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Angst, Explosions, Gundam?!

November 22, 2010

“We can be together anytime we want… right, Lalah?”

Amuro Ray, Mobile Suit Gundam: The Series

It took me approximately a month and a half to complete MS: Gundam. Not that there wasn’t time, but it’s just that I lost steam for giant robot shows of wangst and terror and grief halfway through the MS Gundam.

Truly, after completing the series, the meaning of “Grandfather of Real Robot Anime” has taken on a whole new meaning when used to describe Mobile Suit Gundam. Mazinger may have created the Japanese side of the Mecha genre, but Gundam, with its attempts at a realistic and mechanical depiction of its fighting machines (or at least as close to that as you can get with 1970s animation techniques), must have caused a storm when it was aired (because the Gundam Sousei manga can’t be taken seriously).

The general plot of MS: Gundam first answers the problem of racism: Earth’s nations, united as the Federation against humans living in space under the banner of the Principality of Zeon, are waging a war of apocalyptic proportions. There’s one slight problem for the Federation: the Zeon are doing it with giant bipedal war machines, and they’re winning. Spectacularly.

The war in MS Gundam is already raging when the story starts; the opening days of the war are touched on in other materials, and this particular aspect adds to removing some of the attention from any single character, particularly the mains. If Tomino intended for this, which he probably did, then he’s a genius of storytelling, because most standard mecha series of his time sold on the main character and the robots. With that adding in of a few lines about the opening days of the One Year War on the first episode, he’s managed to establish the defining point of Real Robot series: the main characters are not going to be as omnipotent as Super Robot protagonists, because the War came first.

Then we get down to the main story. Our main character, Amuro Ray, is a slighty overly-obsessed mechanic who can not only program what is by today’s standards a working A.I., but is considered by most he meets as a mechanical genius. These help to handwave the fact that he can pilot the Gundam he almost literally falls into at the first episode, if only for the fact that being an aspiring engineer allows him to read the manual and operate a giant machine of death and destruction on the fly. Compare this with most Super Robot pilots who are “chosen”, one way or another, and you can see why MS Gundam deserves its title as a genre-maker.

It doesn’t end there, however. I’m not expert enough to point out each and every military rule and behavior that the White Base crew exhibit, but having it there certainly adds realism. As well, Tomino also added in more new stuff; namely, adding a face to the dead. The first two Zakus that Amuro offed all depicted their pilots screaming their heads off; surely, not many Super Robot shows depicted enemy humans screaming their heads off and crying for their mothers as the main character blew them to kingdom come. This applies to all the enemy aces Amuro would later end up fighting, though, perhaps the presence of too many custom suits and mobile armors sort of turn it into another Monster of the Week sequence.

And to note, while Amuro is the only one that can pilot the Gundam, it doesn’t stop him from piloting the Guncannon or the Guntank either, so it doesn’t have the “one pilot per robot” thing they have going for Super Robots. Of course, then there’s the question of why no one ever bothers to read the Gundam’s operating manual…

While MS Gundam , viewed from a 1979 perspective would have no doubt been groundbreaking, I found one problem slightly irritating: the ridiculous deaths. Not all of them are insanely stupid, mind you, some died heroic deaths and some died to make a point, but the rest of them could have used a bit more elaboration while being fried or really shouldn’t have happened, since neither us the viewers nor Amuro didn’t seem to learn any life lessons from those. Not really useful, except for upping the cheesy factor.

Surprisingly, the explosions and other parts in animation are quite well-depicted for something that preceded Gundam SEED by close to 30 years. Sure it might not match up in quality, but it sure as hell is capable of matching detail for detail. And that matters a lot.

I haven’t mentioned the supporting case right? Suffice to say, they all have their roles to play in the story, and where you least expect it, one of them gets the limelight. It might only be for an episode or two, but it gives them greater depth and allow us viewers to get to know more about their personalities, and hopefully understand their motivations. Their interactions with Amuro serve as catalyst for his development, and they also have their own problems to deal with, which makes the show more interesting that you’d expect. Even the unflappable Bright Noah was once an overly-nervous greenhorn.

MS: Gundam is known by many to be the forerunner of Gundam and Real Robot in general. Perhaps the execution and storytelling could be done smoother and with more common sense involved, but for the pioneer series of what would later become a 3-decade long saga, it was an excellent job… and the creation of an entirely new niche in mecha anime.

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