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Review: “Mobile Suit Gundam Part 1 (UK Edition)”: Gundam Calling To The Faraway Towns

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Gundam_example_4My name is Grant and I’m a fan of Gundam (how my family wishes they could just say I’m an alcoholic), although being one in the UK hasn’t been easy. While beez Entertainment released various titles back in the day, we never saw the push that markets like America got. That is looking to change, however, thanks to Anime Limited. Much was made of the news that Right Stuf would be picking up the baton from the defunct Bandai Entertainment in America, and I was prepared to happily import these releases. But in an even better circumstance, Anime Limited are working with Sunrise to emulate these releases in the UK market and are taking the somewhat logical starting point of the original 1979 television show.

If one word comes to mind when I think of Mobile Suit Gundam, it’s ‘charm.’ Today Gundam is a massive powerhouse franchise which shows no signs of slowing (indeed as I write this we’re currently two months into the latest incarnation), but in more ways than one, this point of genesis shows what things were like before that identity was formed. Our story takes place in the future, where overcrowding has led to humanity emigrating to space colonies in a new era for mankind dubbed the Universal Century. In UC 0079 the population of the colony cluster known as Side 3 launches an all out war against the ruling Earth Federation and their colony neighbours in hopes of claiming rulership for themselves. Dubbing themselves the Principality of Zeon, their chief weapon are mobile suits: newly developed gigantic robot armour. With the war having taken its toll on mankind, the Federation is finally ready to fight back with their own secretly designed mobile suits. But when a vessel commanded by decorated Zeon ace Char Aznable happens across the new weapons at Side 7, it falls to a group of teenage refugees and military cadets to use them in a desperate attempt to survive and deliver the prototypes to Federation HQ.

The continued production of new Gundam stories indicates that the series still has something worth saying, but what might surprise people is that the original series is still just as accessible and relevant thirty-six years later. The obvious question asked is ‘What do you do if the war you see on the news shows up one morning at your front doorstep?’ — a direct and successful way to make the story open to the audience. To this day, we sadly see war documented frequently in the media, but how would we react if unwillingly plunged into it? The cast of protagonists that assemble upon the White Base actually provide a decently mixed range of reactions. Obviously fifteen year old Amuro Ray is the focus, a tech savvy teenager who stumbles into the Gundam mobile suit during the chaos and finds himself forced to continue, but he’s joined by fellow civilians turned pilots Hayato (earnest but not as talented) and Kai (snarky and self serving), alongside others taking key roles on the ship. The perfect foil for Amuro, who makes no secret of his distaste of war, is acting captain Bright, a fresh blood soldier who suddenly finds himself forced to command and protect not only the Federation’s greatest military secrets but a herd of unhappy refugees. The clash of wills between the two provide some of the most memorable moments and it’s easy to find truth on both sides, even if Bright occasionally suffers from creator/director Tomino’s trend of casting adult characters as simply the contrarian to a younger protagonist. This is especially pronounced when he insists that Amuro prioritise becoming the ship’s ace, and then suddenly criticises him for that very accomplishment.

The refugee element to the main characters actually helps distinguish the attempt made to show the reality of war. The dispossessed citizens are a central focus of the White Base’s plight and serve as a constant reminder that this is the true cost of war, a point with timely poignancy in the face of the Syrian refugee crisis. Sure, there’s exciting mecha action to be had, but an aspect that Tomino excels at (and which select later Gundam directors regrettably don’t) is focussing the story on characters. The franchise might be infamous for the volume of plastic robots it sells, but these are tools and vehicles, not the all-consuming focus. In fact, the show frequently delves into hand-to-hand infantry combat with clever strategies that don’t hinge on sneaking in a sixty-metre tall robot. The sentiment is perhaps best encapsulated in the iconic catchphrase of the next episode previews: “Who will survive?”

Gundam_example_2Another way the series excels is in portraying both sides as being humans capable of fault. Zeon are clearly the aggressors, but their ranks are not two-dimensional puppy kickers. Central antagonist Char is calm and cool headed, showing a tactical mind and caring for the well-being of his subordinates. We also get to see a range of different personalities and motivations for the war effort on the Federation side. One of the most influential is Ramba Ral, a character who steps in as the effective face of Zeon during a brief hiatus for Char. Often emulated, Ramba helps illustrate the concept that in war it isn’t easy to cast sides as ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys,’ and that someone can fight against you while still being a good person.

