Gundam is no stranger to having sequels and spinoffs. The canon, loose as it may be at times, stretches far and wide. What’s a more recent tactic, however, is animating works that began as novelizations or manga. This seems to be a safer way for Sunrise to trial things without the risk of having to commit to the budget on a full on animated production. Indeed Gundam The Origin was one of the earliest foundations of this strategy and sadly doesn’t seem to have enjoyed the success in animation that many years of preparation were clearly hoping for.
Thunderbolt follows the pattern of many sidestories to the original 1979 series, focusing on an area of the legendary One Year War that the main story didn’t visit upon. In this case Side 4, one of the colony clusters destroyed in the initial week of fighting. Stuffed with war debris and intense electrical discharges, the area is nicknamed the Thunderbolt sector and serves as a stage for battle between the Federation and Zeon forces. A particular rivalry emerges between the Federation’s Io Fleming and Zeon’s Daryl Lorenz, two hot-blooded men who have their own reasons for being part of the conflict.
Whilst I think the number of Gundam side-stories is a messy glut, works like Thunderbolt highlight an interesting avenue that can be taken with them. It’s a fact that the initial audience that grew up with Gundam are no longer children or teenagers and that will shape how they relate to the franchise. Indeed that extends further to later fans; the 32 year old me writing this review is not the 15 year old who watched Gundam Wing on Toonami. Producing spin-offs aimed at said older fans allows for the exploration of darker themes than the original, which by Tomino’s admission was aimed at engaging older children who were just beginning to question the world.
The opposing factions highlight this instantly. The Federation is represented by the Moore Brotherhood, enlisted soldiers who were former citizens of Side 4 and fight for revenge. Likewise Zeon is represented by the crudely named Living Dead Division, disabled soldiers who use prosthetics to better integrate with mobile suits in ways natural limbs can’t. It quickly becomes clear that the setting for Thunderbolt is based on what fans will know from the original series but kicked up to 11. Exposition, which is masterfully delivered both as dialogue and flashback sequences, sets up that much like the iconic White Base crew everyone in a significant role is present because those before them or of higher rank has brutally died. However, there are no aspirational Newtypes here searching for the light of the human heart.
Although I find the 0079 period to be overstuffed with side-stories (how many GM variants did the Federation produce, honestly?) I do think it’s the ideal time period to explore for some interesting mecha action. Newtypes have only just begun to emerge at this point and thus it allows the mecha designs to focus on other ideas. The relationship pilots like Daryl share with their respective mobile suits is intriguing and the film explores his mental journey on having to rely on a giant robot to ‘complete’ him after previous amputation.
Io is slightly less noble. He arguably has more in common with an antagonist like Yazan from Zeta Gundam, being an absolute nightmare in the Full Armour Gundam he’s assigned and revelling in his slaughter of Zeon pilots he encounters. Thankfully the second half of the film does give him a bit more depth and sympathetic traits to stop him being a complete monster.
An interesting choice made by Thunderbolt is to punctuate the conflict between the two rivals with their respective choices in music; Io likes free form jazz, Daryl likes country western. This results in one of the most unique Gundam soundtracks, given the franchise’s preference for orchestral pieces and J-pop. In particular the music choices are used to punctuate flashbacks the pair have, with the melancholy country western perfectly underscoring the tragedy. That said, it seems Sunrise used Japanese singers with very Engrish lyrics and the result can often be more hammy than likely intended.
The film is presented in a choice of Japanese or English, both LPCM 2.0. We’re now firmly in the era where New York based actors are being consistently used for Gundam dubs over the Canadian ones used previously. That is resulting in some overuse of certain actors but generally I find these to be of superior quality to the Ocean Group efforts. There are however two issues I’d like to raise. The first is subtle but noticeable script changes. I appreciate this is a technical issue to fit lines and context in in English but sometimes the changes are not to my liking and seem to miss what the subtitled line from the original Japanese was going for. The other is that anytime the script calls for screaming the dub actors fail to nail it like the Japanese cast. There’s a particularly effective scene where we get a first-person view of a Zaku pilot trying to evade Io’s far faster Gundam and the Japanese actor’s screams sell what a terrifying experience this whereas the dub hits the level of thinking you left your wallet on the train but no worries, it was in your bag.
Visually the film showcases really nice HD quality animation, especially noticeable coming into this from the often low budget TV effort Gundam Build Divers earlier this year. Everything from the characters to the props carries a noticeable level of detail and polish and of course this means the mobile suit battles are breath-taking. They may not display the glorious camera swoops I praised in The Origin but these are the kind of visceral mecha battles that stick in your memory.
Being part of Anime Limited’s Gundam Collection, the movie comes in a standard Blu-ray case packed in a thin artbox outer sleeve. Said box uses some really nice wraparound art of Io and Daryl facing off whilst the case has a reversible sleeve with a few minor changes either side. You also get 5 art cards and a poster of the cover art. In order to fit inside the box the poster has to be folded which won’t be to everyone’s taste but personally does bring back memories of buying soundtrack records/CDs to get likewise folded movie posters. The on disc extras consist of several trailers and promos for both the episodic web release and this movie compilation.
Gundam Thunderbolt: December Sky fits into that rare niche for a Gundam title where I don’t feel there’s a lockout for non-fans. If you’re a long term Gundam fan you’ll likely enjoy getting to see a darker take on the 0079 time period and newer fans will likely welcome the exciting action and lack of focus on the Newtype themes of understanding. Certainly Thunderbolt isn’t my personal favourite for a few reasons (female characters really don’t get much respect here, but sadly that’s all too accurate to many UC Gundam works) but at its core it gets the heart of the franchise and its motifs.
If you’ve been wanting to give Gundam a try but don’t want to wade into a 50 episode series, this is a good start. Even if we don’t get the second compilation movie Bandit Flower, focusing on post OYW antics, this is a largely self-contained 70 minute story.