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Buried Treasure
Gundam 0080

by Justin Sevakis,

I can imagine the forum posts now. "Why is Gundam a buried treasure!? I saw Gundam Wing on Cartoon Network!"

Well, Gundam is a strange beast. There are so many parts, so many different series and movies and OAV's to the Gundam universe(s) that the franchise itself seems to require its own Buried Treasure column. Some of them really suck, while others are quite decent. The two that have found any measurable level of success in the States (Gundam Wing and Gundam Seed) conceal the fact that most of the series have not found an audience here. They may have had a short run on Cartoon Network, but now they tend to line the shelves of liquidation stores like Big Lots and Dollar General.

I am not a Gundam fan. At all. In fact, I think very little of Gundam creator Yoshiyuki Tomino. His storytelling style is muddled and distracted, depending almost entirely on expository dialogue. I get no sense of dramatic timing or emotional gravitas from his tales, but thanks to good timing and a formula that became successful years ago, he's one of a small handful of anime's naked emperors. However, not all Gundam is mediocre, or suffers under the burden its creator. And there's at least one that stands out as a true achievement.

Mobile Suit Gundam 0080:
War in the Pocket

A.O. Scott of the New York Times once noted that in almost any film festival, "there is usually at least one movie that chronicles a time of political trauma from the point of view of a child." It's an easy epic, given that there will always be war and therefore the subject will always be timely. As humans, there are few things more provocative than seeing a child -- which we are instinctively designed to protect -- subject to trauma and harm brought about by foolish adults and their wars. It's also a surefire way to tug the heartstrings. Surely, anime has its share of these (Grave of the Fireflies, Barefoot Gen, Now and Then Here & There, etc...) but given that large swathes of anime history take place in the future with mecha battles, it seems a disproportionate number of the kids-in-war shows are set in the past. The sci-fi shows that do involve kids in wartime usually take the shortcut of making them mecha pilots, fulfilling the self-insertion fantasy of its young viewers in the process, but at the same time denying the characters their true ages. This is seldom the gritty, life-shattering sort of war we see in real life.

Gundam 0080 not only eliminates that void of realistic kids-in-wartime sci-fi anime, but brings something new and intense to the tired concept itself. Director Fumihiko Takayama, whose work includes the underrated Orguss 02, the hit-and-miss Patlabor WXIII and my favorite episode of Bubblegum Crisis (#7: Double Vision), doesn't have a long list of credits, and half of his work is writing. In Gundam 0080, he plays with sharp contrasts -- a particularly intense and bloody opening combat scene (which ends in death and utter despair) is flanked by candy-flavored J-pop and shots of kids playing in the city. This stark and jarring difference, between a bright and happy kids world and the hell of war, is a constant theme of the show, and Takayama plays it like an instrument.

We meet Alfred, a fairly normal 11-year-old kid going to school. He's living on a space colony that's more or less indistinguishable from Earth. There's a war going on somewhere in space between two big forces (the Federation and the Zeons), but the whole matter means little more than entertainment for Al and his friends. Like most boys, they're fascinated by big machinery and stuff that blows up.

Al is realistic in a way anime kids seldom are: he's loud and has a bit of a rebellious streak. He also seems a bit lonely, and with his parents separated, he's starting to act out a bit. (We get the feeling, from how his mom treats him, that he can be a royal pain in the ass sometimes.) The series also understands the constant one-upsmanship of the schoolyard and the boredom of childhood better than any Shonen Jump fare ever will.

Al and his friends at school get into a disagreement over whether the Federation has mobile suits. To settle things, Al manages to sneak onto the local Federation base with his little camera. But before he can show off his findings (there indeed is such a suit, and it's about to make its local combat debut), the battle between the Federation and the Zeon spills over into their settlement. Buildings get destroyed, pandemonium ensues. The kids are excited that something, anything is happening, in much the same way I hear kids were excited about 9/11. Wrapped up in the inherent selfishness of being a kid, they don't yet comprehend the gravity of the situation.

