Thursday, February 5, 2015

Manga Review: Gundam: The Origin (volumes one through six)

I remember when this title was announced by Vertical a few years ago (it was actually a license rescue from Viz from ages ago) and it was something that sounded cool and exciting but not only were the books completely out of my price range at nearly $30 a book, the print runs were going to be tiny, 2-5,000 books (I want to say closer to 2.5k than 5) so there was no chance I could ever own the series, even once I had a chance to save up some day in the future. Well, thankfully the series did much better than expected so the print runs are larger and it's gone to re-printings (especially since my paychecks still aren't big enough to cover these books!) and this past summer I found volumes 3-5 at my local library. I got a librarian to show me how to use the book request system to ask them to buy the first two volumes and they obliged and even tossed in volume 6 as well. While I was waiting for my holds I discovered that the website Comic-Walker was also posting the chapters, completely independent from Vertical so their translations may be different but it's still a chance for more people to check out this series since it really is one of the best manga series I read in 2014.

Gundam: The Origin (volumes one through six) by Yoshikazu Yasuhiko

Sometime in the future, Earth has been ravaged by ecological disasters which has forced the governments to band together as one Federation and a great plan is started to send the population off-world into space colonies (known as Sides) for an indefinite period of time while the world heals. While many complain about this forced exodus, some have embraced their new worlds and want independence which the Federation doesn't want to give. And when one side does rebel there are terrible, bloody consequences that will affect even those people who don't seem to have an immediate tie to the conflict.

Since this is "the origin" I expected this story to have a bit of a dry start, going through all the motions to set up a epic conflict before any action on screen but the story makes a different choice. As the opening narration lays out, Side 3 has declared itself the Principality of Zeon, spilt from the Federation and the war is well underway. Another colony was used as a weapon, dropped on Earth and reducing the population of the whole human race horrifically, "all men grew to fear their own deeds" indeed. Which means that our start is actually much more in line with how many modern day mecha series begin, Amuro Ray lives on Side 7 and when a Zeon scouting mission into the colony goes awry he and his neighbors must flee, but not before meeting up with the titular gundam first. 

Amuro is hardly the only main character in this conflict and thank god, he's a sullen, moody teenager who flip-flops between wanting to be the ace, to pilot the gundam that no one else seemingly can, and to never wanting to use it again. There are good reasons in-story for each of his moods (varying from wanting to protect the refugees on-board to being traumatized by the ships sudden descent through the atmosphere that no one thought the gundam could survive) but Amuro is dragged around so much by the plot that it's hard to tell what his actual personality is at times. Even in the flashbacks before the colony was attacked it's hard to get a grasp on his personality other than "quiet and a bit of a loner who wants to rebel but there's no one there to see it."

Once the story gets going and the ship that houses the gundam, White Base, and what refugees remain of Side 7 go through many battles and start creating an actual plan for how to use their new weapon, the series goes into a lengthy flashback (I believe it started in volume 4 and it wasn't over yet when I finished volume 6). It goes back about fifteen years to when Zeon was still Side 3, a colony that wanted it's own independence and had for some time. Yasuhiko seems to have recognized that this was about as far back as the series could go to begin the conflict and the series manages to remain quiet and subtle about how Deikun truly died, although it is quiet clear that this will be part of Zeon's eventual undoing after his son Char takes up the mantle of revenge. I honestly wonder if the original series was so quick to expose Char, it's done in the very first volume to his sister Sayla, another person from Side 7, although there really wasn't a way to keep the mystery drawn out since Sayla was already fairly sure who he was. Char is perhaps one of the best known things about the Gundam franchise* and the series lavished attention on him as he and Sayla escape and build new lives away from Zeon. I think the series makes him interesting however, his characterization walks a very fine line as it shows that yes, much of his current personality has to do with his childhood trauma but that he would have never grown up to be quiet normal anyway (maybe it's a Newtype thing). 

The flashback covers nearly 15 years, if not more, and not all of the time is spent focusing on the scions of Deikuni, plenty of minor characters from the current day pop up (like Mirai Yashima who would become White Base's navigator), and Rambo Ral actually gets a hefty subplot as well. I rather liked that since his page time in the current day is rather short and I couldn't understand the continuing fan love for him (I mean, GBF has been pretty determined to keep him in both seasons). It sounds like his role was larger is the original and I really appreciated the Yasuhiko's notes on why he changed what he did with the resolution to that arc, I hope the other volumes have even more of that insight. 

