A lurching rough draft of a mediocre show
Spoilers to follow…
I did not enjoy my time with 2002’s Gundam SEED. I suspect at least part of it is that I am firmly in my thirties, with most of the rest of Gundam under belt, for better and worse, and SEED is very plainly pitching its flimsy plastic wares almost exclusively to a teenaged audience who don’t have a strong familiarity with the franchise. Despite my usual compartmentalizing of reputation and half-formed book-judging-via-cover thoughts going in, I realized early on into the 20-hour journey that it could have only been a hit with me in an alternate timeline where I would have somehow seen it during its original airing in Japan in 2002. Maybe when I was 15 and could be coaxed into thinking its long monologues about war that use lots of important-sounding words and concepts to say almost nothing while robots sometimes cheaply smash into each other and flat characters devoid of anything resembling relatability solemnly gazing out into space, weighing their Very Serious circumstances was the pinnacle of artistic accomplishment.
Unfortunately by the time SEED aired in 2004 on Cartoon Network’s Toonami in the US, I had drifted away from the programming block and Gundam had already taken up a permanent residence in my brain, forever rent-free, through (the better in hindsight) Wing, which at least had the decency to spin a fun soap opera out of its banality. So sitting down with the show in 2021 was never going to be an ideal situation and honestly had me questioning if bothering to hash out my feelings was perhaps unfair to the show’s rock bottom intentions and half-asleep execution. SEED rarely ever aims higher than a soulless echo of the original 1979 Mobile Suit Gundam but I can’t shake the feeling that I’m going out of my way to punch down. Is getting angry that Burger King won’t offer its microwaved frozen burgers medium rare really a fair reaction? History certainly speaks to SEED‘s financial and cultural success. Merchandise and home video releases sold through the roof, the cast topped fan polls for years following airing, and the mechanical designs have cemented themselves as an important cornerstone of the broader cultural “look” of Gundam. People still show up in comments sections to ask about the long-in-development hell movie project. But in 2021, SEED is an almost unbearable slog even to someone who has foolishly committed to watching all of Gundam. And let me tell you, I like failures.
For my own curiosity and at the suggestion of several people on Twitter, I decided to skip the now more widely available HD Remaster that converts the show into widescreen, redraws certain sequences, and apparently takes another crack at the material, in favor of the original television cut of the show. And due to an oversight on Sunrise’s part by not providing Rightstuf/Nozomi Entertainment with the DVD version of the show (to be fixed sometime in the future), which I understand corrects the color balance, I watched basically exactly what aired in 2002. And golly has it not aged well at all. The first all-digital Gundam television show, Sunrise is not yet at home with the new animation tools. It’s all very flat and fuzzy and the animation itself is generally of uninspiring quality, frequently not up to the task of fully depicting bigger moments like the collapse of a space colony or kinetic fights in general. The many duels tend to be composed primarily of stock footage of isolated actions strung together. Not damning on its own, banked cuts are an economic practice that’s been around forever in anime and not likely to go away anytime soon, but coupled with unenthusiastic direction and character writing that leaves a lot to be desired, few of the fights that heavily punctuate much of the show generate any heat at all. Design-wise, nothing really stands out, it’s sort of a big bowl of mush to me. I’ve never been a fan of SEED‘s brand of overly busy and toy-ready mobile suits and even now have trouble telling many of them apart, but they don’t offend. It’s that once again, the limitations of the production and lack of interest in what’s on-screen come together to stamp out any potentially exciting action or visual flavor. I recognize the digital effects, coloring, and awkward pans as hailing from a very specific period in the early 2000s, but subconsciously my brain sorts SEED as far older than the majority of Gundam, going as far back as 1979.
Directed by Sunrise veteran Mitsuo Fukuda and written by Chiaki Morosawa, his wife and long-time collaborator, SEED does not make a strong or reassuring early impression. It bursts out of the gate with several dozen too many characters running around in scenes that barely connect, yelling proper nouns, expecting the audience will match pace; a lingering curse of Yoshiyuki Tomino’s storytelling influence. Beginning with a raid by the Zodiac Alliance of Freedom Treaty, or ZAFT, the military arm of the space colonies known as PLANTs (the show is very into acronyms), on the declared neutral colony of Heliopolis, their target is a collection of newly developed mobile suits being secretly developed by the Earth-based Atlantic Federation that could turn the tide in the bloody war playing out across the planet and its nearby space habitats. Teenage student Kira Yamato and his friends struggle to escape the chaos and he quickly finds himself in the pilot’s seat of the Strike Gundam, the only suit not stolen, and facing his old friend Athrun Zala, now serving in ZAFT’s military. The kids board the Federation’s understaffed battleship Archangel along with refugees from the colony as it begins to break apart, Kira must use the Strike to protect them from ZAFT’s continued attacks and navigate a war between Naturals and genetically-modified Coordinators.
