The Origin of Gundam: The Originby Lauren Orsini,
On April 29, 2019, Gundam: The Origin hit the small screen as a TV anime, but it didn't always take that form. This ambitious project to explore a “behind the scenes” look at one of the science fiction genre's most enduring franchises has been around in various forms since 2001.
In the 20 years since, The Origin has been a manga, an OVA collection, and now a TV series, always under the guiding hand of the original Gundam character designer. Here is a primer on how The Origin came to be one of the franchise's most well-received recent works.
Gundam: The Origin has always been an anniversary work
This April marks 40 years to the month since Mobile Suit Gundam first aired on TV on April 7, 1979, and it's no mistake that The Origin is coming out on TV at this auspicious time. But this long-lived work actually first came about to commemorate just 20 years of Gundam.
The story first came to life in 2001 as a manga written and illustrated by Yoshikazu Yasuhiko, the original character designer for Mobile Suit Gundam. Yasuhiko has characterized the manga as a retelling of the original Gundam story, though its focus on differing perspectives before and after the show's central One Year War conflict (with much of the story following the series' main antagonist, Char Aznable), fans often refer to it as part-reimagining, part-prequel.
After the manga's success, Gundam: The Origin got a promotion to OVA form just in time to celebrate 35 years of Gundam. Nearly 15 years passed between the Gundam: The Origin manga and the first Original Video Animation (OVA), which aired in Japanese theaters in February 2015—shortly after the original show's 35th birthday in 2014.
What makes Gundam: The Origin particularly suited to commemorate milestones in the Gundam franchise is twofold. First, it offers new insight into the very first Gundam show, with new scenes and character development that act as a supplement to the original. Second, it's fully the creation of Yoshikazu Yasuhiko, who worked as a character designer, visual director, animation director, illustrator, and even cel painter (most notable for his hand-painted cels of Gundam protagonist Amuro Ray). The juxtaposition of new content that comes from one of Gundam's oldest creators is the ultimate expression of how far the franchise has come—from somebody who was also around to build its foundations.
Gundam: The Origin birthed a Gundam-focused manga magazine
Usually, new manga comes about when a manga magazine (like Shonen Jump, for example), decides to publish it. But in the case of Gundam: The Origin, it was the opposite. According to Shinichiro Inoue, President and CEO of Kadokawa Shoten Publishing, in an essay translated for English readers in the back of Vertical, Inc. manga volume 1, Gundam Ace was born primarily as a vehicle for the Gundam: The Origin manga.
Why did The Origin need its own publication? Yasuhiko wanted to serialize 100 or more pages at a time, and to make sure that the stunning (and no doubt labor-intensive) full-color watercolor spreads made it to readers. Kadokawa was happy to assist the now-legendary illustrator.
“It was Mr. Yasuhiko's request that each installment of the serialization consist of about 100 pages. To accommodate this, I immediately decided to start up an exclusive Gundam manga magazine,” Inoue wrote, as translated in Vertical's first English-language volume of Gundam: The Origin. “Dissenting opinions from within our firm—could we really issue a periodical based on one property?—were summarily suppressed by the success of Gundam Ace.”
As indicated on the cover of the first volume of Gundam Ace, which came out in the summer of 2001, Gundam: The Origin indeed takes up the majority of the magazine: 106 pages total.
Gundam: The Origin answers long-running questions about the original show
How did Char Aznable get his name? How did Dozle Zabi get his scars? All is revealed in The Origin, which acts as an accompaniment to Mobile Suit Gundam.
As one might expect from a manga that spans 12 English volumes or six OVA movies, the story of The Origin is extensive. It covers events decades before the original show and never-before-seen details of events during the events of Mobile Suit Gundam.
In The Origin, characters are portrayed more boldly and with more depth than viewers ever saw in Mobile Suit Gundam. This is partly because, at the time that he was writing the story, Yasuhiko had 20 years to reflect on and sharpen the finer points of Gundam worldbuilding. Char's laser-focus on revenge feels more justified after The Origin reveals the many injustices that have made up the background noise of his life, spanning since childhood. Small episodes in his life, like his exploits at the military academy, take on enlarged significance through Yasuhiko's detail-oriented storytelling. At the same time, The Origin makes us feel more empathy for the Zabi family he targets by depicting intimate family moments—like the way the stoic leader Degwin Zabi unexpectedly dotes on his youngest son, Garma. Such scenes add up to crystallize the message Gundam has always tried to convey in the most empathic terms yet: that war is complicated in its evils, and nobody goes unpunished.
But does it translate to TV?
This April, Gundam: The Origin came around in its latest form, a 13-episode TV series. It arrives in the wake of the poorly-received Gundam Unicorn RE:0096, a 2016 anime that compressed the Mobile Suit Gundam Unicorn OAV collection into 26 episodes. I was among the fans who complained that the conversion to TV did not go smoothly for Unicorn; awkward cuts and erratic pacing made it clear that it was initially meant to be viewed as several consecutive movies.
However, I have higher hopes for similarly manga-to-OVA-to-TV property Gundam: The Origin. For one, it's coming after Gundam Unicorn RE:0096's reception, which has given producers a heads up to what does and doesn't resonate with fans. Secondly, it will consist of a far more modest 13-episode run, which should be easier to handle, pacing-wise.
Gundam: The Origin is the pinnacle of the franchise's Universal Century timeline, highlighting the previously hidden details about how it all began. It's a late addition to the Spring 2019 anime season, but well worth a first look.
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