Hot Summer Flashbacks: Mobile Suit Gundam

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When I started watching Mobile Suit Gundam Unicorn in March 2010, I enjoyed its sharp visuals and rich sci-fi action. Unfortunately, having only seen a small and disconnected number of entries in the franchise before hand, I lacked context and found Unicorn a bit “been-there, done-that.”

Now, with the release of Gundam Unicorn’s final chapter, itself the current final chapter to the Mobile Suit Gundam original universe, I’m taking the summer to look back on this, one of anime’s biggest, longest running franchises, in its entirety, in narrative order, with one review per week, per series.

Will I learn to appreciate Gundam more (like our beloved Macross) or will I still find it flat, underwhelming and dated? Only time and 185 episodes will tell.

Mobile Suit Gundam Universal Century Timeline

Note: I chose not to watch either the Gundam F91 movie or the Victory Gundam TV series because they take place 27 years after Gundam Unicorn and have very little to do with the Universal Century story line. At least, not enough for me to want to watch 51 more episodes…

Mobile Suit Gundam

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The original Mobile Suit Gundam aired way back in 1979, kicking off the franchise with 43 half-hour episodes, which were eventually re-edited into 3 compilation movies. While the compilation movies are considered superior by Gundam’s creator (they feature fewer extraneous plot lines and omit a few egregious toy-centric mech designs) I chose to view all twenty-one hours of righteously retro animation in its entirety.

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Set in Universal Century (UC) 0079, MSG follows White Base, the Earth Federation’s mothership for human-shape combat vehicles (mobile suits), and its crew in their year-long fight to end humanity’s first war in space. White Base’s adversary is Zeon, a group of Nazi-like space colonies under the control of the despotic Zabi Royal Family, which is ostensibly fighting for the rights of space-noids (humans born in space) and autonomy from the Federation government. Even though many Federation officers are portrayed as jerks, the politics are pretty clear: Zeon is a murderous bunch and clearly the bad guys.

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While both sides use a hodgepodge of retro-futuristic technology, Zeon developed mobile suits first and has way more of them. The Federation’s only hope is Gundam, a red white and blue samurai-looking mobile suit with a space-fighter built right inside of it. With its light saber, energy rifle and armored shield and lesser mech allies Guncannon and Guntank, Gundam faces off against an endless parade of Zeon mobile suits, each progressively more powerful and goofier looking than the last. (Note: Guntank and the goofiest mechs were largely stripped from the compilation movies)

Gundam’s explanation for why mobile suits are the best weapon is actually rather interesting. With the discovery of radar jamming Markov particles, which are the byproduct of firing energy weapons and exploding reactors, computerized tracking and targeting objects in space is a thing of the past. Since mobile suits are relatively small and don’t rely on easy-to-spot high speed engines like fighters, they are ideal for sneaking up on a target and being hard to hit. Strap on a big gun and, even with a limited amount of ammo, most full scale battleships are toast.

However, since mobile suits have limited flight range and no means to keep their pilots alive for extended periods of time, I found the rock/potato/flamethrower game of defending the mother ship—while hunting down the opponent’s carrier—fairly sensible.

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Our story begins on Side 6, a relatively distant colony and home of the Federation’s secret mobile suit development program. Unfortunately, the program has been discovered by Zeon and most of the colonists and military personnel don’t survive the attack.

Our hero, Amuro Ray, is one of the survivors. Amuro is just your average teenage civilian robotics engineer with OCD (he can’t even be bothered to stop tinkering with electronics during evacuation alarms) who’s father is coincidentally the chief engineer of Gundam. Amuro is generally unlikable, being a carefully balanced mixture of selfishness, dull wit and sexism, and his destiny to jump into Gundam and save the day is obvious from the get go.

As unoriginal and unlikable as Amuro is, Gundam offers us a few refreshing notes. I most appreciated that Amuro has zero interest in Fra Bo, his childhood friend and fellow refugee-turned-soldier. Any other high school mech drama would have thrown a groan-worthy string of will they / wont they plots, and maybe even a hot spring. Sure, Amuro eventually gets a love interest, Lala, but it’s more a subject designed to make him question why he’s fighting than anything else. (Lala is a bonkers, psychic Zeon ace pilot AND already in love with Amuro’s antagonist…)

I also appreciated how ambiguous Gundam is over the loss of Amuro’s father. We see him sucked into space (wearing a space suit) during the opening battle but Amuro doesn’t witness it and never really brings it up. The father shows up much later in the show and it does bother Amuro that he’s gone crazy (from oxygen deprivation) but the drama is limited to a single episode.

