The progenitor for the least accessible media franchise in history. If I’m wrong and there is a less-accessible franchise, please, comment and tell me what it is. I’m a masochistic freak and I’ll watch it all.
I watched Mobile Suit Gundam back in February before life felt like the backstory of a post-apocalyptic sci-fi film. Thanks to the great 2020 quarantine, I’ve become a Gundam fan. After watching over 100 hours of Gundam media, I still believe this first outing is the best Gundam thing I’ve yet seen. And I’ve seen Tequila Gundam.
Mobile Suit Gundam created what we refer to today as the Real Robot genre, a sub-genre that divided mecha anime into the categories of “Real Robot” and “Super Robot” separated by two basic thematic questions, “What if tanks were cooler?” and “What if ‘the man of steel’ was actually made of steel?”
In the Gundam universe, Mankind has finally overcome their aggressions, learned to work together, and technologically advanced to the point of finally leaving earth and creating massive functional habitats out in space. Giant cylindrical space colonies become the homes of millions and those homes become nations under the rule of the Earth Federation. The hopeful ideology that brought us together and out into the stars begins to crack under its own weight as colonies start to feel oppressed by the bloated bureaucratic Earth Federation.
Eventually, as in all of human history, the overripe fruit breaks and splits. Zeon Zum Deikun, a philosopher, and orator spread his beliefs about the Earth federation government no longer properly representing the will and wants of those born away from the gravitational pull of Earth, Spacenoids.
After Deikun’s suspicious death, the Zabi family, a wealthy horde of politically-minded aristocrats begin a dictatorial rule over the cluster of colonies known as Side 3 and use the political fervor created by the benevolent philosopher to declare war on the Earth Federation under the eponymously named Principality of Zeon in order to dominate and rule space.
Thus sets the stage for our morally grey battle between a corrupt bloated federation that strives for control in the name of peace (or peace for the sake of control) and a militant dictatorship with fascist practices, but also represents those downtrodden and oppressed by the Earth Federation.
Mobile Suit Gundam or “0079”, the fictional year our story takes place, tells a simple story of a ragtag group of reluctant soldiers forced into their positions by circumstances. Our main characters are civilians in a space colony that is attacked by Zeon. When they pile aboard a war ship to escape they must fight against the Zeon in order to survive. These civilians must adjust to the reality of their situation and change who they are on the inside in order to fit that role and stay alive. Confronted with changing consistent danger the crew is forced into roles and none are as demanding as Amuro Ray’s.
Our protagonist first jumps into the Gundam, an experimental new mobile suit, in an attempt to hide from attackers. and This decision permanently brands him as the strongest most competent guardian of the entire crew, despite his reluctance to hold that position. (Think Evangelion’s Shinji but less cowardly and more exhausted.)
White Base is under constant barrage and Amuro must sacrifice his sanity, health, and safety in order to hold this involuntary role. Amuro embodies the theme of war stripping away identity and innocence. In the beginning, he’s only a kid. He’s placed in the position of a soldier and has no choice but to take on a soldier’s responsiblities. Just as the whole of humanity is losing it’s hopeful naive dream of advancing as a unit into the stars, Amuro is losing his identity as a good human being.
Now, All anime require a protagonist between the age of 13 and 16. This is an objective fact that doesn’t need any more explanation. It is law. So, we run into a problem when writing a story about battling mobile suit pilots: Young people with no experience should have no chance in a fight with the best adult pilot in the war.
A naturally superior child defeating grown adults who have spent their entire lives training is the equivalent of the boss’s son becoming your direct supervisor. It is clear they did not earn that position. They were born lucky and gifted the opportunity to excel. (Which begins my list of comparisons between Soma Yukihira from Food Wars and Miley Cyrus.)
