The adult in the room of Gundam
Spoilers to follow…
Look, Gundam is some bullshit, and I love it. There is a mountain of animated TV shows, movies, TV shows recut into movies, direct to video entries, direct to video entries recut into TV shows, and shorts—not to mention this is only one corner of a massive multimedia empire—going back over 40 years with dozens of different flavors that all too often end up tasting frustratingly the same after a while. At this point, my brain is probably too deeply submerged in Gundam goop to be able to get any reasonable distance from nearly any entry to make level-headed judgment calls without seeming like a rambling nonsense person. Every time I try to write about Gundam, it ends up being way too long and way too boring. I end up doing scene by scene commentaries instead of anything even remotely digestible. Turns out when talking about one Gundam thing, I can’t help myself but talk about all of it. I own this affliction. I probably inflict headaches and regrets on anyone foolish enough to let me go off on the topic for too long, which not ironically sounds an awful lot like the experience of watching more than a few Gundam shows. So in the spirit of one of the best entries, 1989’s War in the Pocket, the franchise’s first major OVA and animated side story, I’m going to focus.
Celebrating Gundam‘s 10th anniversary, War in the Pocket is a throwback to the already iconic One Year War setting of the collaborative original 1979 series and is the first of many nostalgia efforts. Capitalizing on fondness for the simple pleasures of classic mobile suits and the relatively clean-cut conflict of the Earth Federation squaring off against the Principality of Zeon. In doing this, the OVA crucially also sidesteps many of the more oddball developments in the later entries made under series creator Yoshiyuki Tomino’s increasingly idiosyncratic reign. If there is one thing I have tried to stress with this blog, it is that I love Tomino’s sticky creative fingerprints and I consider them a key piece of makes Gundam uniquely Gundam. But I will be the first to admit his uniquely abrasive approach to storytelling and direction is not always conducive to actually telling a story audiences can connect to. “You gotta turn it over a few times and squint to see where it’s going with its ideas” is a challenge I will gladly take up, but it’s also one I can’t recommend to many people looking for a straightforward “good” time without feeling at least a little bad about it.
Director Fumihiko Takayama, who had worked on a not small amount of the original Macross, novelist Kyosuke Yuki, and screenplay writer Hiroyuki Yamaga, a founding member of Gainax fresh off of directing their first film The Royal Space Force, bring a much-needed level of thematic clarity, composition, and purposefulness to the brand not seen before or since. This is premium Gundam. Putting aside Tomino’s increasingly abstracted and spiraling themes of transhumanism, the OVA zeroes in and takes a hard look at the devastating effects of war on an interpersonal level.
The question of whether Gundam is, as individual segments or taken as a whole, “antiwar” or not has followed the franchise around and will likely never stop. War in the Pocket is typically one of the first titles mentioned for its interest in realism, intimate scope, and unwillingness to brush off the specter of death and consequences while hurrying to another cool robot fight. Invariably French film critic and director François Truffaut’s view that “Every film about war ends up being pro-war.” in regards to depiction and contemplation of motive will rear its head. It comes up frequently in fan discussions, circulating my corner of social media at least once a month. And this paradigm visibly haunts the soul of many a Gundam series, leading to more than a few thematic apocalypses in attempts to pretzel logic their way through the basically impossible gauntlet of being known for critical depictions of war while uncritically selling the brightly colored, intricately designed instruments of those fictional conflicts to children. I suspect that Takayama, Yuki, and Yamaga when hashing out War in the Pocket in 1988 regarded this imposed sorting method as a full-grown person who has spent years on the internet reading about video games might treat the question “Are games art?” from another adult. Which is to say, with exhaustion. At the end of the day, definitively rubber-stamping Gundam as antiwar or not feels like the most boring of dead ends. And War in the Pocket wisely does not let itself get caught up in this.
