Reviews of Mobile Suit Gundam (1979) and related work

Mobile Suit Gundam (1979Moving picture, 20 hours)

Review applies to the dub.

The total human population was about 9 billion when we started to offload Earth to live in colonies orbiting Lagrange points. Practical fusion was found to incidentally generate a novel subatomic 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.

When this first series opens, one colony has declared itself independent of the Earth Federation. It calls itself the Principality of Zeon, a tyrannical state employing weapons of mass destruction in the One-Year War of its liberation. Towards the end of the 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.

Gundam is the largest and most popular mecha franchise. It’s also the most historically significant. This first work represents a crucial push toward realism and maturity in commercial TV SF. The larger franchise is likewise about giant humanoid vehicles and the often well-characterized people who pilot them in tragic yet vicariously thrilling wars. This initial work sets off the Universal Century (UC) setting, the most prolific branch.

Here and throughout the franchise, the mecha design is usually hideously impractical, albeit an improvement over earlier work. Setting the robots aside, there’s some neat futurology in here: 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, medieval knights (mecha with swords, maces, axes, shields) and non-stop, lowbrow SF action. This is early modern Japanese animation. In it we have lengthy references to 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 shōnen—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 that can be mass produced by factory workers who are not mad scientists.

The Nazi stand-ins are called Zeons. The Internet does not reveal whether they are named after the Zeons in “Patterns of Force” (1968). It would be somewhat ironic, since the Star Trek Zeons are stand-ins for Jews being persecuted by Nazis. In the 1968 episode, the actual Nazi ideology has been deliberately recreated on the planet Ekos. The historical connections of Gundam’s Zeons are less explored.

SF animation owes a lot to this compromise between revolutionary realism, stereotypes, toymaker demands and Tomino Yoshiyuki’s position on the autism spectrum. Japanese animation 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. The comic relief and lightsabers don’t help. 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: Dougram in brief, Space Runaway Ideon (1980), Armored Trooper Votoms (1983), “Sunken Gardens” (1984), Super-Dimensional Fortress Macross: Do You Remember Love? (1984), Mobile Police Patlabor (1988), Gunbuster: Aim for the Top! (1988), Robot Jox (1989), Twin Peaks (1990), Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995), Emma (2005), Blue Blazes (2014), Carole & Tuesday (2019).

animation fiction Japanese production mecha moving picture series

Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam (1985Moving picture, 25 hours)

Following the defeat of the Principality of Zeon as an organized opponent, the Federation created an elite counter-insurgency task force known as the Titans. Their methods became draconian, 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.

More political and even ecological, which is very nice and a little like Dune (1965), 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 improvement on 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), Mobile Suit Gundam 0083: Stardust Memory (1991).

animation fiction Japanese production mecha moving picture sequel series

Mobile Suit Gundam ZZ (1986Moving picture, 23 hours)

With his old star pilots out of commission, Noa recruits more youths from a junkyard in Side 1’s Shangri-La colony at 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.

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.

animation fiction Japanese production mecha moving picture sequel series

Mobile Suit Gundam: Char’s Counterattack (1988Moving picture, 124 minutes)

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.

A cinematic follow-up to ZZ. 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.

animation fiction Japanese production mecha moving picture sequel

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

Yamaga Hiroyuki (writer).

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.

Yamaga 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 or pilots a mecha.

The scenario feels a little bit like the early scenes of Schismatrix (1985). It’s greatly simplified, but 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.

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. At least it is disarmed.

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 thesis in Little Boy: The Arts of Japan’s Exploding Subculture (2005). The music is good, with some dated cues for extra nostalgia. The character design is fine, the animation less consistent.

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Mobile Suit Gundam 0083: Stardust Memory (1991Moving picture, 5.0 hours)

Takahashi Ryōsuke (writer).

Seen in 2019.

Four years after the One-Year War, a remnant of Zeon steals a nuclear-armed Gundam from a Federation base and uses it in anti-Federation propaganda. Cataclysmic hostilities lead to the creation of the Titans, the villains of Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam (1985).

It’s the solid craftsmanship of Zeta on a higher (OVA) budget, which makes for fun casual viewing. The character design and technical animation are especially good. The battles are every bit as exhilarating and nonsensical as Star Wars (1977).

Newtype psychics are not among the characters, but in other ways, the usual silliness of the franchise still reigns. The romantic triangle drama doesn’t make sense, despite its three characters being interesting enough: The Anaheim military-contract engineer, the obligatory Japanese-ish rookie and the cool, tortured dark knight named Anavel Gato. All three are touchingly devoted to their duties. There are the usual battles in space between giant humanoid vehicles with swords, whose forward thrusters are not centred with respect to their mass. At one point, an ordinary-looking Gundam is itself suited up in a still-larger, non-humanoid weapon system: A vehicle for the vehicle, with a cannon operated through an intermediate waldo for the inner Gundam, which I assume connects to a primary waldo for the human pilot. This is obviously insane, but played completely straight.

Takahashi Ryōsuke only wrote two episodes of this. The first of those two, episode 9, features a literal nuclear detonation, portrayed as a numinous sphere of pure white light rather than an expanding ball of short-lived plasma. The subsequent episode is less nuclear sublime and more horrific; Federation radio frequencies fill up with cries for help. Later, for some reason, the Federation tries to stop an O’Neill cylinder with a small array of mirrors, inexplicably densely concentrated and under centralized control of a single, undefended ship right in the middle.

I like Mora, a competent, stable female supporting character whose giant physique is not played as a joke. I like the ridiculous American-style names, like “South Burning” the father figure, and “Chuck Keith” the goofy fellow rookie; they’re almost as poorly chosen as “Labia Maverick” of “Silent Möbius” (1991). I also like “Magic”, the 1990s R&B song set to the end credits of the first seven episodes: It is hilariously inappproprate in the context, but competently performed. The later music is boring.

animation fiction Japanese production moving picture sequel series

Mobile Suit Gundam: The 08th MS Team (1996Moving picture, 5.0 hours)

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.

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

animation fiction Japanese production mecha moving picture series spin-off