It’s become the tradition now for new Gundam series to appear roughly every two to three years. In contrast to the high turnover rate of the 90s, this gives fans a bit of breathing space between the big pushes.
The previous series, Gundam 00, acquitted itself well, but seemingly failed to become a long term smash hit like SEED. Regardless, fan opinion was largely positive and left some previously crestfallen fans hopeful for what was to come next. (Indeed, creator interviews state that generating such a response was one of the show’s missions.) I was clearly amongst that number. But could whatever came next possibly measure up?
Gundam AGE is set in the Advanced Generation calendar. After centuries of conflict, mankind has finally achieved peace and headed out into the stars in the form of the familiar space colonies. However, the period of peace is shattered when an entire colony is destroyed by monstrous mobile suit-like attackers who become known as the UE; Unknown Enemy. A later attack, which opens the story, claims the family of young Flit Asuno. Flit’s dying mother entrusts him with the family legacy, the AGE Device, containing great amounts of data and the plans for a legendary weapon: Gundam, the Asuno’s legacy of the ancient wars.
Now a teenager, Flit has worked with the Earth Federation military to make the Gundam in hopes the Earth forces may finally produce a weapon powerful enough to finally defeat the completely unbeaten UE. An enemy attack sees Flit find his destiny: not simply as the Gundam’s creator, but its pilot in a war against an unrelenting enemy that will go on to involve three generations of his family and the Gundam.
From that description, you can likely tell that AGE is drawing from the classic Gundam formula. Indeed the first episode happily revels in this fact, introducing us to Flit in a near identical manner to the way 1979 audiences first met Amuro, including having him built a Haro; and his childhood friend Emily is an intriguing mix of past heroines Fraw and Sayla. Even the classic ‘the enemy attacks a peaceful colony’ is present. But it’s the way that AGE pulls these elements off that makes them enjoyable. For starters, the UE are a genuinely scary threat. Usually in Gundam shows the enemy are an established political/military group seeking to establish a dictatorship and depicted as having sustained at least some losses. The UE however have no stated ideology or goal and not a single one of their dragon-like units has ever been so much as damaged in the fourteen years since their debut. Are they humans? Aliens? Terrorists? A government conspiracy? The only thing that is know about them is that if they show up, you’re dead.
The terrifying mystery of the UE gives Flit a very good motive to fight. In recent times it’s become the case for Gundam leads to be pretty-boy boyfriend fodder for younger female viewers, but Flit is thankfully a return to the socially awkward source. He burns the midnight oil working on projects and stubbornly wishes the other citizens of his new home would heed his warnings on the dangers of the UE. However, this is balanced by his desire to complete the Gundam so it can become a ‘saviour’ and spare anyone else the loss and pain he suffered in his childhood.
The two elements blend perfectly as Flit marches the Gundam into the battlefield and the triumphant spirit is immediately replaced with the horror and carnage of what a single UE Gafran has been able to do to a formerly peaceful colony city. The show doesn’t engage in sensationalist bloodshed but carries an effective dramatic weight.
Likewise, it’s been a Gundam tradition for the last 15 years to try and steer timelines to the ultimate end of “And then everyone stopped fighting and there was peace everlasting”. AGE’s setting–a world which has achieved that peace, only to have it stripped by an external attacker humanity no longer has the technological edge to fight–is an interesting one and a counterpoint the franchise sadly has very rarely offered (Endless Waltz being the only other example I can think of). I’d love to believe an ultimate peace is waiting for us, but that ideal hasn’t really been argued as sustainable in past series.
The bizarre release patterns of Japanese home media means that this first volume contains only 2 episodes (especially annoying as this opening arc is 3 episodes long). Despite this brief run time, we get enough of the other characters to pique interest. Emily is the fairly standard motherly childhood friend, but retains just enough edge to avoid being a useless cheerleader. By the second episode she’s already got her own subplot independent of Flit. Said subplot also involves Federation Commander Grodek, a mysterious individual who seems to have an agenda separate from the Federation.
