In all the obvious ways, Mobile Suit Gundam is a generic mecha show. A group of untrained soldiers and civilians acquire the Earth Federation's greatest ship, the White Base, and its top secret new weapon, the Gundam, then spend the rest of the time running from the enemy Zeon Empire. With the protagonists wandering from one place to the next in response to banal needs like repairing weapons and restocking supplies, the story risks extreme linearity and repetitiveness. Because of this, I struggled at first to understand why it still felt so good.
Surely MS Gundam's success will have something to do with the fact that it devotes as much time to the interpersonal clashes of its cast as the intergalactic one. It cares about its motley bunch of protagonists; it wants to detail their growth as people and as a team even as it delivers on kiddified action and pretty toys. When reluctant hero Amuro Ray watches two soldiers die in a bomb blast mere seconds after he speaks to them, the camera unexpectedly zooms in on the chaos evident on his face. Clearly, what is happening behind his eyes takes precedence over the physical destruction itself. Then, after his first victory in the Gundam, Amuro receives not praise but a dressing down from his new boss Lieutenant Bright Noa, who promptly snaps at him to better his tactics and ensure he maintains the Gundam well. For Amuro, the initial episodes are a coming-of-age ceremony of harsh realities; the viewer understands that conquering his weaknesses and adjusting to his equally frightened colleagues are prerequisites to conquering his physical enemies.
Even when attention shifts to the mechanics of war, the show seems far more interested in the wreckage of lives as opposed to the material damage. "It doesn't matter who wins or loses," says a White Base passenger as she bandages the arm of a Zeon soldier. "After the men finish fighting, there will be wives without husbands and children without fathers." The narrative implies that war is terrible not just because people suffer, but because everyone loses in the end. Gundam shows these days treat the humanitarian aspect of war as an excuse for tearjerker subplots or emotionally manipulative climaxes - half-baked philosophies are shoehorned in and plenty of uninteresting folks die. MS Gundam may be a simple show targeting the naive kids of yesteryear, but its sincere humanist approach makes it all the more refreshing when compared to the cynical wizz-bang works prevalent today.
In fact, the show's real weakness stems from being an incomplete work in spirit. Initially sheduled to run fifty episodes, poor ratings meant Sunrise cut the running time to forty-three. As a result, the final episodes brush roughly over certain character arcs to hurriedly tie up the main war narrative with a suitable climax.
The animation bested my expectations. Unobtrusive yet detailed enough to appear like a plausible world, it also proves more consistent in quality than, say, Gundam Wing. I felt most surprised at how much fun I derived from the antiquated mecha designs. Kunio Okawara (the same guy responsible for most of the Gundam franchise's mechanical designs) offers a kitchy selection of toy-selling hits alongside the now iconic Gundam robot. Honestly, I am tempted to add 'Gouf' to my Christmas list just for the hilarity of watching my family navigate their way through Japanese internet sales. Or maybe I should ask for that round, yellow one that looks like a murderous Pacman. Hmmm...
Stylistically, the US dub rips from shows like Lassie or Happy Days. I refer to its charming, homely TV acting that should involve quaint words like 'Gee!' and 'Drat!'. Except, the characters experience anything but happy days and the emotional nuance of the main voice actors convinces. Brad Swaile's Amuro, for instance, is confused but not braindead, emotional but not melodramatic. And Michael Kopsa brings the outstanding performance of the series with his wry turn as antagonist, Char Aznable. Minor characters, on the other hand, achieve either limp or wooden performances depending on their particular lack of talent.
Director Yoshiyuki Tomino wanted to portray characters that changed over time, and not always in a pleasant way. No doubt more important people before me have congratulated him on a job well done. Although he lays out a commendable array of personalities who evolve dynamically through their experiences in very human cognitive processes, only two rise above the rest to define the entire franchise:
Amuro Ray's internal conflicts drew me along on an emotional journey that went beyond mere sympathy to feelings of devastation. I recall a gripping confrontation between him and Mr. Bright when Amuro, frustrated with the crew's reliance on him, petulantly refuses orders to sortie. Contrast this with a heroic scene only moments before, when he offers his entire meal to a family because he notices another starved civilian stealing theirs. His daily life, a debilitating cocktail of paranoia, mood swings, insomnia, loss of appetite, and an increasing sense of isolation, nevertheless doesn't stop him doing the right thing when he must. Indeed, wiser and more battle-hardened characters than Amuro exist in this story, but his straining between fear and courage demands attention in ways that pure heroism does not. Moreover, watching him incrementally grow into a resigned sort of confidence delivers some uniquely bittersweet gratification in the end.
Char Aznable, on the other hand, is so stupefyingly awesome that the creators saw fit to clone his persona in numerous spin-offs (see Rau le Creuset of Gundam SEED and Zechs Merquise of Gundam Wing). The key antagonist with a grudge against all sides of the conflict, Char fights his battles using an arsenal of false smiles and an armour of slippery ethics. Ironically, the most telling sign of his inner workings is the mask he wears. Could anyone trust a man who hides his eyes when wisdom dictates they are the windows to his soul? A shrewd person would say no, which is why his comically naive 'best friend' Captain Garma Zabi makes such easy prey. Since Char actually hates Garma, he does his damndest to encourage the latter's self-defeating tactics against the White Base, often with words whose tasteless irony are clear to everyone except the victim: "You're right. The most expedient way to flush a rat out of its nest is with a little bit of carpet bombing." The epitomic lovable bastard, Char is also an enigma, enticing and vividly memorable.
Having watched MS Gundam, I reinterpret SEED's success as stemming from its copy-paste skills. SEED fans in particular will like what this show has to offer. I refer not just to the shared format of a long space voyage in the context of intergalactic warfare, but also to the strong emphasis on the personal growth of complex individuals. Naturally, MS Gundam suffers dated quirks that more recent spin-offs have long learned to avoid. For instance, the pinnacle of military security is still nothing more than criss-crossing lines of red laser beams. And characters occasionally utter lines like "I'm going to use the super-napalm" when ordinary napalm would do just as well. In regards to this I will point out that outmoded stylistic choices have not impeded the show's relevance one bit. Simple it may be, retrospectively cliched even, but its sincere people focus keeps it always impactful.
The year is Universal Century 0079 and mankind is yet again at war. The space colony Side 3 has declared itself the Principality of Zeon and has separated itself from the Earth Federation. In a raid on the colony Side 7, Zeon troops force a band of civilians, military recruits and one green ensign to escape on a previously unseen class of ship with prototype Federation mobile suits. Among them is Amuro Ray, who piloted the Gundam during the raid on Side 7. Unfortunately, his mastery of it earns him the responsibility of using it in the war against Zeon...
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