Picture yourself walking into one of those discount buffet chain restaurants. Sure, the food isn't great, but it's cheap and filling, and there's plenty of it. So you make your way past the chafing dishes full of meat loaf and fried chicken, the mashed potato bar, and the soda fountain, and that's when you see it: a whole roasted suckling pig, smelling totally delicious and looking like it was prepared by one of the Iron Chefs. You hesitate, though, because while the pig is undoubtedly much better than the other food, it's complicated and kind of intimidating. You're going to need a plan to dig into it and really enjoy it.
That kinda sums up the Gundam Unicorn experience; some of my peers have taken to describing it as "the only real anime" being produced right now, because it has a visual luster missing from almost all of today's stuff except for the most lavish of feature films. At the same time, this ongoing OVA series is thick with ideas and characters right out of the sprawling Universal Century timeline, the master blueprint of Gundam that's spawned the majority of its stories. Don't get me wrong, it's not mired in continuity the way superhero comics are, but a little study is going to go a long way in helping the viewer get the most out of the experience. At the end of the day, though, Unicorn has all of the Gundam building blocks we know and love - conflicted teenage pilots, towering mobile suits, Lagrange points, doomed romances, and a suave, charismatic blond guy in a metal mask.
We spent the first episode of Gundam Unicorn getting some history lessons - notably, that even the first major events of the Universal Century involved acts of war - before a spacenoid engineering student named Banagher Links very quickly learned that war sucks and kills a lot of people, as he and his pals are caught in the middle of a struggle between Federation forces and the last major Zeon remnant cell. He came to the rescue of the mysterious Audrey Burne, a classic beauty with red hair and green eyes, herself stuck in the middle of the conflict, before being entrusted with an incredibly powerful test mobile suit, the Gun>dam Unicorn, by a scientist who boldly compares the weapon to the mythical creature of the same name, the "beast of possibility." The kid learned some gutwrenching things about his past before getting tossed into the cockpit just like Amuro Ray, and it all wrapped up with one of the most tantrum-inducing cliffhangers I've seen in recent years.
One thing I like about this second episode is that it doesn't pad things out by recapping the last several minutes of episode 1 - it joins the story almost exactly where it left off, with the clueless Banagher activating the Unicorn's hidden power to use against Neo Zeon's Marida Cruz in her Psycommu-driven Kshatriya mobile suit. Cruz, a seasoned pilot who sweeps aside all opposition in episode 1, is shocked to see the unmistakable visage of a Gun>dam filling her HUD, and blurts out "Gun>dam is... the enemy!" in a moment that will probably go down as one of the great memorable quotes of the franchise. Then a totally awesome battle happens! Mobile suit combat is one of Unicorn's biggest draws - the action, rendered in eye-popping HD, is senses-jangling, and director Kazuhiro Furuhashi does a great job of balancing frenetic spacebound combat with shots of the pilots reacting in their cockpits. A lot of the animation is computer-assisted, but the level of detail is tremendous. When I saw Char's Counterattack for the first time, I was blown away by the scenes of cockpits with fully immersive, 360-degree HUDs - here, the CG techniques take it up another notch entirely, depicting technology that is both fanciful and tantalizingly believable.
Banagher beats Cruz away, but is taken back to the Federation ship Nahel Argama, which Gundam fanboys will instantly remember from ZZ Gundam. He reunites with his friends, but the reunion is shortlived, because then a masked blond dude in a red mobile suit appears. The blond guy is the big draw of this second episode; referred to fearfully as "the second coming of Char Aznable," he's an imposing figure in his powerful Sinanju mobile suit, itself a stolen prototype, despite sporting the undeniably silly name of Full Frontal. The resulting skirmish separates Banagher from the rest of the group and reveals Audrey's true identity, which isn't much of a spoiler because she's the one character in this series who's already appeared repeatedly in Gundam shows - the last scion of the Zeon empire, Mineva Lao Zabi. Tensions mount as Reddhi, the ship's ace pilot, angrily confronts Audrey- he grew up desperately afraid of the ruthless fascism that he'd always felt Zeon represented, and struggles to separate the idealistic young woman in front of him from the real-life bogeyman of his childhood.
I really like the characters in Gundam Unicorn; even the minor players are really fleshed out, from the immensely practical Federation Captain Grackle to Neo Zeon's angry, haughty Angelo, to Banagher's frightened and feckless schoolmates, Micott and Takuya. Banagher is appealingly lucid - when he meets Full Frontal, he hotly insists that the Neo Zeon stop resorting to terrorism and asserts, "People say that you're the second coming of Char Aznable. Are you him?" Frontal avoids answering the question directly, but right from the moment that he opens his mouth and the voice of Shuichi Ikeda, the original Char, booms out, the question lingers, and the answer seems keenly obvious.
Sunrise tapped Ikeda for this character, and it's a shame that NYAV Post weren't able to follow suit and secure the services of Michael Kospa, the definitive voice of the character in English (he voiced Char in the original TV series, Char's Counterattack, and most of the Gundam video games). NYAV's cast is pretty excellent, though - it's a bicoastal unit that boasts the experienced Steve Cannon and Stephanie Sheh as Banagher and Audrey, and a broad range of talented veterans from both the New York and Los Angeles scenes in the supporting roles. Sinterniklaas' background as an anime fan is of immense utility here - he's very careful to give every single role some character, and even sneaks in space nerd Wil Wheaton as one of the Gund>am mechanics. The Japanese version is no slouch, either, headlined by of-the-moment stars Ayumi Fujimura and Kouki Uchiyama, though my favorite is Yuko Kaida, who plays tough women in everything from Ikki Tousen to Toradora!, as Marida.
Second and most importantly, this thing is too expensive. Yes, I realize that it's almost certainly the highest-quality OVA released in many years. I don't care; fifty or sixty dollars for a single episode is simply not a reasonable price. It would never fly in the North American market, which is why you can't really buy the blu-rays in stores, and I think this is a missed opportunity. You can go to an outlet like Target and find blu-rays of fare like Evangelion 2.22, Nausicaä, and All-Star Superman, and I think Gundam Unicorn deserves a place next to them – it has the hooks to draw traditional mecha fans in, but its high quality will entice casual viewers as well. I love anime and I love Gundam, but I am absolutely, 100% unwilling to pay the suggested prices for these blu-rays. Bandai Entertainment have said they'll be releasing a compilation of the first few episodes on DVD, but until that happens, the only way to economically enjoy this series is to rent it via PLAYSTATION Network or XBox Live, which will run you around five or six bucks per episode. I know that there's a collector's market out there that will shrug and pay the big bucks, but I just don't recommend it. Watch it, though? Absolutely - don't miss Gundam Unicorn, especially since this episode dials down the cliffhanger factor to tolerable levels.
I could probably go on and on about how positive I am about Gundam Unicorn. Its plotting is dense and very tough, but rewarding; its acting performances are top notch; and its visual quality, from character designs to mecha battles, is head and shoulders above almost everything else being released. What sticks in my craw is twofold. First of all, more than most Universal Century Gundam productions, Gundam Unicorn is almost 100% free of levity of any kind. Sure, you might point out that it's a very serious study of warfare, almost like a fictionalized Waltz with Bashir with robots, but almost every other Gundam series has some sort of flash of humor, something that gives it that warm, lived-in quality. I don't think adding a little of this to the formula would hurt.