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40 years Of Gundam: Gundam Wing

Humans have begun to populate space by building a set of colonies at each of the Lagrange Points between the Earth and the Moon. On Earth, the countries have come together under the banner of the United Earth Sphere Alliance. Within the Alliance is an elite group, the Specials or more commonly OZ (the Order of the Zodiac). The Alliance is all powerful and seeks to control the colonies, each of which wishes to govern itself and determine its own future. A leader emerges in the colonies who the citizens rally behind in a bid to exert their right to freedom. In the year After Colony 175 this figure is assassinated beginning twenty years of tension and oppression from the Alliance.

It is the year After Colony 195 and Operation Meteor is underway. The five colony regions have each dispatched a pilot and a mobile suit. These highly-advanced suits were built in space by five  highly skilled scientists from Gundanium alloy, a material that can only be manufactured in space. So begins Gundam Wing.

For anime fans of a certain age I think that Mobile Suit Gundam Wing holds a very special place for them. It is a show that I am very fond of for a couple of reasons. Firstly I saw it aired in the UK shortly after getting into anime and I was exceptionally excited to see it on broadcast television. The second reason is that, like many, it was my introduction to the sprawling world of Gundam ... only I didn't know that then.

I remember flicking through the Sky TV channels late one evening looking for something to watch when my parents were out. I was back from university and was looking for something to get into whilst I was home. I stumbled onto the Cartoon Network with its Toonami block and was dropped straight into some kind of conflict between cool looking machines and one of them had a massive plasma scythe. I was dropped somewhere in the story - I think it was a quarter of the way through the series. Very quickly I was up to speed (it took a few episodes) but I was hooked from that point on. When I came back after the next term they were still showing it so I saw yet another block of it. It was only when Beez released the series on DVD in the 2000s that I actually saw it *in order* from start to finish. Watching it again gave me a thrill and I still enjoy watching the occasional episode all these year later.

Prior to the release of Gundam Wing almost all the Gundam anime released by Sunrise has been set in its Universal Century (where Mobile Suit Gundam, Zeta and ZZ Gundam all take place). In 1994/5 the first Gundam spin off (Mobile Fighter G Gundam) was released and then Wing was unleashed upon the world in 1995/6.

Gundam Wing comprises a 49 episode TV series and a 3 episode original video animation sequel called Endless Waltz. There are also books and manga associated with the timeline too. At the start of Wing the 5 Gundam pilots (Heero Yuy, Duo Maxwell, Trowa Barton, Quatre Reberba Winner and Wufei Chang) are sent to Earth as part of Operation Meteor. The aim of the operation was to remove the weapons from the Alliance and OZ so that the colonies could be free. As you can imagine such a simple plan is fraught with challenges, not least the people that the pilots meet along the way. Heero, the emotionless teenager meets Relena Darlian shortly after he lands on Earth. There is some kind of connection there and, although he threatens to kills her repeatedly, their paths are intertwined as her past is revealed.

Events in the story take us from Earth and back into space - it is a Gundam show after all. We visit colonies and are given that great mix of vast space battles and the personal conflicts that we expect and what make Gundam (of all entries) work so well.

Each pilot and Gundam has a different personality - Heero the stoic loner, Duo the more lighthearted people person, Trowa in search of an identity and a place he belongs, Quatre the intelligent one (emotionally too) and Wufei the impulsive honour bound warrior. The Gundams each have a cool look and combat style. Heero's Gundam "Wing" transforms into an aircraft. Duo Maxwell has Deathscythe which is for close combat and super sneaky. Trowa pilots Heavyarms which is a walking piece of artillery. Quatre's Sandrock which is more for close combat. Finally Wufei's Shenlong which is modeled on a dragon.

Gundam Wing is definitely aimed at a younger audience. Whilst it is still a real robot show it does feel like it crosses the boundaries back to a super robot show at times. Whilst there is violence on display the tone is a bit lighter than other Gundam entries and there was always enough ammunition or power to get the Gundam pilots out of any hole they had dug themselves into. Although aimed at a younger audience the TV show picks up some big themes - the right to self determination against a larger government (parallels could be drawn between Japan and America in the years following World War 2); modern warfare and how the rise of unmanned systems will just make it easier for wars or conflicts to be conducted as people are taken out of conflict (this really resonated with me). It also asks an interesting question about what would be needed to end all conflicts, the answer it suggests conjured up events from World War 2 in my mind.

