Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Mobile Suit Gundam (1979) review

Every once in a while I think about the kind of reviews I write for Shared Universe Reviews. One thing always sticks out to me and is that most of my reviews are of older works. Not all of them, but a significantly large enough amount of it that it sticks out. I’m thinking about that once again because I’m about to write a review for an anime series that is roughly 35 years old. To many anime fans that seems kind of outrageous because such an old show much be damn near unwatchable for a modern audience. It’s nothing new for me though as I regularly sample entertainment from previous decades and a lot of that ties into my philosophy on how I experience my entertainment. Reading old books in a genre I love, something I’ve been doing with my The Blog Fantastic project, allows me to get a greater sense of the history and evolution of the genre. It also allows me to contextualize works in a loose historical chronology. Most important of all, it creates a dialogue between the more recent works I’ve read and the older ones that preceded it. It’s one thing for a reader of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire to read about Martin’s influence in an interview or an article but it learning of his influences is has very different meaning to readers who have also read the works Martin cites as influential to him and his series.

What does any of this have to do with Gundam? Well, several weeks ago I thought I knew what Gundam was all about but there was a voice in the back of my head (you already knew I was crazy, right?) which said “How can you think you know about Gundam when you’ve never watched the original series?”. Good point. So I watched Mobile Suit Gundam (1979) and I have to say that little voice in my head was right. I’m glad I watched this because as old as it is, it’s an impressive series and it’s changed the way I think about Gundam and anime in general. In other words, Mobile Suit Gundam (from this point on abbreviated to MSG) is old, certainly, but it’s worth your time for being incredibly influential and for spawning an immense anime, manga and plastic model franchise.

Enemy soldiers are people too? Stop making sense!

I don’t want to spend too much time summarizing the events of the series. I want to focus on specific elements and write about what I enjoyed, what worked, what didn’t work so well, and reasons why MSG is an important anime series, let alone important to the Gundam metaseries. For anyone who wants a broad introduction to the setting of the events of MSG, you can check out the introduction post to my Mobile Suit Gundam: The 08th MS Team. There I wrote a piece that works well as an introduction for the Universal Century timeline and for MSG.

As for the series proper, the first dozen or so episodes of MSG are nothing short of stellar. The first episode begins with a bang. The Earth Federation’s new Gundam carrier ship, the White Base, has recently landed on colony Side 7 (also known as Noa) near Lagrangian Point 3. The colony is in the middle of evacuating civilians since the presence of the White Base and the experimental RX-78-2 Gundam is believed to be attracting the attention of Zeon forces. Naturally, three Zeon Zakus enter the colony to spy on the Federation’s activities and everything quickly escalates to a full blown attack on the colony. A young man, Amuro Ray, son of the engineer who built the RX-78 Gundam pilots the mobile suit for the first time in an effort to protect his friends. By the end of the first episode Amuro has already shown an affinity to piloting the Gundam and he, along with some of his friends, are being asked to serve aboard the White Base which is severely undermanned, having lost soldiers in the attack. For the first third of the series the story focuses on the trials the White Base and its crew face as they try to escape the Zeon forces and eventually get officially enlisted in the war effort. 

Those episodes make for a stunning introduction to the series. Not only are they good stories but they set the foundational elements for the rest of the series. Nearly all of the main characters are introduced, some in more detail than others, but they will all get fleshed out as the series progressed. Some of the key villains are also introduced, specifically Char Aznable also known as the Red Comet. In many ways, this exemplary beginning plays the same role for the rest of MSG as the series did for the rest of the Gundam metaseries. But before I get to that I want to talk about the elephant in the room: 35 year old animation.

