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Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam (1986)

It is the year UC 0087. It has been seven years since the One Year War ended the conflict between the Earth Federation and Principality of Zeon (as depicted in Mobile Suit Gundam). Things in space have not settled, however. The Earth Federation has established a highly-militant special force called the Titans that has been tasked with hunting the remnants of Zeon forces, but who are opposed to any who hold a differing view to them. It is as if the Federation and Zeon have swapped places and that the Federation has not learnt anything from the tragedy of a war begun eight years earlier. In space there is a group opposed to the Titans called the AEUG.  When the AEUG try to capture the new Gundam Mk-II suits they acquire a new pilot Kamille Bidan who joins the conflict under the tutelage of the AEUG ace pilot Quattro Bajeerna. The stage is set for yet another conflict between humans where once again politics, mobile suit combat, personal tragedies and the continued emergence of Newtypes will all play their part to shape the future.

From the opening credit sequence you are under no illusion that Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam  is a different Gundam show from the original Mobile Suit Gundam. The UK release of Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam from Anime Ltd opens not with a J-pop song but a beautifully orchestrated sombre piece of music. With its foreboding percussion like a march to war, strings and horns that suggest balletic duels, personal losses and victories, you can tell it is going to be different in tone to all the others you have seen. This music is overlaid over some of the best Gundam-related animation, design work, human-machine interfaces and backgrounds. I knew I was in safe hands and that I was in for a treat for the next 50 episodes.

Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam (MSZG) is a direct sequel to Mobile Suit Gundam (MSG). It was released through 1985 and 1986.  As with its predecessor, it was directed by Yoshiyuki Tomino with Kunio Okawara on mechanical designs (alongside Kazumi Fujita). Given that the original Gundam series was not well received I imagine that a combination of re-runs on television and the associated merchandise like the Gunpla kits made it viable to produce a new installation of the series-soon-to-be-franchise. This installation builds on the world established by its predecessor and has clearly learnt from its failings also. MSZG appears to have a far higher budget, or the team have been more careful with it as you can see most of it on the screen.

Within a few minutes, this show feels very familiar.  I mean that is a good way. Having seen some of the entries in the series (in order of viewing Gundam Wing, Gundam-00, Gundam Seed and MSG) you can certainly see the groundwork of some of the tropes that are part the Gundam universe being established.  Examples include story elements from the original Mobile Suit Gundam (MSG) being reused, designs of transport ships, a masked blonde antagonist and of course no Gundam series is complete without some off-the-wall character names. Given that the production values on this show are high (and maybe higher than later installations) it all looks, sounds and plays out like the genesis of much of what is good about Gundam.

In MSZG our protagonist Kamille Bidan is a precocious teen with a bit of an attitude who has a lot of growing up to do.  This attitude is part attention seeking and also related to his name, which people assume is that of a girl.  Whilst out and about in the colony he runs into Jerid Messa who mocks him for his name and in doing so gets a bit of a pummeling from Kamille. Jerid is one of the Titan mobile suit pilots and takes this embarrassment to heart.  He seeks any and all opportunities to get revenge on Kimille, thus begins their rivalry that spans the series. This kind of rivalry is present in *all* Gundam entries. To get back at Jerid and also to escape his life in the colony, the mobile suit obsessed Kamille gets into the cockpit and steals the RX-178 Mk-II Gundam at the same time the AEUG are conducting a surveillance mission against the new Gundam suits. (This is very reminiscent of the opening of MSG in many ways.) Kamille escapes with the AEUG team lead by the very blonde-haired Aviator sunglasses-wearing Quattro Bajeerna (see what I mean about names?). Quattro looks very much like ...

Over the next 45 or so episodes we have a story or space opera that starts in space, visits Earth and then returns to space. We have defections between the AEUG and the Titans, acts based on emotional selfishness that can jeopardise hundreds of lives. We have acts of bravery, courage and characters who display a level of emotional intelligence not seen before or since in the case of a Gundam show. Because of these factors, MSZG outshines MSG but its biggest achievement is that the pacing of the story is much better. This is not to do-down the other aspects of the show but I *expect* good mecha design and animation work from this series. There is breathing space between big events. there is not the relentless "and then this, then this..." of the original which helps to build up a sense of tension. In taking this approach there is much more time given to some of the side stories that show the growth of the main characters like Kamille, Quattro and even Amuro Ray (no longer the bratty character of MSG). It is through these stories that we meet the vast array of supporting characters and build connections with them such that we care what happens to most of them (or not when they are really annoying!).

The time spent with Kamille and his growth into an almost well-rounded human is enjoyable.  Yes, he is a bit of a brat to begin with and he is certainly arrogant, but he learns and wants to be better than he is. The arc where he falls in love and has to deal with all that brings is well handled, a bit clunky at times but feels like you would expect it to. He swings through binary emotional states just like a teenager. He also doesn't want to fight and certainly doesn't want to take lives. This puts him at odds with some of the others around him. He would rather negotiate in combat than fire and forget about it. I'm trying to think of other characters across the franchise elements I have seen that would do this and I'm drawing a blank. Again this sets it apart from the rest of the pack.

Kamille takes a bit of a battering for his beliefs and attitudes. He is often on the receiving end of a verbal dressing down or a slap from Lt Emma Sheen and Miss Reccoa Londe. Both of these characters are used more than any of the female characters in MSG and thankfully at this early point they not actively designed or used on screen to be ogled (that comes later in the franchise). Both are excellent mobile suit pilots, have skills the forces need and hold their own against any of the other cast members.

