Gundam at its peak
Spoilers to follow…
On revisiting the 1981-1982 theatrical recut of 1979’s now immortal pop culture monolith, freshly arrived on Netflix along with their superior original theatrical audio tracks, I was hit all over again by steely confidence in the bones of Gundam‘s storytelling and presentation. As an audience we’re given just enough of the broad strokes to work with—a group of space colonies has violently split from the ruling Earth Federation, newly developed humanoid machines called mobile suits are paramount in this protracted conflict, and things are grim with half of all humanity wiped out—before zooming into the human level drama. In just a few moments, we’re right in the thick of Amuro Ray and his neighbors’ fight to stay alive in the middle of a Zeon attack on their neutral colony, secretly hosting testing for his father’s state-of-the-art mobile suit. It never fails to leave a strong impression, no matter how many times I return.
Zaku machine gun fire turns crowds into gritty pulp with a frightening level of casualness. The nature of the Federation’s secrecy and indifference leaves the colony infrastructure woefully ill-equipped to deal with the assault. Local security causes plenty of their own collateral damage in the chaos. And once Amuro does manage to take control of the Gundam, the destruction as a direct result of his actions that reaches its peak with the colony wall cracking open to the vacuum of space sets the gnawing emptiness in the pit of the stomach mood for the rest of the story. There will be winners and losers in the battles to come, but the cost is always high. The Gundam cuts down the invading Zeon mobile suits with a desperate, terrifying fury. The Federation’s new weapon quickly demonstrates itself as wildly more effective than anything Zeon has rolled out and those early images just after the kill still burn bright today, both as recognizable scenes flattened into toy logos and as strong opening statements of intent. Now all Amuro has to do is get better at that. With almost all of the trained military personnel dead in the wake of the attack, the Gundam and the Federation’s new battleship, White Base, is left in the hands of teenaged survivors, many of whom woke up that morning as civilians, now drafted into the war. This is how the three-part sprint through one of anime’s most influential works hits the ground running. They really were swinging for the fences right out of the gate because, in either TV or movie form, Gundam sings with an instantly iconic purpose and verve. Compare this to SEED, which at times felt like a lobotomized recap film of itself on the slowest possible playback setting, nearly unreadably dense in its early episodes, slavishly devoted to form, and blind to intent.
Despite Gundam‘s TV run not being a lavish production, character designer and animation director Yoshikazu Yasuhiko having noted recently how much smaller it was both within Sunrise and compared to established hit Space Battleship Yamato‘s sequel, the project’s ambition was able to make the most of its limited resources and strike a major chord with its audience, if a bit delayed. Initially, not a ratings giant and prematurely canceled, along with the first wave of merchandise that spoke to a more traditional children’s robot toy vehicle—something that chief director Yoshiyuki Tomino and crew actively fought against tooth and nail—it looked like Gundam would fade as so many shows do, to be replaced with the next season’s offerings. But a fandom was beginning and in national syndication and with the release of model kits of Kunio Okawara’s mobile suit designs, Gundam was revived into a second life, truer to its creators’ aims. Merchandise shifted away from the clunky gaudy look of something a child would need to have a parent pick up for them to more reflect the older audience’s taste. Just compare the original TV opening‘s bright visuals and upbeat song about the robot’s justice and urging it to angrily fight on—the image of Amuro heroically firing a gun into the offscreen unknown with the hint of a cocky smirk always throws me for a loop—to Yasuhiko’s moody wartime drama artwork of the early 80s to see how the franchise’s profile had evolved in a matter of months. It was at this time that the theatrical trilogy landed, marking the solidification of Gundam as a force to be reckoned with.
The weakest of the trilogy, the first film shoulders the unglamorous duty of introductions and table setting. Still leagues better than the majority of this type of effort, its stop and start flow is the most betraying that you are watching a dozen or so episodes stitched together. It does certainly help that those episodes are overflowing with some of the most iconic characters and situations in anime though. Rival to end all rivals and future mid-life crisis haver Char Aznable makes himself known early on and always threatens to run off with the entire thing, on top of never giving White Base time to collect themselves before the next strike. It becomes quickly apparent that no small amount of Gundam‘s success can be put at the feet of its superb rogues’ gallery. Each radiates a sharp personality and presence that could easily hold down their own final boss lairs in other shows. Char and his ax to grind with the Zabi family. Spoiled brat Garma, out to prove himself in a station handed down to him through nepotism. Veteran soldier Ramba Ral and Hamon, a loving older couple—at least by anime standards—are dragged back into the fray and looking to secure a livelihood in the world for themselves and their subordinates. And in all this Amuro crosses paths with his mother, and he’ll come face to face with his father two films later, forced to make the messy but necessary step towards adulthood of seeing a parent as another human being, flawed and not always able to see eye to eye with. There’s a real cutting poignancy to these scenes, among so many other standouts, that speaks to an underlying humanity still alive and well in this decades-old story. Tomino has spent his lengthy career pursuing ruined portraits of parent/child relationships and these two meetings, relatively early in his body of work, are still his most hard-hitting and succinct.