What plays out is certainly familiar. A mysterious masked commander pursuing a white battleship defended by a young man in a v-finned mobile suit with innate powers that give him an edge in battle. A conflict between Earth and orbiting space colonies that unmistakably resembles WWII. Low consequence battles that make sure to happen promptly every week. A steady drip-feed of new mobile suit models to challenge the strained crew. A grizzled fatherly war veteran in the desert teaches the inexperienced protagonist the hardship of facing down an enemy he knows personally in single combat. They even manage to hastily squeeze in analogs for the space fortresses A Baoa Qu and Solomon in the final episodes with basically no build-up or introduction, as if hurrying to cram in as many familiar bits before the end. To give a Western pop culture comparison: SEED sits somewhere between the ritual of the fetishistic slow-motion deaths of Thomas and Martha Wayne or Uncle Ben and Marvel’s McDonald’s kitchen precision calculated three-act origin film structure. Not perfectly specific but the comparison and self-imposed guard rails are impossible to ignore.
The problem lies in SEED huddling in the shadows of its predecessors, rarely venturing too far out on its own. I’ve long since made peace with Gundam proudly not even bothering to file off the serial numbers of what came before (a more generous person might call these homages), I’d probably lose my mind otherwise, but if SEED truly excels at anything, it’s delivering it all as a perfunctory shrug and with a resigned sigh. SEED always stops short of digging into anything, it’s all surface-level engagement with the texture and intrigue of a plastic spatula. I was struck with just how much it reminded me of Disney’s on-going and likely not to stop anytime soon run of live-action (or photo-realistic CGI) remakes of their catalog. Smoothed over, performatively serious, and missing the points behind many of the thoughtful creative choices it shackled itself to, all in the misguided effort to try to make the material “more believable” and carrying an unmissable hint of disdain for the original work. I can’t completely put myself into the headspace of a newcomer encountering Gundam for the first time through SEED, this stuff is burrowed too deeply at this point, but there’d have to be at least a sneaking thought that you’re watching reheated leftovers. There’s so much missing contextual tissue to nearly every aspect.
There are plenty of unique additions to the routine but most are half-formed ideas left to fizzle out. Central heroine, at least as far as the opening credits and promotional art insists, Lacus Clyne, is a pop idol poorly swiped from a Macross show who while offscreen (a particularly active space in SEED) becomes a major revolutionary figure in the ZAFT homeland. She seems important but just as many others, her presence is more of an impression of what might be a strong stated character or narrative thread, spending most of her onscreen time in the corner of one of the series’ many blank rooms or staring vacantly out into space. In a late-game twist, SEED‘s version of Ramba Ral returns alive, having survived his duel with Kira that killed his wife, and teams up with the Archangel crew and Lacus’ rebellion within ZAFT. You might think there would be a little tension between them or that he would provide some sage wisdom as the conflict escalates but nope, they needed someone to sit in the commander’s seat on a new battleship and shout exposition. Athrun and Kira’s friendship/rivalry is underlined early on as a flashy new twist, though by the end of the show the former has been bumped down to doing busy work in the background while the latter occupies the spotlight. The whole relationship ends up in retrospect as a sort of trial run of Code Geass‘ Lelouch and Suzaku’s dynamic. In one scene, that has Kira sharing his feelings about his relationship with Athrun, he speaks of his longtime friend like he’s giving a blankly positive and impersonal job reference. It’s SEED in a nutshell: cold and distant and disastrously unaware of this.
One of the most interesting characters, or at least one that regularly threatens to create enough friction to actually generate a real spark, Flay Allster, is sporadically invested in by the show’s attention, making her anger towards Kira over the accidental death of her father in a mobile suit battle and subsequent revenge plot stand out among the rest of the cast. She’s also a key vector to SEED‘s ham-fisted attempts at talking about racism. She’s kind of the worst in an entertaining way, being that person at work or on the edge of a friend group who seems fine right up until she’s red in the face, screaming about the necessity of mass deportations, but it’s a recognizable perspective and the storytelling is desperate need of more of it. But long before she explodes so Kira can get a sadness powerup during the final battle, you’ve already realized how foolish it was to bother paying any attention because SEED almost universally refuses to commit to any of its threads. Kira is paradoxically presented as an anti-social loner, as determined by the original series’ Amuro Ray mold, but he still comes prepackaged with a gaggle of friends. And bothering to try and trace an outline of insight about introversion is just a waste of time on the part of the audience. This is yet another example of poorly considered character writing choices that import well-worn Gundam archetypes without consideration for the circumstances at hand that runs rampant through the entire show.
