Header Ads

Mobile Suit Gundam Unicorn (2010-2014)

Gundam Unicorn, now released on Collector's Edition Blu-ray in the United Kingdom by Anime Limited, is an exercise in sustained audio-visual magnificence. Of all the anime, I’ve seen, Unicorn feels the closest to a film spectacle like Akira extended to the length of a TV series. (Made as a video serial, Unicorn runs seven and a half hours.) Perhaps it’s not art, but it’s a colossal feat of action-adventure screen storytelling, whose script holds up in elegance and eloquence.

Like other Gundam anime, which you don’t have to have seen, Unicorn has humans piloting giant bipedal robot suits. Enough of Unicorn is set in space to qualify it as a space opera, though there are portions on Earth too. While Unicorn has a great many moving parts, at heart it’s a quest story.

It’s set in a future of space wars – as usual for a Gundam anime, the combatants are human, some living in space and others exerting authority from Earth. It’s a space opera War of Independence. Unicorn starts with a schoolboy, Banagher, on a space station. Coincidentally, there’s a secret meeting on the same station; the participants are a faction of space-dwellers, meeting a shadowy quasi-aristocrat affiliated with Earth. He’s offering his contacts an artefact called Laplace’s Box, whose name alludes to opposing views of how the universe works, Laplace’s Demon and Schrodinger’s Cat.

Meanwhile, Banagher meets a stranger, a regal girl his age with her own agenda, who gives her name as Audrey Burne. That reference should be obvious to many viewers, even before we get a shot of a movie poster for “Runaway Princess,” modelled on Audrey Hepburn’s Roman Holiday. (I’ve written about Hepburn’s impact on Japan elsewhere.) Burne is indeed a disguised princess. Her secret identity has an Anastasia-like significance for viewers of earlier Gundams of the ‘70s and ‘80s. But you don’t need to have seen them to be struck by the character, steely and beautiful, neither damsel nor distressed.

Audrey is trying to stop the handover of the Box, fearing it will lead to further conflict. Her point’s borne out when another faction crashes the party, and the space station becomes the centre of a fiery, frightening battle. In the midst of the carnage, Banagher discovers the Gundam Unicorn, a gleaming horned robot suit ready to go. Soon he’s piloting it into titanic combats, though it’s unclear if boy or robot is in control. Banagher has a preset journey to follow, a point-to-point search for Laplace’s Box, in space and on Earth. The seeming McGuffin object will resolve into something of substance, but only late in the game, after passionate confrontations, more battle spectacle and reflections on humanity’s future.

Early on, Banagher comes upon the real Lady and the Unicorn tapestries from France in the Middle Ages, which inspired the titles for the American-Japanese cartoon film The Last Unicorn. Their shining colours and symbolic animals summon up a lost world of courtly love, and the anime makes clear this vision intoxicates Banagher. When the boy first enters the Gundam Unicorn, he meets its Merlin-like creator, who lays his directives on Banagher like an entrancing spell. Even the Gundam’s cockpit gives way to a beatific vision of the Lady and the Unicorn. It’s an avowedly heroic, idealistic view of Gundam, with Banagher like a Terry Gilliam protagonist, captivated by storybook heroism.

Some viewers will find Banagher insufferable, bleatingly naïve. In part it reflects gender stereotyping – it’s far much harder to sell this kind of character as a boy than a girl. Hayao Miyazaki presented his iconic heroine Nausicaa as unearthly, but Banagher in Unicorn is drawn as an EveryTeen™, despite our learning he’s been deliberately programmed for heroism since childhood. That detail could have turned Unicorn into a horror story; some viewers will think it should have been. But bathed in the anime’s lush visuals and music, the revelation about Banagher’s implanted destiny feels rooted in myth. In the newly reissued Hungarian animation Son of White Mare, the hero’s equine mother let her infant son drain her dry so he could start his Hero’s Journey. Of course, such ideas offend modernity, and Unicorn has other antiquated ones, starting with Banagher’s plea to Audrey on an hour’s acquaintance, “Just tell me you need me!” But what mythic story wouldn’t offend modernity?

As screen presences, Unicorn’s characters have the heft and dimensionality that you associate with Otomo films: Akira, Steamboy and Memories. Their expressions feel solid rather than inspired. You’ll find more nuanced and interesting character animation in some “robot” TV anime. But the solidity in Unicorn is enough, married with the gloriously chunky décor and machinery of the Gundam franchise, which felt exciting even in the quaintly-drawn first TV Gundam in 1979. There’s a brief sequence in Unicorn’s first part, involving Audrey and Banagher zooming haphazardly through the vast cylindrical space station in a flying ball. It’s the kind of thing that could easily have been vacuously dynamic action filler. But it’s set up and staged so well, with the immediacy of colourful drawings instead of the distance of a CG vehicle, and it’s tremendous.

Moments like that will pull in viewers who’ve seen little or no Gundam before. For such newcomers, Unicorn will be complicated but legible. There’s lots of plot, but it connects convincingly (each episode is a substantial advance on the last) and you can pick up character threads if you lose them the first time. It’s only in the last episodes that there are several overt Easter Eggs for Gundam fans. Although Gundam Unicorn began in 2010, it operates as a sequel to much older Gundam anime, following on directly from a 1988 film, Char’s Counterattack. (There are fleeting flashbacks to that film, less incongruous than you’d expect.) When Unicorn was made, other Gundams had already projected the timeline into distant futures, but they don’t impinge here.

The main adversary in Unicorn has Napoleon’s demeanour, a scarlet uniform circa 1800 and a blond hairdo that anime girls would kill for (Audrey excepted). Mercifully, his presence offsets his name, Full Frontal, an in-joke in Japan that backfires in English. He wears a metal facemask which tells longtime Gundam fans who he’s meant to be – it’s like having a bald, cat-stroking man in a Bond film. But he’s powerfully dignified in his own right, even called Full Frontal, as he claims to be a mere vessel for impersonal destiny. His lobster-red, lobster-armed hulk of a robot looks splendid, though I preferred another robot monster which appears in the Earth scenes; its avian shape recalls the kaiju star Rodan.

There are many more characters, often with their own careful-plotted journeys that reward re-viewing. They lack the depth you can find in more focused anime, but they’re still well-written, bearers rather than slaves of simple themes, emotions enmeshing like their robot suits’ auras. There are moments to touch the heart, like the Gundam Unicorn catching Audrey from the air in a lover’s caress, or when one stricken character hears the word, “Father.” The last scenes contain an elaborate but lucid series of reveals that, the script acknowledges, might change everything or nothing about the world.

Other aspects of the finale will be divisive. The last episode is called “Over the Rainbow” and some viewers will see its call to see through Banagher’s eyes as childish Technicolored camp. That view might have even been shared by later creators of Gundam. Soon after Gundam Unicorn, a film was released called Gundam Thunderbolt: December Sky. It rivalled Unicorn for spectacle; it was also despairing and bitter, like Hollywood ‘Nam films. It’s a film where a character carries a wounded man to an escape pod, then flings away the stretcher and dives in himself. Thunderbolt is a more real Gundam, perhaps; yet Gundam Unicorn shines in the memory as a beautiful dream.



IN A NUTSHELL:  Staggeringly Splendid.

Andrew Osmond is a British Journalist specialising in animation and is the UK editor of Anime News Network. His books include BFI Classics: Spirited Away100 Animated Feature Films and Satoshi Kon: The Illusionist. His website is anime-etc.net


Gundam style

➤ 40 Years Of Gundam: An Introduction To Japan's Favourite Robots

➤ 40 Years Of Gundam: The Universal Century

➤ Gundam Wing