Al takes off to explore the wreckage of the battle, camera in hand, and finds the remains of a Zeon mobile suit. Inside is the young pilot Bernard, and he's not exactly happy to have been found out (by a kid, no less). Al, of course, is fascinated, and starts annoying him with questions and requests for spare parts. Al, luckily, has not changed the memory card in his camera since spying on the Federation, and the pictures he took are valuable enough for Bernie to befriend the kid for them.

The pictures do wonders for the career of Bernie, a rookie who has now wrecked a suit in his first battle. He's soon transferred into an elite espionage and mercenary division (more as a flunkie than anything else). His new team's mission is to either steal or destroy the new Federation Gundam mobile suit at any cost. Back on the colony, they go undercover as truck drivers. Bernie is spotted immediately by Al, who manages to manipulate every adult in the party into letting him in. "He's my big brother!" he yells, working up tears.

Soon, Bernie and Al are working together to spy on the Federation, sneak into secret military bases, and fill Bernie's mission. They fill an important role for each other: Al, clearly missing a father figure, gloms onto this cool young pilot who gets to do everything the boy has ever dreamt of. Bernie, outclassed by his fellow teammates and unsure of himself, finds having Al around helps him relax a bit. But while they're having fun, the two forget that this is actually a real war. With blood. And death.

Finally, Bernie's team launches their assault on the Federation base, and nothing goes as planned. The Federation is ready for them, and a massive shootout ensues. Al, hiding only feet away, watches in shock as, one by one, Bernie's teammates' lives end.

This is the point at which a lesser story would end. The boy has learned his lesson. There are casualties. War is not a game. But Gundam 0080 pushes Al even further. Narrowly escaping the with his life, Bernie discovers a terrible secret: a rogue fleet of Zeon forces are planning to overcompensate for his team's failure by destroying the entire colony with a nuclear weapon. Al, facing certain death for himself and everyone he knows, wants Bernie to take action, but Bernie, experiencing shell shock, can barely pull himself together enough to book a flight out of town.

About the ending, I'll only say that there's a twist, and it's absolutely devastating. The last shot pretends it's a happy ending, and fades out with a cheer and the love of Al's classmates, and Al... Well, in the midst of all this happiness we can see just how much damage was done.

Released as a 6-part OAV series in 1989, the series has aged quite well (with the exception of Al's video game, whose sound effects are unmistakably from Super Mario Bros. 3.) The English version, one of Bandai Entertainment's earlier releases, is handled by Animaze, a studio that doesn't get much work outside of Ghost in the Shell these days. By the time Gundam 0080 was produced Animaze was at the top of their game, and this is a truly stellar dub. Brianne Siddall (working under her male stage name Ian Hawk) gives a truly affected performance as Al, roughly equaling her Japanese counterpart Daisuke Namikawa. Other roles (including David "Solid Snake" Hayter as Bernard and Wendee Lee as Al's next-door-neighbor and Federation pilot Chris turn in solid performances.

The series appeared on Cartoon Network in a late night slot, but being only six episodes, failed to make much of an impact. It's a shame, because it's one of the most emotionally powerful war stories ever animated. The friendship between Bernie and Al, while improbable, is real and moving; the way the two bond over the most horrible of situations and find time to be goofy and have fun is endearing to no end, which only makes the cold, hard impact of reality that much stronger. Al may have survived the war, but it seems pretty clear that his days as a carefree innocent are gone forever.

A Abundant. Available anywhere that carries anime.
C Common. In print, and always available online.
R1 US release out of print, still in stock most places.
R2 US release out of print, not easy to find.
R3 Import only, but it has English on it.
R4 Import only. Fansubs commonly available.
R5 Import only, and out of print. Fansubs might be out there.
R6 Import long out of print. No fansubs are known to exist.
R7 Very rare. Limited import release or aired on TV with no video release. No fansubs known to exist.
R8 Never been on the market. Almost impossible to obtain.
Adapted from Soviet-Awards.com.

How To Get It:

Bandai's DVD (released in two volumes and later reissued as one) is in print, and looks great. The only caveat with the DVD is that for some reason, the excellent English voice staff is not credited. It can probably be had for very cheap if you look around.

Screenshots © Sotsu Agency • Sunrise.

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