Type: TV Series
Episode Count: 43
Genre: Science Fiction / Mecha
Date of Review: April 7, 2014
It all starts here. In 1979, Japanese audiences were treated to new animated science fiction television series featuring giant robot battlesuits known as “mobile suits,” and their use in a war between Earth and various orbital colonies. When a young man named Amuro Ray is thrown into the conflict during a Zeon attack on his home colony, he desperately pilots a prototype mobile suit known as “Gundam.” Today marks the 35th anniversary of Mobile Suit Gundam, which is precisely why I decided to review this classic series. Looking back, I don’t think anyone, least of all series creator Yoshiyuki Tomino, knew just how much of a juggernaut they had built. Let’s take a look at what made Mobile Suit Gundam so special, and how it holds up even to this day.
Mobile Suit Gundam sought to differentiate itself from the “super robot” shows of the era, in that the giant robots found in the show were not sentient and didn’t have any superpowers. In fact, they’re referred to as “mobile suits” far more often than “robots,” placing the emphasis on the fact that they require a pilot. Thus, a new genre was created known as “real robot.” Furthermore, a mobile suit’s combat capabilities may be based on the design of the machine itself, but the real credit is almost always given to the pilot. And once the mystery of the Newtypes is explored — the next stage of human evolution, where people develop psychic abilities and enhanced reflexes; the role of the pilot arguably eclipses the mobile suit altogether.
A brilliant (he built Haro!) yet somewhat detached person, Amuro’s journey from innocent bystander to war hero may seem cliché by today’s standards, but he was one of the originals. It helps that he’s a great character in his own right, having faults and failings just like everyone else. His story is fantastic, and the other characters in Mobile Suit Gundam are well fleshed-out and withstand the test of time.
<p style="text-align:justify;"Mobile Suit Gundam is as much a political story as it is one of action-packed warfare. The series’ antagonists, the Principality of Zeon, aren’t your usual evil empire or mustache-twirling villains. They’re people just as much as Amuro and his friends among the Earth Federation, with all of the shades of gray found in people of the real world. Viewers will often identify with Zeon soldiers just as much as Federation forces, and allegiances within those groups shift and change over the course of the series. In fact, one of the Gundam franchise’s most beloved characters is Char Aznable, and he’s the “bad guy” in this series.
Enough about the characters and story! Equally important to the series’ legacy, if not more so, is the mighty RX-78-2 Gundam itself. For that, we have mechanical designer Kunio Okawara to thank. The Gundam’s design still holds a ton of weight after all of these years; most obviously because its hallmarks continue to appear on every Gundam that has followed it, across the franchise’s many different universes. The Gundam’s head more than anything else is its defining characteristic, from the iconic V-fin to the unique faceplate and pronounced chin. The classic red/blue/white/gold color scheme often appears on the protagonist’s Gundam in subsequent series. Other distinctive bits of the design include its shield and beam saber; sure, the latter could be seen as a Star Wars homage, but they make perfect sense for close combat amongst heavily armored mobile suits. Plus, beam sabers and similar weapons operate on slightly different principles in the Gundam universe. (Not to mention being a hell of a lot bigger.)
Japanese engineers even built a fullsize replica of the original Gundam for its 30th anniversary in 2009. (You can see a photo taken by my brother during a trip to Gundam Front Tokyo last year on the Haro’s Hangar splash page.) They say it’s just a statue, albeit one with moving parts and lights. But I’ve got a feeling that if a calamity struck, a JSDF pilot is ready to jump into the cockpit and kick some ass.
But I digress.
The great mechanical design doesn’t begin and end with the Gundam. The classic Zaku II, the Gundam’s “brothers” (the Guntank and Guncannon), and of course the battleship White Base…beautifully crafted machines permeate the whole series, and even the non-Gundam designs have continued to influence later productions to this day. (Just look at how many green monoeyed grunt suits we’ve seen, as well as white spacecraft with twin forward launch bays.)
The animation is very much a product of its time, and modern audiences may indeed find Mobile Suit Gundam rather dated. Still, there’s something to be said for visible grease pencil lines, some choppy frames of animation here and there, and great hand-drawn design. Mobile Suit Gundam has certainly aged better than a lot of other 1970s (and even 1980s) animated series.
The music of Mobile Suit Gundam is loaded with brass, strings, and funk, leading my girlfriend to jokingly quip “Is that the theme from Dallas?” For the most part, Takeo Watanabe’s score is pretty good, but some of the more jazzy pieces don’t really fit the onscreen action all that well. I think this is more because it’s a relic of the late 1970s; it doesn’t sound bad, but it can be distracting at times because it’s such a blatant reminder of that era.
Last but not least, in 1981, Mobile Suit Gundam was compiled into three feature-length movies. This makes it a lot easier for newcomers to get up to speed, but the films also featured some new animation and slight changes to the plot to smooth out the story’s rough spots. For those who want to jump on board the Gundam train from the beginning, I definitely recommend these films in the interest of saving time.
Nearly four decades later, Mobile Suit Gundam‘s influence cannot be understated. Aside from the massive franchise it kicked off, Mobile Suit Gundam‘s effect is clearly seen on every robot anime that followed, not to mention live-action productions and anything else featuring robot battle suits. Cheers to Tomino, Okawara, and everyone else involved in its creation for giving such a wonderful science fiction universe to play in, and one that’s only expanded beyond our wildest imagination since then. We’ll never forget the tale of Amuro, Char, and the robot known as Gundam.
If you’ve never seen Mobile Suit Gundam…well, what are you waiting for?