ANIME & MANGA - Review
10:41 - 15th December 2015, by Andrew Osmond

Mobile Suit Gundam

Earlier this year, NEO ran a piece on the rise of ‘retro’ anime in the UK, new outings for titles from 20 or 30 years back, like Nadia and Patlabor. Anime Limited pushes this further with a Blu-ray of the 36-year-old Mobile Suit Gundam, which launched a thousand mecha and the greatest anime franchise of all. (Okay, arguably the greatest franchise.)

Gundam’s place as a piece of pop-culture history is assured… but there’s that word, history. Gundam, the original Gundam, is old. It looks old, it sounds old. Unfettered by live-action sets and effects, its visuals have aged infinitely better than a 1979 Doctor Who, but it’s still a different era from today’s shiny slick anime. British kids didn’t grow up with Gundam on TV, so there’s no nostalgia to lift it. Can it find an audience in 2015?

It bloody well deserves to. Gundam is great.

It’s epic from the first minutes, throwing us into an interstellar war, waged between Earth and a cluster of space colonies, the separatist Principality of Zeon. This isn’t just plot detail. It establishes this is a human war, cutting out evil aliens or Darth Vaders. And yet Gundam starts almost as bombastically as Star Wars, as a Zeon force, led by the scarlet-suited Char, infiltrates a space colony loyal to Earth. We see two robot suits free-fall towards the green inner surface of the colony, artificial invaders of an artificial Earth. For TV viewers in ‘79, this would have been as thrilling as the Star Destroyer which opened A New Hope.

Ten minutes in, the battle’s raging; practically all the colony’s adult soldiers are killed, leaving youngsters as the last defence. One of the boys is Amuro Ray, an electronics otaku. During the fight, he desperately climbs into an experimental giant robot the size of a building. This is Gundam, secretly developed by Amuro’s father (who goes missing after part one, his fate unknown). Luckily for Amuro, he finds Gundam has astounding strength and weaponry, including a massive “beam sabre” that cuts the Zeons’ robot suits like tissue paper.

Mecha fans will find it all very traditional, but here it’s fresh, thrilling and serious. Before Gundam, most ‘boy and bot shows’ were campy and fantastical. Gundam was to mecha what Batman Begins was to superhero films; high adventure with grit, between Star Wars and the vintage fiction of Robert Heinlein. (Gundam’s robot suits were partly inspired by Heinlein’s Starship Troopers novel.) There are childish elements – cartoony comic-relief kids, a ball-robot called Haro who’d become Gundam’s mascot – but the show’s underpinned by an adult mindset.

Visually, what you see in the opening minutes is what you get through the set; it doesn’t get much better or worse. At first, the colours seem dulled, especially when we’re conditioned to expect shininess in mecha sci-fi. But it doesn’t take long for the eyes to adjust, though the Zeons’ grey-green power suits do need of a lick of brightness. Gundam looks better freeze-framed than in motion. The designs and backgrounds are strong, but the movement can be very crude, barring explosions, and you can spot the bits of animation recycled between battles.

Gundam holds up for its story and characters. Many anime are ostensibly about war, but Gundam balances excitement for its audience with a sober sense of how war might feel: the constant danger and tension, the threats erupting from all sides. (That includes your own – Earth authorities don’t like kids using their secret technology).

Following the first battle, the story becomes a space chase as the colony survivors commandeer a military ship, the White Base, with its functionally ugly exterior and functionally beautiful inside, where dispersed control stations privilege the group over the captain. After a few space episodes, most of the set takes place in the skies, deserts and wastelands of a war-torn Earth, where the formerly hostile authorities “promote” the White Base – plus Amuro and his robot steed – to army guinea pigs.

Gundam is famous for its central male conflict between Amuro and his wily enemy Char, and indeed it’s hugely enjoyable. Char only figures in half this set before other foes take over, but Gundam excels in making you care for characters after a few moments’ acquaintance, whether from Team Earth or Zeon. Of the leads, Amuro carries the set more than Char, and he’s fascinatingly written. He has none of the hang-ups of an anime schoolboy today, and yet he’s just a boy, driven to breakdown and beyond, changing irreversibly through his combat experience. (One superb episode shows how his joyful return to his hometown goes horribly wrong.)

There are bum notes here and there. A tragic denouement near the end is tearfully milked too far (unlike the heroic deaths of ‘enemy’ characters) and the set’s second half isn’t as convincing or compelling as the first. But there’s still much to anticipate in the next Blu-ray. So far, we’ve only had hints of one of Gundam’s most famous concepts – the NewType…

Yes, Gundam is old. Get over it – it’s great!
SCORE: 5/5
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