Late to the Party: Mobile Suit Gundam

The Show

Mobile Suit Gundam is a 43-episode anime from 1979 about a war between the Earth Federation government and the Principality of Zeon, a separatist nation of space-based human colonies. The story follows a group of civilians who are thrown into the conflict when Zeon attacks their colony in search of the Federation’s new top-of-the-line military prototypes, including the titular Gundam, a humanoid mech (aka Mobile Suit), as well as the space battleship White Base.

The Gundam franchise has an odd arc. Mobile Suit Gundam was canceled due to middling ratings; its 52-episode run was cut short to 39, then haggled up to 43 to better wrap things up, but strong toy sales made it a huge hit in reruns. Fans loved the Cool Robots from the War Is Bad show, and by god did they want to buy models of them. This Cool Robot/War Is Bad tension would go on to define the franchise, which remains a juggernaut to this day.

What were the cultural reasons behind this kind of character being so popular?
Because the sponsors are toy manufacturers. You all laugh because you thought I was making a joke, but that is actually more than 50 percent the truth of the matter. 

Creator Yoshiyuki Tomino, in a 2009 interview

While the franchise is undeniably toyetic, it’s famous for creating the Real Robot genre. Unlike traditional Super Robots (Voltron, the Power Rangers’ Megazord, etc.) that were one-of-a-kind creations powered by crystals and friendship, Gundam’s mobile suits were simply mass-producible machines of war – the next step in tanks and fighter planes. The show similarly attempted a nuanced view towards civilians and soldiers on both sides rather than being a tale of superheroes and supervillains.

We have to go DEEPER

My Background

About half of the ~53 entries in the franchise fit into the Universal Century (UC) timeline kicked off by MSG. The other half sit in different one-off universes. I know way more about the latter.

When MSG aired on Cartoon Network, I bounced off the dated animation and often-stilted voice acting after an episode or two. I’d been introduced to the franchise via Mobile Suit Gundam Wing (a non-UC series), and due to the sheer time commitment of watching UC, I just… didn’t. I’ve absorbed a bunch via cultural osmosis, including short UC sidestories like 08th MS Team and general franchise remixing (including 2002’s Mobile Suit Gundam SEED, which apparently cribs particularly aggressively from MSG), so basically I have possibly-misplaced confidence that I know how this goes down.

General Reaction

It’s good, maybe even my favorite Gundam show? I give it a 4/5 overall, but its uneven start with a strong finish is way preferable to a strong start that piddles out, and I’ve seen a lot more of the latter in this franchise. Might track down Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam as a result!

I love Episode 1’s absolute chaos as the show’s blueprint. The action kicks off with a Zeon rookie on a recon mission defying orders to play gloryboy. He commits a bunch of war crimes and promptly gets killed for his efforts. On the flip side, we get the state-of-the-art Federation ship and MS piloted by an assortment of civilians and raw recruits in way over their heads. Nobody on either side is Where They Are Supposed To Be or Doing What They Are Supposed To Do, and everything is terrible. Rad.

Even the show’s theme song arguably gets in on the action! The jaunty, heroic tune calls out to “Rage on, Gundam!”, “fight the towering foe!”, “Bring to bear the rage of justice”, and so on. Meanwhile, when Amuro leaps into action in the Gundam and kills said Zeon rookie, the enemy MS explodes, which blows a hole in the side of the colony, which sucks passerbys into space, including his own father. Cool Robot, but War Is Bad.

The next 20ish episodes were a bit of a lull. There’s some good character work, but the greater plot didn’t come into focus until Operation Odessa. And the final leg in space, once the show had been canceled, was a real thriller of a finale. The lesson is clear: cancel every show.

I’m a little iffy on the last stretch being so dominated by discussions about Newtypes (tl;dr: characters that have The Force). I recognized a few hints early on, but I described it in my notes as a “New Game+ plot”. The “clues” are so minor that I can’t imagine giving them much mind unless you already knew the ending. Still: trippy 70’s psychic visuals are a good time, and everything else is firing on all cylinders.

Well now he’s just hacking

Amuro’s a great lead, and he’s just the right amount of a twit to make for a compelling 15 year old phenom as protagonist. He’s introduced as a rude, filthy nerd who can’t even feed himself, and it takes a lot of teamwork and trauma to sand down the rough edges. So much of the show’s personal drama stems from him being a know-it-all that attaches his entire self-worth to the Gundam even as piloting grinds his spirit to dust. The way he swings wildly between can-do problem solving, lashing out, and catatonic brooding as he pushed to his limits feels very real and fair for a semi-voluntary child soldier. And in keeping with the themes of the show, even as he gets better at blowing up enemy MS, every moment of shooting at actual human beings is too much for him.

Elsewhere on White Base, I was surprised at how much I liked Bright. He’s so famous in the fandom for being a shouty jerk that slaps protagonists in line, but it notably almost never works here. And like Amuro, they really sell that a lot of his belligerence comes from having way too much responsibility suddenly thrust upon him. Those early episodes make clear that he’s capable of being a consensus-driven, fair, and effective leader once he grows into the role. And then he does.

