This review contains minor spoilers for Mobile Suit Gundam.
When one thinks of anime, perhaps the first thing that comes to mind is the Gundam franchise. One of the most well-known and iconic images within anime is undoubtedly the Gundam franchise’s red, white, gold, and blue titular mech, whose likeness has repeatedly been translated into toys, collectibles, and even life-size statues. Since Mobile Suit Gundam‘s debut in 1979, Gundam has had an enormous impact on the anime industry, with its gritty, psychological depiction of futuristic robot warfare revolutionizing the genre of robot anime and inspiring other famous series like Neon Genesis Evangelion and Super Dimension Fortress Macross.
Despite being aware of the Gundam franchise before I was even a real anime fan, I had yet to see anything Gundam-related after years of regularly watching anime. I wanted to watch a Gundam series to understand what the hype was all about, but trying to find a starting point in a franchise spanning nearly 50 entries seemed utterly daunting. So, naturally, I decided to give Gundam a chance by watching every single piece of media in the franchise, with the intention of offering my thoughts on each series on this blog. Thus, without further ado, here is my review of 1979’s original TV anime Mobile Suit Gundam.
Across its 43 episode run, Mobile Suit Gundam follows Amuro Ray, a teenage refugee who, in order to survive, must pilot the transforming Gundam robot in the fight against the Principality of Zeon, the futuristic Nazi analogue which destroyed his home colony. He is stranded on the White Base, a technologically advanced spaceship containing experimental weaponry, including the aforementioned Gundam. Together with other civilians-turned-pilots Sayla Mass and Kai Shiden, Amuro does battle against and attempts to escape the pursuit of Zeon’s mysterious captain Char Aznable.
In many ways, Mobile Suit Gundam does not seem its age. For an anime produced over forty years ago, the animation largely holds up. Space dog fights still look good, and dynamic scenes like the Gundam transforming mid-fight are genuinely exciting. The battle environments are visually appealing, and the choreography for the mech fights is fluid and creative. While watching the series, I frequently took note of how artistic the direction was and how beautifully framed certain key shots were .Particularly impressive are the art direction and choreographed action in the western-homage duel in episode 37. Similarly, the sound effects of spaceships, lasers, explosions, robot transformations, and fighter jets flying through space are also quite fun and aesthetically pleasing.
I was also impressed by the world of Mobile Suit Gundam. Set in a future where humanity largely lives in space, the series manages to make its science fiction feel realistic (by anime standards anyway). At the start of the series, Amuro lives in Side 6, one of many cylindrical space crafts designed to mimic the gravity, atmosphere, and living conditions of Earth. Although very little of the series is devoted to explaining these space colonies, they are a fascinating idea and a great example of visual storytelling. The Side’s unusual shape and curvature always remind the audience that the characters live in a new kind of world, and the almost idyllic, nuclear era housing in the Sides creates a sense of futuristic artificiality. Furthermore, little details like the characters’ casual acceptance of zero gravity zones, their confusion at lightning storms on Earth, and their frequent references to fictional scientific concepts like Minovsky Particles without clunky exposition for the audience’s benefit reinforce the realism of Gundam’s world. These details make the world feel expansive and not limited to the confines of the series’ story.
Unfortunately, that vastness in world and scope is also at times a drawback. Although originally intended to have a 50-episode run, Mobile Suit Gundam was cut to 43 episodes, and, combined with the episodic nature of the series’ early episodes, that truncated run-time leaves much of the series’ politics and plot underdeveloped. The series introduces villains one after another, often without resolution to the previous’ antagonist’s arc, and the relationship between these villains is rarely specified. In particular, the Zabi family, the series’ main villains, are mostly neglected and given little screen-time or clear motivation until the climax of the series. Mobile Suit Gundam‘s admirably ambitious plot of galaxy-wide political scheming is heavily restricted by the its length and pacing, which is unfortunate since the few moments of interaction between the Zabi family are quite interesting.
Mobile Suit Gundam‘s length and strange pacing ultimately lead to the show’s greatest flaw: inconsistency. Important, franchise-changing plot twists are introduced well over two-thirds into the series, with little to no progression or set-up, and completely consume a story that was previously quite different in tone. Furthermore, many of the series’ main characters behave wildly different from episode to episode. The most obvious example is Amuro himself, who vacillates from dutiful soldier to whiny pessimist for very little reason. In some episodes, he’s excited to fight enemy mechs, and in other episodes, he refuses to fight. Sometimes, he shirks his responsibility, and other times he maturely understands and accepts the chain of military command. There is almost never a satisfactory explanation for Amuro’s extreme mood swings. This problem is largely caused by the fact that the series never really gives the audience a clear sense of who Amuro is as a person; we never get to see what it is he would rather do than pilot the Gundam. There’s no clear explanation for his changes in behaviour, and his lack of consistent characterization and personality make his moments of weakness feel out of place and unearned.
Other characters similarly suffer from varying behaviour each episode too. Amuro’s commander Bright Noa punishes him for shirking responsibility yet seemingly accepts fellow pilots Hayato and Kai’s decision to desert only a few episodes later. Sayla and Char, who are easily among the series’ more interesting characters, are also not without their own moments of inconsistent motivation and behaviour. That said, the most egregious moment of inconsistency occurs with Amuro’s fellow civilian-turned-soldier Mirai Yashima, who develops a sudden romance with another soldier after said soldier slapped her. There are literally no scenes in between these moments, and the whiplash caused by this sudden romance is so extreme I thought I must have skipped an episode (I hadn’t). There are unfortunately many other examples of such inconsistent writing, but they would require far more spoilers to explain. Ultimately, Mobile Suit Gundam‘s greatest weakness is its propensity for introducing and dropping plot points within a matter of episodes.
Mobile Suit Gundam‘s influence on the medium of anime is undeniable. An original anime with no source material, Mobile Suit Gundam set its own pace, for better or worse, and reshaped the genre of robot anime in exciting and original ways. Its portrayal of piloted robots as military tools and its focus on the psychology of wartime pilots have long since become a staple of the genre. Although the story’s pacing is flawed and the character development terribly inconsistent, the story and world-building are remarkably sophisticated for an anime of its era, and the series takes its subject matter and audience seriously. The fascinating world, exciting animation, and fun robot fights ensure Mobile Suit Gundam remains a worthwhile watch, even more than forty years after its debut.
Of course, before I conclude my review, it is important to note that many Gundam fans consider the trilogy of compilation movies (Mobile Suit Gundam I, Mobile Suit Gundam II: Soldiers of Sorrow, Mobile Suit Gundam III: Encounters in Space) released a year later to be the definitive version of the Mobile Suit Gundam story. While I won’t dedicate a separate review to the films since they are fundamentally the same story as the TV anime, I would concur that the best way to experience the story is through the movies. Shortening the series’ roughly 15 hour run-time to just under 7 hours, the films condense the story, cutting out the less necessary episodes and including more scenes early on that set up later important plot twists. Most of the series’ inconsistent characterization is thankfully limited by the films’ more focused story. The art is also noticeably cleaned up in certain scenes, and expanded scenes of space battles look quite impressive. If you’re only somewhat interested in getting into the Gundam franchise from the beginning but worry that 43 episodes will take too long, I highly recommend watching the films instead, as they are an improvement in nearly every way.