The Gundam Plot Coherency Scaleby Lauren Orsini,
The Gundam multiverse isn't always the most comprehensible place.
Political factions on Earth and in the space colonies develop and refine perplexing political messaging. Antiheroes switch sides at the drop of a hat. Pilots with “newtype” abilities can sense, or even dance with one another, in bizarre outer space hallucinations. Some of these elements can be deciphered with an improved literacy of the Gundam canon. But other plot points have even diehard fans scratching their heads years later.
Much has been written about which Gundam shows are worth watching (partly by me, on this website). This is not what this scale is about. I maintain that a wacky and confusing Gundam show can still be a lot of fun, even if we all agree that it is pretty inconsistent.
With this list, let's explore which Gundam shows can ever fully be understood. I'll be unpacking 21 different Gundam shows and their sequels and rating them of a scale by how coherent they are. Keep in mind that this is still not the entire Gundam anime canon. For example, I'm leaving out the SD Gundam universe, a collection of chibi shows in which bizarre things happen on the regular: in which spherical mascot Haro is a human being in one and charming antagonist Char inexplicably turns into a cat in another. I mean, I'm not a masochist.
Here's the first bookend in our ranking, because this 1989 OVA is about as comprehensible as you can get. A brief six-episode story, it simply doesn't have time to go off the rails. At 11, Al is one of Gundam's youngest protagonists and he acts like you'd expect a kid to act. It's a coming-of-age story where Al learns for the first time that his actions have consequences and that war is pretty terrible—the most basic and graspable recurring Gundam theme.
I think “Top Gundam” is especially logical to Western viewers who are familiar with the movie that the creators say is a major inspiration to this 13-episode OVA. Like Top Gun, it's a military tale that's more campy than gritty, nailing all the expected beats for its protagonist. Considering that his rival isn't only on the opposing side of the war, but also his love interest's ex-boyfriend, makes the three main characters' motivations consistent and justifiable.
Orphaned child laborers become their own bosses and set across the solar system in search of survival and revenge. Meanwhile, everyone else in this cutthroat universe is attempting to seize or take advantage of the bit of power these orphans have fought so hard for. It's a cynical take on the workings of the world, but one with its own consistent logic—you, too, would be as coldly trigger happy as Mikazuki if all you'd ever known was betrayal and exploitation.
This reboot provides all the “missing scenes” we don't get in Mobile Suit Gundam that fully flesh out characters and their motivations. For example, it's easier to grasp Char's revenge fantasy when we're shown (for the first time!) Char as a child dealing with the aftermath of his father's death. This is the more sensical and certainly higher quality introduction to the Gundam canon for modern fans, one that will make a lot more sense to new viewers than the 1979 version.
So maybe the idea of model kits coming to life and fighting is a little out there, but this show and its sequel are nothing if not internally consistent. Once you get past the idea that yes, in this alternate universe toys can hook into a video game system for competitions, the actual rules of Gundam Build Fighting seem legit and are logically improved upon in the sequel. The better your Gunpla build, the better your odds at a win—makes sense to me.
The Federation's Moore Brotherhood and Zeon's Living Dead Division fight desperately over a supply route in the Thunderbolt Sector. That's it. While the ethical considerations are darker and more complex, the plot doesn't go past one side versus the other side. As Io gets wilder and Daryl physically and mentally cuts ties with his humanity, viewers may not always like these characters. But at the same time, they always know what these two are fighting for.
Mobile Suit Gundam: 08th MS Team
Once again, a plot centered on a microcosm of the One Year War makes for a basic plot. This time, the Federation and Zeon are fighting a guerilla war in the jungle. The twist comes when pilots on opposing sides unexpectedly fall in love and must choose between their allegiance to their nation or each other. Could it be that there are good people on both sides? Maybe, until Aina's brother shows up in Full Evil mode and there's no room for shades of gray. From there, there's no logical motive stronger than, “Let's kill the guy who tried to kill us first.”
