Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam (1985-1986) review

Last year I made the decision to watch Mobile Suit Gundam, the granddaddy of all Gundam series. After finishing the series I wrote at length about it and I had plenty of good and a few bad things to say about the show. As you can surely tell from the title of this post I’ve watched the sequel series titled Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam which was originally broadcast in fifty episodes from 1985 to 1986. Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam was a direct sequel to MSG. That’s actually pretty surprising in itself since MSG was cancelled before it could complete its intended run. In the intervening years between the end of MSG and the beginning of ZG the original series gained quite a bit of popularity. Having recently finished ZG I’m pleased to say that I’m glad a sequel was made since it turned out to be a very good show, equally good to the original series but with much better animation.

Yoshiyuki Tomino, the man responsible for directing MSG, also directed ZG. He wasn’t the only crew member to return as Yoshikazu Yasuhiko once again did character designs and Kunio Okawara returned as mechanical designer, this time aided by Kazumi Fujita. Two notable mechanical designs by Okawara include the RX-178 Gundam Mk-II and the RMS-106 Hizack while Fujita is credited with the design of the titular MSZ-006 Zeta Gundam. The influences of these crew members is clearly felt and seen in ZG as the series feels like a natural progression from MSG for better and for worse. Before getting into more details of the good and the bad let’s recap the basic story of the series.

The best thing about Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam is that it strived to be more complex than its predecessor. The story takes place seven years after the end of the One Year War. It is the year UC 0087 and new military and political factions have emerged following the new balance of power. Having defeated the Principality of Zeon, the Earth Federation created a counter-insurgency group made up of elite military personnel called the Titans. The Titans were given the task of finding any remaining Zeon forces and to bring them to put them out of commission. Given far more operational freedom than they ever should have received, the Titan forces became increasingly violence and brutal in their methods of carrying out their mission. Soon they evolved into a tyrannical military force that rivalled that of Zeon during the One Year War.

The Argama.

In response to the rise in power of the Titans two other groups were formed. The Anti-Earth Union Group (AEUG) and Kabara were created from a combination of former Zeon soldiers, Earth Federation forces deserters and members of various space colonies. Among these members are Bright Noa who was captain of the White Base and returns to captain the Argama and Quattro Bajeena, secret identity of Char Aznable from Zeon, both of whom led the AEUG. Back on Earth, Hayato Kobayashi of the White Base leads the Kabara forces and he’s occasionally aided by Amuro Ray.

The series begins with Quattro on a mission to infiltrate one of Side 7’s colonies to uncover the secrets of the Titans’ new mobile suit. There he discovers the Gundam Mk-II and after causing far more damage than he wanted to, he eventually returns to the Argama with a Mk-II, Kamille Bidan (a promising Newtype), and Fa Yuiry (Kamille’s friend). Disliking the Titans’ misguided use of their military might, Kamille and Fa eventually join the crew of the Argama and aid them in their fight against the Titans. In doing so both develop their piloting skills and Kamille quickly becomes one of the strongest Newtypes known to mankind.

The titular Zeta Gundam.

The rest of the series focuses on the various missions of the Argama which become increasingly complex as more Newtypes make their appearances and shift the military and political landscape of the Earth Sphere. Most notable are Paptimus Scirocco who executes a coup d’état of Titan and Haman Karn who uses young Mineva Lao Zabi, the last surviving member of the Zabi family, as a figurehead for the organization known as Axis Zeon. For most of the series it’s unclear exactly where Karn and Axis Zeon lie in relation to the Titans and the AEUG but it doesn’t result in any confusion, much the opposite it adds a welcomed layer of complexity to the series.

It’s the complexity and the maturity of ZG that makes it such an enjoyable show. There are elements to this series that were never a part of MSG or, at most, were only barely developed. To name the most important element the idea of Newtypes, the next step in human evolution, is far more develop in ZG than it ever was in MSG. You don’t just get the feeling that they’re vaguely important to the story, instead Kamille’s development as a strong and competent Newtype is revealed to be the series’ main theme; that of communication and understanding between all of mankind. It’s actually rather ironic that Kamille is the one to discover the true power of Newtypes since he spends most of his time outside his mobile suit cockpit arguing and bitching with and at other people.

The Gundam Mk-II which is probably my favourite mobile suit from this series.

A new element to the Gundam metaseries is the addition of Cyber Newtypes. These individuals are surgically enhanced, often at the cost of memory loss and mental instability. Cyber Newtypes are treated as tools. They’re brainwashed to be obedient and are used to operate specially designed mobile suits that enhance their Newtype abilities of heightened mental awareness to disastrous effects.

One of the aspects in which I’m disappointed is the design of the Zeta Gundam. It’s really unappealing to me visually. The worst part about it is the head. It looks far too menacing but that in itself isn’t the only thing. It also loses all of the humanistic features that you would normally find on a Gundam’s head. I also don’t like the heavy use of triangular shapes in the design. Everything has too many sharp lines which results in a very pointy looking suit. It kind of makes sense considering the Gundam’s transformation into its waverider mode which has as sleeker jet-like form but that doesn’t help it out much. I still think it’s ugly. My response to a lot of mobile suits in this series is the same. The mechas do the job they’re designed to do but not much more.

