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 at the Lagrange points. When a few humans develop psychic powers, the move to space is the first explanation. In science, practical fusion is found to generate a novel subatomic particle which disturbs EM waves and electronics, hence ranged weapons. This new field of physics leads to the development of humanoid vehicles called mobile suits. The military ones can have close combat weapons.

When this first series opens, one colony has declared its independence 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 from a needy Earth. 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 its cocreator’s son. 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, the rookie crew of the White Base destroys materials necessary for the swift production of more Gundams. After surviving the first few battles, they are psychologically battered and Amuro has a breakdown. Fortunately, the enemy underestimates the White Base. Its trials are left to continue with minimal Federation aid, meandering into the decisive battles of the war. As for Amuro, he quickly meets a rival, an ace pilot on the Zeon side.

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, both as far as the human-shaped vehicles go, and more importantly, in the larger worldbuilding behind them. 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 of Gundam.

Despite the push toward realism, Gundam’s mecha design is impractical. Thankfully, there are other types of vehicles, but the superiority of the humanoid ones is never motivated, not even by the late-series notion of psychic intuition or the fantasy physics that promote medieval knightly combat with swords, maces, axes and shields. That said, it’s still an improvement over earlier works, in the detail that the franchise’s mecha are mere vehicles and can be mass produced by factory workers who are not mad scientists. Some are also pretty, though not in this first series. Setting the mecha aside, the broader futurology is extremely impressive for 1979 children’s TV in any country: Gundam actually makes the scientifically correct choice of having humanity building space stations instead of colonizing planets. By and large, these space colonies are shielded from cosmic rays and spun to simulate gravity, while microgravity is the norm outside long-term habitats. Granted, the colonies look like 1980s suburbia, which didn’t make sense with 1979’s high prediction for global population, but it’s become reasonable in retrospect as predictions have declined.

Anne of Green Gables (1979) started earlier and features more credible psychology, but Gundam is also early modern Japanese animation with age-appropriate psychology by shōnen standards. In it we have lengthy references to IFF systems and the nutritional necessity of salt. There is full nudity (albeit natural, isolated and ugly), bloody death, an enormous on-screen kill count, serialized plotting with the loss of many friends and love interests, brain damage, moral ambiguity, politics and old people with normal concerns. Hitler’s ideology is mentioned, but the Nazi stand-ins are called Zeons. It would be ironic if they were named after the Zeons in “Patterns of Force” (1968) because Star Trek’s Zeons are stand-ins for Jews being persecuted by Nazis under a recreation of Hitler’s ideology. The historical connections of Gundam’s Zeons are less explored, but their fancy dress, aristocracy and genocide suggest a European imperialism broader than the actual Nazis.

SF animation owes a lot to this compromise between revolutionary realism, stereotypes, toymaker demands and Tomino Yoshiyuki’s position on the autism spectrum. Popular 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, 2023-06-29, 2023-07-03, 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), Final Space (2018), Carole & Tuesday (2019).

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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 analog 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).

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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, returning from Zeta Gundam, gets a weapon of mass destruction and uses it against the Axis Zeon.

The title is read “double zeta”. This series has 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Mobile Suit Gundam UC (2010Moving picture, 8 hours)

Seen in 2022.

Three years after Char’s Counterattack, Federation forces and Neo Zeon holdouts are still butting heads. The succession of wars across the last seventeen years, with both sides using weapons of mass destruction, has reduced the population of the Earth to one half of what it was before the One-Year War, and its ecology is still more damaged, unable to support even two billion of its remaining residents. Space colonization continues, supporting the Earth and perpetuating political tensions between new and old human habitats.

The powerful Vist family shakes things up, holding out the promise of Laplace’s Box: A secret that goes back to the inauguration of the Universal Century (UC) calendar 95 years earlier. To show the path to the box only to those who deserve it, the Vists have created a special “Unicorn” (also UC) Gundam.

A prestigious hit of nostalgia, produced as an honest-to-goodness OVA over the course of five and a half years and rich with callbacks. There’s a lot of CGI for the ships, but the many mecha combat scenes are animated by expert hands in the old cel style, with stylish mechanical design and great incidental detail. It looks better than ever before in the franchise, and it’s joyful. The grandiose music and greatly varied, complex character designs help too.

As usual, the nature of Newtypes is not clarified. Ironically, one competing theory has it that Newtypes communicate well, which is not the impression they make in dialogue. Tomino Yoshiyuki did not work on UC, but there is a ton of obtuse Tomino-style dialogue in it, continuing the franchise’s tradition of voluntarily fighting under protest. The occasional cuts of innocent casualties, which are not gruesome, make this one of the more sincere anti-war entries after War in the Pocket, but on the other hand, it’s still perfectly clear that seeing a “walking war museum” of humanoid vehicles in combat is the main attraction. This OVA was itself profitable, but in its variety of vehicles—many of them customized—it seems to cater specifically to the industry of Gundam-franchise plastic model kits (Gunpla), which has done almost as much as new UC-continuity productions to sustain the enterprise after the peak of its popularity with broad audiences.

Laplace’s Box is not J.J. Abrams’s mystery box, but a straightforward MacGuffin, right up until the last episode. It turns out that Laplace’s Box is an archaeological artifact and literally a legal document with the potential to end the series of wars the UC branch has centered on, which is a great resolution in line with sincere anti-war sentiment. It’s too bad that Newtypes also get more powerful than ever. UC is really everything good and bad about main-continuity, retro-future, special-teen Gundam, except ZZ’s comic relief, done with love for old-time fan money.

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Mobile Suit Gundam: Hathaway (2021Moving picture, 95 minutes)

Seen in 2022.

Twelve years after Char’s Counterattack, Hathaway Noa—who was thirteen in Counterattack—is a passenger on a luxury space shuttle. The shuttle gets boarded by pirates claiming to represent an organization that is killing Earth Federation officials.

Compared to UC, Hathaway is less about nostalgia. It’s mainstream science fiction for adults, albeit committed to its franchise. It doesn’t have anybody voluntarily fighting under protest, and no child characters. Like UC, it shows the horrors of war as they appear to civilians, but in Hathaway, there is no pretence that fighting is necessary, nor that the Mafty/Mufti organization’s campaign of assassination is an effective or morally correct response to government corruption. In other ways, too, this entry is more subtle than Tomino was. Newtype talent is still around, but instead of redefining the phenomenon again, Hathaway does an Interstellar (2014) and shows that the existence of Newtypes is now officially denied; a clever twist in an increasingly monopolar political landscape where the revolutionary potential of the phenomenon is inconvenient.

The particular flavour of realism added by director Murase Shūkō here reminds me of Oshii’s work on Mobile Police Patlabor: The Movie (1989). There is a lot of really good writing and design work going into the opening scenes. Both characters and backgrounds look gorgeous, and while the later mecha battle sequences aren’t really convincing, there are impressive efforts to outdo even UC’s effects until the denouement takes mocap shortcuts with the animation. Unfortunately, after the intriguing opening, the plot is little better than Tomino’s. It isn’t about more than a nascent love triangle and giant humanoid vehicles fighting.

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