Regardless, in this show our main pilot rivalry is between a 15-year-old reluctant unexperienced tinkerer and the Principality of Zeon’s best pilot whose claim to fame was wiping out half of the federation’s fleet at the battle of loom single handedly
In a normal series they’d probably just amend the skill-level dissonance issue with a “my god this kids a natural” type scene where other experienced adults are shocked at how naturally talented our child protag is. But the creators use two buffers to benevolently stop this line from existing.
1. The RX-78-2
A new self-correcting piece of machinery that is far superior to the mobile suits being used by the principality of Zeon. Designed by Amuro Ray’s father, the suit assists with aiming and physical movement controls and has superior firepower and reaction time.
Amuro’s technically-minded brain, a trait likely passed down from his father, is able to quickly get a hold of Gundam’s systems and functionally pilot this superior suit. He improves at the same rate Zeon is able to produce new mobile suits to compete with the Gundam. During his absolute most novice moments, the surprising superiority of the mobile suit is what helps him survive his first encounters with his experienced rivals.
[While on the topic of mobile suits I’d like to discuss the mobile suits. The RX-78-2’s design is beautiful. The design was stamped out before the title of the show was changed from Freedom Fighter Gunboy. The mobile suit’s samurai-inspired design was created with the intention of turning it into toys. The design is so iconic even after decades of recreation and designing, only one other suit has surpassed it in terms of being the mascot for the franchise as a whole, The Unicorn. And the unicorn needed a bunch of bells and whistles and fanciness in order to compete. The Rx-78-2 is just a masterpiece of balance, shape, and primary color placement. The Zeta, The Double Zeta, The Hyaku-Shiki, and hundreds of others try to create appealing designs by making them thicc, complicated, or made of gold, but nothing can beat good balanced design.
That said, my favorite mobile suit is, and always will be, the Gouf Custom from ‘The 08th MS Team’. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s just the scene. Maybe it’s the blue. Maybe it’s the “I’ve found the place I’m going to die” line. I don’t know. I know it just sparks joy, so, no, Marie Kondo, I will not throw it away.]
2. Amuro is a Newtype
A newtype is someone born of such incredible empathic ability they can communicate with one another without words. These highly sensitive individuals are ace-pilots due to their ability to feel the emotions of people they are fighting. This is the most controversial and hotly contested element of Gundam.
Even some of Gundam’s most passionate fanboys will openly express disgust at a story’s utilization of the dreaded “newtype bullshit” or “space autism”. (personally I take issue with the phrase ‘space autism’, not because of its highly offensive quality, but because autism is a disease which makes interpersonal connections more difficult. Newtypes can emotionally connect with someone through two layers of mobile suit armor and the vacuum of space. Its just literally the polar opposite condition is all)
When mankind leaves the protective mother’s womb of the Earth and begins living and dying in space, there is a change within the mind of certain individuals. At first it seems like a mutation that gives pilots a specific edge in a battle, but as time goes on we see that this mutation growing across time is more of an evolution happening to spacenoids.
The sensitivity of human beings has been shown in myriad inexplicable phenomena and leaving earth for generations in the cold vacuum of space with nothing but the connections to other humans keeping people alive being the key which unlocks those unknown supernatural feelings makes enough sense for me.
I like that it isn’t just Amuro blessed with Newtype abilities. Most of white base, aside from the Earth-born Bright Noa, has some form of increased sensitivity. It’s quite fascinating to have the space-born people generally get odd “feelings” that are so trusted and consistent they are used as legitimate influencers of combat strategy. It stops being weird and just becomes a natural universal change. You can start to trust them more. Tomino’s dream for people is that we might all become Newtypes. That we might all surpass the expectations of mankind and grow into more sensitive people who try to understand one another and be opposed to unnecessary violence.