But really the all-star is Mirai, the only person on the crew with her head consistently screwed on straight. She’s far and away the least important main-ish character to The Plot, but the ship and the show would fall to pieces without her. Mirai’s the best.

On the opposing side, Char is… odd. He gets the hero’s edit for the first dozen episodes: adored by his crew, renowned for his skills, and executing all manner of daring missions against the more powerful White Base and Gundam. His betrayal of Garma gives an initial jolt of intrigue, but he promptly disappears. By the time he returns and we learn more about his scheming, he’s buried under so many different layers of BS that even he doesn’t seem to know which of his schemes are cons and which aren’t. It’s clear that a lot with him comes down to simple wounded pride, and there’s a tragic elegance to that; I just hoped for/expected someone more Magneto-y, especially knowing that he’s a central figure in many series to come.

How Bad Was The War?

Not great, Bob!

A lot of the early episodes open on either refugees aboard White Base or Zeon soldiers just… hanging out. It’s not usually exciting, but it does the work of reminding the viewer about the costs and day-to-day drudgery of war. And similarly, I was struck by the clear No Stormtroopers policy; even Zeon middle-management and grunts always got unique faces, names, and bits of personality. Sometimes those traits matter, like the pilot who gets shot down for helping a widowed refugee, and sometimes they don’t, like this guy who absentmindedly forgets that he’s wearing a helmet. Things like this and the many, many comments by grunts about their out-of-touch commanders (on both sides) make for a show that feels like it considers the fundamental humanity of everyone involved.

At the same time… drama demands that we see Federation leadership be useless, bureaucratic ding-dongs while so many Zeon soldiers are either Noble Warriors or Just Schmucks Doing Their Jobs, and that’s not always great. It is made extremely clear that Zeon are Space Nazis, but there’s so much humanizing of them that it sometimes feels like we’re reporting on the One Year War from rural space diners full of the economically anxious.

The war remains pretty honkin’ bad despite that quibble though. Most of the show is a tragedy at societal and personal levels, the last few episodes have some unglamorously grisly deaths, and little details like consistently getting inserts of nameless Zeon pilots panicking before their MS explode keep a healthy rain cloud overhead at all times. And absolutely no notes on either the 4-way battle between Amuro, Char, Lalah, and Sayla or the final duel between Amuro and Char, which is as furious as it is pointless.

How Cool Were the Robots?

Zaku II-S(pooky)

The Real Robot genre doesn’t enter fully formed, but it’s still clear how big a change this must have been from what came before. Bit of a bummer that the show didn’t push the changes even more, though. Stuff like the Big Zam having just 20 minutes of uptime before its reactor overheated could have been dramatic details, but they’re (apparently) hidden in supplemental materials. Still, the vibe is there, and the robots are cool. Mostly.

Mobile Suit Power Rankings

So Dang Cool

  1. Zaku II
  2. Gundam
  3. Guntank

Very Cool

  1. Dom
  2. Gouf
  3. Ball
  4. Acguy

Appreciably Cool

  1. Z’Gok
  2. GM
  3. Zeong

Vaguely Cool

  1. Gyan
  2. Gogg
  3. Gelgoog
  4. Zock

Absolutely Not Cool

  1. Guncannon

Stray Thoughts

  • This show is the strongest endorsement I have ever seen for Reading The Dang Manual
  • I love that, after being ordered to include a combining sequence in every episode, the show had a stretch of eps that open with a clip of Amuro & Ryu doing a practice run while the narrator says “And they’ll never do this again”.
  • Fan favorite minor villain Ramba Ral is a chump and a loser. No johns, Ramba.
  • The show is less good about gender politics than I think it thinks it is, but I enjoy the dirty look Sayla shoots whenever Bright swipes a radio transmission out of her hand
  • The Zeon army’s insistence on internal one-upsmanship causes them tons of problems. This is one of my favorite beats, and true to their Nazi roots.
  • Past me was stupid; the animation is really good! It’s notably light on reusing footage in action scenes, even when fighting mooks. Weirdly, I feel like the stills often look better than the show in motion. Not sure if this is a frame rate thing, that it stems from the avoidance of distortion or smearing to emphasize movement, or just me again being stupid..
  • Tons of great disco and funk on the soundtrack. Gallant Char rules, of course. This one was also a favorite.
  • If I could make one plot change, I’d reveal Sayla’s backstory right after Ramba brings it up. It’d take her subplot out of limbo, provide context as White Base joins the main war effort, and let them at least mention Newtypes a bit earlier
  • Not news, but Char making sure to headshot Kycillia with a bazooka is so perfectly extra of him
  • Single most unsettling moment of the show for me was in E29 (“A Wish of War Orphans”), where two unnamed Feddie grunts lazily shoot the breeze, then abruptly get crushed to death by an Acguy after the briefest moment of helpless terror. Cut immediately to this. Chaos reigns.
  • Most Gundam-ass Name award goes to: Sleggar Law. Second place goes to Texas Colony, a ghost town of a space colony covered in desert, cattle, and covered wagons. It’s Texas. It’s Space Texas.