Mobile Suit Gundam (1979 IMDb)

Viewing

Review applies to the dub.

Categorization

Gundam is the largest and most popular mecha franchise. It's also the most historically significant, because of its push towards realism and maturity in commercial TV SF. It contains loads of series and movies about giant robots and the often well characterized people who pilot them in tragic yet thrillingly action-filled wars. A degree of romance is usually in there too. This initial work sets off the Universal Century (UC) setting, the most prolific branch of the franchise.

Subject

The total human population was about 9 billion when we started to offload Earth to live in colonies orbiting Lagrange points. The Earth Federation initially ruled all, but eventually, one colony declared itself independent. It becomes the Principality of Zeon, a tyrannical state employing weapons of mass destruction in a One-Year War of liberation. Practical fusion is found to incidentally generate a new category of particle which disturbs EM waves and electronics, forming the excuse for developing giant robots, with close combat capabilities enhanced by the same new field of physics. Also, the move to space is initially theorized to explain why a few humans with psychic powers gradually appear.

In this first TV series, set towards the end of the One-Year War, both factions develop revolutionary new types of mobile suits. Zeon forces attack before the Federation's set can be mass-produced. The Gundam, a close range prototype, ends up in the hands of a cocreator's son who manages to fend off the first of the Zeons. Like his father, the boy is good with technology but socially awkward. Together with numerous other civilians from his colony, but without his parents, Amuro the boy pilot helps crew the White Base, a mobile suit carrier. Fearing capture, they destroy materials necessary for the swift production of further Gundams.

After surviving the first few battles, the amateur crew is psychologically battered and the talented Amuro has a breakdown. Fortunately, the enemy initially underestimates the White Base, whose solitary trials are left to continue with minimal Federation aid. Amuro quickly meets a rival, an ace pilot on the Zeon side who encounters the people of the White Base many times on the ship's meandering way into the decisive battles of the war.

Commentary

Here and throughout the franchise, the mecha design is usually hideously impractical, albeit an improvement over earlier work. Apart from the robots, there's some neat futurology: Gundam actually makes the scientifically correct choice of having humanity building space stations instead of colonizing planets. While the design of the colonies and the appearance of their societies—1980s suburbia instead of dense blocks—isn't great, the UN (as of 2011) says global population will peak around 10 billion, so perhaps it's reasonable, in retrospect.

The main attraction is the strange combination of Nazis (Zeons), medieval knights (mecha with swords, maces, axes, shields) and non-stop, lowbrow SF action. This is early modern anime. In it we have lengthy references to stuff like IFF systems, the nutritional necessity of salt, and Hitlerian ideology. There is full nudity (albeit natural, isolated and ugly), a hero with age-appropriate psychology for shounen—compare Anne of Green Gables (1979) which is far more serious and started earlier—bloody death, enormous on-screen kill count, the loss of many friends and love interests, brain damage, moral ambiguity, politics, old people with normal concerns, and the treatment of mecha as mere vehicles.

Armored Trooper Votoms (1983) and Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995) owe a lot to this compromise between revolutionary realism, stereotypes, toymaker demands and Tomino Yoshiyuki’s position on the autism spectrum. Anime itself might have stayed a lot more prejudiced if it weren't for Gundam. On the other hand, those commercial demands (a lack of camouflage for instance, against the wishes of the creator) and the constant success of the White Base are tiresome, plus there's comic relief and lightsabres. On top of its historical significance, the show is nonetheless enjoyable, from the mysterious disco whoop of the commercial bumper and the rest of the music—it grows on you—to the nice characters and the ultimate fate of the hardware.

References here: Space Runaway Ideon (1980), Armored Trooper Votoms (1983), Mobile Police Patlabor (1988), Gunbuster: Aim for the Top! (1988), Robot Jox (1989), Twin Peaks (1990), Emma (2005), Blue Blazes (2014).

Japanese production animation mecha series

Sequel:

Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam (1985 IMDb)

Subject

Following the defeat of the Principality of Zeon as an organized opponent, the Federation created an elite counter-insurgency task force: the Titans. Their methods became draconian, and then genocidal. Seven years after the One-Year War, the spaceborne Anti-Earth Union Group and the Earthbound Karaba ally themselves against these fascists, uniting old heroes like Amuro, Bright and Hayato with Zeon veterans, including Char, and new talents. On the fringe of this war, Zeon rises again.

Commentary

More political and even ecological, which is very nice, but the plot is still thin and many elements are recycled as a formula. As in the original, it's really mostly fighting and risible escapes with repetitive lines.

