The anime binge continues. The latest has been portions of the Gundam franchise. I was a little reluctant to even approach this collection, first because it’s vast and it’s not at all clear where the best place to start might be, and second because it looks like one of those superhero / toy adaptation series. Yet, the series is immensely popular among space anime enthusiasts, so I decided I needed to at least give it a try.
I had read somewhere that the original 1979 Mobile Suit Gundam series was pretty dated in its animation styles, and that it might be better to start with the 2015 Mobile Suit Gundam: The Origin, which was supposedly a retelling of the original. I enjoyed The Origin, however it’s not a retelling, but a prequel, chronicling the lives of many of the characters prior to the original series. It actually mostly focuses on the antagonists. (Not being familiar at all with the series, I actually didn’t realize they were the antagonists at first.)
So after watching The Origin, I pretty much had to watch the original series to see how things turned out. With a 36 year difference in production values between the two, I definitely noticed the older style, not just in animation, but in the way the characters were portrayed. But I’m the kind of person who has no trouble getting into old science fiction shows, so it wasn’t a showstopper for me. The animation style actually reminded me a lot of the adventure cartoons I watched as a kid in the 70s. (If you’re not old enough to remember those, it may not evoke the same charm.)
The premise of the series (at least of the original series, it sounds like later stuff varies) is a future where humanity has colonized the Lagrange points in the Earth-Moon system with O’Neill type space colonies, huge cylindrical spinning habitats containing small worlds with cities and planetary like environments, including weather. All of the action takes place in cislunar space, or on Earth. There is one brief mention of a character returning from Jupiter, so apparently humanity isn’t confined to the Earth-Moon region, but given the cislunar travel times, traveling around the rest of the solar system probably takes months or years.
Despite this relatively limited scope, the series manages to make the story feel as broad as space opera set across a much wider canvas, such as the solar system or interstellar settings. It’s a lesson that a spatially wide setting isn’t necessary to tell stories in a variety of environments. The result here is a very Star Wars like feel but without ever having to invoke anything like hyperspace. We actually see many of the ships needing booster stages to get out Earth’s gravity well. Although other than that, the ships move in typical space opera fashion, which is to say, like ocean liners or submarines, so we’re still not talking about super hard science fiction, although it’s harder than much of what was produced at the time.
My fears of a toy-superhero motif quickly faded. While the humanoid robots do play a major part in the story, the focus is firmly on the characters, who are portrayed more as fighter pilots than superheroes. The main character, Amuro Ray, actually suffers from battle fatigue breakdown at various points. And the antagonists are all humans rather than aliens or monsters. Most of them are people who, as we get to know them, are fairly sympathetic, particularly the chief antagonist, Char Aznable, whose backstory is explored in The Origin. The show ends up being about the overall tragedy of war rather than a case of heroes and villains. There are some characters who play more traditional villainous roles, but they’re mostly side characters whose background we never get a chance to see.
My only beef with the original series is that it feels like it went on too long for the story it was telling. It was apparently rolled up into a few movies, which might be a more efficient way to consume the arc. The original series also shows the period in which it was produced, with Gundam wielding light sabre like weapons, and many of the characters turning out to have psychic powers before it’s over with. All of which further pulls it back from hard sci-fi.
I caught The Origin on Hulu and the original series on Funimation. In looking for later series, I discovered that Netflix is about to have a lot of Gundam material available, including what looks like possibly the rollup movie versions of the original. The overall series remains vast, and I’m not sure where to go from here, except that I’m probably going to watch other stuff before diving into any of the other Gundam series. Still, an interesting premise and excellent storytelling. Well worth checking out if it suits your interest.