Endless Waltz picks up close to the end of the TV series in AC 196. The events of the TV show have resulted in peace beginning to spread and grow within the Earth Sphere and the colonies. Deciding to destroy their Gundams, Heero and the gang send their mobile suits on a course to the Sun. Suddenly a colony decides to exert its desire for dominance, kidnaps Relena and sets a plan in motion that requires the Gundam pilots to get their suits back, get them upgraded (of course) and will pit former friends and comrades against each other on the battlefield. I enjoyed Endless Waltz and it felt like a solid end to the Wing entry into the Gundam universe. As it was an OVA there is a bit more money available to make it look superb - the mech designs really stand out.

The mechanical designs on Wing were delivered by a team of 3, one of which was Kunio Okawara who had worked as a designer on Mobile Suit Gundam and many other Gundam shows for Sunrise. More recently he has been credited with mech design work on Space Dandy. The design work is really shown off in the opening credits (as you would expect). My favourites were Gundams Deathscythe and Heavyarms (and I particularly liked the upgrades for Endless Waltz). Unlike previous Gundam shows there was a bit less emphasis on the suits of the antagonists - there were still lots of mobile suits and mobile suit battles, there was just a bit less of a focus on it. The Alliance and OZ mobile suits are much more uniform and functional rather than the more flamboyant creations of other titles. The Leos are land-based and look like soldiers whilst the Aries flies and looks a lot like a fighter pilot. The maritime suits, Cancer and Pisces are much more like submarines. I appreciated the details that went into the design of the mobile suits but for Wing we were not given close-ups of the intricate workings of the machines - it was enough that they worked and looked cool.

In a lot of the early Gundam reveals in Wing they would take out swathes of anonymous pilots and their military vehicles, would level whole bases and obliterate fleets. As the characters are introduced from OZ, the Alliance and the colonies the rivalries develop, for example Hero vs. Zechs Merquise (who has a very close resemblance to Char Aznable) or Wu-Fei Chang vs. Treize Kushrenada. Wing focuses more on the politics and big picture games than the relentless introduction (and destruction) of a new mobile suit every episode. This was very much to its credit as it allowed the arcs to develop (as in Mobile Suit and Zeta Gundam) and for you to appreciate that no character is black and white.

Since watching Wing my experience of Gundam shows is that, typically, its characters are not all evil or good. Yes, there are pantomime villains (Duke Dermail is one such in Wing) and some truly annoying one-dimensional characters but there is enough room for nuance and development for all. This gives the story scope to develop and challenges some of the assumptions we make about the cast, particularly the antagonists like Treize, Lady Une and Zechs. For those familiar with the franchise you know where it's going but it is fun getting there.

The Gundam pilots themselves are perhaps a bit less developed. They come to Earth and pretty quickly start attacking the Earth-based forces, bring death and destruction in their wake, but little is done to show guilt, remorse or provide more than a cursory explanation of their actions. It never glorifies their acts but equally the consequences of their actions are not explored fully. It doesn't help that the 5 Gundam pilots are all "pretty boys" with designs that suggest they are appealing to a wider audience. There is a lot of promo (and fan) art which make them appear a bit like a 90s boy band. Couple that with their personalities and you have a Gundam pilot for anyone. The characters designs of the younger members of the cast haven't aged that well - they are very much of the time. The adults in wing however are solidly conceived with the uniforms of the Alliance and OZ officers still looking sharp.

Each episode would open with a very brief "previously on Gundam Wing" recap of what had happened so far in the tale - something I initially found invaluable! There is something quite special about the opening introductory monologue for each episode provided by Campbell Lane. The style of narration felt almost like TV news and his voice gave it extra weight and gravitas. I can't imagine Gundam Wing without it as there is something about his narration that stirs up the emotions.

The final point to mention would be the theme. The opening bars of Just Communication bring back a flood of memories and emotions. It still works as a great theme tune. For me (and I suspect many others) it was one of the first pieces of J-pop I'd heard. Whilst I can't say for certain that this was the first Gundam to do this, all the series I have seen animated after Wing have a strong J-pop or J-rock opening and ending music.

Gundam Wing (the TV series) is a great gateway into the Gundam franchise as it is effectively a couple of season in length and never gets dull. It contains the familiar Gundam tropes of a vast array of characters with reasonably complex motivations, epic battles, personal struggles and complicated, almost ridiculous names. It has some great mecha design work, some of my favourites from the franchise and the world it sets up is familiar across the other entries. We have the colonies, a united Earth, a desire to be free and a technologically advanced opponent. Gundam Wing is a great foundation to the other Gundam installments I have seen. I skew more to the Universal Century Gundam shows but I would never have got to them without this entry. (I think I would have been too daunted by series length and the cast size!)