Kira’s anguish over being forcibly drafted into the Federation’s military and having to kill in mobile suit engagements on a regular basis is articulated with the emotional language and range of someone badly imitating a cartoon character’s response. And the show is so bad at constructing drama or a sense of connection between any of these people when it came time for minor characters to be fed to the fire to keep the momentum going, I had to hit up fan wikis to check names and see if they hadn’t simply appeared without introduction right in front of bullets or laser swords that killed them seconds later. Any traces of humanity have been pushed through a series of fine mesh “anime affectation” screens, meant to render them as close as possible to future PVC statues. SEED is a loose collection of characters, design work, world-building, and story that more often than not come off as hastily scribbled notes waiting to be fleshed out later. They can, by virtue of appearing in the same production, be considered connected and part of the whole but it is more the case that all of these discrete pieces are lying on the floor, waiting to be assembled into something with defined shape and purpose, they just happen to all in the same room.
As the loud early oversaturation of detail gives way to a slower middle section, a hesitating fear of forward momentum begins to pour off SEED like flop sweat. Like all of the noise in the opening episodes was a distraction for just how little is actually going on under the hood. Once a dozen or two episodes have passed and things have settled into a rhythm and a footing has been established, this would seem to be a time for the show to begin fleshing out its grander ideas, stakes, clear direction, and most importantly, a distinct identity. What’s the deal with Coordinators? What is the crux of this conflict that has dragged in the whole of humanity? Why did the Federation commission mobile suits that Naturals can’t use unless a big-brained Gundam protagonist comes along to rewrite the firmware in the middle of a battle? SEED strings dozens of rather basic questions of motivation and purpose across the hours, stubbornly refusing to commit to investigating as it waffles its way through much of the runtime desperately clinging to a mandate of “one event per episode.” Where no moment is too small to not dwell on for at least twice as long as it warranted and no flashback too early to fall back into. The reuse of footage, oftentimes entire scenes or key moments repeated up to half a dozen times an episode, got so obnoxious I thought the entire show was about to throw itself into full reverse and end up back in the first episode. I spent a lot of time with the deep suspicion that the production was rushed out the door six months early and with a sudden order for twice the planned episode count. SEED is longer than the original series that it sticks so closely to by seven episodes but someone manages to feel like it covers dramatically less ground.
I was pretty comfortable in writing SEED off as nothing more than limp rehash with some poor attempts at modernizing admittedly dated material. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time I’ve sat through Gundam doing this. But then, on the 45th episode, I found the closest thing to a soul lurking within the husk. Kira and Mu La Flaga, an ace pilot comrade who I think the show wanted to occupy a sort of mentor position but never around to doing anything with, confront resident Char Aznable iteration Rau Le Creuset, who had up until this point spent the majority of the show just hanging out on the fringes of the narrative. His mask and coy smiles serving as the length and breadth of his character and yet another “maybe we’ll do something here?” Post-it note. At least Toshihiko Seki has a good time doing an arch Shuichi Ikeda impersonation through the whole thing. In this meeting, two supposedly major pieces of information are dropped, though neither functions as intended. One is an ending confirmation to a barely concealed subtext slowly cooking in the background and the other is an oddball twist that appears made up on the spot but which finally frees Creuset to become a distinct character. Both of these revelations, meant to charge the story as it heads towards the finale, immediately solidified in my mind as SEED’s personality finally emerging and it’s a big ol’ mess.
When Creuset declares that Kira is “the dream of humanity. The ultimate Coordinator.” and not just any old genetically modified superhuman, it isn’t an invitation to a greater truth or kernel of backstory to change the way he relates to himself or his past. It is a confirmation, a final period on scattered thoughts SEED had been wandering through for 45 episodes. That the series didn’t simply pack it in after reassuring us that the protagonist is in fact a god-king whose biggest flaw is that he’s too damn perfect for everybody else to deal with is almost surprising. Kira is SEED‘s aspiration, the crystallization of the show’s intentions. Easily merchandisable, never for a second meant to chaff against an audience, and an angry rebuttal to Amuro Ray or Shinji Ikari’s vulnerability and messy humanity. Those final five episodes that follow are merely busywork, hastily tying up plot threads with the Code Geass “if we have stuff happen loud enough and with enough explosions, we can cover nearly any amount of sloppy writing” mindset.