Centered around eleven-year-old Alfred Izuruha, War in the Pocket gets down to business quickly. Al loves the idea of war, especially mobile suits. He doodles them during class and it’s all he can talk about with his classmates. The dialogue between them feels appropriate for their ages, uncritically excited about something they’ve only just discovered, and more than a little mean in the way that so many young boys seek to one-up each other in nearly every conversation. They wield information about the war with absolute authority even though they’re clearly only repeating what they’ve seen on TV or heard from their parents. They’re kids and War in the Pocket characterizes them with a disarming authenticity. Daisuke Namikawa, Al’s voice actor, was only 12 at the time and his performance lends a lot to that. It draws a sharp contrast to the bloody Arctic raid that opens the first episode which starkly illustrated just how unromantic combat involving these towering mobile suits can be. Where bullets and lasers messily pierce armor and soft bodies, and the destruction left behind is ugly. Unlike Al’s light gun video game, buildings in reality aren’t cleanly leveled, they’re disemboweled and War in the Pocket is not subtly addressing its viewers here.
Al gets his wish to see mobile suits up close when a Zeon squad pops up in his supposedly neutral colony of Libot searching for the cargo they failed to get a hold of during the failed attack on the Federation base in the opening scene. Chasing a downed Zaku, he meets rookie pilot Bernie Wiseman, and the pair’s relationship forms the backbone of War in the Pocket‘s tragic look at war as a black hole that draws in all aspects of life, offering nothing in return but loss and warped scars. Tomino’s stories have no fondness for war but they all too often frame it as a necessity to rise to, where participation compromises but the alternative is worse, or as a sort of generational reminder of past mistakes. The politics and broader lore connections are minimal here, partially to make War in the Pocket more accessible and because the particulars of the One Year War are not that important to what is being said. There are no good guys to root for or bad guys to be righteously knocked down, there is only great sympathy and regret for the loss of life and the ruins it leaves behind.
Bernie tells Al in his final message, viewed after his death, that he became swept up in his effort to stop the nuclear strike on Libot by defeating the Alex Gundam, no longer viewing it as a simple mission objective but something he feels compelled to do. He was caught in the gravity well of war, with words like “right” and “courage.” The prosthetic limb researcher secretly working with the Federation explains to Al that mobile suits are a necessary evil and that while they aren’t there to make people happy, perhaps the technology behind them can benefit humanity. But they ring as the words of someone trying to convince themselves retroactively of messy but just actions. Takayama, Yuki, and Yamaga don’t care about colony drops, the Zabi family, or even Newtypes, because the motivations aren’t important in the face of this all-encompassing act that carves out irreplaceable parts of the collective soul of humanity.
The standard opening sequence (beginning with the second episode) isn’t a sweeping tour through the cast, no romanticized confrontations between merchandise primed mobile suits climaxing with the Alex Gundam squaring off against the Kampfer or Bernie’s Zaku. Instead, War in the Pocket introduces itself with shots across a range of paintings, some still life, others depicting decidedly realistic humans in small moments of life, before a minute long pan across an ordinary brick wall lined with faded posters. Children’s graffiti playfully covers nearly every surface. While difficult to make out at first, as the pan goes on, it becomes clear this is a depiction of a battle between planes and large armored humanoids. Before long the familiar tubes, shoulder spikes, and monoeye of the iconic Zaku register. The end credits roll alongside a collection of in-universe wartime photographs, primarily of children, playing and taking in the still smoking wreckage. The music that accompanies them is almost unbearably sentimental when first heard. In these two simple sequences alone, the weight of Gundam‘s central One Year War is felt like never before or since. In positioning children front and center, observing and processing what they see in person or on the news, War in the Pocket shows a world breaking in half, with a populace still in an early state of shock. The final episode and year in the title depict the end of the conflict, but the damage to all those involved, even by small association, cannot be healed with a repaired building or peace treaty.