White Base Bros
Your work-a-day war narrative story typically stars a cast of driven heroes fighting for a just cause against the forces of evil that impose their tyranny over the lives of the innocent, but this ain’t your dad’s war narrative. Unless of course your dad was into Japanese media back in the late 70s in which case, I wanna hang out with your dad. The team on White Base craves peace and security more than anything. They strive towards the day they can stop fighting. Their circumstances demanded they become soldiers for the Earth Federation, and after doing so well at just keeping themselves alive they are folded into the planning and war strategies by the dudes upstairs. The dudes upstairs suck. They’ve decided that this group of CHILDREN are really good at killing people and despite it being objectively unjust to demand more out of them, they do it anyway. Saying the Earth Federation is the good guy of the story because our protagonists are aligned with them is akin to saying Hawaiian pizza is a fruit salad.
Bright Noa, the captain of this ragtag group of unfortunate civilians forced into battle is 19. He was an ensign before the attack on Side 7. A junior line officer fresh out of the academy. He, like everyone on the ship is forced into a role he isn’t ready for. But he has honor. He makes no complaints. He knows what needs to get done and does it, thanklessly. He slaps. Twice. A good man. A good captain. Also the only person onboard who seems to genuinely care about stopping Zeon for ethical reasons.
Fraw Bow, Kai Shiden, Hayato Kobayashi and sweet Ryu make up our lovable little Gundam team. Fraw is Hermoine. Kai is selfish. Hayato is strong-willed. Ryu is a big cutie. Their interactions and modus operandi add a texture to the scenes while Amuro handles all of the character development for them. Ryu takes a bullet and fires back. Kai likes a girl. Fraw tends to the little kids.
Did I forget to mention the little kids? On this fully functional warship getting into battles once a week a trio of comic relief children just goof off the whole time. As a viewer you might say, “get these kids off the god damn war ship. Why am I the only one who seems to care about this besides the occasional Zeon soldier?” The show will respond with the Federation finally stepping in to take the children out of harm’s way 30 episodes in, but giving up after the kids say, “I’d like to stay on the warship please.” This is the plot at it’s most unreasonable. No. Get these gosh darned children off the warship. If we need comic relief we’ll just have Amuro get slapped again.
Sayla Mass is the twin sister Char Aznable, the red comet’s.. She is the daughter of Zeon Zum Deikun. She is someone who is torn between the Federation, those she has been working with, protecting, and being protected by, and Zeon, her family. Sayla Mass represents the inherent arbitrarity of alliance in a war between two warring factions. Both sides are wrought with Hypocrisy and lies, but one is full of people she has built a bond with and the other has her flesh and blood. There is very little idealism in the conversations between individuals on White Base. It is not manners of beliefs and ethics, but necessary positions and survival.
The bad guys are always the more interesting group to talk about in a story, but as mentioned before there aren’t necessarily good guys and bad guys in this story. The Zabi family is a group of backstabbing heartless individuals even among one another. They are individually driven by their own lust for power. They took over the Zeon revolution and turned it into their own. They could be seen as a symbol of those out for their own glory and crave power over all. They are bad guys, but the people beneath them are a bit more complex.
Ramba Ral is a key antagonist in the middle of the show. He is an honorable man who first meets these enemy soldiers in a bar. Because this location is not a battlefield he allows his rivals to leave unmolested so they might fight man to man.
He is a noble man with honorable intentions. He just happens to be on the opposite end of this conflict. It is clear he could be a hero in a story that would revolve around him.
Dozle Zabi is a big bad boy. He is clearly the muscle of the Zabi family, but we spend time with him loving his wife and daughter. He is a simple, lovable giant. He is honorable. He’s a pawn in all this and owns his pawn-hood.
He pilots Big Zam. Which is the best part of the show. He is too likable to root against, but too close to the evil to root for. The narrative makes it so there are few things to really feel angry with besides the war itself. Our characters are just people doing what they believe they have to.
Char is a character of mysterious motivations and the most fascinating character in the entire show. His father was a great philosopher who wanted to help people grow into their next evolutionary stage. His son continues his beliefs while under a fake name because the new rulers, the Zabi family, who are universally correctly assumed to be the murderers of Zeon Zum Deikun, might find him out.
