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40 Years of Gundam: Gundam SEED (2002-2003)

It is year 70 of the Cosmic Era. Advances in science and technology have given rise to what could be considered as a new branch of humanity, the Coordinators. They are genetically engineered humans who have the capacity for increased feats of intelligence and physical prowess. Because they are different they are persecuted on Earth by the Naturals so they emigrate to colonies (PLANTS) that they build in space around the Earth.

As is often the case when there is a division between groups tensions between the Earth Forces (representing the Naturals) and ZAFT (the military of those living in the orbital colonies) come to a head after the Earth Forces detonate a nuclear bomb in space which is followed by a counterattack that results in much of Earth to go without electricity and most electromagnetic activities are rendered useless. With the technologically advanced Coordinators seemingly gaining the upper hand in the ongoing war the Earth Forces need to tip the scales in their favour. What they need is a Gundam.

I always thought that Gundam SEED was the next major instalment in the franchise after Gundam Wing in 2002-3. I think this was because when I first saw Wing it was already many years after its original release in 1995-6 and surely not much could have been released. How wrong I was. In between these two Gundam series we had several other instalments released including a couple of TV series (After War Gundam X and Turn-A Gundam). With Wing being such a smash hit SEED had a lot to live up to because Wing was a great show and also was the gateway into anime for many English speaking fans.

Airing in the US in 2004 Gundam SEED would be a gateway for the next generation of English-speaking anime and fans of the Gundam franchise in general. Its DVD release sold well in Japan as did its related audio CDs. It was also a show that attracted male and female viewers to the franchise in a way previous releases hadn't. In the UK Gundam SEED was released on DVD (all 50 episodes) by Beez Entertainment as two handy collected volumes. Before Anime Limited, Beez were the distributor in the UK of all things Gundam in the early 2000s.

It was with great anticipation that I sat down to devour SEED on DVD. Unlike other entries in the Gundam franchise I struggled to get swept up in the drama and the action. When a show creates a strong positive or negative response in the viewer is great - it creates passionate discussion and sometimes a reevaluation of what you think. Sadly for me Gundam SEED is not a show I can get enthusiastic about as I had done with Wing, Gundam 00 or many (not all) of the entries in the UC timeline. My overwhelming memory of it was "meh, it's o.k." Something just didn't sit right and going back and revisiting them for the 40th anniversary of the franchise has given me an opportunity to find out what caused it.

If I was being reductive (and perhaps a bit facetious) Gundam SEED is broadly a retelling of the original Mobile Suit Gundam. Obviously, when I watched it I didn't know that - I found it out years later when I watched the 1979 show. Giving SEED its due, it does more than just repeat a previous Gundam show in vivid colours and contemporary character designs (for the time). Our protagonist Kira Yamato and antagonist Athrun Zala are childhood friends and that always sets sparks flying as inevitably they are on opposing sides.

SEED also made use of the pretty boy element and multiple mobile suits from Wing (I'm oversimplifying). This gave us a bit more consistency the main characters and less introducing someone new only for them to exit the show 15 minutes later with another mobile suit scrapped. It also gave a greater sense of the challenge that Kira would face as, inevitably, when Kira eventually takes the life of one of Athrun's friends it is felt quite keenly by everyone and intensifies the conflict somewhat.

This very human element drives in drama from the beginning where we have expansive battles and personal drama mixed - something that Gundam has always done. Athrun and Kira's first meeting in SEED sets up the rest of the show - as he is sent with his team to steal the new mobile suits being developed by the Earth Forces. Because of his hesitation all but one of the suits are captured with Kira getting in the cockpit of the GAT-105 Strike Gundam. And theirs is not the only rivalry. In true Gundam-style we have Mu La Flaga and his rival Rau La Creuset, where Rau looks suspiciously like another masked protagonist in the Gundam-verse.

I really like the premise and set up of the series - the tension between the Natural and the genetically enhanced/altered Coordinators creates a great backdrop to explore humanity. The slightly out of the ordinary worlds that science fiction can convey gives us a wonderful mirror on ourselves. With Kira and Athrun as friends separated by distance, time and background the stage appeared to be set for ... *something*. Nothing really materialised apart from an over-emoting teen-angst show with giant machines and that has been done many times.

Looking back on it now I think there were a combination of factors that lead to my cool reception towards SEED. Perhaps they are related to my age - I am definitely not the target demographic now or when I watched it. But then neither am I for the other Gundam shows! I think the main factors were the story, the mech design and the way the show was coloured.

Gundam SEED is not a bad show. The space-based actions scenes are well put together and balance action and personal drama well. It contains all the major elements you would expect from a Gundam show. I have already mentioned the kinds of character names on offer. It has personal rivalries, themes of duty, a reluctant "hero", several plots running in parallel and things not being quite as black and white as you first thought.

Gundam SEED packs in a lot of story, characters, political factions, plots and sub-plots (phew!) but the sheer quantity left me un-engaged. SEED clips along at a fair pace and gives every element a fair hearing but in the process nothing really got much time to breathe. I found myself not really caring what happened to the characters and their relationships with each other seemed quite superficial. Events that happen in the original Mobile Suit Gundam over several episodes that slowly built to a climax when re-imagined in SEED seemed over before they got a chance to start. If some of the less significant storylines had been removed it might have had the space to let the characters get more established.

In terms of the mechanical design work, it failed to capture my enthusiasm. From every Gundam series I have a favourite or one that really sticks in my mind. Deathscythe and Heavyarms were my favourites from Wing and I really liked the Zeta Gundam for example. Here nothing stuck out in my memory from the first watch and on a second viewing I can kind of see why. Of the main 5 Gundams they all look a bit same-y - they're all quite angular and strong but I fail to recall any features that made them stick out. The Strike Gundam is a bit of a multi-role platform and gets its armaments sent out to it which is a neat feature but nothing stands out.

As for the colouring, it's bright. All of the colours are bright and with the strong vivid colours applied to the Gundams and other mobile suits of different shapes and sizes, I felt at times like I was watching Zoids. In fact, the movement and animation of the mechs reminded me very much of Zoids: New Century from the early 2000s. The mechs felt disconnected in some ways from the world they were in - it was as if they were slightly out of phase with the environment they were supposed to be in. I imagine the use of computer animation techniques available at the time being used in a 50 episode TV show which has time and budget constraints contribute to the look but it did make we hanker for the hand-drawn Wing.

There was a sequel to Gundam SEED in 2004 titled Mobile Suit Gundam SEED Destiny. This is set a couple of years after the conclusion of SEED. As you can imagine the tensions between Coordinators and Naturals has not gone away and another conflict is brewing. Because of my somewhat luke-warm response to SEED I didn't pick up SEED Destiny on DVD. I wish I had done as I would have liked to have seen what they did with it. I may not have been wowed by it but I certainly would have been entertained as it was directed by Mitsuo Kukuda who was responsible for the first SEED instalment.

I did find Gundam SEED entertaining, it's just as each episode finished I never had the "oh, just one more..." feeling. It is always interesting to see what different creative teams do within the bounds that the studio will impose. You also see how the time it was created influences what was on show, the tone, character designs and music. I am glad that I watched it as SEED was entertaining it was just, for me anyway, a weaker entry in the Gundam franchise and is not one I would necessarily recommend unless I knew the person was really into early 2000s anime.