This bad boy can fit so much lore
In this world of relentless franchise churn, endings are never really conclusions if the brand continues to hold value and drive interest. They’re all too frequently light, friendly visits with familiar iconography than they are creative or challenging pushes into new territory. The comfortable and recognizable, not to mention easily marketable, are placed before themes and ideas. Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe, the current gold standard of success in Hollywood, represents the zenith of this type of creation of pop culture, mass appeal art. Detail minded and deeply connected to past iterations, always looking towards an exciting future, but for every step forward, another two are taken back, and a few taken in circles. These are issues I’ve had with Gundam since I saw my second Gundam iteration. The franchise is well known for its reuse of everything from broader themes and character arcs, down to minor design touches and sound effects. The now 40-year-old franchise has been recycling itself, to put it nicely, for almost as long, and I fear Sunrise has been taking note of Disney’s success and 2018’s Narrative is an exhausting step in the wrong direction.
A direct sequel to Unicorn (2010 – 2014), Narrative takes place a year later in Universal Century 0097, though you may have trouble holding onto that given how frequently the film leaps haphazardly into the timeline’s busy preceding decades. Centered around three adults who manifested precognitive Newtype powers, the franchise’s proper noun for the next stage in human evolution, as children and saved the residents of their hometown from the colony drop that kicked off the One Year War, known after as the Miracle Children. Following the full revelation of Newtypes and their abilities at the end of Unicorn, both the Earth Federation and Zeon remnants are scrambling to locate the missing in action third “Unicorn brother”, the RX-0 Phenex, believed to hold the key to life beyond death and ability to control time. Life has been difficult for the Miracle Children in the years since their powers became known and their fates only worsen when entangled with Phenex Gundam.
Directed by Shunichi Yoshizawa, who had recently handled episodes of both Thunderbolt and Reconguista in G, he brings an unfortunately flat and very TV-like look, where things only come to life during mobile suit action. Production-wise, Narrative can be a bit inconsistent. At times the mechanical animation stands shoulder to shoulder with Thunderbolt and Unicorn, high points of a very good decade of Gundam productions. Other times, scenes slump into high-end TV quality, as if the staff had to pick their battles. On the design end, everything has been given a smoother, more streamlined look compared to Unicorn, its direct visual parent, which is a shame, especially on the character side. Yoshikazu Yasuhiko’s lively designs are sorely missed. CGI assistance pops up much more often than I would like it to, particularly when the Phenex and its associated light show is involved. But overall, Narrative is easy on the eyes and has a few standout robot throwdowns. It’s in the writing, penned by Unicorn author and screenwriter Harutoshi Fukui, where the film truly fails.
It’s hard for me to approach Narrative on its surface as a story about child abuse and the hubris of trying to control Newtypes, because that all feels like perfunctory window dressing barely hiding cynical franchise building. There is something deeply ironic in the title of the film, adapted from a Unicorn side story published years after both the original books and later OVA concluded, as it barely functions as a story on its own. The Miracle Children are thinly sketched, more often than not used as witnesses to historical moments or intersections of lore threads. Jona Basta, the pilot of the titular Narrative suit, barely has a second to establish any discernible character traits outside of typical “Gundam pilot” default mold and story function in the film’s scant 88-minute run time. At several points, characters have flashbacks to events before the main action, that directly contradict their later motivations and can only be explained away by “they forgot”, giving the film an almost stream of consciousness flow to the way things play out. This is largely because the characters and their struggles, which do conclude within, are secondary to the all-important branding. They’re expected to be there and accomplish the minimal requirements needed to push the story forward, but the cast is not the focus. Narrative plays less as a standalone movie and more a piece of downloadable content for Unicorn for only the most ardent fans that’s all about immersing its viewers in as much Gundam as possible.
Universal Century stories have always walked a fine line when asking the audience to hold onto past details. Television sequels found the time to recap what was relevant, OVA side stories like 0080 and The 08th MS Team typically only asked for a general familiarity with the broad concepts, and while Unicorn demanded the most from its viewers, it managed to contextualize most of the unwieldy lore into a satisfying thematic conclusion to the Universal Century’s detailed storyline (Char’s Counterattack was the first and arguably better finale, but its spiritual nature left a lot of doors open). But Narrative, seemingly emboldened by Disney’s success of getting audiences in seats for increasingly lore heavy Avengers movies, is downright obnoxious with its whirlwind tour of obscure details and familiar beats.
Within moments of starting, I was drowning in Gundam minutiae. Dry technical discussions of psycho-frames, generous use of footage recapping Unicorn, jumps in time where TV and radio broadcasts are used as the main indicator of placement. Before long my eyes were rolling into the back of my head as dead horse speeches about Newtypes were once again vomited up or when the film boldly asked me to remember a shipping company briefly seen last in Zeta. Another tragic scene where a woman flies in front of a laser beam and becomes a ball of light? Wouldn’t be right without one of those, apparently. Worse yet is when the time is taken to overexplain Gundam‘s early dips into artful visual abstraction to within an inch of its life. Having characters talk over iconic scenes of the human race transcending their nuts and bolts reality and physical boundaries, rendering these moments as clunky and soulless bits of exposition is more than a little depressing. It would be one thing if Narrative was actually enhanced through cracking open the vault, but like too many of Marvel’s efforts, the details are there to be recognized but not engaged with in meaningful ways. They’re hooks to keep interest but offer little on their own. Narrative‘s worst crimes are when dredging up the past actively ignores the entire point of what it is being invoked. The presence of a second Neo Zeong, the original used in Unicorn as a not subtle giant metaphor for the repetition of a hollowed-out conflict that ultimately crumbled away, is at first laughable but shows how little regard Gundam as a brand has for its own messaging. This isn’t the usual “war is bad, oh cool robot” tightrope that Gundam typically walks. It’s all about the Cool Lore here.
Narrative isn’t a good movie. It’s certainly not for initiates, which is somewhat baffling as an introduction to what is to be a new wave of Gundam productions. And as a gesture to Gundam‘s most devoted fans, I can’t see what it actually brings to the table. Its strongest theme is of people living through or directly witnessing major events in the Universal Century timeline and trying to bend them to their will. A major part of the text is that all the major players are wrapped up in the past and cannot pull themselves from the cyclical nature of Gundam‘s beats. Except that was what Unicorn articulated, much better, years ago, and actually closed the book on these conflicts. The Federation is once again up to vague no good, Zeon remnants are out to restart the war, and a big flashy light show with a Gundam or two at the center pulls off a miracle. Narrative is recycling ideas about the dangers of recycling conflicts and it’s doing it completely straight-faced.
The film ends on the note that human evolution and progress isn’t instantaneous, that only through long work and suffering can mankind ever truly change. And that rushing that change will only bring about more disaster. That’s not a terrible way to cap off this kind of story, as there’s always been a struggle to depict how mankind actually goes about evolving in the long term. But, and it’s a big but, this doesn’t read as Narrative sending us off with the feeling of resolute hope, it reads as a declaration of Sunrise crowbarring the door open for more product. The original Unicorn Gundam, said to have been dismantled, is revealed to be in storage, waiting to roar back into battle when the need arises. And given how Narrative is only the first part of Sunrise’s “UC NexT 0100 Project“, it probably won’t be long before the familiar beats start up again. If Narrative, a cold husk of the past, is the future, I am not looking forward to what is in store for the Universal Century.
Mobile Suit Gundam Narrative is currently only available for rent and digital purchase on Amazon.