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Mobile Suit Gundam (1979)

The Principality of Zeon has declared war on the Earth Federation and both participants have taken heavy losses leading to a prolonged stalemate.  It is the year Universal Century 0079.  Humanity lives in space colonies called Sides as well as dwelling on Earth.  A new generation is coming through though, "Spacenoids", those born in space on the colonies.

At this time both warring nations are looking for ways to break this stalemate and it looks like the Federation may have had a breakthrough - they have developed the Gundam, their secret weapon, a mobile suit so advanced it surpasses those of Zeon mobile-suit forces.  During a Zeon raid to collect data and perhaps destroy the Gundam, Amuro Ray (a teenager) enters the cockpit of the Gundam to defend those fleeing the Zeon incursion within his colony.  His fate and that of the Gundam are now joined as he and other civilians escape on an advanced warship, White Base, are conscripted into the Federation forces and have to deal with the hardships of a war they are trying to end.
There are certain anime that you could consider the "big beasts", those that a lot of people have heard of from the Anime Boom in the 1990s.  The Toonami block on Cartoon Network introduced many of those beasts to an unsuspecting western cartoon lovers.  It is here I met (and perhaps we?) Gundam Wing with its epic scale war, giant fighting machines and pretty boys.

But before Gundam Wing we had Mobile Suit Gundam, one of the parents of the real robot genre. Lots of people, whether it be through Wing or other entries in the franchise (toys, model kits, games), have met Gundam.  In 2015 the original Mobile Suit Gundam was comitted to Blu-ray through Right Stuf in the USA and released in the UK by Anime Limited (though it had already been available through some streaming services).  Now we could see where it all began, something I had been wanting to do for many years.  I only hoped it was worth the wait.

Mobile Suit Gundam, which from here I'll refer to as MSG, starts with the Zeon forces sneaking into a space colony trying to get intelligence on the new Federation secret weapon.  When this is seen and small invading force decide to go on the offensive seeing an opportunity to turn the tide of war.  After witnessing the deaths of his fellow colony members our protagonist Amuro Ray, a clever (and slightly arrogant) teenager who is great with technology but less so with people, jumps inside the cockpit of the RX-78 Gundam. He knows it is important because his father has been working on it. Being something of a child prodigy he is able to pilot it (after reading the manual) and uses it to defend the evacuation of colony citizens as well as take out some of the enemy invaders.

The Federation is the Earth Federation, a collective formed of Earth and most of the space colonies surrounding it.  The Principality of Zeon (Side 3, a space colony) and has declared independence from the Federation and started a war.  Whilst Zeon is smaller than the Federation, it is technologically advanced and fields "mobile suits" as a significant combat force.  We are dropped straight into the action as war hits a colony and where a stalemate has settled with each army looking for the upper hand.

After successfully protecting the inhabitants of his colony during the initial skirmish, Amuro "joins" the crew of White Base, an armed and advanced space cruiser.  Because he is able to pilot the Gundam he is semi-conscripted/enlisted into the army, along with many other civilians including his childhood friend Fraw Bow, who are trying to escape the war but who are needed to make up the crew and feel duty-bound to do what they can.  This gives us the mix of civilians and professional soldiers working together, all learning from each other and butting heads at the same time.

To over simplify it, what follows is a cat-and-mouse chase where White Base and its crew are pursued by Char Aznable (also called the Red Comet on account of his red mobile suit and his legendary speed in battle, a distinguished and skilled Zeon mobile-suit pilot, whilst trying to make their way to Earth to join up with friendly forces and all remaining conflicts.  A rivalry forms between Amuro and Char that is fueled by arrogance, desire and the will to survive.  One wants to eliminate the other to prove he's the best and spread his ideals, the other want to do the same to survive and protect those he cares about.  This rivalry sits at the core of the show surrounded by political intrigues, large-scale conflicts, personal stories of the White Base crew.  Encompassing this is that they are at war and that this takes its toll on everyone, physically and emotionally.  An extra dimension is added when we are introduced to the concept of Newtypes, the next stage in human evolution, likely to be among those born in space.  They may have amazing reflexes, a pre-cognitive ability and heightened intelligence.  Perhaps they may be the next rulers of space, but they only exist in whispered conversations but each side in the conflict is searching for them and looking for ways to exploit them.

