ANIME & MANGA - Article
15:00 - 17th January 2016, by NEO Staff

Raring for Retro

Gundam, as NEO readers will know, is a big robot. It’s also a big beast, a franchise juggernaut that’s rolled since before Naruto, Luffy or Son Goku were in diapers. There are Gundam TV shows, films and hundreds of toys. A ‘real’ full-size Gundam towers before a shopping mall in Tokyo’s Odaiba district. There are fans who know their Gundam ZZ from their Gundam F91, and their Cosmic Era from their Universal Century. About the time you’re reading this, a massive Gundam retrospective is playing at the Tokyo Film Festival, and Gundam: Iron-Blood Orphans airs on Japanese TV, written by female scenarist and Gundam newbie Mari Okada (Black Butler, A Lull in the Sea).

Back to Life

We’ve had Gundam shows in Britain before, courtesy of the Beez label (now defunct), which released the likes of Gundam Wing and Gundam Seed, which are the Gundams most familiar to British fans. (Gundam Wing had cute boy pilots; Gundam Seed had a genetically-modified girl idol singer.) Now Anime Limited is reintroducing the franchise, bringing out some of the newest Gundam titles. It’s already distributed the glossy Gundam The Origin for Bandai Visual, and will soon bring out the serial Gundam Reconguista in G. But most significantly, it’s bringing us the first Gundam of all.

That would be Mobile Suit Gundam, broadcast in Japan from April 1979 to January 1980. (Gundam the Origin is a direct prequel to this series; Beez previously released Gundam Film 1, a cinema compilation of the early episodes.) Originally, Gundam was meant to run a full year, but it was cut back by the show’s disgruntled toy sponsor, annoyed that the show was too complex and confusing for kids. Today Gundam is recognised as a milestone in anime’s coming of age. It features a war where both sides are human; where there are no clear-cut heroes or villains; and where youngsters endure hardship and tragedy while fighting across a scarred Earth.

The series was created by director Yoshiyuki Tomino; mecha designer Kunio Okawara; art director Mitsuki Nakamura (who realised the space colonies which open the show) and character designer Yoshikazu Yasuhiko. You may know Yasuhiko as director of the ‘80s film, Venus Wars, an early anime release in Britain. Three decades on, he’s chief director of Gundam The Origin, based on his own manga version of the saga.

The original Gundam focuses on young Amuro Ray, introduced in part one in his vest and boxers as he tinkers with a computer and is scolded by the girl next door Fraw (pronounced Frau) Bow. Minutes later, their space colony home is attacked by forces from Zeon, a cluster of rival colonies waging a separatist war against Earth. During the carnage, Amuro stumbles on a giant experimental robot under a tarpaulin. He can’t help but board it and… well, mecha fans can write the rest.

Creating the Archetypes

After the first battle, in which Amuro dispatched several foes to his (and their) amazement, Gundam moves in bold strokes from space to Earth. The story follows the crew of the military craft White Base, youngsters who must take command after their seniors are killed. Amuro, with his affinity for piloting the new robot – it’s Gundam, of course – becomes the White Base’s foremost fighter, defending against attacks from the cunning, brilliant Zeon commander Char Aznable. It’s a clash of opposites; the callow, pouty, frightened Amuro versus a battle-hungry enemy who has the energy of youth and the authority of a veteran. Their fight would last seconds if the Gundam’s tech didn’t level things up… but does Amuro have hidden skills of his own?

Viewers of later Gundams will recognise Char at once. Variations on the character pop up across the Gundam franchise, like Zechs Merquise in Gundam Wing and Rau Le Creuset in Gundam Seed. (Their facemasks are a giveaway.) Char’s intricate schemings and his takedowns of the Zeon royalty he supposedly “serves” anticipate another masked mecha avenging antihero, Lelouch in Code Geass. Char is also comparable to the woman warrior Kushana in Miyazaki’s Nausicaa (particularly the manga), which was created a few years after Gundam; Gundam further anticipates Nausicaa in its sky battles between huge ships over dusty landscapes.

Amuro’s development, meanwhile, makes a fascinating comparison with the neurotic Shinji in Evangelion (though Tomino reportedly demanded that people shouldn’t dare compare Gundam and Eva!). Both youths cover similar ground; the plucky Amuro doesn’t have Shinji’s extreme wussiness, but he’s prone to emotional funks, authority issues and plain childishness, including some actions late in the first set that will have readers wanting to slap him almost as hard as Shinji. But there’s something endearing in the way Amuro continually fails to notice Fraw Bow’s attentions, while being continually smitten with beautiful older women to Fraw’s disgust.

Toys for Boys

Gundam seems to have been made as very much a boys’ show, and its treatment of women may sometimes raise hackles (which is hardly surprising for a 36-year-old anime). Individual scenes and episodes can be viewed as sexist, though you can argue the show’s simply treating the characters as individuals. Women are also shown acting with courage and authority – especially the blond enigma Sayla, one of the White Base crew, who we’re tipped off early on is actually Char’s long-lost sister! And an episode involving Amuro’s mother goes quite some way in questioning masculine heroics, as we see Gundam’s hero through his parent’s shocked eyes.

The new Blu-ray of Gundam omits one of the original TV episodes, part 15. While this may shock completist fans, it’s entirely the decision of the Japanese studio, Sunrise. The episode in question has always been dropped from western releases of the show. We can confirm that it doesn’t affect the story at all; in fact, the Japanese part 15 was a side-story, sub-standard on its own terms, and it actually hurt the arc and momentum of the wider series. Think of this as the studio’s sensibly revised, even more epic cut of a historic show.


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