Soldiers of Sorrow is a step up structurally, a hollowing death march of pyrrhic victories, revenge plots doomed to fail from the outset, and far too many lives cut short. If the first could be described as an extended chase, with sleepless nights and improvised survival tactics being the order of the day, Soldiers is when that running goes from being a quick burst of adrenaline to escape the immediate situation to sinking into a way of life. By the time White Base reaches the Federation’s HQ of Jaburo for the finale, a safe port and the idea once wordlessly held by much of the crew of a return to a normal civilian life is a vanished mirage. It’s in Encounters in Space that the trilogy goes from being a solid recap to truly elevating the source material. The final film takes the loosest approach to condensing the nitty-gritty, instead keying into the cosmic pulse the show intermittently grasped as it sprinted towards the finish line. The hows and whys fade into the margins as Yasuhiko’s animation direction and Tomino’s storyboarding are heavily revised to refine the look and feel of Gundam‘s wobbly final act, leaning farther into equal parts psychedelia and hardened military realism. The result is that Encounters possess the least connective tissue on a beat by beat level but strongest spiritually, transcending the geography of plot to appeal directly to the heart like the Newtypes it is squarely centered on. Amuro and Lalah Sune’s finding of each other at the wrong time in their lives, its tragic climax setting the tone—and a few of the franchise’s bad habits with female characters—for so much to follow in the decades since. The members of White Base, now a family, trying to find something to anchor themselves to in each other in a broken world. The do-or-die last-ditch efforts on both sides of the war to grab victory just before complete collapse. Trading in equally compelling explosive battles and little moments of silence, hanging on the precipice of loss and uncertain futures. It is a fraught ordeal. Gundam has never been better and I rank Encounters among the very best anime movies of all time.
When I bring up Tomino, as I am want to do with this blog, there is certain baggage that comes with that but here it is positively tame by later standards. Gundam in its first animated form is downright straightforward and plainspoken. The impulses of obtuse characterization and complicated moods that absolutely need to be forthcoming with what their whole deal is that mark basically the rest of his career can be seen in passing. But Sunrise at the time was looking for a hit to call their own and to move away from subcontracting work, and the atmosphere in the studio by most accounts highly collaborative. Staff members contributing to other departments in major ways along with some apocryphal stories from uncredited contributors. I’ve been in the room to hear Macross‘ Shoji Kawamori lay claim to the colony laser idea. Yasuhiko’s influence across every inch of the project cannot be understated. Okawara’s enduring mobile suits stand tall as some of the most instantly recognizable sci-fi designs ever. A team of writers and episode directors, including Kenichi Matsuzaki who spearheaded the grounded science fiction approach to the worldbuilding and would later pull similar duties on Ideon, and Ryoji Fujiwara who did plenty of storyboarding and unit direction in the broadcast and would rise to director of the trilogy, all contributed their voices to bring Gundam into the world. It is unmistakably Tomino but unlike much of his later work, the other voices aren’t as quiet by comparison and there is a direct correspondence with approachability.
The anime compilation film has always been an awkward affair. Promising a chunk, or ambitiously the whole, of a series in a single sit down but having to grapple with the simple fact that TV shows are longer than movies. Something always has to go. Entire characters and subplots. Not every fan-favorite moment can make the cut. And in the process, basic coherency is always at risk and an all too frequent victim. In the years before home video, this type of movie allowed audiences to reacquaint themselves with stories and characters only available through broadcast TV. They also served more basic financial aims; reassembling existing footage is certainly a much cheaper alternative to a new production and compilations could renew interest in properties in the process. A classic example being the recut of the first Tomorrow’s Joe series hitting theaters almost a decade after the show wrapped, but crucially just months ahead of the second’s airing.
In more recent years, this utility has all but evaporated with shorter TV runs overall, streaming libraries, and announcements of recuts immediately following the broadcast. Sure, they typically come with promises of new animation and redubbed dialogue, but so few use these limited assets in ways that serve the film at hand. Watching the recent Made in Abyss movies, which split a 13 episode series into two parts that hit all major plot points and cut only something like an hour off the total runtime—or just enough quiet atmospheric bits to be missed—had me wondering why I wasn’t just rewatching the show proper. Tomino himself has seen a handful of less than stellar reissues of TV productions, though with Xabungle Graffiti and Ideon: A Contact, which both followed soon after Gundam, he met the challenge with gusto. Look no further than his incandescent second Ideon film for an even more radical second stab at a troubled project. And while something like Eureka Seven: Pocketful of Rainbows wasn’t what I could ever call a good movie, it certainly found some memorably meanspirited ways to construct something new from its largely repurposed material. For the most part though, the notion of a compilation movie is about as exciting as reheated leftovers where the tasty parts have long since crusted over and the best you can hope for is a hint of flavor to trigger memories of better times. Even so, likely foolishly, whenever there’s an announcement of a new one, there’s always the hope in the back of my mind that new meaning or perspective can be brought to the table with a second pass. Looking at you real hard right now, Re:cycle of Penguindrum. And that small prayer is there because it is possible, there is precedent, because the Gundam movie trilogy is the shining example of the format. The films fall into many of the pitfalls but refuse to stay stuck in them for long and soar as a tighter if imperfect second draft to one of anime’s all-time greats.
