Although most of the attention seemed to go to plans for the anniversary coming in five years, Gundam’s 35th anniversary did not pass without incident. For the first time in a while, two Gundam shows have been broadcast at the same time: Reconguista in G and Build Fighters Try. As both these shows near the end of their run, another long awaited one begins: Gundam the Origin.
Gundam the Origin is a long-term manga redo of the original 1979 series written and drawn by character designer and animation director Yoshikazu Yasuhiko. One of the earliest draws of Kadokawa’s now monthly Gundam Ace magazine, Gundam the Origin attempts to retell the formative Gundam tale with a depth and focus that wasn’t possible in the landscape of the original television show. Of course, any fan familiar with Ace’s output if not wider Gundam spin offs can tell you that capturing the charm and spirit of the original can vary in success rate, but with Yas being part of the original staff along with a masterful artist and storyteller, the result was a sight to behold.
Animating this revised take was planned from day one, and although the original comic took over a decade to be finished and we’ve had to wait a long while (confirmation that this was coming first emerged back in 2011 when Sunrise threw it out as a peace offering for negative first reactions to Gundam AGE), the first episode is finally here. Sunrise/Bandai have elected to copy the business model that worked for their adaptation of the Kadokawa co-created Gundam Unicorn: at least two episodes each year, with an initial online HD rental followed by imported Blu-ray sales.
Although Gundam the Origin covers the entire story of Mobile Suit Gundam, the animation is switching things about a bit. By Yas’ own admission, the series places a lot of focus on the iconic masked antagonist Char Aznable, to the point a large flashback arc in the middle of the story focuses on the traumatic past that shaped him into the man he is. Since it is unclear how much Sunrise plans to animate, it is this arc which the adaptation will be tackling.
The opening moments focus on the Battle of Loum, a savage space battle from the original backstory in which Char earned his reputation in battle as a mobile suit pilot. This is a treat for fans and pacification for the model kit producers, as the focus swiftly switches to a decade prior when Char Aznable was Casval Rem Deikun, the eldest child of visionary spacenoid revolutionary Zeon Zum Deikun. On the day that his father is to present a key speech on spacenoid autonomy he dies at the podium, throwing the world that Casval, his younger sister Artesia and their mother have known into turmoil. Be it accident or intent, Deikun’s death begins to move the colony cluster of Side 3 towards war.
As someone who has been a fan for roughly fifteen years, I admit it can be mildly tricky for me to respect just how well a given Gundam series works for non-fans. But even if the focus is giving fans something they’ve wanted to see for ages (ignoring the issue of whether this is in canon completely with the existing show), starting it at this juncture means a happy union for both audiences. The story of this chapter is easily grasped sci-fi political intrigue focused almost entirely on timeless human emotion and motivations. A layer of the revolutionary air might be related to humans forcefully emigrated to space and resenting that fact, but the core of the story involves the kind of political intrigue and backstabbing that you could see in a tale set on Earth in any time period. Indeed barring the opening battle and some brief sci-fi elements, the focus is almost entirely on the human/political events occurring within the colony setting of Munzo until the very end. This creates an ideal lead-in for how the next chapter will expand the setting. At the same time, it does seem to be missing something by not including the iconic expository narration of both the show and the comic that sums up this is the future, some humans live in space, etc.
Although the episode is subtitled “Blue Eyed Casval,” the character himself is not a constant factor. It’s clearly his story, but the narrative isn’t afraid to give us scenes focusing on the plotting of the Zabi family usurpers or the differing reactions of the Ral family on how to best support Deikun’s family. Casval does get brief lines, but the key focus on him is saved for a moment roughly halfway in where he encounters Kycillia Zabi. As a result, it has the perfect impact to sum up who Casval is and how he does things. I appreciate that much of the credit must go to Yas’ original work, but since Unicorn made a mess of adapting solid moments, I was worried we’d see more of the same. If you’ve read the original comics (currently being presented to Western audiences by Vertical Inc), then various iconic scenes are retained. A general choice that I find intriguing is the depiction of Deikun as semi-insane, comparing himself and his efforts to Jesus Christ. The original TV run tends to paint what we learn of Char’s vendetta as fairly black and white, so the decision to subvert this and present a more twisted truth which is arguably closer to real-life is a welcome addition.
However, I don’t think the transition to animation is quite perfect. I appreciate that what works as a printed static image cannot flawlessly translate to an animated one, but Yas’ artwork is lovingly drawn. There’s a rich style to it and many panels/pages feature hilarious and memorable faces from characters. While the animation does try to retain this, there’s just something that doesn’t work for me. The comedy beats don’t seem well-timed enough, so they lose the impact they originally had. Hopefully this is improved in later episodes, as I find the presence of comedy (retained from the original series) to be one of the key aspects of Gundam the Origin. Unlike some killjoys in the fandom, Yas sees no reason to deny aspects of light-heartedness.
If you’re watching this expecting frequent mecha action, you’ll be disappointed. Two MS are highlighted so that Bandai can make money from the always lucrative Gunpla sales (Char’s iconic Zaku and the trundling Guntank), but the focus is kept firmly on the human characters compared to Unicorn where fanservice mecha cameos were frequent. The choice has been made to animate such units in CGI, and despite misgivings from the trailers I think it actually works pretty well. In particular, the set piece Guntank battle towards the end is the perfect blend of all elements of the production, presenting a tense and memorable battle that foreshadows what Casval will become and that he might not be too different from his future rival Amuro in various ways.
Speaking of the aforementioned Vertical, I’m happy to say that the script flows much better than their translation of the comic. Vertical seem to have settled on a stuffy, pseudo-Shakespeare script for their releases, which doesn’t really work for me. Many of the lines here are different from what fans have seen in those translated manga, but the dialogue just sounds more natural. As for actors, both Japanese and English audio casts are available, but with Daisuki charging for each individually I’ve opted to go with the former. The acting isn’t really bad per se, but similar to my earlier complaints about visual style, I don’t completely feel these performances imbue a real presence with these characters. A lot of times, I was hearing actors reading lines that were then animated, rather than the strong blend of the two in tandem that the best animation achieves.
As should be no surprise, the two best performances are the two personas of Casval. Shuichi Ikeda IS the Red Comet, so his brief cameo at the start is welcome. Mayumi Tanaka (who is probably most famous as Monkey D. Luffy and Krillin) portrays the child Casval and delivers a strong performance. I mentioned in my Blood Lad review that I really wouldn’t mind Japanese productions experimenting more with actual child actors, but Tanaka is superb as the 11-year old heir stepping up to protect his mother and sister. The performances of both said characters (by Ayumi Tsunematsu and Megumi Han, respectively) are also top tier, selling the three as a family and punctuating the moments of tension as every force seeks to tear them apart. It’s also welcome to once again hear Banjou Ginga’s cold as ice portrayal of tyrant in the making Gihren Zabi.
Mobile Suit Gundam the Origin is off to a promising start. Although there are issues I hope are corrected by subsequent installments, from this first episode alone I feel more confident than I did about the preceding Gundam Unicorn. In the just over an hour’s run time we get a perfectly paced first chapter that some other adaptations could learn from (I’m looking at you, Peter Jackson) and even addresses some of my personal complaints about why this wasn’t a TV series in the vein of remakes such as Sailor Moon Crystal.
Again, at this stage we don’t know if Gundam the Origin will adapt the full story, but the portion we are getting shows the strength of the work as a whole. Here’s hoping volume two arrives at three times the speed.