Review for Mobile Suit Gundam - Part 1 of 2
I have never seen any Gundam before in my life! I know, I ought to relinquish my anime fan membership card for that travesty. Gundam is the biggest anime franchise in Japan, an ongoing story world, indeed worlds that many equate to Star Trek’s popularity in the West. Just like Star Trek, it started off with a series that was prematurely cancelled back in 1979, but it gained popularity through syndication, and so the sequels, prequels, movies, spin-offs and reboots ensued. Type Mobile Suit Gundam into the Anime News Network search, click on the Encyclopaedia link, and you’ll be presented with a list of related anime that stretch down, and down, and down, some of which we have seen in the West, many of which we haven’t. Even now, we’re getting new Gundam shows proliferating in Japan, Gundam Build Fighters, Gundam the Origin, Iron Blooded Orphans, Gundam Unicorn, Reconquista in G. It’s been 36 years and there’s no sign of the Gundam juggernaut stopping any time soon. Hmm, Gundam Juggernaut... I have an idea...
When I first started watching anime, I hated giant robot shows with a passion, stemming from a couple of dubious experiences with Saturday morning Power Rangers shows. The concept felt stupid to me. It took a while before I warmed to the genre, but the first time I heard of Gundam, I was actually reviewing Robotech for the site, a show which at the time merely reinforced my disdain. By the time I’d seen a few better shows, I started looking into the Gundam franchise only to be presented with that epic list, about ten years of Gundam shorter, but I was still just daunted by the whole prospect. Too, Beez in the UK had released some Gundam, but not all that parent company Bandai had released in the US, and I was concerned that I’d be stepping into the middle of an ongoing story, instead of the start. And quite frankly, I couldn’t tell my Gundam SEED from my Gundam Wing from my Gundam 00 to save my life. And then Beez went out of business, Bandai US followed suit, and Gundam slowly vanished from shop shelves, faded from memory.
But you can’t keep a franchise like that down for long in the West, not while it’s still going strong in Japan, and not when the Blu-ray revolution means that you can now experience these shows in spectacular high definition where possible. Not too long ago, Right Stuf made a deal to distribute Gundam in the US, and Anime Limited have teamed up with Right Stuf to do so in the UK as well. Initially that meant that the import releases of Gundam Unicorn had an outlet, but it also means that they are going back to the earlier series and making sure they get local DVD and where possible, Blu-ray releases too. Anime Limited have already announced Reconquista in G, but for their first Gundam release on the All the Anime label, they’re going right back to the beginning with the first series, Mobile Suit Gundam from 1979. For me, what better place is there to begin with the Gundam universes than right at the beginning? Apparently, this is the first time that Mobile Suit Gundam has been released in the UK, which makes its Blu-ray only status a little odd, especially as Right Stuf are releasing it on both Blu-ray and DVD in the US, where Bandai did release it previously. Perhaps UK DVD releases will pop-up later on.
It’s the year 0079 of the Universal Century; 50 years after the grand scale colonisation of space began. Giant space colony cities now host vast swathes of the population. One of these cities, Side 3 renamed itself the Principality of Zeon, and declared a war of independence against Earth. 8 months later, following massive casualties, both sides are at something of a stalemate, even though the Zeon mobile suit technology with their Zaku seems to confer an immediate advantage. But the Earth Federation isn’t standing still, and it’s moving ahead with its own mobile suit technology.
It’s the rumours of these advances that draw Zeon Commander Char towards the Side 7 space habitat, and he sends three Zaku and their pilots on a reconnaissance mission. Side 7 is where 15 year old Amuro Ray lives, a young man who loves to tinker, understandable given that his father is an important Federation scientist. And sure enough Side 7 is where the Federation is conducting its most critical Gundam research, a giant robot that is the next leap forward in weapons technology, significantly more advanced than Zeon tech. It’s also where their newest ship, the White Base is due to pick up the technology. But the glory hungry Zaku pilots exceed their mission when they see the new Gundams, and they launch a devastating attack, wrecking the habitat, killing countless inhabitants and key military personnel. In the mayhem, Amuro winds up in the cockpit of a Gundam, armed with the instruction manual.
Note that the original episode 15 of Mobile Suit Gundam was Cucuruz Doan’s Island, but director Yoshiyuki Tomino felt that the quality of the episode fell short of the rest of the episodes, and requested that it be omitted from Western releases. Consequently it is also absent from this latest Blu-ray incarnation. I certainly didn’t feel that anything was missing when I watched these episodes, of which there are 21 across two Blu-rays.
