Surprising as it may seem, it’s now been half a decade since the animated adaptation of Gundam Unicorn came to an end. An animated adaptation of the pre-war chapters of The Origin would follow soon after but sadly doesn’t seem to have had the sheer success of the previous project, so Sunrise and Bandai have returned to the Unicorn well for the sequel movie Gundam NT (Narrative).
Picking up one year after the events of the 7-episode OVA, NT focuses on the pursuit of the Phenex, a third Unicorn-model Gundam that was created in spin-off works due to the success the animated project was enjoying. The incredible abilities both the Unicorn and Banshee displayed in their final battle has led to a fearful humanity to deconstruct them. With one of those abilities possibly extending to mastery of time and space, their power becomes desirable to Luio & Co heiress Michele, who wants the power to save her dying adoptive father. When the Phenex re-emerges in the depths of space, she recruits her childhood friend Jona to pilot the Narrative Gundam, a makeshift copy of the Unicorns in an attempt to capture the real thing. Jona has his own motivations for agreeing to this, concerning a dark secret linking him, Michele and a girl named Rita…
Ultimately it’s not too surprising that Unicorn’s success would net it a sequel, especially given how now the Bandai family of companies are focused on long term franchise development with successful properties. However, Sunrise sequels are quite infamous for never being quite as good as the work that preceded them and I’m sorry to say NT doesn’t really break that pattern.
Whereas Unicorn tried to at least be workable for those who hadn’t seen the three series and a movie that came before it, NT runs on the idea that you’ve seen all of those combined before you sit down for this. It’s very much aimed at the veteran Gundam fans but then where it goes from there may make it contentious with that very audience.
NT focuses on explaining the idea of Newtypes in a way that no animated Gundam story ever has before. Previous works have always seen fit to treat them with a mix of mystery and tragedy, a metaphor for the juxtaposition of human potential and human failure. Here though we dive heavily into the answer (or at least, Harutoshi Fukui’s answer) to what Newtypes specifically are and much like midichlorians or the planet Zeist before them it’s an unsatisfying peek behind the curtain that removes too much of the enigmatic mystery. I wouldn’t call it the most unsatisfactory reveal/retcon ever but right now I’m not really taken with it. The waters are muddied further by Fukui’s admission that he presented this answer partly as a nod to a long standing fan theory that most if not all of Tomino’s works are in continuity with one another, with Gundam simply being the largest chunk.
Away from that issue, it’s hard not to get the feeling that NT is ultimately a bridge work designed to lead to a true Unicorn sequel. A few Unicorn characters get cameos, most prominently Mineva whose role seems solely to heavily imply something more is coming in much the same way Gundam SEED’s ‘After Phase’ was an epilogue saying ‘A sequel is totally coming’. One of the elements that will totally blindside anyone going into this fresh is Zoltan, a failed product of the Char ‘clone’ project that created previous antagonist Full Frontal. Without knowing who Char and Frontal are the character will hold no weight as an antagonist, especially as most of his dialogue is psychotic ranting of being aware of his failed status and taking everything as a slight against it. I will say it does have some interesting overlap with the trio of Jona, Michele and Rita who having displayed Newtype potential during the One Year War ended up as test subjects in a Titans lab by the time of Zeta. Indeed there’s a surprisingly gory scene that makes good on the nightmare vision many unwilling Cyber Newtypes painted of the labs that birthed them in earlier works.
The central trio are quite prominent to the story but the dark past connecting them is easy to predict from their earliest scenes, not helped by the film echoing lines of Rita’s dialogue over and over in a way that quickly stops being any kind of meaningful symbolism and eventually I too wanted to ‘become a bird’ and fly away. The three work well enough for the story but I struggle to consider them anywhere near more engaging characters Gundam has created in its 40 year history. I will say though it’s nice to see the continuation of actually honourable career soldiers in the wider cast, a trend Unicorn engaged in rather than just simply paint them as sociopaths looking for a legal means to kill as some other Gundam titles are guilty of.