Using the second chance not only to cash in on a rapidly growing fanbase, though certainly a strong motivator on Sunrise and the sponsorship’s end, greenlighting a film just a month after the final episode aired, Tomino and crew reevaluate and sharpen the TV run’s uneven qualities. New animation that ramps up as the films go on—the third stated to be 70% original—brings a stronger consistency to the cast and action sequences, not to mention a crisp cinematic eye. Much as I cherish the many instances of a chunky, gloriously off-model Gundam by a team that plainly struggled to keep up on a weekly television schedule, the new footage of Okawara’s classic design nimbly navigating battlefields with assured form is still a sight to behold. The Newtype concept, that humanity will expand their perceptions and ability to empathize as the population begins to adjust to living in space, pops up early on, providing a stronger throughline to Amuro and his comrades’ development and connection to one another. Sayla Mass takes a more forward role in the action, her weary gaze, aged beyond her years, able to cut through the day-to-day grind of survival to the cold truth that the mechanisms of both the Federation and Zeon are only working to secure and maintain power. Many of the goofier or toy centric gimmicks, the Gundam’s wilder weaponry and modular core block system that allowed swapping of different body parts come to mind, were cut back to hew the story closer to serious science-fiction, now recognized as a major development in the “real robot” subgenre. Many of these changes are for the better! The show struggled under its corporate mandates while trying to present a sobering war drama and at times suffered. Pacing was an issue and plain as day to see when the story started quickening in the final quarter as the cancellation notice came down and big ideas and character moments began flying by at mounting speed.
There is plenty I miss from the show proper though. That chaotic Luna II escape that cannot help but conjure fond memories of the Suez Canal debacle watching this in 2021. Ramba Ral’s increasingly desperate supply situation is only briefly touched on here. Ryu’s death lacks its original gut-punch impact without those smaller scenes of his tough but caring big brotherly relationship with Amuro, Hayato, and Kai. The angry monster teeth and flailing knife arms of the Zakrello is an understandable omission that nonetheless feels like a quiet sacrilege. And hey, fancy pants M’Quve survives the One Year War this time around, but we lose his dark knight Gyan’s appearance in the process, so who can say if it was worth it or not? There are countless endearing episodes and moments left on the cutting room floor that will forever bar the movies from being a definitive cut.
The question of the best way to approach original recipe Gundam has been floating around among fans for probably decades at this point—I’m personally kind of sick of it!— and I don’t think there’s a right answer. The full image of Gundam in my mind exists between the episode to episode long game of characterization and immersion, along with the many tangents, of the show and the tightness and focus of the films. One does not reign supreme or cancel the other out to me, the two complementing each other and forming indispensable halves of a whole. Perhaps the original TV run is a better introduction, giving everything breathing room and allowing viewers to sink in slowly, warts and all. But I’ve also found that recommending older shows to be a much steeper mountain to climb if the interest isn’t already there and the pacing is unmistakably of its time. I myself am a completionist and am fascinated by the process of iteration at work between the two projects—for hard mode, throw Tomino’s novels into the mix—but I know I’m in the minority on this one. At 43 episodes (42 for us North American viewers, unable to handle the spiciness of “Cucuruz Doan’s Island”), it isn’t short by modern viewing standards and even I find myself returning to the films more often simply because of the shorter commitment. So I dunno, go with whichever sounds like a better fit and if that floats your boat, give the other a look, they both have a lot to offer. I don’t see a wrong answer here.
These movies can either be an excellent primer to get an idea of what this Gundam business is all about, less intimidating than a full series commitment without sacrificing the core ideas and spirit. Or a coda to the show, strengthening an already deeply affecting experience with a greater sense of purpose and additional production value that is hands down, the best these designs have ever looked. Under all the franchise bloat of the last 40 years, Gundam was and still is something truly special and the theatrical trilogy is its zenith. Never content to merely sell toys or stand still, always trying to reach out and make that primal human connection, Gundam sends us out the darkness with the prayer “and now… in anticipation of your insight into the future.” A powerhouse that stands the test of time.
The Mobile Suit Gundam Movie Trilogy is currently streaming on Netflix with its original audio track and available through Nozomi Entertainment on Blu-ray with the stereo remix which while not terrible, features gimmicky new sound effects, a rearranged score, and a dub recorded years later with most of the original cast. The 1979 television show is currently streaming through Funimation and Crunchyroll.