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40 Years of Gundam: The Universal Century

At the tail-end of 2015, Anime Limited released Mobile Suit Gundam on Blu-ray in the UK. It was already available in the USA through Right Stuf. I was very excited about it being released as it was *one of those* shows that if you were a fan of real-robot or mecha-based anime you *had* to see. I wanted to see where it all began and to see how it compared to those other Gundam shows I'd seen so far. Would it bowl me over and draw me into its own timeline? Would I finish the last episode and realise its significance and leave it there? Thankfully it was the former and it has given me many many hours of entertainment, joy, and some of my favourite moments in anime. It hasn't always delivered but I always look forward to a new entry in the Universal Century.

From a quick look online there appears to be around 20 instalments in the Gundam franchise set in the Universal Century (UC). These span shows like the original Mobile Suit Gundam (and its direct sequels) set around UC 0079, Gundam Origin which encompasses UC 0068 to UC 0078, Unicorn in UC 0096 and the Victory Gundam (available in the US but not the UK) set in UC 0153. They are a mix of long-form TV shows and feature-length original video animations (OVAs).

Here in the UK Anime Limited have been releasing Gundam shows since 2015 on physical media, a lot of them set in the Universal Century. On Blu-ray, we have been treated to Mobile Suit Gundam (and the movie compilations), Zeta Gundam, ZZ GundamChar's Counterrattack and Gundam: The Origin which form the central ongoing narrative. They establish and build the world all the events take place within. We also have a series of OVAs set around the end of the One Year War in the form of Gundam Thunderbolt: December Sky and Bandit Flower. The Japanese collectors edition of Gundam NT (Gundam Narrative) was also made available through Anime Limited and is the sequel to Gundam Unicorn.

By the time I got to Mobile Suit Gundam, I had already seen Gundam Wing00 and SEED. All of these were created much later than the original Mobile Suit Gundam but for some reason that was the show that really grabbed me. It is a given that the mechanical design work would appeal to me. I liked how the designs of Kunio Okawara were iterated and developed as new mobile suits were revealed. What surprised me however was how much I liked the human character designs of Yoshikazu Yasuhiko. They weren't like the typical stylised "anime" character designs I'd seen quite a lot of - all angular features and big eyes that is often associated with anime (and manga). They felt very natural, gentle and even those more exaggerated characters (like Dozle Zabi) were on the plausible side.

For most of the Universal Century entries, I have seen this quality of the characters has been retained. Each of the Gundam pilots has been just on the edge of social groupings. They are slightly awkward, perhaps looking for a purpose and maybe a group or family to which they can belong. As such they and their peers are depicted as an average teenager in appearance with their hopes and dreams matching their age. I suspect this was reflected to a degree in the target audience and I am sure when I was that age I would have seen elements I could directly relate to.

Family, duty and friendship feature heavily in the shows and for many a Gundam pilot Captain Bright Noa is the surrogate father, offering sage-like advice and once he has had a family of his own a degree of understanding. The onscreen friendships extend further than just out Gundam pilots but those around them. That was a big attraction for me in the original Gundam and also in Zeta Gundam. I enjoyed seeing how the characters interacted with each other and also seeing them grow. Camille Bidan was an annoying spoiled you-know-what at the beginning of the Zeta Gundam series but he grew, changed and influenced those around him. The same was true of Amuro Ray who gets a slap for his poor behaviour. In later instalments, there is a great respect between him and Captain Bright who administered the crucial admonishment.

For the newer entries like December Sky and Gundam NT there are a few bolder character design choices that suggest they were done in more recent times. The more stylised characters with thick bold outlines really works in these darker themed entries. It hints at being aimed at an older audience and the contrast between light and dark is reflected in the setting and in the animation.

For what started out as a show aimed at children there is a lot of darkness to Mobile Suit Gundam and it explores some complicated issues that, irrespective of which entry you are watching, are still contemporary. As the Zeon forces move through Side 7 at the beginning of Mobile Suit Gundam you see the destruction they leave in their wake and the families, like Fraw Bow's torn apart in the chaos of the evacuation. This anti-war sentiment runs throughout all Gundam shows but is really rammed home in Gundam Thunderbolt: December Sky. This message never derails the series but permeates each storyline and the ways in which the characters behave. What was interesting was how those on the front-line are often more reluctant to take a life, and feel the losses more keenly than those ordering them from the safety of their base on Earth.

The Universal Century is also full of political machinations. This is exemplified by Char Aznable and is explored in great length in Gundam: The Origin. I loved the manga by Yoshikazu Yasuhiko and am really enjoying the anime which fits in nicely with the original series. In Origin we see the characters 10 years or so before the One Year War but, most importantly, see how Char becomes the man we know. We see all the posturing and manoeuvring of the Zabi family on Zeon, how ideals can be manipulated and a public duped into becoming complicit in the acts (with parallels drawn to World War 2 in the story). We also see the genesis of the mobile suit from the mobile worker. It is a great watch and a fantastic read.

There are also several other OVAs and shows set in the Universal Century that are not yet available in the UK ... yet, which I would *really* like to see. Mobile Suit Gundam: War in the Pocket, set around the time of the One Year War sounds like it could be an emotional watch (from reading the plot). Similarly, Mobile Suit Gundam 0083: Stardust Memory which appears to act as a bridge between Mobile Suit Gundam and Zeta Gundam looks like it could be interesting. Because the Universal Century is such a large universe there are many side stories, events and parallel operations that can be shown or told. By and large, each instalment has its own unique story and of late the shorter series like Unicorn or December Sky with its shorter run time have provided some excellent stories that don't feel like they are repeating an old story. There is also more to come with the likes of Hathaway's Flash a trilogy set in the UC written by Gundam creator Yoshiyuki Tomino himself coming in 2020 (a video for the trailer is at the bottom).

Although not my first experience of Gundam I am a big fan of the Universal Century stories. Whilst I was not that keen on ZZ Gundam (ugh!) its events and characters are part of a wider universe which I can appreciate. As animation technology has developed its been great to see it incorporated into the new shows .. and then fixed when it didn't quite work. What has kept me coming back to the franchise is wanting to find out not only more about the universe itself, the parallel events within the One Year War (for example) but also to see where they take the characters, especially Char and his legacy. There has also been a consistent level of maturity in the instalments which reminds me of the kinds of weekday afternoon cartoons I used to watch when I was younger. Nothing is ever black and white, antagonists and protagonists are generally treated fairly . Finally I think that the complex issues of conflict and war and their impact on people are explored in an accessible way that makes the viewer think.