Mobile Suit Gundam
Two groups of people are fighting a war, and some of them develop magic space telepathy that helps them better understand each other. It's unclear if the space ESP (you know I mean Newtypes) is the cause, but each side undergoes internal shifts into new factions with slightly different motives. In 1979, Gundam was a deeply experimental show that took a lot of risks, not all of which paid off. Some of these unrealized attempts have since been written out of the plot (looking at you, Cucuruz Doan Island). The only clear messaging here? War is definitely bad.
Some viewers found this show's culmination so unsatisfying that the canon was altered in the movie, which suddenly has a happy ending. Protagonist Kamille is often irrational because of his raging hormones, but it's tough to understand why his fellow adults are equally flighty. At one point, Lt. Reccoa defects to the Titans because she thought the commander was hot. Meanwhile Char has a midlife crisis and insists everyone calls him Quattro now. At least I get why there are three sides now (including Quattro's AEUG): because war is still bad.
The plot dictates that protagonist Loren must descend from the moon to dress in drag and pilot a Gundam with a mustache, but it's a little fuzzy on why. The fact that Queen Diana of the moon has a doppelganger is also a bizarre coincidence. The plot is the kind that could be resolved if everybody got together and just talked it out. That all said, there's a completely rational reason for why people keep excavating familiar-looking mecha on Earth. When it comes to the conclusion, it's going to either blow your mind or bother you to no end, and it all depends on your tolerance for Gundam creator Yoshiyuki Tomino's specific brand of space magic.
A plot that swaps between the stories of five different pilots already adds a complication. After that, it's not that you can't follow what's happening, it's that what's happening doesn't always make sense. Why do characters keep having sudden changes of heart? How is pacifism sustainable if Relena won't even allow her country to defend itself against invaders? Why doesn't the advent of mobile dolls, mecha that can operate perfectly without people in them, make Gundams obsolete? And why does everyone keep upping the ante with dramatic, illogical actions without an ounce of self-preservation behind them? I blame this plot's lack of coherency in part on the fact that it swapped one director for another around episode 28.
With a plot that spans from the year UC 0001 to UC 0096 (17 years after the events of Mobile Suit Gundam), there's plenty of time for this story to get confusing. This century-long story is not one you could easily diagram on a scrap of paper. However, the most rewarding payoff arrives around a mystical artifact, Laplace's Box, which viewers will realize has teasingly been shown throughout the show without us noticing until the end.
The story begins with a pseudoscience McGuffin that prevents all nuclear reactions. Halfway through, it introduces a McGuffin for its McGuffin that prevents of prevention of nuclear reactions, solely so it can introduce a ridiculously overpowered nuclear mobile suit. So, why use such a convoluted means to get rid of nuclear reactions in the first place? Then there's the cast. Kira is a pacifist who is better at murder than anybody else. Athrun is his rival with an inferiority complex, and Shin is the talented new interloper in this battle between two men that has somehow gotten the weight of two militaries behind it. These stories very closely mirror First Gundam (Amuro v. Char) and Zeta Gundam (Kamille is also here now), and they make even less sense the second time around.
This is the only Gundam show to acknowledge the existence of an alien race, which gives it a weirdness factor all its own. Bizarre character names like Lockon Stratos and Anew Returner mingle with the details of an overly dramatic, overly complicated plot to make this one a tough entry into the Gundam canon. At one point a character is killed off, only to be replaced with their identical sibling who, for some reason, also shares the same preternatural piloting skills and enthusiasm for joining a terrorist group. Some of the weirdness can be explained away with “the computer did it,” but not all of it. After watching a few other Gundam shows it makes a little more sense (once again, it strongly mirrors the plot points of earlier Gundam stories).
