Reviewby Lauren Orsini,
Mobile Suit Gundam
Blu-Ray - Collection 01
In the year Universal Century 0079, the Principality of Zeon has declared independence from the Earth Federation. The resulting war obliterated half the population and affected every continent and space colony. Now, a group of young and inexperienced civilians turned soldiers stationed on the Mobile Suit Carrier White Base set out to change the course of the war with the Federation's most powerful weapon yet: a mobile suit called the Gundam.
When Mobile Suit Gundam Blu Ray edition was released in Japan, Bandai aired several commercials, all of which are included in this Blu Ray's bonus content. Each one features a middle-aged man going about his life while softly singing, “Fly! Gundam,” the show's introduction song. It's abundantly clear that the latest release of this 1979 show isn't seeking to attract new viewers, but to trigger the nostalgic feelings of people who have been fans for a long time. Thirty-six years after its initial release, this show isn't of the caliber modern viewers are accustomed to. The line-drawing is inconsistent, the audio tinny, the quality grainy and rough. But in context as the first entry in the iconic Gundam series, this is an important cultural artifact that indicates the humble origins of the massive franchise, while showing how far it has come.
This collection includes episodes 1-21 (and diehard fans will notice that the “lost 15th episode” is absent here as usual). It documents the Federation ship White Base's increasingly narrow escapes against the relentless Zeon forces. Amuro Ray is a teen with a talent for engineering who is so absorbed in his work, he misses the call to evacuate Side 7, the space colony where he lives. When Zeon attacks the colony, Amuro and many other Side 7 survivors hitch a ride on White Base. Since White Base has sustained heavy personnel losses, a ragtag team of youthful soldiers and skilled civilians form a new skeleton crew. It's all very difficult for acting captain Bright Noa, who doesn't know how to run a ship where nobody is over 18 or versed in military procedure and there are even young children running around the bridge—a combination that cuts the melodrama with comic relief. But no matter how odd the situation gets, Amuro's penchant for technology means he instantly grasps the Gundam's controls and quickly becomes a more competent pilot than soldiers twice his age. Alongside the Guntank and Guncannon, Amuro's Gundam defends White Base from a slew of increasingly dire situations.
What makes this story special is how it's a pioneer in its genre. Before Mobile Suit Gundam came about, the vast majority of anime featuring giant robots were much simpler, plot-wise. An undeniably good hero would fight the forces of irredeemable evil while piloting a massive, brightly colored “super robot.” This robot would usually have a multi-step transformation sequence, a la Sailor Moon, not to mention attacks with bizarre names the hero must yell out before executing. Mobile Suit Gundam was revolutionary in that it kept the giant robot weapon while taking out everything else. The show asks the question, “If world militaries had the technology to make super robots, how would they realistically implement them?” This show is generally accepted to be the harbinger of the “real robot” genre, which grounds the fantasy of super robot abilities in pseudo-science, for example, the Gundam is computer-operated. Its colors, while still bright by military standards, are downright understated next to your average super robot. And while the super robot's transformation sequence is just for show, the Gundam's transformation from core-fighter to humanoid suit is always rife with suspense, because what if somebody shoots it down mid-transformation?
Alongside a semblance of technological reality, Mobile Suit Gundam offers a more relatable portrayal of humanity. This plot complicates the usual duality of good and evil. The show's hero, Amuro Ray, is an often immature and bratty 15-year-old who you will sometimes want to slap (but don't worry, other characters will do it for you). On the other hand, his main rival, Char Aznable, is irresistibly charismatic, perhaps even more so for his enigmatic purposes of supporting the antagonistic side of the war. Even the idea of “sides” when referring to the warring factions in Mobile Suit Gundam is a misnomer. White Base is constantly struggling to get support from the Federation at large, which they suspect is using them as a disposable decoy. Meanwhile, Zeon's forces are led by multiple cults of personality—by Char, Garma, Kycilia, M'Quve, and the eternally likeable “stubborn old war horse” Ramba Ral. The crew of White Base may be the “good guys” of the show, but that doesn't mean viewers will approve of all of their actions. As the death count climbs on both sides, alliances are formed and broken, protests and arguments break out, and everywhere people act according to their emotions instead of their reason—in short, like real people act under pressure. This isn't that special compared to what you'll get today. It's the juxtaposition of complex storytelling and crude '70s line art that indicates a show ahead of its time.
Thanks to a never-ending enemy assault, this show is extremely fast-paced. No sooner is White Base out of one tight situation, another occurs. The problem here is that this constant atmosphere of suspense comes at a cost: many of these problems seem repetitive and contrived. Entire episodes occur that get White Base into—and out of—a new problem, but don't advance the plot at all. A constant on-again, off-again problem is Amuro's inconsistent attitude. Sometimes he's all gung-ho and ready to go; other times he's sulky and ready to desert the military. Blame teenage hormones, but Amuro's mood is constantly in flux, when just one of his emotional tantrums would summarize the same story. Stuff like this is why Sunrise also created three Mobile Suit Gundam compilation movies that wrap up the entire 43-episode plot into just 420 minutes without losing any of the viewer's comprehension.
The visuals follow suit with the repetition. Prepare to see the exact same launch and landing sequence dozens of times, perhaps even multiple times in one episode. The hand drawings are rough and vary dramatically in quality. The Gundam itself changes proportion slightly in every cut, leading to some really goofy looks as its legs, torso, and face grow and shrink. Whether you find this cheap or charming depends on your age and your investment in the Gundam franchise. The visuals indicate that this is a remastering that attempting to lovingly preserve every bit of grain on the original film. Unfortunately, it isn't completely successful. An over-active digital noise reduction (DNR) process led to some of the line drawing being blurred out along with the noise, which is to be expected with a 16mm film source - there isn't much more you can do with masters like this. You can compare a 16mm source to a 35mm source on the disc itself - there's a copy of the clean opening that features a 35mm print, and the grain and fine detail is spectacular. Unfortunately the 16mm masters are all that exist, so the somewhat overactive DNR used on 16mm sources means the drawings are certainly smoother than they once were, but a little fuzzier and less preserved than it could have been. There's a slight bit of noticeable compression artifacting as well - likely the result of having so many episodes on one disc. None of these are dealbreakers - the show looks better than ever - but as with any HD version of a show this old, there are noticeable compromises. Soundwise, it's everything you might expect from an original 1979 Japanese recording and early '00s English dub—poor audio quality on the Japanese side, and exaggerated acting on the English. The music, however, has been expertly preserved and continues to be evocative decades later as catchy themes and uplifting battle music encourage viewers to sing along.
At the end of episode 21, White Base is still in danger and the threat of M'Quve still looms large. The collection concludes at episode 21 because it's halfway through the number of episodes, not because it's a natural break—in fact, it's a cliffhanger. This decades-old show can take some getting used to. But one you're halfway in, viewers will want to stick around for part two.
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : B
Story : A
Animation : C
Art : B-
Music : A
+ Engaging characters, a fast-moving plot, and a groundbreaking story that defined the parameters of the iconic universe still echoed in Gundam shows made today.
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