Header Ads

Gundam Thunderbolt: December Sky (2016)

It is the year Universal Century 0080. The war between the Federation and the Zeon forces is being felt all over the Earth Sphere. Each side and faction is still looking for an angle or some kind of advantage over the other to turn the tide of war in their favour.

In the Thunderbolt Sector, the Federation forces are looking to clear a path through the wreckage and debris of Side 4, countless ships, mobile suits and a high density of Minkovsky particles. Their path is blocked and progress hindered by the Zeon Living Dead unit, a unit of soldiers wounded in combat who have taken up sniping positions in the field of battle. Time and again the Federation send new, untried recruits into combat as their Captain Claudia Peer sees fewer and fewer return. Could the arrival of a new prototype Gundam unit boost morale and lead the Federation to victory? What is certain is that the Zeon ace sniper Daryl Lorenz will be going up against Io Fleming of the Federation with the outcome influencing the fate of the Earth Sphere.

Gundam Thunderbolt is the most recent addition to the Universal Century (UC) story from Sunrise. The events take place around the assault of A Baoa Qu that we witness at the end of Mobile Suit Gundam. The Thunderbolt anime was written and directed by Kō Matsuo and just drops us right into the action with no preamble, it's up to us to figure out what is going on as the events unfold.

Viewers familiar with other entries in the franchise will know what to expect and against that backdrop Thunderbolt more than delivers. There is personal rivalry, a vast array of characters and some great mech-based combat animation. Because of where it fits in with the UC timeline we see tweaked and updated designs of the classic mobile suits. Advances in technology have enabled these designs to be rendered in such fine detail that is fan-service to all mecha anime fans.

Whilst the human animation is decent enough the space combat animation is top notch. You would hope for and expect this from an entry in the Gundam franchise (now 30 years old!) but there is *always* a sense of relief when they get it right. Sunrise have obviously spent time and money on this project and the mech animation it is sensational. Daryl's Zaku (a high-mobility variant) and Io's Gundam (this time the FA-78) circle, charge and dodge like two birds of prey fighting over territory. They weave and skirt around space wreckage, catch their breath in colony debris and leave propulsion trails that look like ionised gas clouds.

Within the combat animation they managed to express the vastness of the battlefield and the experience of the pilots. There is a sense of freedom but also single-minded focus about the way the machines move in space when piloted by experienced pilots like Darly and Io. When the new recruits go out the scale and space of their arena completely overwhelms them ... with the expected outcome. Thunderbolt differs from the other Gundam series especially in the UC timeline as it is tonally very very dark and asks or hints at some deep, often timeless questions.

The opening scenes of Io playing air drums in his mobile suit cockpit, or Daryl waiting for a new target feel familiar in style and tone. It sets the two characters up as very different - Io impulsive and a bit reckless, Daryl much calmer and focused. The first engagement, however, was absolutely brutal with the cries for help being broadcast as each Federation pilot is removed from the battlefield. Each and every time both sides squared off I was reminded of a scene in Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket (the scene with the sniper in the ruined building and the soldiers trying to cross the landscape). Whilst Gundam has been a show featuring a war, oftentimes it is more about the characters in the foreground. Thunderbolt is much more a war film - there is a real sense of chaos, danger and waste of life that occurs in war both on and off the battlefield. There were moments where I had to look away from the film - as I realised what was about to happen and I didn't need to see it. I could imagine and I found it horrific.

This darker, more serious tone seeps into every element of the film. How does war change a person? Does great power corrupt? How would you feel sending people to their deaths? This film often asks with is the role of science in war and its use. Are all developments for the good of humankind? Some of these questions seed the final act and by the end, I was not sure which faction I was supposed to side with. There was never a sense I was being told what to think or feel, both of the main characters are well rounded and have honest motivations. At the end however, I didn't really want to be in their company any more. Perhaps that answers the first question. On technology I felt that it was making a broader point about its advancement, utility, who controls it, if it is controllable at all. Once technology has been demonstrated it is almost impossible, bar drastic action, to undo it.

Like all Gundam shows, I have seen we have a rivalry between our antagonist and protagonist. In the original Mobile Suit Gundam it was Amuro vs. Char Aznable, ZZ Gundam was Camille facing off against Jared. Gundam Wing (a gateway anime for people my age) had Hero Yuuy toe-to-toe with Zechs Merquise and in Gundam 00 Setsuna tested himself against Graham Aker. All of these rivalries had many many episodes and every meeting developed their rivalries and as such each brought with oodles of history to the battle. Because December Sky drops you into the action and you don't get a feeling as to what is driving the rivalry between Io and Daryl. What is it that generates such passion for the opposition? It could be that this is explored in more detail in the manga or other entries into the Gundam Thunderbolt series. None of this detracts from the action on screen, it just lessens its impact.

There are hints of a further back-story to do with Side 4 and its eventual collapse. We get snippets suggesting the rich were responsible for what happened. There are furtive glances and snatched sentences pointing at a coup. On the Zeon ship there are pointers to clandestine research and overt blackmail as characters are forced against their will to do horrific acts. If this had been a TV series then there would have been time devoted to follow these threads and it would have been a much richer show. As it stands they provide a nice counterpoint to the action and just mix the pace up enough that we don't switch off.

Watching Gundam Thunderbolt was a mixed experience. The mobile suit conflicts - be they groups or one on one are exceptional. Never has Gundam portrayed its conflicts in such a visually stunning way. Engine exhaust, plasma cannons and the titular thunderbolts are rendered in vivid colours against a midnight-blue sky. Kou Matsuo and Sunrise take full advantage of modern computer animation techniques to depict fluid balletic duels and skirmishes that don't suffer from either the weightless feeling or poor integration of characters or models into the backgrounds of some 3D animation (including more recent Gundam like Origin). You get the sense that this is animated feature is a big deal and they nail it.

The counterpoint to this visually striking animated feature is its depiction of the horrific and darker side of the UC conflict and how it impacts people. It was a very distinctive tonal shift from Mobile Suit Gundam whose events are occurring in parallel and its drastic shift into darker territory may be too much for those familiar with other entries in the UC timeline. I, however, liked that it went to some dark places and that the content was more adult but without any relief or positivity on display, it was very hard to watch. For those searching for a more mature action-oriented show this is a great showpiece.

FORMAT: Blu-Ray  FROM: Anime Limited RATING: Not Rated [US] 15 [UK] RUNNING TIME : 1hr 10m [movie]

IN A NUTSHELL: Full of flashes and bangs, Gundam Thunderbolt December Sky leaves a powerful and lasting after-image. It is stunning to watch but be prepared for a mature harsh depiction of conflict unlike other Gundam shows.