I have a personally important reservation about Mobile Suit Gundam UC 02, and it is important because it may change how I feel about the franchise in general. Without this reservation, I feel free to say this much:
I complained loudly last year about the apparent dearth of not just good robot anime, but of robot anime in general. Not so this year, when I can enjoy shows like Broken Blade, and Star Driver: Takuto of the Radiance, or even mediocrities like Iron Man, and Super Robot Wars Original Generation: The Inspector.
Take the above paragraphs as recommendations to watch Gundam Unicorn, if you’re up to date with the Gundam franchise’s Universal Century continuity that is. Beyond this point are spoilers.
Full Frontal Can’t Possibly Be Char
Or, This Franchise Can’t Possibly Be This Whoresome
Or, Sideburns Can’t Possibly Become This Curly
Well actually, he could be… from a meta perspective oh why the hell not? What could be more intriguing and possibly infuriating than bringing back the most iconic character in the franchise (or perhaps in robot anime) back from the dead? Mobile Suit Gundam: Char’s Counterattack ended with Char Aznable defeated by Amuro and that both of them were obliterated when Amuro stopped the Axis asteroid from crashing to Earth.
The subsequent show in the UC chronology was Mobile Suit Gundam F91, which is set many years in the future and make no reference to the fate of the two characters. This isn’t much of an opening to resurrect neither Char nor Amuro, which is why Full Frontal being Char himself is jarring to say the least. If indeed he is, the move feels cheap and this feeling cannot be easily dismissed.
That said, can there be no good reason to bring Char back? None? Zero?
I think there is a good reason. I think Char made a mess of himself, or that he revealed himself to be such a small human being at the end of CCA. I’ve thought about it a lot, and considered that he really was the same hate-filled man who had no real stake in the wars he played a big part in, except to punish the Zabi family at first, then redress Lalah’s death by fighting Amuro.
Mobile Suit Z Gundam gave Char a possibility, that of becoming a true leader. Blex believed in him, and so did Amuro. CCA showed Char throwing removing all pretense of caring about the Principality of Zeon. In Unicorn, he may well just finally do right by his followers, if not those who believed in him back in the Gryps conflict.
But what is all this speculation based on anyway? Here’s what we know:
Banagher Links demanded, “Are you really Char Aznable?”
As I am now, I consider myself a vessel: A vessel for those abandoned in space, and for the heirs of Zeon’s ideals. And if that’s what they want, I will be Char Aznable.
This neither confirms nor does it rule it out. The key phrase here is “As I am now,” which could mean the older, post-CCA version of Char. This time he’s using his third alter-ego, not that “Quattro Bajeena” was particularly effective, but he was able to conceal his identity as Casval Zeum Deikum to many for a long time.
I don’t want him to be Char (I think), but I won’t make up my mind how I feel about all this at this point. There’s a lot of other things to consider, and most of these things, are awesome things.
The Possibility of The Finest Expression of Robot Anime
Fighting with Robots is The Best Thing
I’ve mentioned in the previous post that I think that Gundam Unicorn possesses the possibility of showing the best Gundam story to date, and with that it stands on the shoulders of 30 years of critical and commercial achievement. After this episode, I feel stronger in my belief.
A big part of this is, and must be, the robot fighting. Combat is the payoff of the character drama and plot conflict in robot anime. We watch these shows to see robots fight. We can watch incredible action in shows like Black Lagoon, or even Cowboy Bebop or swordplay in Sword of the Stranger, but we watch Gundam shows to see mobile suits break each other apart. We want our violence to be both beautiful, and possess verisimilitude.
Verisimilitude actually escapes most robot anime. In shows like Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann we are coerced to care less because of the inherent absurdity in its combat dynamics, but for the most part in (real) robot anime we are supposed to care how things work, what physical rules govern the combat. Evangelion I think does particularly well with this, but it isn’t as satisfying because Angel battles are often weird and play out like puzzles at times.
Macross does particularly well too, but then it involves itself with singing, and even more challenging to reason: magic singing (Macross Zer0, Macross 7, Macross Frontier). Gundam doesn’t do well, not since after the original movie trilogy. What’s wrong? Here’s a partial list:
- Variable damage (weapons arbitrarily get weaker, targets arbitrarily become impervious to weapons)
- Shouting matches concerning ideology and morals during fighting. And by during fighting I mean when you’re supposedly giving your all to lock on and shoot the other guy, concentrating like hell to avoid gunfire; or swinging a robot sword hand using levers, pedals, and buttons.
- Standing around and not finishing a target off so as to allow a dramatic dialogue or scene to pass, then getting killed precisely because said drama was allowed to pass.
- Stealing into, or just plain stealing mobile suits easier than stealing panties.
- Remote beam weapons flying within reach of beam swords/melee weapons.
- Hell, finding it easier to engage opponents with swords than it is to shoot them
- HUGGING ROBOTS IN SPACE.