The story within MSG is both a strength and a weakness, where the strengths far outweigh its shortfalls.  It is a big story.  No, it is epic in scale.  The brief synopsis above doesn't do it justice.  It's set in a relatively contained universe with a vast array of characters.  Each of these characters features within the story and has a purpose, but this can make it hard to keep up with them all, especially as the names are not that easy to pronounce. But there is a reason we remember Char and Amuro.

Incidentally this trend for unique names becomes a feature of every series.  Whilst expansive, at no point however does it feel that the story doesn't know where it is going. You're on a journey and you are watching the scenery go by, which is a lot of fun.  Early on there are several short story arcs, 2-3 episodes in length, that let characters like Amuro, Char, Bright, Mirai and Kai develop, where they face challenges and have tough decisions to make.  A personal favourite is that with Ramba Ral set on Earth that showed that neither side is good or bad no matter how much we might want it to be.

To return to and extend this tenuous car-journey metaphor a bit more, the way the show is paced leaves you with the feeling you fell asleep on the way and missed a landmark.  There are significant leaps in the main narrative towards the end of the series where events are presented as "then the next fight and the next and then this happens and then this and ..." without any sense that they are components within what was up to that point.  I know that fitting a densely packed story into into a defined number of episodes is a challenge but all sense of peril, the physical and mental toll just vanished.  MSG was cancelled during its run and this must have been the major factor in the change of pace.

This rapid change of pace is such a shame as towards the end we start to see the development of some interesting ideas around the Newtypes (an iconic word in anime), the consequences of the political machinations and the inevitable conclusion of war and what some will do to "win".  You could see these themes being set up and it is frustrating that these threads tidied up in such a rushed fashion.

For a mecha show, a lot of MSG is not war machines in combat but the transit between encounters. Such as the aforementioned cat-and-mouse chases, escapes, repair and refit.  Don't get me wrong there are mobile suit battles within each episode (they need to showcase the toys and figures) but it is not the focus.  As most of the series takes place on White Base or confined environments we get to see the tensions that develop between the cast, and as they develop we start to care about them.  We get a sense of where they are from, why they are following a certain path, which starts to build more well-rounded characters.  Because of this when the characters are killed off, and many are, as a viewer I cared.  It would be ridiculous, given what is going on around them, for none of the crew to die but when it happened it was shocking and unexpected.

Although there are lots of characters, they do a decent job of fleshing out the most important ones. Which is a good 20 or so across the warring empires.  They even managed to avoid the moustache-twirling cliche villains for the most part and treat the majority of characters in an even manner.  Some are more developed than others and as you would expect, Amuro and Char are the most comprehensively filled out.  Both were arrogant, full of self-importance, determined and blinded by their desire. If you had to spend time with them, you would likely want to give Amuro a good slap to bring him back to reality, something that happens many times to him in the series (and sometimes by Fraw Bow).  As his skills improve, his opinion of himself increases to the point of "you can't do this without me!"

 Char, however, is the calm, collected, highly intelligent know-it-all rival we have all seen before.  Amuro is the more sympathetic of the pair, but we spend more time with him and experience his ups and downs.  (This is something rectified in Gundam: The Origin where we see more of Char and his back story.)  When Amuro is on form, he either gets stuck in and works with the team or he can be a stroppy petulant teenager.  With Char you get a definite sense that he cares about those on his team or under his command. He takes risks and is the first to tell his team to withdraw if it is the most prudent thing to do.  You also get the sense that Char has an underlying reason for his actions, a greater or longer-term plan which is beyond the scope of the war he finds himself in.

As one of the first of the real-robot shows, where characters have a finite power source or ammunition, yet another new dimension is introduced.  I felt that each character had only a finite time to act and that their actions had impact, no more random blasting like before.  Amuro's realization at the beginning that he doesn't have infinite ammo is fun to watch.  With ammunition a premium, different strategies had to be implemented with corresponding risks assessed which was interesting.  But again as the end approached this concept upped an left in order to get to the end within the allotted episodes, thereby undoing all that good work.