Coordinators, SEED‘s stand-ins for Newtypes, aren’t a call for understanding or connection. Who needs empathy when you can throw a football at a professional level and build your own spaceship? The aching compassion at the core of the Newtype concept, that we can maybe one day transcend our limitations, of the body, location, and mindset, to better know ourselves and fellow people, is reduced to an ill-conceived sci-fi racism parable that is still far beyond SEED‘s scope to satisfyingly engage with. That Coordinators began as a boutique operation to customize unwanted imperfections out of the next generation would read as knowing self-deprecation if SEED didn’t take it all with such deadly seriousness. And that the show places choices and faults which increased tensions between Naturals and Coordinators that ultimately led to the war at the feet of women, for vanity and their bodies not always accepting the genetic modifications, honestly surprised me. I didn’t think Gundam could still find new ways to be skeevy to women, I really didn’t. It’s almost funny and I hate it.
The second revelation that speaks to SEED‘s truth, though here I think unintentionally, is that Creuset is a clone of La Flaga’s father, a character who comes into being for this one scene only, and he is none too happy about this. Creuset is the reality, the empty pit in the soul of SEED, a copy-paste job bereft of unique drive or perspective, only there as an echo of the past. And like the show itself, after admitting this, he begins to breakdown. The irony is that Creuset immediately became my favorite character, I too wanted to burn the whole Cosmic Era to the ground. The final confrontation sees Kira making an impassioned call for the salvageable goodness of mankind in the face of Creuset’s void rings when hollow when they hadn’t bothered shoring this sentiment in any way, made worse by the fact that the pair hadn’t interacted enough times to require a second hand to count before this. It’s probably not a great sign that the show can’t even make a sincere case for its cast and world to not implode. Though maybe that’s just me.
I wish this didn’t end up as a dour post-mortem. I always start posts with the idea of trying to keep things brief and compact, make a quick, concise read that leaves a stronger impression over a long, winding rant. But it almost never ends up that way and $225 for the recently released Ultra Edition during these unsure economic times is no small amount of money to not try to wring something out of. I sat on my thoughts for over a month after finishing trying to pull something more interesting out of my experience, but in the end, every time I tried to hash them out, I couldn’t stop myself. I began to see this more as a cathartic exercise. This wasn’t really fun to write and I don’t suspect it will be a particularly breezy read either, but then again, neither was SEED so maybe I’ve managed to bottle some of the experience of watching it. Perhaps the three-part Special Edition TV movie cut (2004), sequel TV series Destiny (2004-2005), or 48 episode HD Remaster effort (2012) refines what aired in 2002 into something. Maybe enough spin-off manga, video games, and light novels fill in the gaps on fan wiki pages to make this story work in the aggregate. I can’t say yet but I’ll be back in the Cosmic Era mines when Destiny comes out and perhaps getting so much off my chest with this write-up will mean that a future post won’t be so long-winded. Or it could be miserable in an entirely new way, I hope it’s at least more interesting.
Director David Lynch said of his difficult experiences on 1984’s Dune in the book Lynch on Lynch (Rodley, 2005 Rev. ed, p. 121), that within the stifling committee atmosphere “the thing becomes only what it is. Nothing more.” and this probably a harsher criticism of SEED in just a few words than I could deliver in over three thousand. The comparison doesn’t correlate perfectly though, because while Dune‘s competing ambitions threaten to rip it apart, there is still some imaginative personality and voice in the struggle. Dune tries. SEED is small and does not invite thought or leave moments to dwell on past the end credits of each episode. It isn’t a window into a world or people to learn about or connect with, it’s a brick wall. Some of my least favorite Gundam works at least offer collapsed ambitions or mangled themes in their wreckage. Victory‘s steely-eyed self-immolation or AGE‘s uncritical worship of a protagonist who makes a lifelong hobby of committing war crimes while dabbling with genocide comes to mind. And I love to explore them but SEED is, as Lynch continued, “just like a rock.”
Mobile Suit Gundam SEED is available through Nozomi Entertainment on an Ultra Edition Blu-ray set with a standard version coming soon