I can say without a doubt that some people will not like the animation of MSG, begrudging it for being old, unpolished and difficult to watch. Personally, I learned to like it. If you’ve watched anime before, it’s unavoidable that there will be a jarring effect when you start watching MSG. Once I had watched three or so episodes I started to settle in and get used to it. After a while I didn’t mind the older animation and I only noticed just how old it was when I consciously focused on it. If you’re open minded and, like me, can accept that it’s mostly old animation and not specifically bad animation, you’ll be able to focus on the story and the characters as opposed to the fact that most of the explosions are pink and that the mobile suits regularly move as if they’re either made in one solid piece or made of rubber and bend in was they simply shouldn't be able to bend. I think it also helped that I didn’t watch any other animated movies or series during the time I was watching MSG. I imagine if you’re bouncing back between old and new series, this gem from 1979 will always be irritating to watch.

Char "Red Comet" Aznable is one of the best Gundam characters ever. 

It was interesting to watch such and old series though because I realized that there are things about new animation that I like and things that I don’t. Things I like about new animation that I missed while watching MSG was the consistency in the animation. The RX-78 Gundam doesn’t look 100% the same from episode to episode. It also isn’t consistent in the way that it moves. One of the things I dislike about modern animation is the lighting and use of shadows. It’s done well as often as it’s done badly but some series are either over lit or far too dark and shadowing which makes it difficult to determine what’s going on. In contrast, MSG is lit almost objectively. Everything is lit in the same way and you lose that sense of depth and weight that good lighting can provide. There are many other comparisons that could be made between the animation used in MSG and more recent anime series but the point I’m trying to make is that MSG’s animation is not all bad. I’m not suggesting it’s better than today’s animation but it certainly has its charm. Another example is that this old animation has a certain kind of warmth to it, specifically in the motion of characters and the colouring. It has the fluidity of hand-drawn animation that really suits certain kinds of storytelling while computer generation or computer assisted animation fares better with the mechanical designs.

What helps with the (now) sub-par animation is that the mechas, the ships and the characters are really well designed. Many of the iconic visuals of the franchise are lifted straight from MSG or are updated versions of what we first see in this series. It’s from the obvious things like the RX-78 Gundam, the Zakus and the White Base to smaller things like the cockpit of the Gundam, particularly the lever that slides forward and backwards. Even the way that device is used in the cockpit has become a staple of Gundam shows to follow. When a character slams it forward it’s because he is launching into the air or it means that a battle has gotten serious and the character isn’t going to leave any other mobile suits standing.
All the girls have to wear pink, OK? Boys in blue, please. Good soldiers.

As teased above, MSG is a microcosm of the entire Gundam franchise. It’s not just responsible for introducing the iconic design of the RX-78 but of many other things that make up the bread and butter of the metaseries. Let’s make a list of recurring elements that were introduced in MSG, just for fun:

·         Political and philosophical debates about war,
·         The visual designs of the series including mecha designs and the sleek (though blocky) design of the White Base which Gundam SEED shamelessly revamped in their even sleeker design of the Archangel,
·         The way battles are setup and choreographed,
·         The conflict between Earth and the space colonies. Sure this changes from series to series based on the specific factions and political or military organizations, but the main element remains the same,
·         Villains that are later portrayed as heroes or at least more heroic than they were at an earlier point in the series,
·         Characters who wear masks,
·         New mobile suits for important characters or upgrades to current mobile suits (side note: just how many mobile suits and mobile armors does Char pilot in this series?),
·         Newtypes or a more physically and mentally advanced population of humanity,
·         Characters dying and staying dead, and
·         The main character always starts of as whiny, brattish and thinks the entire weight of the world (plus the space colonies) rest solely on their should. In the good series the character grows out of it and becomes an interesting character. In the bad series and Gundam SEED, the main character just gets more insufferable and the series goes on. 

I’m sure there are plenty of other things I’ve missed but I’m also sure there are tropes specific to Gundam series that I’m not even familiar with since I haven’t watched all of the series. I think the above list is enough to support my claim that almost everything Gundam related can trace its source back to this series. That might seem like a dumb statement but it’s important to point out because none of these elements would have endured in multiple variations had the origin versions not been good. Some later series improved on some of the elements found in MSG but chances are they wouldn’t have tried it if it wasn’t for MSG’s initial success with it. Above all else, it’s the characters, complex and properly examined during the show’s run, that tie everything else together into a satisfying series.