Mecha wise there isn’t really anything standout. The Narrative Gundam itself is an awkward hybrid of the Nu and Unicorn Gundams, standing out mostly for being a patchwork attempt to emulate the latter without the in-universe budget to make it look as sleek. I admit I always find such ideas to have charm, constantly showcasing how cutting edge a technology is by the fact that the in-universe designers had to prioritise function over form. The Phenex proves to be an effective upgrade of the base Unicorn design, with its striking gold colour scheme and a pair of adaptable back mounted shields working together to evoke the image of a phoenix. One hopes however that Bandai can maybe ease off exploiting the design now.
Speaking of exploitative, possibly the most grating mecha unit in the film is the second Neo-Zeong, a return of the giant final boss from the previous Unicorn series. Bandai produced a gigantic 1/144 scale model kit of it at the time and its presence here, as so often dominates Gundam mecha design now, seems solely for Bandai to make back production costs by releasing a different coloured variant of it. The Neo-Zeong was a controversial but effective design when it debuted yet here it feels like a lazy retread, as if, as said, the whole movie was about recouping costs on the gigantic moulds of the kit.
Visually the film is hardly bad looking but I struggle to it really outshines Unicorn or The Origin, which is surprising given this is a ‘standalone’ movie intended for theatrical release. The film is certainly HD quality detailed animation but never quite wows beyond the battle scenes. This feels even worse given the film actually reuses footage from older titles for flashbacks. Footage from Mobile Suit Gundam, Zeta Gundam, Gundam ZZ and Char’s Counterattack is all reused here, looking fairly dated and cheap when you consider Unicorn gave us a newly animated flashback set during the original series and even Char’s Counterattack did likewise. It gets more awkward when essentially all the Zeta scenes are from the handful of newly animated scenes created for the A New Translation trilogy, even clumsily trying to pass one of those off as news recording on a monitor. Gundam is no stranger to not transferring the volume of money merchandise makes back into the animation but here it just really makes this feel like a cheap cash in and as I already mentioned a stopgap to keep fan’s attention.
The limited edition Blu-ray I watched the film on came with a choice of the Japanese cast or English dub. I’ve said this before with titles like The Origin and Thunderbolt but we’re at the point where I’d say both casts tend to be equal. However, to mirror a complaint from Thunderbolt, we get a sequence where the screams of the Japanese cast are not matched by the English ones and it really takes away from the scene given showcasing terror on the battlefield is the key point. I don’t watch Gundam to be a sadist but given its consistent ‘war is hell’ message it would be nice to see the dub actors up their game for such scenes. Great they can make characters sound like real humans and not Muppets like Ocean Group so often did but real humans do have emotions beyond ‘stoic badass’ and that includes terror.
I mentioned I watched the film via Blu-ray though given the nature of that release this review is concerned with simply the film itself. Whilst still available from select Japanese based stores that ship internationally, the title was available on a pre-order only basis with regional partners (such as Anime Limited here in the UK). That thus makes getting hold of the title tricky for others and although I welcome Sunrise doing this, it continues to be a maddening oddity that none of the included bonuses are translated into English. If they’re going to push Gundam globally to the point of arranging releases like this and include English translations on model kits and toys, why not print up translated versions of the extra content for these import releases? As a fan I’m happy to support via official channels but these official releases aren’t cheap so why the waste? Certainly if Sunrise can be bothered to sub the movie and produce a quality English dub for it, they can have international versions of the various booklets and such? I’m even happy to have them multi-lingual outside of Japan.
Ultimately Gundam NT is a weird beast. It’s hardly the worst entry in the franchise but it’s very much aimed at hardcore fans but even then is unfulfilling and comes off more as an animated PV for new Gunpla, lacking the moments of impactful depth which elevated Unicron and The Origin. If current trends hold, this will almost certainly show up for free streaming in a few months on the official Gundam YouTube channel and I honestly think that’s the best option to wait on for pretty much everyone. A decent diversion but really it’s as easily ignore as any of the given Gundam manga titles most of us will never read.