Kamille and Emma.

They’re not all bad though. I like the look of the red RMS-09 Rick Dias and the Gundam Mk-II is a very good redesign of the original RX-78-2. It looks heavier and it bulkier than the original Gundam but it carries the extra weight really well. It looks solid and is suitably menacing. It also comes in two colours (Titans and AEUG) which is great. It’s actually very neat to have a mobile suit that is used by two different organizations. My favourite aspect of all the mobile suits has nothing to do with the exterior. What impressed me the most was the idea of the 360-degree display in the mobile suit cockpits. Not only is it a useful idea for the animators and for storytelling purposes but it’s just such simple and effective idea that I can’t help but love it. Everything inside the cockpit with exception to the piloting consoles and the chair acts as a view screen for the pilot. It gives them outstanding visibility during battle and it just looks damn cool.

I was a little annoyed that most of the mobile suits in this series transformed. It’s one of the things I disliked about MSG. Thankfully none of the transformations are given extensive transformation sequences. Instead, we get very rapid animation of their transformation that it only bothered me a little. It also helped that aside from the Mk-II and the FXA-05D G-Defenser none of the mechas combined together. The Defenser acts as a support vehicle to the Gundam Mk-II by combining with it and giving the Gundam additional fire power. It’s an alright idea but it’s not really used much in this series. It doesn’t attain its full potential. The same idea will be used again in Gundam SEED to greater effect.

An exaggerated look at the 360-degree cockpit from the show's opening sequence.

What ZG lacks in impressive mechanical designs it makes up for it with a surprisingly interesting cast of characters. The number of important female characters is genuinely striking considering the series’ age. More importantly they all have interesting roles to play and affect the story in many ways. To name most of the regular female characters there is: Fa Yuiry, Emma Sheen, Reccoa Londa, Sarah Zabiarov, Haman Karn, Four Murasame, Rosamia Badam, and Mineva Lao Zabi. All of those characters, save one, are mobile suit pilots. While only one of them has pink hair and pilots a femininely coloured mobile suit (Karn), none of them are made to wear garish pink uniforms like the female crewmembers in MSG. These characters are made to be written in nearly gender neutral ways, often being allowed to act in similar ways to the male characters. By that I mean they have personal motivations and goals they would like to attain and act accordingly. You do not get a sense that they act solely for the interest of the male characters though there are a couple of exceptions since some of the female characters are clearly influence by Scirocco’s mental abilities as a Newtype. It doesn’t stick out though because their brainwashed devotion to Scirocco is balanced by having their own motivations. Sarah is probably the best example of this since she follows Scirocco’s leadership of the Titans but is conflicted by her budding relationship with Katz. Overall, it’s a step up from MSG and while not every portrayal is ideal they are, at the very least, believable within the context of the story. I only wished that Reccoa, Fa and Emma didn’t have debates about their political ideologies that used their gender as a starting point for their arguments. Reccoa in particular does this a lot towards the end of the series.

I would not entirely disagree with fans who have responded more negatively towards the female characters’ portrayal within ZG. I would stress however that compared to several other anime, where women are often portrayed very negatively, ZG does a good job, especially considering it’s a 30 year old show.  

The creation of Cyber Newtypes, a three way conflict (Titans, AEUG, and Axis Zeon), migration to space colonies, human evolution, and characters that are not defined exclusively by their military, political, or social affiliations but by their choices and personal motivations make ZG a more mature series in comparison to its predecessor. Admittedly, Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam is not as ground-breaking as Mobile Suit Gundam but it is still a rather strong series. It does have some ground-breaking moments, particularly in the way it incorporated the use of space as a location (which helped to further developed how space colonies function), a cast filled with interesting female characters, and introducing transformable Gundams as we know them today (as opposed to the way the original Gundam transformed in MSG). To help things along is the very impressive animation, considering the standards of 80s anime.

What truly impressed me though where the politics of the Universal Century Gundam timeline which became more complex in this series and helped to flesh out the Gundam metaseries. The result is a more realistic fictional universe, helping the show tell more mature stories. Interesting elements such as Anaheim Electronics, a civilian manufacturing company that, among other things, manufactures mobile suits added quite a bit of depth to the story. The Anaheim Electronics acts as the AEUG’s main funder, providing the organization with military supplies and logistical assistance when required. It plays some role in the plot of the series but the show could have succeeded without ever mentioning it. I see it more as a way to add further realism to the fictional Gundam universe. It’s that kind of attention to detail that helped make ZG such an interesting and thrilling series to watch. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s much better than MSG because both series have their problems but it’s certainly not a step down in quality, more of a continuation of Tomino’s vision which began with MSG. Any respectable Gundam fans owe it to themselves to watch Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam

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