Although later series have taken these positives and enriched them further, one thing I think the original show benefits from is a bit of stark brutality. It might not be as gritty as modern shows and is never gratuitous, but many recent Gundam shows start out acknowledging the ambiguity of human existence before switching to the leads becoming utopian saviours. I think it’s actually welcome that the original show speaks more of the often unpleasant reality of life and what a flesh and blood human can actually do. I love the themes of evolution and revolution in the franchise, but they never seem argued as sustainable. War is a horrific element of existence but sometimes people have to make a stand to endure and protect and acknowledging that I think might be a better conversation starter for how we can change that.

Visually, the show is an odd contradiction. The remastered Blu-ray release is easily the best this show has ever looked, likely even beating out how it looked when it aired in 1979. However, being from 1979 does mean the animation is fairly retro. It’s well documented that at the time no one expected much from the show and while the character animation, overseen by Yoshikazu Yasuhiko, often works well, the animation for mobile suits is often infamously bad, with the Gundam itself receiving a varied range of looks from expressive to a child’s fan art. There clearly was some effort put in (an experimental sequence early on attempts to show the sheer overwhelming size of enemy MS from a pilot’s perspective) but most of the time you just have to take it as the humble roots of an icon, much like watching classic episodes of Doctor Who or Star Trek. The actual plotting of battle scenes goes a long way to smoothing this over, with Amuro defining himself as a pilot by his ingenuity rather than stock animation gimmicks.

All twenty-one episodes on the set are provided with a choice of Japanese or English audio tracks. The dub is the same one produced by Sunrise for the show’s ill-fated push to the US market over a decade ago, and while I’m sure there’s an audience for it I’m not really a fan. There are some perfect casting choices such as Brad Swaille’s Amuro and Michael Kopsa’s Char, but the likes of Chris Kalhoon’s Bright are simply atrocious. Similar to many of the Ocean produced Gundam dubs, everyone is directed as far too aggressive. The original Japanese cast are a little bumpy themselves, but given the over two decades long difference between recordings I can give them some leeway.

The dual language nature does mean that regrettably the set continues the unwelcome tradition of missing an episode. During the original US release, a filler episode regarding Amuro encountering a Zeon deserter was cut out, with claims Tomino requested it due to being unhappy with its animation quality (and to be fair it’s pretty bad even by the show’s standards). However, the episode has been retained on Japanese releases, leaving many to speculate it’s a convenient smokescreen to address fears of Japanese fans reverse importing our releases. Would I have welcomed its inclusion? Certainly, but I know both Anime Limited and Right Stuf tried to get it for their markets and its absence really doesn’t hurt. If anything, I’m more wounded by the awful episode ‘Time, Be Still’ which precedes it and was retained (ironically the sole episode Tomino himself wrote).

Gundam_example_1On disc extras are limited to clean opening and ending videos and subtitled adverts for Japanese DVD and Blu-ray releases of the show. The discs themselves, each containing roughly ten episodes, are held a two-disc standard Blu-ray case with a reversible cover should you wish to display it without the barcode and legal text. Some have complained about the cover using art of a scene that won’t occur until the following volume but I don’t have a problem with it. It’s a really dynamic piece which will hopefully stand out on store shelves and pop culture classics like this inevitably float in a sea of iconography. The last extra, exclusive to the UK and limited to the first 1000 units, is an art box to hold both volumes. It’s a fairly standard art box that long time anime fans will recognise decorated by some lovely Yasuhiko character art (one side Federation, one side Zeon) and markings proclaiming it part of Anime Limited’s Gundam Collection. The box has a sliver of extra space, intended to also house the UK exclusive booklet that will come with the first 1000 units of the second volume.

For me, the announcement of Anime Limited’s involvement with these releases has been the big news of the year. Being a UK based fan of the franchise often requires a lot of leg work and patience, so it is an absolute dream having these titles released legally within the country and by a company I think is top of the pile. It’s been stated that they’re dedicated to releasing these titles with Sunrise for as long as it proves profitable, so I implore people to support them. If you’re a curious viewer who has never watched Gundam before but wants to try it out, the original series really is a great starting point.  I’m clearly personally invested, but the reason I’ve stuck by the franchise since discovering it fifteen years ago is because I genuinely believe it contains something that can’t be found in other works available here in the UK and that’s why I’m so passionate in recommending it to others. The Gundam mythos is full of great stories that spark imaginations and conversations alike. Take advantage of this opportunity to see why it has endured as a cultural mythology.

Mobile Suit Gundam Part 1 is available to purchase on Blu-ray from Amazon UK.