is another misfire – built up heavily over the course of the show but with very little context behind it within the show itself. Of course now these things have all been greatly expanded upon in Gundam’s various sequels and side stories (Char and Sayla especially in the superb Gundam: The Origin), but within the confines of these 43 episodes they simply don’t have the impact they should. It isn’t enough to derail the show’s greatness, but are a bitter reminder that it could have been so much more as well.

Char Aznable
So suave

Many have also complained that the series suffers from particularly low quality animation, however for the most part these complaints seem to be grossly exaggerated. There’s no denying that Mobile Suit Gundam suffers from varying robot scale and poorly drawn frames, but this is not a quality unique to this series – it’s just a reflection on the time period that it was produced. You’d be hard-pressed to find an animated series (be it Japanese or Western) from the 70s that doesn’t suffer from these in one way or another. It has its quirky moments, but on the whole the show still looks great for its age – especially when you consider the production woes may have had some effect here too. Even the infamous “lost” episode (a non-essential side story omitted from international releases because Tomino didn’t feel it was up to scratch) isn’t anywhere near as bad as its reputation might suggest. It’s an old show, so it has old animation – that’s all there really is to it.

Ramba Ral
The days before he coached kids on fighting model kits

Despite suffering from problems that for the most part were completely out of its creators’ control, Mobile Suit Gundam is one hell of a show and has definitely earned its status as an all-time classic. As well as featuring robots so memorable you’re willing to sink hundreds into action figures and model kits, it’s a brilliantly conceived tale that is equal parts a harrowing story about the cost of war and a coming-of-age piece. The characters are so wonderfully realised that even the least memorable of them are able to leave some sort of impression. This is without a doubt a must-see for any mecha enthusiast, and with Blu-ray editions now available across the world now is the perfect time for newcomers to experience the show that defines a genre.

You can also check out my reviews of the Mobile Suit Gundam Blu-ray releases at UK Anime Network and in issues 44 and 47 of MYM Magazine.

1 comment:

Brandon said...

Man, it's been a long time since I've watched Gundam, (currently reading the Gundam Origin manga). Such a great show, I hope that Sunrise localises "Gundam Thunderbolt" so we can see more of what happened in the One Year War.