We also see Amuro's father in this flashback which, indirectly, helps explain Amuro's own moods and also provides the best damn explanation why a backwater area would have a war-changing weapon in its basement. Truthfully neither the Federation nor Zeon come off as very sympathetic from this backstory, although Zeon's leader Zabi also gets some interesting characterization (an old man who still has power both politically and within his family but can never bring himself to wield it, even to right a wrong, it seems). If anything it makes me sympathize with White Base anymore, this rag tag group where barely anyone is a military officer to start with already been through hell and more is surely coming.

To talk about the art for a moment, I read the first few chapters of the series on the website Comic-Walker and I was confused why no one had told me that this series was in full color, I love full color comics! "Oh the first volume has lots of color pages but that's because the first volume is special, it tapers off later!" No that's not what I meant, there are 444 pages of comics in Vertical's first omnibus edition and every single one of those 444 pages in in color on this website.

Honestly I'm a bit confused by this since I can't find any explanation for why there are so many color pages on this one site. The Vertical editions do have a lot of color pages as well but I compared their uncolored pages to some scanlations I found online (these scans also showed me the covers so I know it's from the original takobon printings) and the pages look identical, clearly this coloring was done at a later time (also, the pages don't have that dark look of color pages scanned in and then converted to grayscale) but I can't find a colorist credited anywhere. I believe Yasuhiko works without an assistant normally but the newly colored pages here look slightly different in color choice and maybe medium than his work so I'm unsure if it's his work. It's a shame that the Vertical editions aren't these full color ones since I really think the color works better, the original pages use little screen tone or even pen and ink-style shading so I honestly had a hard time following the action in the panels at points. And the color scheme works wonderfully with the designs, the designs don't actually look as dated as you might fear, given how old the series is, but the sepia and dark orange tones make the story simply feel a bit bit retro and it mixes well with the gritty, unglamorous story of war presented here.

On a final note, this is a retelling of the original Mobile Suit Gundam story but even through this lens there are suddenly so many anime tropes and plot lines which make more sense to me. I complained in Aldnoah.Zero how it was ludicrous that the characters really believe that they are special and separate from the human race after just 40 years of living on Mars, clearly this is where the series got the idea from! But in Gundam the clash is over independence, not differences, and the writers had the good sense to drop a colony and kill off half the world instead of dropping the Moon on the planet and pretending that Japan wouldn't have been flooded out of existence^. There's an excellent post over here comparing Renton from Eureka 7's running away arc to that of Amuro's, I suspect that this is a part that The Origin cut down since there are fewer similarities but still enough that I may have made the connection on my own. I'm tempted to say that the idea of "newtypes" (people whit this magical-like, innate ability to just be good at fighting and piloting mechs) influenced a lot of future series but anime and manga in Japan (especially manga) went through a huge psychic craze in the 1980s so it's unfair to give it all the credit for that, really I can keep going on. Really I can keep going on but I think I've made my point.

That's part of why I'm giving this series my whole-hearted recommendation, the property might be old but this story doesn't feel old. These tropes don't feel tired and played out, you can still see how these ideas were more original at the time and how much they affect currently airing shows (volume six even had an ad for the Knights of Sidonia manga in the back, also by Vertical and I agree, if you like one you're going to like the other). And it truly is a really gripping, engaging series, this is the kind of story I like but I was floored by how much I liked it. The stakes are grand and dramatic but the characters only gradually have a chance to change them, they have to prove themselves to the world for the world to take notice of them. The cast (of White Base) is already wonderfully fleshed out (the Federation actually feels more cartoonish to me than many of the Zeon characters honestly) and with half the series left to go I'm really excited to see how the rest of this space opera plays out. I'm also interested in the newly announced OVA series for it, which sounds like it will be focusing on the flashback aspect of the story (especially Char) but unless there's a free streaming option I'm afraid that once again I won't be able to afford these prices


*an amusing tangent, I went to the Vertical Panel at Otakon in 2013 (run by Ed Chavez, one of the better known editors at the company, who was cosplaying Rambo Ral at the time) and he mentioned that when Vertical got the license there weren't very high hopes for the series from Japan since it had flopped when Viz put out their floppies and had done poorly in a few European countries as well. So they start working, get all of the covers approved at the very beginning, etc, and once the numbers start coming in showing that the series is doing fairly well then the Japanese executives wanted to meddle, "hey you should put Char on every cover since Char is popular!" "But Char isn't even in this volume?"

^also ironic since, IIRC, this is yet another series that claimed it would be a "gundam killer", creating a new and more popular franchise, and borrows so heavily from it that it makes the writers sound completely oblivious to what they're actually doing 

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