Just as the Newtype phenomenon in Gundam was getting interesting the show stopped. When MSZG starts someone is looking for Lalah Sune and from there the Newtype concept is further expanded. Unlike in the original series, the Newtype phenomenon is not just displayed by those who are great warriors or in combat. It suggests a connection between people both alive and dead, of any background as long as they were born in space. This notion of the connection, between humans and machines is explored throughout the show. Can this ... ability ... be unlocked in those not born with it? It does begin to veer towards the spiritual at times and at others it tends towards psychic-warriors concept. For me, it worked better somewhere between an unknown and spiritual, with its emphasis on the understanding of people and of learning from each other.

Can Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam be watched if you haven't seen Mobile Suit Gundam? Yes, but I think you would miss a little by doing so. Original cast members return and we see where they are later in life. I'm not spoiling it as you see them in the opening sequence. For example, Bright Noa, commander of the White Base (and perhaps a hero of the battles of the One Year War) is now being trampled on and beaten by the new command structure and the Titans. (Do they not know who he is??) We see the children like Kikka and Katz grown up and with attitudes. In addition, we find out what happened with the relationships hinted at at the end of MSG. What happened between Fraw Bow and Amuro?  What about Bright and Mirai? And of course, what happened to the Red Comet Char Aznable and the Gundam pilot Amuro Ray, the central relationship in the franchise? When I saw the opening sequence for the first time it brought a smile to see how they had been imagined. Whilst each of them are briefly introduced in the show, knowing their back story helps and there is a sense of anticipation as each is introduced. Who is next? How will they appear? Thankfully each character still fits and retains the essence of how I remember them to be and what I expected them to do.

For a TV show from the 1980s that has been hand-drawn, the mecha designs are sublime and the animation superb. Okawara and Fujita have really pulled something out of the bag from a design perspective. I would love to see the sketch work that lead to the final design set. The work is familiar - you would look at it and know it is Gundam-related, but the work is much more fresh and polished. Whilst the Mark II is just that from its look (an original RX-78 Gundam with cleaner lines), the Zeta looks more imposing, perhaps a bit bulkier and has a really neat face design. It's more like the helmet of a gladiator than samurai in some ways. The Hyaku-Shiki is equally glorious - sleek and nimble in appearance. I'm not sure about the gold finish but it makes it distinctive.

The Titan and Federation fleets combine the old Zeon look with new Federation design work which creates something that you can spend a long time looking it. I found myself asking where the bits come from and trying to piece together the design influences.  Elements from nature have been incorporated into the mecha, for example, birds and bees. What is nice is that we are not exposed to the "new model of the week" that the original series used as a device.  New models are introduced at a more reasonable pace and only seem to replace destroyed models or when a valid capability upgrade is required.

It appears as though much more thought has gone into how the mobile suits function and interact with the world. For example, the communication flares are fired from behind the suit fingers! Similarly, they show how issues are patched up during combat or bumps against space-faring objects. Perhaps the greatest functional develop and my favourite new design feature is the cockpit and HMI design that almost suggests the pilots are sitting with the world projected in some way around the surface of the sphere they sit in. It looks cool and is a neat step away from the "look at the monitor" school of mobile suits giving a hint that the mobile suit is an extension of the body (and maybe the mind?) of the pilot. It was a natural evolution from earlier work.

Such design features did not have a negative impact on the animation. There is a serious step up in animation quality from the original MSG whether it be a large scale conflict or more character driven moment. Considering that this is a hand-drawn feature full of technical designs and relatively complex backgrounds the animation throughout is consistent, fluid and smooth. Of course, the battles look impressive but everything feels like they are all inhabiting the same world. Some of the more static shots are brought to life overlaying panels on top of each other. This was often seen for mobile suit launches but was employed during complex multi-party conversations. It kind of gave some of the scenes a manga-like appearance and in doing so just gives the viewer something else to look at. Some of those shots would look fantastic as a print especially those with the mobile suit against space with the eyes of the pilot across the image.

MSZG has its flaws. Whilst the production crew learnt from MSG about the pacing it is still a little off at times - but that could be more noticeable from watching several episodes in a block rather than perhaps an original weekly schedule? There are also some clunky moments with dialogue and macho posturing that appears to be there to add weight but in many cases is redundant. I often found this to be the case whenever one particular character was on screen (but luckily that wasn't too much). Sometimes it drifted into melodrama especially around some of the teen relationships, but these are all minor points in what is an exceptional show.

It is shows like this that demonstrate how difficult or unfair applying a star rating or assigning a score can be.  Zeta Gundam is far superior to Mobile Suit Gundam and I would say of all of the Gundam-related shows I have seen this has been my favourite.  It is not a perfect show, the pacing at times suffers and there are some "clunky" moments that are dialogue heavy.  However the more I think and write about it I realise just how much I liked it and how good a show it is. I find myself humming the theme tune or remembering some of the key events especially the ending which delivers on all of the build up and slots in to the tone of the entire series. This is what I do with those feature films or series I rave about (like Redline) much to the frustration of friends and colleagues. As a result, I have had to review my original opinion.

This is a great show and I am surprised at how much I enjoyed it. Its tone is a little darker, more angst-y than its predecessor and is a better show for it. Although at times melodramatic is delivers an engrossing story with fluid action and combat animation. The design work is excellent and sets a foundation that future installations will follow. It balances the big space opera with smaller character story arcs that try to put the events into a human scale.  I liked that the "hero" doesn't want to fight, that they try other ways to prevent the conflict and that all decisions come with a set of consequences. I liked that he was part of a team and not always the strongest or best in it. It is a more confident show that other entries in the franchise and as such Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam is definitely the "new" benchmark for Gundam shows to be assessed against.

FROM Anime Limited
RATINGNot Rated [US]
15 [UK]
50 Episodes [TV Series]