The animation quality is decent enough.  You can definitely tell that it was made many decades ago and the re-use of existing footage is quite obvious if you watch it in a big chunk.  It is quite apparent in the Gundam transport/transformation sequences.  These sequences are there to make the limited budget go further so it is a bit unfair to judge it too harshly but sometimes they just didn't fit.  The quality of animation is patchy at times, lacking fluidity, but as the budget starts to run out towards the end of the series the team did some really nice stuff with the shading and design work - thick pen lines and bold colours, a style I like, which was quite in your face and striking.  They even applied some of this to the Amuro and Char which set them apart (and the look of the show for a few sequences) from other mecha shows and even other entries in the Gundam franchise.  It was as if someone was saying "we know this is a static shot but look how cool it is".  It was almost pop-art and something I would like to have hanging on a wall.

Although it is a cliche, MSG is very much of its time, but in a good way.  Yes anime was big business, but what we were given was a sprawling sci-fi space opera similar in many ways to Star Wars - A New Hope (released in 1977) with epic space battles and a reluctant hero who may have special powers.  We even have high collars, big helmets, masks and even a sword fight in space!  The similarities are striking.  In addition, we have a great ensemble cast who do not conform to stereotype design tropes - we have a very ordinary-looking set of people who look and act their ages, and who grow and develop as their experience in war inevitably influences them.  It also set the format for the eventual sequels of which there have been many, and its marketing power for toys and model kits cannot be denied - I have several on my shelves from watching this show (and its sequels).

And on that note the designs for the mecha are ... cool.  By designing the Zeon forces with a single "eye" (camera) a sense of other-worldliness in the mobile suits is instant and it follows through all of Char's mecha (the Zaku, Z'Gok and Gelgoog) so you can see a progression with time.  They are certainly a menacing and bulky fighting force and you get an idea of what each was designed for by looking at them.  There is also enough variation in design that you get the sense that different machines have been built (within the world) for different strategies or purposes.  An example is the Dom with its hovercraft-like movement.  As the series moves to space some of the more earth-bound design aspects disappear which brings in some different designs, some of which I was less keen on.

Mind you, if you were designing and building a fighting "robot" you probably wouldn't go for a bipedal design - the balance mechanism would be tricky, especially at that size!  As for the RX-78, it is a classic "hero" design with the white suit complemented by red and blue.  Its head gives off the look of a pared back samurai helmet and the rest of the design suggests speed and precision over brute force.  These design philosophies were carried through into the other instalments, creating a sense that the mecha are connected to their worlds.  Kunio Okawara (the mecha designer) was tasked by Yoshiyuki Tomino (the director) to design the mecha in a more realistic fashion, and he did.  It feels as though I have not much to say about the mecha which does form a significant part of the attraction of this show.  Okawara went on to work on other "real robot" series and Gundam seems to set the standard by which other mecha are judged.  However, I found more in the series than the mecha which I was surprised by.

It is difficult to tell if I'm being overly harsh on it or too lenient because of what Gundam is.  It is cursed with the expectation and hype that it is a classic which can't but taint opinion.  Irrespective of that, Mobile Suit Gundam is one of those titles that, if you are a fan of anime, you should watch.  If you are a fan of mecha then it really is a must see because of its place in that genre.  As it is one of the first of the "real robot" shows (and because it has a heavyweight backer in Bandai we get the toy thing) you can see how anime aimed at a younger audience has become what it is, even though at times I felt that some of its content perhaps was aimed at older children.

 This show plays a significant role in setting the template for those merchandise-heavy shows that followed and has created a significant franchise in its wake, where the mecha designs refer back to the originals and the spirit of Amuro and Char are ever present - it certainly has been there in the other Gundam entries I have seen.  At times it felt a bit like the "what is the new mobile suit this episode" and towards the end the pacing was off.  That said it builds a consistent world beset with peril, a set of characters that you invest in and it treats its audience with the intelligence they deserve by being even with the characters and not descending into that "they're evil and they're good".  As for the mecha design, no-one can deny how iconic the look of the Gundam or Char's Zaku has become, and that will be one of its enduring legacies.

FROM Anime Limited (UK), Bayview Entertainment (USA)
43 Episodes