1. Gundam Rising
2. Destroy Gundam!
3. Vote to Attack!
4. Escape from Luna II
5. Re-Entry to Earth
6. Garma Strikes!
7. The Core Fighter’s Escape
8. Winds of War
9. Fly, Gundam!
10. Garma’s Fate
11. Icelina – Love’s Remains
12. The Threat of Zeon!
13. Coming Home
14. Time, Be Still
15. Sayla’s Agony
16. Amuro Deserts
17. Zeon’s Secret Mine
18. Ramba Ral’s Attack
19. Hand-to-Hand Combat
20. Sorrow and Hatred
21. The Trap of M’Quve
Mobile Suit Gundam gets a 1.33:1 pillarboxed 1080p transfer on these discs. This show dates from 1979, when the state of the art in TV animation in the West was Filmation and Hanna Barbera, and Oliver Postgate in the UK. The most diplomatic way to describe the animation is vintage, although low budget would be more accurate. As you might expect given all that, this isn’t a show that ever looks spectacular on Blu-ray, the quality of the animation, the colours and level of detail never really requiring the full 1080 lines of resolution. So this is probably as good as Mobile Suit Gundam will ever look, the image is clear and sharp, the simplistic animation not engendering anything in the way of compression and aliasing, and colours remaining true, black levels strong. There’s no reason to worry about episode counts on the discs being excessive either.
The animation might be cheap and cheerful, the character designs simplistic, and a fair bit of stock footage used, but the scope of the story is reflected in the finished product. This is a future world where human populations now reside in gargantuan space structures, travel in fleets of spaceships, and pilot giant robots. The dramatic intent and scale of imagination certainly comes across in terms of world design, especially on the macro scale, even if the mundane, everyday personal world of the characters lacks that imagination. Although on occasion you can find touches of character animation that impress. One scene has a man in a spacesuit about to set up an ambush. A bead of sweat trickles down his face, and he tries futilely to wipe it away. Then he smiles wryly, and taps his helmet. Even with this budget and TV anime schedule, the focus on character is apparent. Still, the giant robots, especially the Gundam, Guntank and Guncannon all get the exquisite detail that you would expect from a show trying to sell tie-in merchandising.
The images in this review have been kindly supplied by All the Anime.
You have the choice between PCM 2.0 English and Japanese with optional subtitles and a signs only track. I only had the evidence of my ears to go by, but the Japanese audio that I chose to listen to felt very much like the mono track that you’d expect from a 1970s’ television animation. Everything was centrally focused, and somewhat subdued. The dialogue was clear, and the action presented well. I gave the dub a try, and it has a lot more presence to it, indicative of a stereo track. Also the audio sounded fresher, clearer, with the effects having more impact, the dialogue having more richness. The dub is easy to listen to, but it is very much of its time. The subtitles are accurately timed and free of typographical error.
The discs present their contents with static menus, and each episode is followed by a silent translated English credit scroll.
The extras are on disc 1 and comprise the clean opening, the clean closing, and 3:43 of Blu-ray and DVD commercials, all presented in HD.
For a while there, I thought I’d made a mistake watching Mobile Suit Gundam, going right back to the beginning of the franchise and jumping right in, instead of picking a more recent, modern iteration more in keeping with current fan sensibilities. For I had that same problem I’ve had on quite a few occasions now, trying to engender a nostalgia for a show that I have had absolutely no experience with, decades after it was relevant and contemporary. That’s the reason that I could never get into fan favourites like Dragon Ball Z, Robotech, and Sherlock Hound, where I still love shows like Mysterious Cities of Gold, which I did watch at the time.
If Mobile Suit Gundam was made for modern audiences, it would be completely different, in the way the story develops, the characterisations, the pacing and so on, even if we put to one side the visual aesthetic. One example is the start of the show. If it were made today, it would begin with the same significant trauma for the main character that changes his life, and sets him on his path, but the second episode would be a completely different paradigm, time would have passed, he’d have signed up to military, probably be in the middle of training so that he can exact his revenge. But this is anime of the old school. It tells its story incrementally, so after Amuro’s home is attacked in the first episode, and he finds himself at the controls of the Gundam, the show follows him and his fellow survivors as they make their escape to Earth. It takes them five episodes to get that far, and another four episodes to make contact with friendly forces. The story grows organically, naturally, so there isn’t a sense of structure in the individual episodes, beyond the episodic attack by Zeon forces having to be fought off by the defenders of the White Base ship.
That regular Zeon attack format most makes it seem like one of those sentai shows like Power Rangers that I loathed, where the evil villain would come up with a new plan to defeat the good guys, only to be beaten off each week, swearing to get them next time. And I have to admit that I had a tough time engaging with Mobile Suit Gundam as a result for the first half of this collection.