I don’t think War in the Pocket was made with the same scorn as Tomino’s unsuccessful attempt to put the final word on Gundam with Char’s Counterattack or the bitterly self-hating Victory. I don’t it think was meant to bite the hand that paid the bills to get it made even if 32 years later so much of it reads like a direct challenge to the franchise’s routines. I simply think that the staff approached the material and audience as adults. It just happens that in doing that, War in the Pocket‘s legacy ends up standing in sharp opposition to the vast majority of decades of creative choices.
The Alex Gundam doesn’t make a full appearance until the end of the third episode, the halfway point of the OVA—a level of restraint and measured tension-building unheard of in a Gundam TV project. The only action in this third episode is of a quick simulation of a previous battle, instead opting to cut between the Kampfer and Alex being put together, setting them on a collision course that will explode in the next one. Following that, the fifth episode forces the audience to linger in the fallout of the encounter for the entire duration. The editing, both within scenes and in the broader scene to scene construction, routinely robs action scenes, which are meticulously brought to life and still stand as some of Gundam‘s most memorable, of being too cool for too long by cutting away and making sure to hold on consequences. Even the Alex’s pilot being a woman, Al’s recently returned next-door neighbor Christina Mackenzie, is an almost scandalous aberration and a throwaway line of hers, “No girls allowed, huh?” feels like a direct shot across the bow of a franchise with dozens and dozens of entries but can’t seem to stop tragically blowing up most of its prominently featured women for men’s’ feelings to power up. In speaking with confidence and executing its ideas concisely, War in the Pocket looks critically at its subject matter and audience. And that is a rarity.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the franchise was in a transitionary period, transforming from merely a string of devastatingly popular shows, movies, model kits, novels, manga, and other merchandise to a permanent staple of Japanese pop culture. The higher budget allowed staff to depict older mobile suits and props, many of which were and still are fixtures in otaku culture, with a new level of detail and care. The characters were normal people witnessing the story from relatable perspectives, departing from Tomino’s more obtuse casts. An empire was being shored up and in 1989, it probably checked a lot of “safe bet” boxes but in hindsight, so many of its creative choices are outright hostile.
Character designer Hirohiko Mikimoto brings his uniquely doe-eyed, soft style to War in the Pocket, having previously distinguished Macross, Megazone 23, and the then concurrently running Gunbuster with casts that at a glance betray a sweeping emotional accessibility. Already no stranger to Gundam, Yutaka Izubuchi reimagines several classic mobile suits to stunning results. His Zakus are bulkier and more menacing than ever. The new amphibious Hygogg, with its elongated arms and bulbous features, strikes an immediate impression. And then there’s the animation, with credits full of Sunrise heavy hitters, that while certainly not lacking during character moments, shines during the few battle sequences. Infusing the machines with a degree of weight and tangible physical presence works in tandem with the rest of the production’s aspects to bring a sense of grounded reality that Gundam had only gestured at before. Mitsuo Iso famously not doing in-between frames in his cuts is of course impressive on its own, I bought an artbook specifically to look at them after all, but the way that it feeds into not only the atmosphere but the direct thrust of War in the Pocket continues to impress.
Yes, the robots are devastatingly cool—if a piece of Gundam media really wanted to make sure we weren’t invested in mobile suits clashing, it wouldn’t put so much effort and care into realizing them. But it threads the needle in terms of contextualizing their presence and depiction. This has run longer than I wanted and I still feel like I’m missing many of the finer qualities of the OVA. Gundam is complicated and stupid in equal measure and I have trouble not trying to weigh all of it at once. But in short, War in the Pocket the real deal. In just six short episodes it manages to pack enough moments of tender humanity, several action scenes for the ages, and pointed messaging to more than distinguish itself in the ocean of Gundam content. It challenges its audience to engage with how Gundam is processed and doesn’t sugar coat itself in doing so. It has a lot to offer with one of its strongest selling points being that simply that anyone, die-hard fan or not, can just get it. I probably shouldn’t have spent 2400+ words saying that.
Mobile Suit Gundam 0080: War in the Pocket is available through Nozomi Entertainment on Blu-ray.