Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Movie Review: Mobile Suit Gundam Movie Trilogy

I hadn't seen any movies at the JICC in a while but they decided to finish off the summer with a kicker by airing the three compilation movies of the original Mobile Suit Gundam series over the course of three weeks and, well, free movies! I also didn't realize until the night before the first movie that each movie was nearly two and a half hours long, and I also had to miss the third movie since it fell on the weekend of Otakon (which I was sorry about since it was preceded by a presentation from a JAXA worker about if Gundam is our future which sounds exactly like my kind of nerdy). However, the GundamInfo youtube channel, the same place that streamed Gundam Build Fighters, is also streaming the movies for a short while so I was able to finish up the series anyway. Despite their length, watching the final movie at home was much more comfortable, there was still something great about sitting in a small theater with a bunch of other people and having the lights go out to show sweeping scenes of space and sacrifice on the big screen.

Mobile Suit Gundam Movie Trilogy

In Universal Century 0079, mankind has done terrible things. Humanity has begun to leave Earth for the stars but the people cannot agree if the colonists in the new space colonies should be able to govern themselves or if they must still listen to Earth, now many millions of miles away. A stalemate seems to come after the worst tragedy and Amuro Ray couldn't care less about any of it, even if his father works for the Earth Federation. But when Amuro's colony is attacked and he borrows the Federation's newest weapon to combat the freedom-seeking Zeon forces, Amuro and the rest of the survivors from the colony Side 7 find themselves on the military ship White Base as pawns in a larger military strategy.

To briefly recap my own experience with Gundam: I have never watched anything in the Universal Century timeline, although I have read six volumes (or about half) of the Gundam: The Origin manga omnibuses. I was really curious to see how these two versions of the story compared and, up to where I have read in any case, The Origin appears to be a fairly faithful adaptation, abet a more streamlined one. By the end of the sixth omnibus, the White Base is leaving Jaburo on Earth and there has been a multi-volume flashback to Artesia and Casval childhoods, the latter of which is original to The Origin so I knew it wouldn't be included in these movies. However, the White Base doesn't leave Jaburo until the very end of the second film and while taking nearly five hours (or the equivalent of 10 episodes) to cover what equates to 8-10 manga volumes of material seems rather speedy, these three movies condense the 43 episodes of the original tv series (roughly 21 hours) into about seven hours so I can't help but wonder just how much filler must have been cut out! It is possible that The Origin has reordered a few things (ie, putting a battle that happened earlier in the tv series later in the manga) and that accounts for part of this, but numbers wise there still must have been quite a few things that were cut out and, well, the movies still work! I did notice a few moments in the second film where the movie flashes back to an earlier interaction between certain characters, but the movie never included the original scene which made the flashbacks feel rather odd, although I did feel like in general the second film was the messiest of the three.

I was also surprised at how many things I had thought were original to The Origin were in fact not, I had always thought that the physic newtypes came from a later series! Now part of the reason I thought that was because espers were huge in the 1980s in manga and anime and Mobile Suit Gundam was from the late 70s, I was overthinking this and it turns out that newtypes are a rather big deal from the start. This also makes sense considering that this entire conflict started from tension between the governments still on Earth and space-faring colonists, which also brings me to one thing I like about this story in both iterations: it has the guts to start a story right in the middle of a conflict. It's not unheard of to start a story in media res, even in war, but Gundam starts in the middle of an almost stalemate, so far removed from the war with completely unconnected characters, that it really does make an impression on you and helps set up some of the themes with the characters. It's almost comedic at times to watch the White Base going through conflict after conflict, asking the upper officers why they are still a ship just crewed by non-military refugees, and getting the answer "well, you're doing better than everyone else out there so we're not changing anything". Part of this also ties into the whole newtypes deal, while the story does make it explicit later on that yes, some of the cast do have these physic powers, they crop up and become useful quite a while after the upper escalation has designated the White Base as a newtype ship (the fact that several times these powers seem to be the most strongly triggered/grow happens after the death of a female character felt pretty tasteless to me though). There were many times in the movies where I couldn't tell if something was meant to be funny, like those scenes with the characters grumbling, or not (like the music especially in the first film, it's amazingly cliched to my ears). I'm certain however that the creators had some very distinct opinions on war however, and that they went beyond the simplification of "war is bad!"

Before I went to the movies I had thought that Gundam must have occurred close to the start of the "real robots" subgenre of mecha (as opposed to "super robots" which are like, Pacific Rim) but I was surprised to see that this franchise is considered the originator of it! I knew it had influenced nearly every mecha series since then in one way or another, but being such a big, new concept that you actually alter the genre is amazing. I was also surprised to realize how strongly Eureka 7 was influenced by this original Gundam. There's enough ideas that E7 borrowed to merit it's own write-up at a later point (say, during the 12 Days of Anime), but seeing those connections added even more to the movies for me, I really didn't expect to have as much to think about from them as I did. After the second movie I stood in the back of the room, hanging around to see if there would be an after credits scene (and if not, bolt to the subway before they started the nightly track work) and a man chatted with me a bit about how almost strange it was that there were so many people coming out to see the movies. By his accent he wasn't a native English speaker, given the event I assumed Japanese, and I just had to stammer that, well, we (anime fans) have heard of it over the years so some of us said why not and some of us did already like the franchise*. Gundam has never been a huge hit in the US for so many reasons, but once you try it out I do feel like there are many different reasons to keep coming back to it.

*during the first film there was a group in front of me who were clearly gundam fans and just dying at certain scenes, the same ones that left me wondering "okay was that supposed to be a joke or am I reading too much into this?"

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