His main goal throughout this show is to wipe out the family that killed his father, took his ideology, and used it to become the Nazis. He holds the values at the core of the Zeon revolution but is most directly opposed to those guiding the efforts. This creates a bit of a strange dynamic where Char is valiantly fighting for and against his own team.
Simplicity and Purity
The gundam franchise at this point has the density and complexity of the dollar-sign triple-digit perfect-grade model kits bought and built by the fans and that’s certainly a part of the franchise’s appeal.
Those who have found themselves attracted to Gundam are thirsty for taking chaotic piles of disconnected pieces and bringing them together to create order and form whether that be with the three-dimensional guided-puzzle gundam model kits or making sense of the insanity that is Gundam’s canon.
The alluring complexity of the franchise has certainly become a major factor in it’s attraction to newcomers, therefore potentially causing the new fan to be set aback by the simplicity within the original series.
Unburdened by the need to “seem like it’s doing its own thing” which haunts every other series in the franchise, Mobile Suit Gundam unravels uniformly and confidently as an exploration of brand new ideas.
While subsequent series need to develop connections between setting, plot, characters, and theming in order to keep the franchise’s name alive, the first outing is the natural inhabitant of these ideas. The themes and plot are tied to one another so every villain-of-the-week Gundam fight doesn’t only serve as an entertaining spectacle and toy advertisement but another notch in the belt around the neck of our protagonist’s youthful innocence and simultaneously the innocence of humanity. The setting, characters, themes, and plotting are all appendages of the same body which was birthed as a whole.
Future iterations might make changes to that body, replacing arms and legs with strong artificial replacements which may sometimes work and often work better, but will always lack the natural god-given perfection of that whole initial ideological offspring.
Oscar Pistorius may be able to run better with enhanced limbs but if you ask him he’ll likely say he wishes he could have his old legs back. Maybe then he wouldn’t have shot his girlfriend. (He actually was born without fibulas, so he probably wouldn’t want his old legs back. I could have cut this line out but then I’d have to sacrifice the analogy and the joke and I don’t want to sacrifice both. So here, have a disclaimer.)
Mobile Suit gundam is an excellent piece of anime history that handles heavy themes of the horrors of loss in war and the struggle of personal responsibility. Mobile Suit Gundam danced on the pole for change so Neon Genesis Evangelion could dance on Tik Tok for internet points.
Mobile Suit Gundam is a show that has a full understanding of how to mesh the various elements and themes into one single cohesive work. Balancing many elements and having them all feel connected is a non-mathematical process that relies solely on the creator having a clear understanding and connection with the characters he creates in his heart, the world he creates and the message he wants to send. Tomino balances elements of political intrigue with personal drama and spiritual connections. The father, the son, and the holy spirit.Society, man, and God. From an outsider’s point of view the show is merely big anime robots. Transformers with dying. But true Gundam fans know just how deep this robot hole goes.
My favorite scene
When the White Base falls onto the earth they land near Amuro’s hometown. He realizes his mother may be alive and near so he abandons the team’s r&r session to visit his mother. He arrives at his old home and instead he finds a group of drunk soldiers squatting in the house. His home has been overrun by actors in the war. The place his life used to take place in before leaving to space no longer exists in the same way he remembers. A place of solace and comfort for him, his whole life, has been overrun and conquered by the war. There will be no return to the old ways. He cannot escape the new state of his life. He storms out in search of his mother.
After interrupting soldiers abusing their power to get free tomatoes, the vendor explains to Amuro that his mother is alive and well, working in a makeshift military hospital for injured civilians.
He lands his fighter where his mother is said to be and the townsfolk immediately panic. This land is controlled by Zeon. If the Zeon fly over and see a Federation fighter jet, there will be consequences. As they are explaining this to Amuro he sees his mother and they embrace for a short moment before the townsfolk interrupt again. Your reunion can wait a few moments and you might save a few lives, bud.