A tough guy protagonist, his gentle ESPer love interest, and a mysterious antihero in sunglasses—these are all the elements you expect from Gundam, but their motives aren't always more clear than “this is how Gundam stories are supposed to go.” Low TV ratings shaved 10 episodes off of Gundam X's planned original run, so it wraps up quick with a lot of loose ends that never get fully explained. Also, and this is really important: there is a normal-looking albino dolphin who happens to have psychic Gundam-communication powers.
What is Going On
When people ask about this one, I tell them: “It's the French Revolution in space. Wait, where are you going?” There's a reason that director Yoshiyuki Tomino has distanced himself from this title, warning fans on the Blu Ray sales page, “I want to completely reject this work. These kind of results are the full responsibility of the director.” Tomino's depression aside, there are three factions in this war that make sense to anybody familiar with French history. It's just a little hard to keep an eye on the plot as it is mostly narrated by a ragtag group of kids. And let's not forget that the villainous Angel Halo's ultimate scheme is to make everyone on Earth feel so sad that they pass out and stop moving.
A goofy Scooby Doo “monster of the week” format gives way to the depths of Tomino's depression for an emotional rollercoaster you weren't expecting. Subplots like Moon Moon, a space colony Earth somehow managed to lose, make about as much sense as the characters' questionable '80s fashion choices. This show would work just as well with the Benny Hill theme playing quietly in the background of every scene. Still worth watching for a scene with decorated captain Bright Noa with a live chicken on his head.
Mobile Fighter G-Gundam
A weird show can still be coherent if it has any internal consistency, the likes of which G-Gundam has none. It's the first ever alternate universe Gundam show, so it has little previous canon to rely on. Why not turn Gundam into a pro wrestling tournament with ridiculous luchador outfits based on international perceptions? The reason a mobile suit shaped like a cactus or a horse piloting a mecha are so funny is because there's no contextual reason for either element to exist. Director Imagawa has said world cinema was a major inspiration for some of the odder aspects and offensive stereotypes of the series, so making G-Gundam this bizarre was a global effort.
Mobile Suit Gundam MS Igloo
Three disparate stories are united by early CGI animation. Even at the most sensical of times, it feels like you're watching a '90s PlayStation cutscene, with the same level of tedious storytelling that is really only acceptable as a supplement to gameplay. These OVAs rely on the additional context of the One Year War depicted through all Universal Century timeline Gundam shows, but all that canon isn't enough to make sense of this. The strangest factor is an “angel of death” in '90s JRock clothes who follows a Federation soldier around until his death. The tale of a doomed soldier turns goofy when contrasted with his companion's leather getup and heavy eyeliner. A story told in pieces through said angel and a noncombatant's notes after the fact does not make for a very coherent plot.
The longer the timeline in which a Gundam story takes place, the more potential there is for it to go completely off the rails. That's the case with the story of Flit, who we see first as a boy, then as an adult, and then as a senior citizen. As Flit ages, the protagonist role passes to his son, and then his grandson, three lifetimes' worth of political and military turmoil swirl around them. Only Flit unites the three stories, and then only tenuously, as each “age” has its own tone and concerns. From a serious story about a child going up against the mob to a high school drama about a school robotics club, to space pirates, this story is all over the place. And don't forget that right before the end, we learn that the series villain isn't the real villain, who was hidden slightly offscreen all along! Just like in the laziest, least coherent of JRPGs.
Bringing up the rear is what I can say with certainty is the least coherent Gundam show to exist. To understand just how confusing this show is, you need to realize that Gundam fans, who nodded along in enjoyment through all of the previous shows listed here, suddenly heard an internal record scratch and thought, “Nope, this is a bridge too far.” In response to their feedback, Director Tomino apologized: "If I was told that it wasn't understandable because I was bad, all I could say is, 'I'm sorry." This show features characters who undergo motivational shifts that qualify as personality changes and an unexplained mid-series one-episode truce (for some reason, everybody stops fighting and rides a space elevator together). New and experienced Gundam viewers alike will look at their screens and shout, “Why?”
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