For the uninitiated, Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam will seem either a complete obscurity or just another sequel in the seemingly immortal Gundam franchise. In fact, it has garnered legions of life-long fans since its release twenty-five years ago and enjoys the status of being one of Japan's favourite shows. But, having even heard some voices hail it as the best of the Gundam shows, I can only point out that it still fails to be an outstanding work in general. While Director Yoshiyuki Tomino's political themes pulse strongly in an elevated presentation style, his slew of characters drift and ebb in a circus of personal relationships. And it is bloody slow to do anything.
Ultimately, viewers who stick with Zeta Gundam will do so because they catch on early to its slow-cooking layers of intrigue. It steps beyond the good-guy-vs-bad-guy formula to present a picture of war so crooked that even Robert McNamara would need to lie down. In the seven years since MS Gundam, the Earth Federation has shifted from victim of the war to perpetrator - a twist in the vein of Legend of the Galactic Heroes' Earth Alliance where an institutionally democratic government rules as incompetently and violently as possible. Within this framework, the government's elite force, the Titans, kill a lot of innocents and the elusive AEUG freedom fighters fly around in space trying to save whoever's left. Among the double-crosses and the blinkered personal motives of characters on both sides, the real victims turn out to be the values of morality and fair play.
I will not underplay this strength in Zeta Gundam. Primarily, that kind of brewing epicness is rare for mecha shows and for quite obvious reasons. When you have giant robots at your disposal to thrill an audience, why bother developing a subtle and complex political backdrop? Why not just make Gundam 00? Zeta Gundam certainly feels different to most of the franchise, more self-aware and carefully premeditated to reveal the futility of human virtue in times of war.
But will that comfort viewers when the show morphs into a cheap daytime drama thanks to the plethora of hackneyed romantic subplots? Once the teenage hero Kamille Bidan joins the AEUG, he quickly forms attachments to his colleagues Reccoa Londe and Emma Sheen. He also engages in a painfully trite will-they-won't-they with his best friend Fa and, later, the deranged enemy pilot Four. I never quite figured out whether the spy Sarah and him were developing something when they shared some ice cream, but at that point I simply gawped at the sheer number of women who gravitated towards him despite his juvenile personality. And he's not the only one. These superfluous romances are made worse when the characters thrash out emotional issues at the most inconvenient times. Their confrontations often seem like a lot of shouting over nothing. I asked myself time and time again why this show insisted on so many of its characters falling for each other when most of the crushes led at best to insanely boring arguments. What happened to people just being darn good friends like in MS Gundam? What happened to comradeship and ideological compatibility, bonds that I can believe would form in such a grim context?
Moreover, the narrative has a tendency to plod for long stretches, with few treats to pull a critical viewer along. Of course, robots clash and romances blossom, but they seem almost perfunctory ingredients to accent two dozen episodes of subtly shifting loyalties, repetitive attacks on space colonies, and Kamille Bidan's tantrums. Episode four, as a rare example, delivers one of the most evocative scenes of the series. In that moment, Zeta Gundam promises to be all the dark, controversial things its more childish predecessor could not. Unfortunately, despite the heavy shocks of that twist, its effects do not ripple far enough into the rest of the story - beyond setting the Titans up as a devious lot that cannot be trusted, it merely heralds an otherwise protracted famine of highlights.
Luckily, Zeta Gundam's disparate elements manage to bond into a streamlined conflict in the final act. This occurs mainly because the characters complete their political manoeuvres and position themselves for the final push in their ambitions. At that point, people's actions start having meaningful consequences and the best characters such as the delightfully nefarious Haman Karn crawl out of the background to deliver some knock-out scenes. Indeed, the rewards as Zeta finally settles into its stride are satisfying, but viewers have to wait for them... a long while.
Zeta Gundam's visuals were great then and look great now. Animated in an era when artists exhibited talent through their paint brushes and not a computer mouse, the show has nonetheless remained stunningly easy on the eye. The robots move with a timeless liveliness, like a grandpa who still knows how to dance. And the backgrounds offer rich, convincing detail that, compared to the prequel, make Zeta look harder and sleeker and less like a toy factory.
The US dub dispenses with the cheesy acting of MS Gundam and treats the script more like a quiet drama, with no urgency in the dialogue and little fluctuation in emotion. The downside of this is that, when it matters, there is also not enough acting. Char Aznable's performance suffers the most from this as his new voice actor, Tom Edwards, polishes away the magnificent irony that Michael Kopsa was able to bring to the role in the original. Here, Char sounds like someone's kind uncle. Then there is the scene after the Titans instigate a mindboggling tragedy in episode four. Nobuo Tobita's Kamille sounds furious at the loss, verging on crazed, while Jonathan Lachlan-Stewart makes the same character seem merely irritated. In the Japanese dub, everyone seems suitably shocked and trying to remain professional under such unprecedented circumstances; in the US dub, they react like this kind of thing happens a lot. Based on the importance of that scene in establishing the show's controversial bent, I recommend watching the subtitled version.
I'll concede one point in regards to the main cast. They are usually two-dimensional and perversely revelatory. For instance, I remember my mixed feelings upon discovering Reccoa Londe's true internal conflict - the frustration, the utter disgust, and at last a perverse sense of relief that all her vague behaviour in the past thirty-something episodes actually made perfect sense. But she is unpleasant to follow and so are most of her co-stars. Simply immoral or amoral characters might still have been interesting, but the overemotional hypocrites and irrational malcontents on offer here just rob the viewer of patience.
Kamille, for one, is an obnoxious and heavy-handed hero who, after sixteen years of life, still cannot cope with having a girlish name and still blames his parents for all his petty miseries. In that all-important fourth episode, he makes a speech that suggests he might be growing up ('I forgive you,' he says to Jerid Messa, another crass idiot who has done him unspeakable harm. 'I'm good enough to beat you and your Hizack, but I'm powerless before the cruelty of the military system. And it's cruelty breeds the worst hatred.') but that faint glimmer of hope dies quickly. He sporadically lapses from angry to enlightened in a string of unconvincing melodramas. Comparisons with MS Gundam's Amuro Ray are not only unavoidable, but often encouraged by the show itself. Amuro's trials nudged him from carefree child to tormented adolescent to self-aware man, and his confidence grew with his knowledge of the Gundam in an endearing symbiotic manner. Kamille, on the other hand, has bags of unbridled attitude - for him, the Zeta is just a badge to prove it.
In the end, the real question of Zeta Gundam's enjoyment is not whether it performs outstandingly overall - because it doesn't - but whether the viewer has the fortitude to wait for it to get outstanding. Were I a twelve-year old in 1985, Zeta Gundam's manifold action sequences alone might have sufficed to carry me through its first thirty plodding instalments. As it is, I'm a twenty-five year old in 2010 who watched because others kept telling me it would get better. And that much is true: events improve infinitely during Zeta Gundam's more focused final act and die-hard mecha fans will find a rare treat in its sophisticated clusterfuck narrative.
The year is Universal Century 0087, and mankind has yet to be liberated from Earth's gravity. Seven years since the end of the One Year War, tensions between the Earth Federation and the space colonies continue on the rise. The police actions of the Titans, the Federation's military arm in space, fuel anti-Earth sentiment throughout the colonies and give rise to the Anti-Earth Union Group. Kamille Bidan, a young spacenoid from Space Colony Noa, soon finds himself in the middle of this armed conflict and behind the cockpit of the Titans newest weapon: the Gundam Mk-II.
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