There’s none of the above in the first two episodes of Gundam Unicorn. That’s 4 hours worth anime shows discipline and execution. It communicates how well-thought out the show is because these details mean something to me. But, it isn’t just awesomeness by virtue of mistake avoidance.
The combat is superbly animated and choreographed. When random Vajra, or even redshirt NUNS units get destroyed in Macross Frontier: The False Songstress I feel I’m seeing a casualty for the sake of portraying casualties. Granted Macross interests itself towards larger engagements, but even its skirmishes feel the same way. In the Macross Frontier TV series some fights feel like a total joke (as in the “battle” in Gallia IV even prior to the Macross 7 homage). Gundam on the other hand has most of its combat in small skirmishes. Even larger battles involve fewer than 20 mobile suits at any given time.
What this does is highlight the material scarcity of weapons. Given the fetishism of technology and prototypes throughout the franchise, the engagements seem to count more, even if the tactical objectives mean little in the scheme of things (as is commonplace in Z Gundam). In Gundam Unicorn every fight so far is rife with dramatic importance, and the losses both sides took seem very great: Londo Bell lost whole teams of mass-produced suits due to fighting prototypes. The Sleeves taking any damage at all on its prototype units felt like a huge blow.
This makes the small unit actions feel desperate and awesome. Every turn and evasion, every maneuver, the tightness of formation and discipline required to hold it just… counts for something, more than Skull Leader calling out tactical plays like “Totsugeki Love Heart” and the whole scene merely feels like a highlight reel/toy commercial in the Macross Frontier media (episode 7, and The False Songstress movie).
Also, everyone misses. Hitting fast moving targets is very difficult and throughout the Universal Century it is very rare to see units just get mowed down one after the other. When they do, you know it’s a significant event in history. Even so, a lot of it has to do with large weapons hitting the battlefield by surprise:
- The Big Zam issues from Solomon in Mobile Suit Gundam movie 03: Encounters in Space.
- The Apsalus displays its might in Mobile Suit Gundam 08th MS Team 11.
- Mega Bazooka Launcher on the Hyaku Shiki in Mobile Suit Z Gundam 49.
…and so on.
To sum, the fights in Gundam Unicorn show at least as much verisimilitude if not more than the finest shows in the franchise while still hitting hard, fast, and full of excitement and drama.
When We Fight, We Fight; When We Talk, We Talk Well
This Episode is a Sequence of Weighty Conversations
One thing I find particularly wonderful in Unicorn is how the ideological discussion, conversation, and debate actually happens outside the cockpits of mobile suits. This is huge for me. In the battles so far (and oh my how exciting and well-done they are) the pilots do nothing but apply themselves fully to the fighting. Whatever is communicated, is within the realm of orders or instruction.
Negotiations with the opposition, occur when the combatants are standing down and not opening fire at each other. Bravo. Gundam Unicorn is displaying what is in my opinion the overdue maturity of robot anime combat portrayal.
Dialogue here is the most effective device to provide both characterization and exposition. One of the overused themes in Gundam is the polarization between youth and adulthood, implying innocence and power to change things in the former, and inauthenticity as well as a predilection to violence in the latter. I acknowledge the necessity of Banagher being so young. Only he can say things so stupidly naïve and be excused for it. Mineva is far more commendable; she has seen much and yet works so hard for peace. But she is too cautious and plays too conservatively. Banagher is too ignorant not to try.
Mineva displays her grit in her conversation with Riddhe, but more spectacularly backs it up in how she handled her own hostage situation. This young woman is no damsel in distress. Banagher on the other hand, is ignorant also as a device: it is through him that many characters will explain themselves and their ideals.
I think the episode can be seen as a series of meaningful conversations, the most remarkable being Riddhe and Mineva’s, the extended Negotiation scene, Banagher and Full Frontal, Banagher with the Palauan family at dinner (delicious scene), then Marida and Banagher in the chapel.
Marida is such a revelation here. I’ve read some paratext that tells me before she rejoined Neo-Zeon she’s been drifting and working as a prostitute. Her harsh life after the Puru project, instead of embittering her, gave her wisdom to confront Banagher’s naïvety not with admonition but with compassion.
The conversations all contribute to depict a story wherein there are no innocents. I prefer to phrase it such, because it doesn’t deny the possibility of heroism, of nobility, of exemplary action. But yes, both sides in the conflict between spaceman and earthling are guilty of atrocity, of injustice, and are still actively perpetrating the same.
Remember the exiling to the colonies. Remember the lack of suffrage for the spaceman. Remember the Colony Drop. Remember the nerve gas. Remember A Baoa Qu. Remember Operation Stardust. Remember the Titans. Remember Dublin. Remember Char’s Counterattack.
So yes, the theme in Gundam Unicorn is consistent with the whole Gundam franchise: War is Hell.
But still, Remember Lalah Sune. Remember Ramba Ral. Remember Norris Packard. Remember Shiro and Aina. Remember Chris and Bernie. Remember Anavel Gato. Remember Kamille and Four. Forget Judau. Remember the Eternal Captain. Remember Amuro Ray. Remember Love.