In the previous installments of the Gundam Unicorn OVA I’ve lavished praise in its restraint in letting pilots talk in their mobile suits while fighting. The talking is a very Gundam thing to do, wherein the combatants debate, argue, and lecture each other self-righteously. It is ridiculous. I ridicule it. But it is part of what makes Gundam what it is, and I love Gundam more than I fancy myself as a patron of the arts.
Still, I prefer not to craft battle scenes around a moral/political debate with lots of shouting by teenagers, and Banagher dished out enough shouting, semonizing, imploring, pleading, and whining to fill nine thousandths of a Gundam SEED episode. But is this necessarily bad in itself? Or, is it a poor execution of a craft with its own tradition?
Swords are symbolic of the wills of the combatants. The battle is of wills, and what makes the will strong is the righteousness of the character, the belief in his rightness — or the right to prevail. The fight scene both symbolically expresses these wills and at the same time spells it out by having the characters (in)formally state their arguments. These are punctuated by blows, thrusts, slashes, and hacks.
The tradition of this kind of cinema must probably be long, but I am no film scholar. I do know that if there’s anything that Gundam follows or is influenced by, or remembers love for, it is the Star Wars saga. Consider the following scenes:
1. Luke Skywalker vs. Darth Vader, The Empire Strikes Back
2. Luke Skywalker vs. Darth Vader & Emperor Palpatine, The Return of the Jedi
3. Obi-wan Kenobi vs. Anakin Skywalker, The Revenge of the Sith
All three scenes exemplify the tradition. Vader was doing PR for the Empire and recruiting Luke in Episode V (“Search your feelings, you know it to be true!”), Luke Skywalker was attempting to redeem Vader in Episode VI (“There is still good in you!”), and Obi-wan was attempting the same in Episode III (“You were supposed to destroy the Sith, not join them!”). Gundam took this tradition along with the Jedi/Newtype powers and the beam sabers and ran with it.
The thing with being in a Mobile Suit, the distance between the combatants is exaggerated, and in addition to this, one doesn’t necessarily see the face of one’s adversary. Just like how it is to have a heated argument over the phone, it is a lot easier to shout a lot. Add this to the youth of the combatants (younger than Luke Skywalker), then you get a lot more angry shouting, a lot more emotion… kind of like how the younger, angstier Anakin Skywalker differs from the smooth, robotic Darth Vader in the debates. In Gundam Unicorn 04, Banagher sheathes his weapons in front of his enemy just as Luke does against Vader in Episode VI.
The story of Star Wars is fairly simpler than that of Gundam. In Gundam the subject of the debate is the righteousness of the respective causes, the evils and wrongness of the respective factions, the self-identity and self-actualization of the pilots (“I’m a tool of war!” “This is all I have!”), and the wrongness of fighting, killing, and war itself (“You’ll just continue the cycle of hate and revenge!”).
But anyone who inspected those Star Wars clips and has seen this episode (and perhaps a lot more Gundam) must ask: Why is there SO MUCH MORE talking and lecturing in Gundam? It has to do with money. It is far more difficult and expensive to animate 8 minutes of fast-paced fighting than it is to film stuntmen in a green room. One must also consider that in the Star Wars sequels and especially with the prequels, there was a whole lot more money to go around. The light saber battle in Episode 04 is by far the simplest and the weakest in the saga, while Episode 03 made sure the proportion of talk vs. actual swordplay heavily favors the action.
Thus, dramatic pauses in the action for debating, haranguing, lecturing, whining, begging, etc. become welcome narrative devices in anime. Just look at shounen fighting shows and the sheer amount of dialogue that happens between adversaries. These involve describing attacks before they’re launched, how clever the counterattack was, the damage/power felt withstanding the attack, etc. Do I like this? No. But I accept this, and what Unicorn 04 did because I am a fan of anime.
But what about Macross, who has a whole lot less of this kind of thing? Well, yes, the Macross franchise indulges this a lot less albeit in general the duels are much shorter. The action is a lot more 1 vs. many. And when Gundam does 1 vs. many as shown in this episode, the chatter on the tactical net makes a lot more sense and is actually welcome (“It’s like a war museum out here. They (Zeon) sure have guts attacking us with those ancient suits!”). Also, let us not forget the remarkable subtlety in Unicorn episodes 01, 02, and 03!
It’s like this: Gundam Unicorn was always going to unleash this on us viewers. It was an inevitability. What it didn’t want to do was to inflict it without setting things up, without providing enough great action in the first half, and without providing Banagher exposure to a whole range of different perspectives. The authority figures, from captains to more experienced pilots took time to listen to Banagher and gave their respective pieces in poignant and thoughtful ways: Deguze, Otto, Marida, Zinnerman, Frontal. Banagher was indulged as if he were an adult, a conceit common in Gundam (one need only look at episode 05 of Mobile Suit Gundam AGE to see this dynamic at work – Grudek and Emily).
All of what Banagher witnessed and heard from both sides of the conflict convinced him to act as neutral as possible, that his role, and that of the Gundam Unicorn, was not to tip the scales in favor of either the Federation or (Neo) Zeon, but to stop the conflict itself. Thus Banagher begins to arrive at the antagonistic dynamics of the Universal Century narrative.
Gundam Pilots/Heroes vs. Anaheim Electronics… Banagher Links/Vist Foundation want to end conflict while Anaheim Electronics want to perpetuate conflict (good for business). Federation vs. Zeon… Feddies want to quell terrorism, stop megalomaniacs, and punish those who dropped the colonies on Earth. Zeon want to remove the yoke of Earth upon the Spacenoids, and punish those who humiliated them. We used to see only the Spacenoid vs. Earthnoid struggle, represented by Zeon and the Earth Federation respectively, but now this show is explicitly articulating that there is a true villain, in the form of a war profiteer.
Is this not interesting? You can’t reason with those who have so much to carry, souls weighed down, etc. But one can remove those who powerfully perpetuate this hate in order to profit from it. This is how the story will go forward. Banagher has failed reasoning with soldiers in the thick of battle. He went into the battle with no intention to fight at all. Gundam Unicorn 04 didn’t quite show combatants arguing and talking during their duel. Banagher was never in a duel. When the time came for him to make it a fight, he did not, and could not do so. Banagher was not in a fight this episode.
This show punished Banagher for trying, but edifies him at the same time. He got himself worked into a full head of steam, all-powered up after prevailing over Suberoa Zinnerman, but all this came to nothing with his ineffectual showing in the battle. He really saved NO ONE… DESPITE HIS NEWTYPE MAGIC.
Thus, before we all get worked up with how all this sermonizing from within the suit, remember how this episode showed that it failed. I would personally be more put off should Banagher have succeeded.
Mobile Suit Gundam Unicorn 04 Post Series