If you were asked to point to the central story of the first decade of Gundam, it’d likely be the rivalry between Amuro and Char. But with that feud ending in 1988’s Char’s Counterattack, where if anywhere was Gundam to go next? It’s this question which 1991’s Gundam F91 attempts to answer.
30 years of peace have followed the failed attempt to drop Axis on Earth (F91 of course predates retroactive stories such as Unicorn and Hathaway). With the threat of Zeon long gone, the Federation have grown complacent and are ill suited to meet the emerging menace that is the Crossbone Vanguard. Led by the Ronahs, a self declared family of aristocrats, they believe that democracy has caused humanity’s weakened state and seek to establish a new era known as Cosmo Babylonia. When the Vanguard invades the colony of Frontier IV searching for their lost heir Berah, living under the alias Cecily Fairchild, her friend Seabook Arno and other children escape in the confusion. The ragtag group happen upon a training ship carrying Federation survivors and a cutting edge prototype mobile suit…
Something you likely won’t know about me is that before being taken on to write for this site I cut my teeth writing Amazon reviews and that includes F91. I went back and looked at what 18 year old me had to say about this film and it was fun to see what had and hadn’t changed for 35 year old me. Indeed, I was pretty harsh on it but almost two decades later my opinions are mostly more positive.
F91’s problems remain pacing. At least 13 episodes of a TV run had been mapped out before the choice was made to go theatrical instead and it shows. The opening act is easily the strongest, playing out as akin to a comfortably paced first episode in which we get a solid introduction to the cast and a brutal look at the horrors of war. Although the chaos of an unexpected attack is a well worn Gundam trope at this point, F91 showcases it in such a unique way as we see not just civilians fleeing but the way even basic functions of mobile suit combat can be fatal for these poor individuals.
This opening sequence does a lot to endear us to Seabook and his friends. I know most Gundam fans think fondly of the original White Base crew, but I genuinely feel the casts Tomino created for this and the later Victory Gundam don’t get enough respect. Earlier UC entries sometimes suffer from inexplicable choices designed purely to create conflict but the Frontier IV kids collectively shine well, even if primary focus is on Seabook and Cecily. Seabook finds himself walking a similar path to many young men in the UC before him, picked to pilot the prototype F91 in lieu of available trained soldiers. He’s compared to a Newtype, who have faded into near legend by this point, but the condensed runtime doesn’t make this quite as impressive as with previous candidates.
Cecily’s arc is more troublesome. Introduced as fiercely independent, she becomes noticeably submissive the longer she stays with her estranged family. The film attempts to address this later by saying that by being isolated from her friends it was hard to actively reject the Ronahs alone, but this feels awkward given she’s shown to enjoy freedom & luxury and even becomes a Vanguard mobile suit pilot. Even today, Tomino struggles to create strong female characters that don’t ultimately veer into simply putting up a front. To say nothing of Annamarie, another Crossbone pilot who defects and dies within the span of 15 minutes all over believing her beloved commander Zabine is ignoring her to instead pursue Cecily.
The Crossbone characters are interesting largely for their ideology, believing it was too much societal freedom that ruined the Earth to the extent the space colonies were necessary and that only a government based in a hereditary aristocracy can save humanity from the brink of complete destruction. Teenage me didn’t think much of this but after the last five years where I’ve watched similar ideology string the population along to a dark place it’s hard not to watch this with new horror. Indeed the dark underbelly of the Vanguard is personified by the military arm’s commander Carozzo. Cecily’s father, this giant of a man has some decidedly sinister ideas about achieving the organisation’s goals (chillingly the movie predicted a method of warfare that is now reality).
Due to the state of the Japanese economy in 1991, F91 breaks the tradition of increasingly larger and bulkier mobile suits in favour of smaller, sleeker designs. This is highlighted in the movie by showing the Federation’s Jegans (last seen helping defeat Char’s machinations) struggle to keep up with the far more nimble Crossbone designs. Said mecha are impactful designs, mildly inspired by the Zeonic aesthetic but more openly looking like a cross between nights and gas-mask wearing soldiers. The titular F91 itself is a personal favourite, with its sleek design breaking from a few Gundam traditions but still being recognisable as part of the family (indeed it’s only branded a Gundam affectionately by the Federation soldiers due to resembling the iconic units of past wars).
The disc contains both Japanese and English audio tracks, with a singular LPCM 2.0 Japanese track whilst English receives LPCM 2.0 and 5.1 (per the commentary, slight changes were made to the latter’s sound effects track at Sunrise’s request). Both casts do an excellent job with their performances, with the dub showing only minimal script changes. Forgive me for saying, but it’s sad that this early 2000s dub shows the Western anime industry attempting to be more faithful and now we’ve bounced firmly back into dubs taking a high amount of liberties with dialogue.
The visuals of the film have held up well and look even better for this crisp, clean Blu-ray transfer. Yoshikazu Yasuhiko’s character designs animate particularly well with the increased budget.
On disc extras are limited to a trailer collection, a timeline for the film and an audio commentary. Essentially all of these are ported over from the BEI DVD release, with what wasn’t generally not the biggest loss (unless you wanted to see a 1/1 F91 head at an old Bandai store). The trailer collection is a great dip into history, including some original promotional animation not found in the film itself. The timeline helps better establish the events leading up to the film and placing it’s occasional breakneck narrative itself. The audio commentary was the biggest surprise, as I recall being less than impressed with it originally. The trio of ADR director Tony Oliver and dub producers Eric Sherman and Nobuo Masuda discuss the film both on screen and off. There are a few dull moments but largely this offers informative and anecdotal information even if it was recorded nearly 20 years ago.
Aside from the on disc extras you’ll also receive an artbook full of coloured production art of the characters and mecha. I wish this was the standard for Anime Limited’s Gundam releases, as sadly all too often the art books simply amount to promotional art that wasn’t chosen for the packaging.
Gundam F91 surprised me. When I first watched this years ago I was underwhelmed but going back to it now I found it far more charming. It’s not perfect and certainly isn’t what I’d recommend for someone trying to get into the franchise but there is certainly worse entertainment you could devote two hours to. Go into it understanding It’s akin to a band’s difficult transitionary album and you’ll likely enjoy it.
Gundam F91 is available to purchase from Anime Limited