The second episode introduces Yurin, a young girl that Flit becomes instantly smitten with. She’ll immediately set long-term fan’s alarm bells ringing, especially as she displays perception beyond the normal human level. It will be interesting to see just where this goes.
Aside from actual characterisation, a major talking point has been the look of the cast. In particular, it’s hard to ignore the designs of characters such as Vargas, who look a bit like demented theme park mascot costumes. Indeed, my initial knee jerk response was to make unflattering comparisons to Sunrise’s famous Brave Saga run of shows. However, I quickly found that my dislike faded, and I easily accepted these characters and believed in their roles. The character designs might be a bit more eccentric then those usually seen in a Gundam show but I’d like to point out that even original character designer Yas gave his players cartoonish quirks (just look at the nefarious Zabi family)
The mobile suit designs are interesting but sadly not the pure winners of 00. The AGE-1 itself suffers for basically being a rehash of the original and overexposed Gundam. Subtle details like replacing the famous V-fin decoration with a set of horns help but it lacks the flair Ebikawa showed with more original designs like the Exia. As the Gundam’s evolutions in relation to its combat history and the escalating conflict is one of the story’s themes, this stands the chance of being addressed as more original variations appear.
The Federation grunt Genoace is also pretty boring, being another variation on the good guy bowl head grunt.
The real winner here is the Gafran. Originally the idea of an MS that transforms into a dragon seemed out of place to me, but in context it works pretty well. Seeing the dragon-like forms soaring through space before transforming into a more familiar humanoid is an impressive sight, and little touches–like the lack of carried weapons in favour of ones built right into the hands–really give the design an alien edge, deepening the mystery of whether these things are really mobile suits or something more.
A definite benefit to owning the show on Blu-ray is getting to see it in high definition, and in that respect I’m really impressed. With the correct setup, this show looks incredible. Consistency starts to wane around the middle of episode 2, but it’s impressive just how good the show looks and underscores how far Gundam has come since the original series and its terrible animation.
Sunrise’s new strategy involves including English subs and hoping people such as you or I import these releases. Whilst this covers the episodes, I’m disappointed to say that overall we international fans come off as an afterthought. For one, there is no option to set the menus in English. Sunrise authored the Gundam Unicorn discs, all of which opened asking if you wished the menus to be in English or Japanese. Why not do the same here? Instead, I was left to play trial and error with the menu. The release is schizophrenic with its treatment of English. The front cover uses an English series logo and indeed English text is all over the optional slip cover. However, the back of the case–and, more importantly, the extras–offers no English support at all. The first such extra is a booklet which covers the characters and MS introduced in this volume, and a long explanation of the long production history of the show. As much as I would love to read such information, I can understand why it would be troublesome to offer dual language in print. However, when you can sub the episodes, would it really be so hard to offer an English sub for the included Episode 1 cast commentary? It’s the exact same mistake they made with the Unicorn download content, where English fans could download a production commentary presented in raw Japanese with no translation. I don’t mind if you don’t sub the included show promos, and understand why it would even be impossible to translate the radio chat show with Flit and Emily’s VA (itself a separate disc, available alongside the AGE-1 Ebikawa illustrated slip cover in a Limited Edition). But if you honestly want fans overseas to support what is already a controversial move then you need to put in the work to make them feel like they’re valued customers and not just a way to push your profits up–especially when you’re charging roughly £40/$50 per disc.
It’s hard to get a proper feel for AGE from this first volume but what’s offered is intriguing. There are lots of story possibilities hinted at, including some intriguing mysteries, and the show looks beautiful. However, the treatment towards English-speaking fans really needs to improve. I’m a big enough fan to want to support this show, but paying top dollar and getting snubbed by its makers is something that can be tolerated only so far. If you want to watch AGE legally and in the best presentation possible, I’d heartily recommend this disc. But paying so much for 2 episodes and then finding the extra content is effectively locked out doesn’t do much to encourage import sales.