When Gundam was first forced down my throatI first started watching Gundam, I was unilaterally dissatisfied. I have come a long way since, and have seen many of the shows in the franchise and am very much fond of the franchise as a whole. My love and fondness is tested and proven by many of the things that still bug me about the whole thing. Some major, some minor, but the net result is that Gundam never really fulfilled its possibility given the immense library it has.
Not to say it doesn’t have its moments. Such moments can be sublime, as far as I’m concerned. But for the most part there are lots and lots of things that I must work hard to rationalize and apologize for. Without doing so I will fail to enjoy myself watching the shows. It’s beyond mere suspension of disbelief, but I don’t know what to call it.
A lot of it may have to do with the creation, and direction of Tomino Yoshiyuki, but it’s beyond that. The possibility of Gundam is that it is the finest expression of robot anime. It’s that awesome a possibility. For some people, it may be already that. If that is the case then the expectations for robot anime may indeed be so low. I think there is MUCH more to see and do, not just thematically but also in terms of execution of the most exciting aspect of robot anime: combat.
On both counts, in Mobile Suit Gundam Unicorn episode 01 the possibility is being realized.
A more particular and thorough post on this episode will follow in the next few days, but for now I am in the mood for long-winded talk on what Gundam means for me, and how Unicorn reveals itself to me as a rich vein of fulfillment. If fan service can be moving and understated all at once, then I’ve experienced it here.
In 0079, 0080, and Z we are presented with variably grim and dark themes revolving around war and violence. The experience can be immersive and surprising, especially how stark and remorseless it gets. While some, heavy-handedness can occur even in non-Tomino works, the darkness in the shows occur to me remarkably weightless — not like without substance, but more like numbing in how far it goes. The meaning of the deaths are left for me to make much of, despite the lecturing and pontificating throughout the shows.
How Gundam Unicorn’s first episode felt, by use of depth of field (the colony looks both claustrophobia-inducing and forbiddingly vast at the same time), and by the musical score, heavy. There’s gravity to the whole experience. I really felt the dreadful onset of an inevitable war. The betrayals and counter-betrayals of organized humanity felt even more meaningful, standing on the shoulders of series upon series where the machinery of (military/political) organizations discount their morals and scruples for victory, however petty.
The high-school age characters, behave in their environments in notes that are the kind of perfect triviality. I don’t have the vocabulary to distinguish it, only that it feels so far from say the first episodes of, Mobile Suit Gundam SeeD, Code Geass, and Macross Frontier. The other examples have this strange and at times contrived levity: offhand mentions of homework, student council duties, test results rankings… In Unicorn you get a lecture (admittedly standard device for exposition) and a field trip setting. This allows for behavioral and relationship conflicts to play out without feeling too ‘slice of lifey.’
When the litany of names are called out by the ‘jilted’ would-be love interest, dead classmates all from stray beam weapon fire, it felt like home, only more beautiful than I remembered it. War is hell.
The current head of the Vist Foundation (Cardeas Vist) saw it fit to lecture the captain of the Neo Zeon remnants. It was a thorough lecture that served as a rather effective exposition of the themes of the Universal Century narrative, going through the history of the Federation vs. Zeon conflicts — through 0079 and past Char’s Counterattack. It was interesting, how the captain tried not to look bored, how he gave the chairman his polite attention through the long speech. It made for a calibrating dynamic for me — I needn’t be bored by this, because this impressive man is toughing it out.
I particularly enjoyed how the cards were revealed: they will not open the mysterious ‘Laplace’s Box’ if their ideals are petty or limited to ‘reviving Zeon.’ They are to be given the key, and the key is Gundam, the Unicorn Gundam is presented as the God of Possibility: a creature from a medieval tapestry. It’s delicious fantasy, to have the titular robot exist within the narrative at a highly mythological level.
Possibility itself is held up as a God. More exciting than hope, and more powerful too, possibility is what inspires — what captures our imagination. Possibility is hype. Possibility is anticipation, expectation far from the cusp of fulfillment and yet never lacking of confidence that it will be realized. Possibility is just about the most awesome thing there is — it is in the realm of the future. For all my rhetoric of ‘remembering love’ it is ultimately a love weighed down by the gravity of history. What’s truly exciting is what’s ahead, the eternal becoming.
Gundam tells the same story over and over: The Earth is threatened by a Malthusian cataclysm. Resources become scarce, nationalism fails in that it fosters conflict. Newtype powers are really about authentic communication without misunderstanding and conflict. Oldtypes fail in that they only see NT powers for its military application — powerful NT = ‘ace pilot.’ Oldtype souls are weighed down by the Earth’s gravity, and are never truly free to embrace the future that is space. There are those who will take these ideals too far, and there will be heroes who will fight them.
Mobile Suit Gundam Unicorn is poised to do the same, and some would see this as a failure — how the franchise itself is weighed down by the gravity of its own mass, and refuse to commit to the future (as represented by non-UC/alternate continuity shows). I see differently. I am not content with how the franchise has told the above stories over and over. I think there are many failures, as much as I love the respective shows — I find myself far from satisfied. I love the franchise so much that I want to see the stories fulfill their possibility. Unicorn may just be it!
There is something to be said about perfecting the telling of the story, and the Universal Century is for me, still the best continuity to do it. Is the possibility of perfection better than perfection itself? Not knowing perfection, I think yes. The symbol of the unicorn, is wonderfully fitting. It’s a promise — that this time, funnels make more sense in how they behave in combat; that the show remembers that mobile suits have nuclear engines; there is a Gundam without LOLTOMINO; that a dramatic story can be delivered straight and be taken seriously despite and because there are giant robots in it, no apologies necessary.
For all the little nods this episode gave to the Universal Century’s rich history, it is forward-looking. It posits itself as the fulfillment of the hopes of humanity in coming to space, in leaving the Earth; the possibility of robot anime as an expression of high fantasy, and substantial and fulfilling entertainment.
After 30 years of trying, Gundam might just pull it off. Give me more.