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Speaking of villains, Gundam’s antagonist is one of the more puzzling characters. Char is Zeon’s super ace pilot with a passion for the color red (he wears a striking red uniform, shiny metal hat and pink mask and often flies a red mobile suit). He is secretly the heir of the previous Zeon dynasty and out for revenge but that comes and goes and he spends most of the series aimlessly chasing White Base and locking light sabers with Amuro. Char should be interesting but I found him inconsistent and convoluted. (especially when he puts his revenge on hold to work for the Zabi family, tirades at Amuro for an episode, then immediately betrays the Zabi again)

Thankfully, Char is more eye-rolling than outright unlikable and I genuinely enjoyed watching his decision-making get junior officer after junior office bumped off in the name of figuring out how to take down Gundam.

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Speaking of people biting the bullet, Gundam’s formula is simple, efficient and predictable. The story is told over several multi-episode chapters, each opening with a new villain, a new Zeon mobile suit type and/or a new ally and addition to White Base’s mobile suit pool and closing with the death of that villain/ally.

Interestingly, we often see events unfold from the perspective of recurring “Villains of the Week.” This second point is important, as it makes great effort to portray many players in Zeon as likable and the ‘in another world we could have been friends’ cliche goes a long way to offset the otherwise one-note evil of Zeon.

As a general rule, if you weren’t in White Base’s original crew, you’re not gonna make it. From background characters to recurring guests, ally and enemy alike: you’re going to die and it’s usually in a hilariously melodramatic way. Thankfully, few of these deaths take the classic ‘last words of the hero at his death bed’ approach. More often then not, they will simply get smashed flat. It’s grindy, but not unwatchably so.

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Gundam has three acts: Travel to Earth, Fight Across Earth, and the Final Conflict leading to Zeon’s asteroid fortress. The final act also introduces the concept of New Types, which are humans who have evolved a greater sense of awareness in space. The New Type plot toes the line of being out of place in the sci-fi setting, but it works okay. (Amuro suggests everyone on White Base is probably a New Type, given the number of absurd battles they’ve survived on instinct and luck alone) The idea is solid, if not poorly-executed, and (SPOILERS!) the New Type plot thread carries over across most of the future series.

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Despite being dated, Gundam’s art style has charm. Its The Jetsons meets Battlestar Galactica sensibilities are unique and the color choices often make it easy to follow who’s doing what and what side they are on. Furthermore, Gundam portrays a tolerably nuanced reality and knows when to leave details ambiguous.

In one example, at the end of the middle act, the fiancee of a previously fallen villain comes after Gundam with a handful of experience-less soldiers, no mobile suits of her own…and a big ballroom gown. After fainting and falling to her death (a nasty face-plant right in front of Amuro) the crew is completely stumped as to who she was and why she came after them in the first place. Her tragedy is completely without context for them and with a perplexed shrug; they bury her near the wreckage and move on.

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Sadly, as Gundam was funded to sell toys, some of the Mobile Suit designs are absolutely silly. From beaver-looking underwater suits to the bizarre Mega-fighters that Gundam rides inside of, there are plenty of nonsensical sights.

Likewise, the melodrama induced eye-rolling more than once. Between Amuro’s sexism and teen angst, Char’s inconsistent motivation and the Zabi family’s over-the-top Space Nazi antics, dialogue could get pretty cringe-worthy. (I’ll say nothing about the three little kids who laugh and play around the ship until the very end) Characters also tend to change their minds quickly for the purpose of the plot.

In closing, if you have any interest in the franchise—or the genre it spawned—the original Mobile Suit Gundam is a great place to start. Not only does it contextualize future installments, it has guts. And to me, that counts for a lot.

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MAL Score: 7.95

Note: one of my favorite moments came in the first episode where Amuro cracks open a three ring binder and learns how to pilot Gundam during the opening battle. Three Ring Binders are the future!