Amuro discusses with his mother what he has been going through as she tends to him in the hospital. Before much conversation can happen a Zeon soldier enters the hospital, having heard a report of the federation fighter jet. He investigates the hospital looking for evidence. Meanwhile, White Base is under attack. They are unable to protect themselves without assistance from Amuro. They ring him up on his communicator. As the men in the hospital are about to leave the communicator goes off. They approach Amuro’s bed and his mother attempts to protect her son, but she didn’t realize there is a different person underneath those sheets. He shoots. He scores.
His mother is shocked by the veracity with which he kills the man in the hospital. She sees there that this boy is not the son she has been trying to raise, but is now a soldier. A murderer. She is appalled by how quickly her son will shoot another man. He has been taken by the war and molded into an instrument for it, a cog in it’s clockwork. He has no time to explain this to her and leaves to go save his friends.
Before White Base leaves the location, She asks him to please stay with her and reform back into the ideal version she holds of her sweet innocent child. There is no need to consider. Amuro knows what he has become over this course of events. He knows there is no home for him anymore. He knows life will never return to what it once was. His duty is to those on the White Base. He might always love his mother, but as his world has changed, so has he. His mother may not understand, but her feelings are not important enough to him in comparison with the lives of his team.
This scene marks the completion of Amuro’s reluctance. He has been shedding the skin of the old Amuro through an uncomfortable struggle, but this is the scene where he leaves his skin behind and slithers into his position as the Gundam pilot.
Should I watch the Series or the Movie Trilogy?
If I’ve tantalized you enough with my descriptions, there are two ways to experience the Mobile Suit Gundam story. One is the 42 episode TV program. The other is a movie trilogy which condenses the story into about 7 ½ hours.
With the show, the viewer is treated with more cheesy scenes used as filler, a listenable if occasionally hilarious English dub, and the Gundam Hammer which is not a hammer in the slightest. (Its the main reason one would choose the show). The movie trilogy has less embarrassing animation, a more breakneck pace, an unlistenable english dub making subs mandatory, and a better fleshing out of the concept of Newtypes.
If you’re the type of person who might watch Them! Or Cat Women of the Moon and laugh yet feel warm and fuzzy inside from the pre-self-aware quaintness of antediluvian production design, watch the show. If you’re the type that thought the vast criticism of Disney’s Star Wars: Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker was somewhat unjustified, watch the film trilogy. I’m both of those guys, so I watched both.
My personal suggestion is to watch the series, then live your life for a few weeks, maybe watch some more Gundam shows, build a Gunpla. Or two. And then watch the trilogy.
The trilogy put underpants on the children, but failed to include the Zackrello. If missing the Zackrello is something you’ll lie awake regretting, watch the show. If you feel like you might not miss the Zackrello too much and kinda wish you weren’t looking at it right now? Watch the movies.
You get less time with Dozle Zabi in the trilogy. Dozle Zabi is my grandfather who died before he had the opportunity to learn what a pussy I would mature into. He is my favorite. If your tougher-than-nails grandfather is still alive and is completely transparent about how disappointed in you he is, watch the movies.
If you don’t watch the show then you will have to miss The show’s opening which goes so hard if a diamond is close-by while its playing, said diamond will crack out of fear by recognizing it is no longer the hardest substance in the room.
In the movies there is less time for Sleggar and Mirai to sensibly fall in love. But to be honest it doesn’t make sense much in the show either. Nothin quite like slapping a woman in the face to say i love you before the 90s.
My main argument for watching the show, though, is that it’s more impactful when characters die because you’ve had more time with them and, oh, yeah, spoilers, Characters die. Its a war, dummy.
The trilogy is better Gundam but the series is MORE gundam. If you just want some good Gundam watch the trilogy, but if there is the smallest iota of personality within that believes you could blossom from vague-interest-haver into a “Gundam fan” watch the show.