Mobile Suit Gundam
I am finally getting to the last of Japan’s Big Three SF Anime. (The other two are Super Dimension Fortress Macross and Space Battleship Yamato. Say what you will about the Japanese, but they sure like long, descriptive titles that may or may not make any sense.) Gundam is probably the definitive science fiction experience in Japan; it is comparable to Star Wars or Star Trek here. One can watch Gundam movies (possibly based on Gundam comics or books) while building plastic models from the show, then re-enact the whole thing in a video game, and finally tell friends about it later at a Gundam convention. There is even an anime series called Gunpla Builders that tells stories about, I kid you not, kids who build Gundam models and enter them in competitions. The original series came out in the late 1970s, the current series gets its next scheduled theatrical release in November of this year. It’s pretty much impossible to understand Japanese SF without confronting the Gundam behemoth at some point.
The best news? Many (but probably not all) of the Gundam stories are worth experiencing. On the surface, there aren’t many things sillier than gigantic robots, piloted by angsty teenagers, flying through space and whacking things with glowing swords. And yet, somehow Tomino Yasuyuki, the Gundam mastermind, pulls it off. It probably helps that he appears to be manic depressive and uses these stories to confront his personal demons. In Tomino’s hands, what should be moronic, adolescent fantasy turns into a dark meditation on the confluence of war, violence, and growing up. There are also giant fighting robots, crap blowing up, and occasional gratuitous shower scenes. (Note: the robots do not, repeat not, transform in this series. They only bash things and fly.)
The Gundam universe is a somewhat near-future creation, where humanity is split between Earth and several orbiting space habitats. The Earth-bound folk are The Federation, while the break-away orbitals are part of the Principality of Zeon. In the original series, Zeon are the rebel scum and the Federation are scrappy and decent. These roles are fluid though, with the sides trading white and black hats depending on the creator’s mood at the time. This being a Japanese story, there are multiple factions within each side, and ever-shifting degrees of good and evil. Char, the chief antagonist, is the epitome of this. He fights for the bad guys, but is operating for his own mysterious purposes in ways that both harm and help the heroes. He is also much cooler than the whiny protagonist and more sympathetic than any of the truly evil bad guys. Char and his clones play a major role in the Gundam universe, but now is hardly the time to delve into what has become a complex and detailed mythology.
Mobile Suit Gundam crashes merrily along a cliché ridden path. The hero is young and must come of age. (He’s also a dork for the first two thirds of the story and I had no compelling reason not to wish for his horrible death.) He literally falls into the cockpit of a Gundam (the giant robot) and demonstrates almost supernatural gifts for piloting it. Everyone is shocked, though if they had any idea they were in an anime TV series, they would immediately realize that of course the hero can drive the robot. After all, he used to bulls-eye wamp rats back home in Beggars Canyon, and they’re not much bigger than two meters. Whoops! Wrong dork who comes of age. Fortunately for all involved, the hero doesn’t find true love this time around. This is Japan, so most love is either tragic, unrequited, poorly executed, or some combination of the above. (A reflection of real life??) Again, there is no way this should work. And yet! I enjoyed it and plan on watching more.
Gundam benefits this time from finding a length sweet spot. I have complained in other reviews that Yamato was too short to engage and Macross needed to lose about one fourth of its episodes. Gundam clocks in at about nine hours across three DVDs; Tomino condensed the 30+ episode series and is, according to something I read somewhere, happiest with this length. I concur – three DVDs forces the editor to cut out clip shows, side stories, and other narrative fat, but allows enough room to build a convincing world and facilitate a rapport between audience and character.
I realize that in this review I have spent more time talking about the world, mythology and context of Gundam than I have the actual series. This may be appropriate, as a friend of mine explained to me that Mobile Suit Gundam is basically Tomino’s world building exercise, and that the story really gets going in the second series. This may be true. The first series is interesting, I’m glad I watched it, and I plan on watching more, but I think it leaves plenty of potential untapped. I consider it to be must-see anime for anyone who is serious about understanding Japanese SF or who just likes big robots, but suspect that Gundam’s best days are waiting for me on a different set of DVDs.
Rating: Pre-season friendlies. Fun to watch, full of useful scouting material, and an endless source of gossip and speculation, but not to be confused with the meat of the regular season.