Reviewby Rebecca Silverman, Dec 11th 2013
Mobile Suit Gundam: The Origin
GN 1 - 3
In Universal Century 0079, humanity has created colonies in space surrounding the earth, and many people have moved there, starting new lives. But distance from the mother planet has bred discontent in some colonists, and a group, pronouncing themselves “The Principality of Zeon” has staged a rebellion. Between their forces and those of the government, millions of lives have been lost. Now the Earth Federation forces have created a fantastic new mobile suit, the likes of which no one has ever seen. Before it can be officially launched, however, Zeon attacks the colony where it was being kept. Fifteen-year-old Amuro Ray, son of its lead scientist, finds himself in the cockpit of the Gundam, and he and other survivors of the attack on their colony are soon aboard the Federation ship White Base. Against all odds, the survivors become crewmembers and the bane of the Zeon forces. Now the so-called Trojan Horse is bound for a South American Federation base...and the Zeon will do anything to stop them.
The Gundam franchise is the stuff of legend in anime fandom: the ongoing tales of teen pilots in giant robots defending the galaxy from this human threat or that one, the ultimate humanoid battle suits have been waging their various wars since 1979. At some point or another, most of us have been exposed to at least one series in the greater Gundam franchise (for me it was Gundam Wing on Toonami), and now with Vertical's exquisite release of Yoshikazu Yasuhiko's Mobile Suit Gundam the Origin manga, we are given the chance to experience the story in a new way, and with some modifications from the anime, as presented by the series' original character designer.
The story opens on Side 7, a space colony where the Gundam has been secretly developed. Somehow Zeon forces have learned of this, and they attack. To the unsuspecting colonists, the descent of the rebel army is nothing short of horrific. Yoshikazu does an excellent job of showing the horrors of war rearing their ugly heads as he juxtaposes the daily life of reclusive Amuro Ray and his friend Fraw Bow with the sudden terror that bursts in upon their daily lives. Amuro is just busy being a sulky teen boy while Fraw struggles to get him out of his shell (and house) when all of a sudden their world explodes. Fraw quickly goes from badgering her friend to facing unspeakable tragedy, while Amuro is forced to climb into his father's mobile suit prototype and fight on his own. Both events lead to the teens and other evacuees boarding the Federation ship White Base, which manages to escape Side 7, albeit with very little crew and under the command of the young LTJG Bright. Rising to the occasion, civilians quickly step into the breach, offering themselves as pilots, communications officers, medical staff, and other important positions. White Base quickly becomes the bane of the Principality of Zeon, earning the nickname “Trojan Horse,” at least in part because this unassuming vessel houses Amuro and his Gundam. The ship heads back to Earth, where outside of Los Angeles they engage in combat with a scion of Zeon, hot-headed Garma, before heading to South America to the hidden Jaburo Base. Volume three ends with another major firefight outside of Caracas, to say nothing of increasing tensions between enlisted members of the crew and civilian volunteers.
While epic battle scenes undeniably play a major role in the story, the interplay between the characters is also of tantamount importance. While some civilians, like Fraw Bow, embrace their new military roles – Fraw is more or less support staff – others, like the youthful pilots of the mobile suits and tanks, have a harder time fitting in and understanding just what it is they signed up for. This is in part a key component of the Gundam franchise itself: teens forced to go to war. While the franchise has handled it in a variety of ways, from the melodramatic to the harshly realistic, Mobile Suit Gundam the Origin takes a neither fish nor fowl approach. On one level, the boys absolutely understand what they are supposed to do – even when they make an attempt to cut and run, they always come back when they realize they are needed. Additionally, Amuro in general doesn't understand why he should be punished for leaving; in his mind it isn't “desertion” because he never signed up for this in the first place. This adolescent struggle between “what I want” and “what I need to do” is very well depicted in the hero; he is clearly just a kid trying to handle the adult responsibilities that have been thrust upon him. Even when he has moments that would seem to force him to grow up, such as meeting his mother in volume two, he still grapples with this, only partially understanding that when you come right down to it, he no longer has much freedom of choice.
Apart from Amuro, by far the most interesting character in the series to date is Sayla Mass, a young woman who boards the ship in Side 7 and quickly establishes herself as Communications Officer. Beautiful and solitary, Sayla appears adept at pretty much everything she puts her hand to, and could easily have just become the Miss Perfect of the crew were it not for a major reveal at the end of volume three. With this we not only look back on her actions in a different light, but we begin to really question her motives. There's a chance that they are less sinister than Yoshikazu wants us to infer, but that does not detract from the complicated nature of the character and her role in the story, as she and Amuro both force Bright into really thinking about how he handles each situation as the untried captain of what looks to be the Federation's best hope.
Yoshikazu Yasuhiko's art is beautifully showcased by Vertical's premium editions of the manga. Printed on glossy paper and with a generous use of color pages, each 400+ page book is slightly oversize, the better to see the delicate linework of Yoshikazu's drawings. Through subtle hints we get a fuller picture of the story's world, such as the small wrinkles that show us that, yes, everyone's wearing pants or the crease of a forehead on an otherwise composed face. Explosions are large and plentiful, and while death certainly abounds, it is interesting to note that the manga is about 97% blood and gore free, and we rarely see dead bodies. Speech bubbles are not always used when characters are talking, which at times can give the impression that people are communicating telepathically, and sometimes the order in which bubbles are read can be confusing. This tends to be because Vertical has ordered them left-to-right in a few places and right-to-left in others. Luckily this switch does not happen with any great frequency (more in volume three than in the other two), so confusion is minimal. Each volume of Mobile Suit Gundam the Origin also contains special interviews and an image gallery. Volumes one and two provide commentary from Hideaki Anno and CLAMP respectively (with a humorously shoujo-y Amuro as a bonus illustration in volume two), while volume three's extras are provided by Genshiken's Shimoku Kio. Needless to say, these are the lightest of the three, and consequently provide a nice respite from the intensity of the story. (Plus the comic about Amuro visiting the Genshiken is a lot of fun.)
While it goes without saying that Gundam fans should enjoy these books, they are also a good read for those who simply like a science fiction or a war story that is well-written, nicely illustrated, and full of interesting characters. A previous knowledge of the franchise is by no means a requisite for reading, and in fact might make the whole thing even more exciting. Mobile Suit Gundam the Origin is an engaging, intense read that speaks to the reason why the franchise has been able to exist for so long – it has a solid base. These first three books deliver that along with solid science fiction storytelling, making them seriously good literary entertainment.
Overall : A-
Story : A-
Art : A-
+ Beautifully designed, presented, and drawn. Amuro is a believable teenage boy thrust into unthinkable circumstances, while Sayla is a fascinating character. Both sides of the war are human in their emotions...
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