Ramba Ral. One of the best Zeon officers. You were too awesome for us.

I have to clarify that MSG is by no means a perfect show. Even when you don’t factor in the quality of the animation, this is a very flawed series. While shorter than your average number of episode for a Gundam series (50 or so) I think MSG would have benefit from even less. The series explodes out of the gate and sustains this wild and manic energy for several episodes before slowing down considerably before the middle of the series. It’s here that things seem to meander around for a while and I admit to taking a break from watching it because I got a little bored. It’s crazy to think that I binge watched the first half of the series only to leave it for a few weeks before returning to it. I’m glad I did because the last third of the series picks up considerably and while it doesn’t quite match the impact of the first third of the show it still ended in a satisfying way, though abrupt, way.

Other criticisms would include the female uniforms. Why are they pink? Why can’t everybody be in Federation blue or command grey? Don’t even get me started about the terrible idea of Gundam transformation. Unfortunately, around episode 10, this idea was introduced and it’s just awful. The Gundam’s cockpit is actually a core fighter (think space jet, and you'll get the idea) which can be used as the cockpit for the Guntank, the Guncannon and the Gundam. It’s the most ridiculous and hokey idea of the entire show but I really started to hate it when I realized the recurring use of the transformation sequence in the show. Aside from seeing the segment repeated over and over (occasionally multiple times in a single episode) I completely disagreed with the idiotic strategy to send out Amuro, the only person abord the White Base who can pilot the gundam, in a ship other than the Gundam because it almost always resulted in the decision to have him transform or transfer into the Gundam mid-battle. Things get even worse later on as more parts are given to the crew of the White Base. The Gundam can now be combined with the G-Fighter to produce the G-Armor, they can detach in mid-air! Wow! Who fucking cares? Not me. It’s lame. I admit I’m a bit consoled by the fact that the gunplay model kits outsold any other kind of merchandise that was produced based on this transformation idea.

Sleggar being fly. Don't get too attached, Mirai.

At the end of the day though, this series isn’t fondly remembered for its animation or use of transforming Gundam sequences. People remember MSG because of the story and how the characters are handled. They remember the series because of how realism was incorporated into the series. Being a long series there are several episodic stories here and there, some of which don’t matter at all to the larger story, but some of those episodes contribute to character development. It’s also pretty sophisticated for an anime series about big robots, mostly because it’s not just an anime about big robots. It’s about characters and how the war influence and impact the characters. Amuro’s development throughout the series is fascinating to watch. The changes he faced during the series affected me also. I’ve cared for him, hated him and pitied him in turn. Complex characters make for complex reactions from viewers and this series is an example of that.

"What do you mean we're getting cancelled? Bummer."

It’s easy to forgive a lot of the show’s flaws as with many trailblazing works of fiction, there is a great deal of experimentation, happenstance, studio/publisher/editor interference, luck and marketing that can have a large impact on the work’s legacy. While animes that focused on giant robots was nothing new, MSG heralded the sub-genre of Real Robot. Prior to Gundam, series that focused on giant robot characters were of the Super Robot sub-genre. Mazinger Z is a classic of that genre. The added realism in which MSG dealt with their robots heralded a new form of story. I’m not an anime expert and I’m certain many other people would be better qualified to place MSG in a historical context, but it doesn’t change the fact that MSG was very different from other shows on at the time. However, it wasn’t popular during its initial run. In fact, it was threatened with cancellation and the studio eventually agreed to end the show on a shorter run (hence only 43 episodes). It took a few years for it to be recognized as an important and entertaining series and its continued legacy as one of the pillars of anime is proof of its status as a classic. Some series in the franchise have gone on to improve this one (something I’m a little familiar with but I’ll get a better idea once I’ve watched more series) while others have made a mess of things and can only be remembered for their action sequences and Gundam designs. The fact remains that for die-hard fans of newcomers alike, MSG stands tall as an inspiring series . . . as long as you can accept its animation style.

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