But Mobile Suit Gundam really is worth sticking with. The incremental storytelling style means that it begins to pay dividends the further into the show that you go. And this is no mere episodic action show, this is a full on war movie. It’s also got an intelligent way of telling that story that only draws you in. It may begin with a prologue about the war between Zeon and Earth, and how it started, what the consequences were, but you don’t get the full impact, the understanding of it, until you watch the characters learn these things for themselves. Other than the occasional aside to what the Zeon forces are up to, a couple of brief looks at their rulers, the show opts to stick with Amuro and his fellow refugees, and the particular Zeons that might be harrying them at the time.
They are innocents, children, and the inexperienced, thrown together aboard the Federation’s most advanced battleship, armed with the latest in Mobile Suit technology, and expected to survive. They may merely hope to escape, but escaping from the Zeons is a baptism of fire, and they get drawn into the war whether they want to or not. And it turns out that reaching Earth is no safe haven when the balance of power between Earth and Zeon is made apparent. They’ve come to land behind enemy lines, and it turns out that Zeon territory on Earth is extensive. They were initially castigated and charged with misappropriating military hardware, but given the reality of the war as they discover, they’re soon drafted into the military, and expected to keep operating the White Base and its Gundams behind enemy lines.
The inexperienced and untested crew are expected to fill the roles that trained personnel should be holding, and that process is hard on all of them, although it’s really given a spotlight with Amuro, the teenage boy who finds himself expected to fight a war at the controls of a giant robot. He’s out of his depth and terrified at first, but gets used to the battles and the fear, until he comes face to face with the consequences of his actions. To top it all off, he’s a teenager trying to fit in a military chain of command, hardly the best example of bowing to authority. He’s a prototype Shinji in many ways, although hardly as whiny and introspective. I think I really got an idea of the scope of the story in episode 13, when Amuro returns home to find his mother. His mother had been expecting a son to return, but instead finds a battle hardened soldier. It’s here I realised that Mobile Suit Gundam is playing the long game. And it continued to get better from there, with Amuro and the crew of the White Base continuing to be tested by adversity, facing triumph and loss as they make their way to an eventual rendezvous with Federation forces, for which we’ll have to wait for the next half of the show.
Another really smart thing is that the show doesn’t tell us much about the Zeon forces, and even less about the Earth Federation. Naturally as Amuro is the protagonist, the Gundam the hero robots and the White Base the hero ship, our allegiances will lie with them, and initially what we see of the Zeon attackers is wholly negative. They’re monsters for Amuro to defeat. And certainly the schemes of the Zeon nobility have little room in them for humanity or compassion. But the first inkling that there might be more to them than that is Char’s (at this point) mysterious relationship with Sayla. Then there is poor, naive Garma, a prince of Zeon who becomes a pawn in Char’s schemes. Incidentally Garma is in love with an Earth girl, certainly a scandalous position for a Zeon prince. While the nobility may be antagonistic, Gundam slowly reveals the Zeon grunts to be more human, reacting in different ways, and some even seem positively likeable. It certainly causes Amuro emotional conflict to be fighting these people, especially when he runs into Ramba Ral and Hamon.
By the same token, we know precious little about the Federation, except that they’ve left the crew of the White Base to their fate, expecting children, and inexperienced soldiers to fight their war for them. The one time that we do see some Federation soldiers, they’re grunts that have been abandoned behind enemy lines by their superiors, and they handle it by commandeering local buildings to live comfortably, and spend their time drunk, boorishly intimidating the locals. While your sympathies may lie with the crew of the White Base and Amuro, you have even less reason at this point to be sympathetic to the Federation than you do to Zeon.
This is probably not the Gundam to begin with if you’ve never had any experience with the franchise. It’s a little too old school for modern sensibilities. It could really have done with a Collector’s Edition, a booklet with an essay to put the show in context, or failing that an on disc featurette that would do the same thing. At the very least, pack one of the discs with trailers from the other Gundam shows that All the Anime will be releasing in the future, so that we can see the evolution in animation style and storytelling over the years that would make this show’s place in its legacy clear. With just the show by itself on these discs, it leaves newcomers like me floundering a bit. It took me some thirteen episodes to begin to appreciate the show, which is a big ask in this soundbite age of ours where if a show doesn’t grab us in 20-minutes, most anime fans will drop it and move on to the next thing. Of course for fans of the Gundam franchise that have never seen this before, they’ll have a much better time as they will be better able to contextualise it. As for established fans of Mobile Suit Gundam, they’ll be in giant robot heaven with this Blu-ray. I may not have felt this way at the start of this collection, but I’m really eager to find out what happens next.