Now that many of the suits are unique and transformable for extra toy sales, the credibility of the fighting rests entirely on its visual execution. Fortunately, the main draw is indeed the brilliant analogue design and animation work on this series, a huge step up from the original. Apart from the impracticality of the mecha design, this is very close to my idea of how mainstream action anime “should” look and feel, even better than most subsequent entries in the franchise. There is something very endearing about the visible gaps that arise as rich starry backgrounds scroll by to the end of the cardboard they're painted on.

From a feminist standpoint, there are problems, but the very last scenes do weaken the primary protagonist in a way similar to what has been plaguing one of the women (ridiculously, in her case); an interesting move.

References here: The Ideon: Be Invoked (1982).

Japanese production animation mecha series

Sequel:

Mobile Suit Gundam ZZ (1986 IMDb)

Subject

With his old star pilots out of commission, Noa recruits more youths from a junkyard in Side 1's Shangri-La colony (L5). As usual, these teenagers prove more adept than grown men who've trained together for 8 years and fight on their home turf, as one Arabian veteran bitterly concedes mid-series. The Argama gets a weapon of mass destruction, and uses it against the Axis Zeon.

Commentary

The title is read "double zeta". A lot more comic relief, and worse production values, than Zeta. The opening song for the first half is a poorly performed joke, its refrain being "It's not a cartoon; it's for real!" This is consistent with the general attitude that all adults are cynical, self-interested and so on. The lady Chara is cool though. Episode 33 shows a Europe covered by dense forests, which was apparently a geoengineering project.

Japanese production animation mecha series

Sequel:

Mobile Suit Gundam: Char's Counterattack (1988 IMDb)

Categorization

Cinematic follow-up to ZZ.

Subject

Amuro, working for the Federation, opposes Char for the last time. The old rival rules the Neo-Zeon faction and has built up a military force in secret. Now he plans to give old Earth's ecology a “rest” and help humanity into the next phase of its development. On a practical level, he's going to drop rocks on Tibet.

Commentary

The budget shows off the best of the franchise's mechanical design (some work by Gainax), and there are many improvements of the setting. The philosophical conflict between the two main characters is ridiculous, eventually drifting off into an absurd psychological conversation about how two dead girls were looking for and could have been father and mother figures respectively, but Char remains an effective, cunning anti-hero. There be Engrish. Zeon, which is Jion in Japanese, is spelled Gion in a letter.

Japanese production animation mecha movie

Spin-off:

Mobile Suit Gundam 0080: A War in the Pocket (1989 IMDb)

Subject

Side 6 is ostensibly neutral at the end of the One-Year War, because its treaty with the Federation has not come into force. This should prevent a Zeon attack on the colony, but in reality, Side 6 is co-operating with the Federation. A young boy (11?) with a romantic idea of war deliberately gets involved, and befriends a Zeon saboteur. It's a learning experience.

Commentary

Written by the great Yamaga Hiroyuki, who knows how to walk the line between sheltered boyhood fantasy and devastating realism. Practically everything silly or stupid about this show is inherited from the franchise, while the original stuff is top notch, and some stupidity is filtered out. Al gets into a cockpit at one point, but never rides a mecha. Good music (though some cues are dated), good action, fine character design, inconsistent but mostly good animation.

The writing frequently shines even in easily recognized types of scenes, like the customs checkpoint in episode 2, where Captain Steiner (or is Hardy the surname?) demonstrates that he is the man for his job, even when his squad of well-played cold-blooded combat veterans isn't fighting. It's the The Wire (2002) of mecha anime.

The major villain—whose name is Killing—could have been left off screen, as are the authorities who endanger the colony by allowing the Federation base there. Probably the biggest plot hole is the way Bernie's Zaku is left within running distance of an elementary school, with its reactor apparently in good working order: no police tape, no surveillance, no lock on the hatch, no hauling it off, not even periodic patrols, despite the authorities obviously noticing it. They only take its weapons.

Bernie's speech at the end shows he's an older Al, who represents the target audience: He won't grow up, but Al gets a chance to. It's very much like Murakami's Little Boy (2005) thesis.

Japanese production Yamaga Hiroyuki animation mecha series

Spin-off:

Mobile Suit Gundam: 08th MS Team (1996 IMDb)

Subject

South East Asia during the One-Year War. The new commander of the 8th Federation Mobile Suit Team meets a Zeon noblewoman en route to Earth, and he will meet her again later. Most of the series is interaction between the people making up the mecha squadron, and with some of the natives.

Commentary

Reminiscent of Vietnam war movies. A fairly typical villain again, and idealized idealism.

Japanese production animation mecha series