In Gundam, ‘war sucks,’ ¹ only we can’t have enough of watching more of it. Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam is the darkest of the shows in the franchise that I’ve seen so far. I’ve seen the compilation movies a year ago and I’m currently watching the TV series.
In Zeta, it isn’t just war that sucks. People do. War seems almost an inevitability given how humans – with their pseudo-ethnicities: Earthnoids, Spacenoids, Oldtypes, Newtypes… all behave in self-serving ways, and that interested factions and participating individuals have access to not only mobile weapons, but also organized violence. War is too easy an option, because the people in this world, Tomino’s Universal Century circa 0087 are just spoiling for pain.
Tomino is not the only person who sees humanity is such a dismal light. In the present, we can find quite bleak views on human beings. Crusader writes,
Then there are the mild misanthropes like me who consider the entire concept of innocent civilian to be a farce, it’s not so much that the civilian label is disagreeable but the notion that humans are in any way innocent is something I for one consider blatantly disingenuous. In Gundam and most series dealing with war there are plenty innocent civilians to be killed by the forces of evil they are little more that objects to be killed and then mourned for so that the forces of evil can be made all the more abhorrent and ultimately easier to kill while remaining “noble” and “just.” Truth is in war civilians will screw each other over to get what they need, crime doesn’t stop, theft goes up during duress, misdemeanors are committed, felonies continue, and for the most part a declaration of war does not put an end to the petty squabbles and crimes of non-combatants. Profiteering also occurs, [...] Given the complexity of the civilian label and the general treatment of most civilians as innocent civilians, most shows dumb it down any anti-war message is already compromised.
I am very much inclined to agree, hence I intend to use the term ‘noncombatant’ whenever I would use ‘innocent civilian.’ Further discussion would lead to philosophical (or even religious) wrestling with the nature of innocence, culpability, sin, and guilt. However, I wanted to write about robots.
But this is just the thing! This is exactly the thing! Waiving the scruples of intentional fallacy, I would say that Gundam is concerned about robots in a very serious, but quite superficial way: that is,
- Robots entertain
- Toys entertain
- Make toys of robots
- Sell toys of robots
I am not indicting this. I subscribe to this – I am a capitalist after all, and I enjoy a good product with ambitious and successful marketing.
So what else is Gundam concerned about? It’s concerned about people. It’s concerned about people doing evil and heroic things. Not all of its characters are well-drawn and compelling (Tomino’s female characters are painful to watch, unless they’re evil; the non-Tomino ouevre does significantly better I think), but the characters in Gundam are what gives its stories verve and power.
The ‘war sucks’ rhetoric is carried mostly by the lead characters. Whenever Gundam tries to show set-piece atrocities towards noncombatants, it often calls too much attention to itself and loses much of its power to inspire genuine horror. Gundam does its best in War in the Pocket, where a boy didn’t quite ‘come of age’ as much as he was robbed of his youthful naivete; and a young man arrives at something like ‘coming of age’, but in doing so arrives at something else altogether. War in this case catalyzed their individual stories. I have a very strong desire to make heroes of these characters, despite having probably the least heroic of exploits among the lead characters in the franchise.
So back to Zeta. It is filled with characters that have self-sacrificing actions define them and yet one feels these actions are outliers from the set of their mostly selfish behavior (Kamille Bidan, Amuro Ray, Four Murasame). It also has on the other hand characters who do or are prepared to do utterly horrible things out of a core that is quite selfless (Char Aznable, though this won’t be fully expressed until Char’s Counterattack).
Physical violence isn’t new to Zeta; after all, the famous BRIGHTSLAP happened in the original series. What’s interesting, considering the video above, is that the military organizations have made such informal attacks institutional. They have a term for it: “correction.” What’s even more interesting is how ineffective it is. Amuro did not necessarily man up after Bright smacked him twice, doing what Amuro’s own father wouldn’t do even once. Amuro’s maturity did begin in the original series, but I think it only came to fruition by the time of Char’s Counterattack. Kamille got smacked lots and lots of times, even by Bright himself, but the severity and the persistence of the violence yielded diminishing returns. His path to maturity isn’t opened for him by the strikes of those who’d think to ‘correct’ him.
What is Gundam saying through and about this casual, well-intended violence? People suck, they need to get smacked to set them right. Making a reckless logical leap, I say here that this thesis is what’s behind the ideology and actions of these factions and pseudo-ethnicities:
BRIGHTSLAP : Amuro Ray : Colony/Asteroid Drop : Human Race
The human race is immature and bound by the Earth’s gravity. We Spacenoids/Newtypes are the maturity of the race. To bring this up to speed, let’s smack the Earthnoids/Oldtypes with a colony/asteroid drop. The outright ease with how people can inflict physical harm on each other in the text makes it unsurprising how organized and systematic violence is inflicted on such large scale.
But even so, I’m not reducing Gundam into this thesis. Throughout the narrative I do hear a call, not without some desperation in its tone, for a way out. This became louder and overt in latter Gundam series², which makes it less effective I believe. I’d rather dig a message buried deep in the text than be clobbered on the head with it.
People don’t have to suck, there’s a way from within themselves to become free of the pull of the gravity of their nature. Perhaps then, war will happen much less.
From the OP’s refrain, a line of interesting engrish:
I wanna have a pure time
Everyone’s a noble mind
Zeta wants to believe in people. Perhaps that’s what the “Sign of Zeta” is, and why Gundam wants us to believe in it, despite all its efforts in showing how much they suck.
¹ The theme is commented on by The Animanachronism, Crusader, and Iniksbane. All three are very interesting reads with quite involving discussions, starting off from the Gundam franchise and ending up in all sorts of curious tangents.
² Gundam 00 in particular. I think it did good things with the story it told, and interesting things with its homages to the continuity (I’m quite a fan of this). However it’s overt fighting about fighting isn’t the most interesting of things about it.
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