Mobile Suit Gundam Unicorn

Type: OVA
Episode Count: 7
Genre: Science Fiction / Mecha
Vintage: 2010-2014
Date of Review: June 9, 2014

As the Universal Century nears its hundredth year, the Earth sphere seems to be at peace. But all is not well, as powers old and new vie for supremacy behind the scenes. In the cockpit of the experimental Unicorn Gundam, Banagher Links finds himself in the crosshairs as various groups compete to solve a singular mystery: what is the secret of Laplace’s Box?

Based on the novels by Harutoshi Fukui, the Mobile Suit Gundam Unicorn OVA takes the Universal Century saga to new heights. Unicorn was certainly designed for hardcore fans; it assumes you’ve seen the main series in the timeline prior to viewing. Specifically, you need to have watched Mobile Suit Gundam, Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam, Mobile Suit Gundam ZZ, and Mobile Suit Gundam: Char’s Counterattack. That’s a considerable backlog, but without it, the plot and many subplots will be rather confusing. Plus, you’ll miss all of the great cameos and throwbacks.

Is it worth catching up on all of that stuff just to watch Unicorn? You bet your ass. Right off the bat, the series has a flashback to the opening year of the Universal Century, then it jumps right into a battle ninety-five years later, then whirlwinds to Banagher’s seemingly mundane life before all of the threads start to connect. The vast conspiracy driving the main plot of Unicorn is an intriguing one, and it proves once again that nothing is so simple as good guys and bad guys. Shades of gray are everywhere, especially once you thrown in some Neo Zeon rebels led by Full Frontal, a man feared as “the second coming of Char Aznable.” (A Gundam series with a masked antagonist? I’m shocked!) On the other side of the battlefield, Banagher seems to be an average character at first, but that’s by design; he’s forced to grow into his important role much faster than anticipated, making the journeys of Gundam pilots before him seem like a slow burn by comparison. Seemingly random supporting characters end up being critically important by the series’ end, which is always a nice surprise. Not all of the character development is perfect, but by and large, they prove to be interesting.

Unicorn may be an OVA, but it’s designed to feel like a series of films; in fact, each part premiered in theaters. With Unicorn, Gundam has never looked so good. I’m not kidding when I say that the visuals will blow your mind. The jaw-dropping details on the various mobile suits coupled with very fluid animation raise the bar for the entire franchise. You’ll have a new respect for grunt suits after watching this, I can guarantee it. As for the Unicorn Gundam, aside from eschewing the usual Gundam color scheme in favor of a monotone one, the suit’s design features another notable visual element. In Unicorn mode, it’s got a horn like its mythological namesake, but in Destroy mode, the horn splits in half to form the classic Gundam v-fin. It’s a simple little design trick that looks much better than you’d expect, and makes it stand out amongst the countless other Gundams across in the franchise. Character art in Unicorn is finely detailed as well, and the backgrounds look stunning. Even the occasional 3D cel-shaded renderings of ships and mobile suits look great, never standing out from the traditional 2D artwork, and that is no small feat. I envy anyone who got to see this stuff on the big screen!

The best film scores are ones that blend into the visuals so well that the two are inseparable. Hiroyuki Sawano’s masterful soundtrack accomplishes this. From sweeping music while mobile suits are in flight to softer fare during critical character development, the Unicorn soundtrack runs the gamut in fine form. There’s even specific sound effects thrown in from many previous Gundam works, making Unicorn both a visual and aural treat. If at all possible, experience Unicorn with a surround sound system; it makes all the difference.

Now we get to the end. To say that the seventh and final episode of Unicorn was the most hotly anticipated Gundam release of all time would be an understatement. The fourteen-month wait after the sixth episode surely drove Gundam diehards nuts, despite the long gaps between earlier installments. And a fine finale it was…except that the ending made no goddamned sense. Maybe things were elaborated upon in the novels, but we’re talking about the animated adaptation here, and the finale raises far more questions than it answers. That’s not good. The most serious problems are ones I can’t even speak a word of, as they are spoilers by default.

To be fair, Unicorn‘s exceptionally high quality and staggered release schedule made it impossible for the final episode to live up to its own hype, much like the Star Wars prequels. (The difference being that Unicorn doesn’t suck.) Even if the ending was perfect, I think fans still would’ve been let down in some form. There’s no way the last episode could have been as cool as we were all imagining it to be! If nothing else, the final episode will be thoroughly dissected, reexamined, and overthought for years to come. Besides, unlike some other science fiction shows with disappointing endings, Unicorn‘s weak finale does not retroactively ruin the entire series. Even if you hate it, just watch the rest of the series and enjoy that.

Despite the glaring flaws in the ending, Unicorn remains a stellar piece of work, and as of press time no other Gundam animation is its equal in the visuals department. Its only downsides are the crappy finale and its heavy reliance on a lot of past Gundam material, and the latter is a problem only for newcomers to the franchise. So get caught up, and give Unicorn a whirl.

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