Beyond Diehard – Why Gundam Wing: Endless Waltz is the Preeminent Christmas Film

by Stephen Hero,

The tired and trite “Is Die Hard a Christmas Movie?” debate has plagued social media for years. Archival research suggests that the meme has been active since at least 2007, when platforms such as Twitter and Facebook were still in their infancy. Of course, Die Hard as a dark horse pick for best holiday film was by no means exclusive to internet chatter. But to the dismay of many, the discourse has ascended to national prominence after years of listicles and shallow op-ed pieces.

However, it seems that audiences are now beginning to bristle at the notion that Die Hard is in fact a Christmas movie, at least in the traditional sense. According to a recent YouGov poll, 44% of adults believe that the '80s action flick doesn't deserve to be included alongside other genre staples, compared with just 34% who do. And while genre definitions are inherently loose and subjective, these results are telling.

Surprisingly, little academic attention has been paid to contemporary cultural trends in relation to Christmas. One prominent exception is Christmas, Ideology and Popular Culture, a collection of essays edited by musicologist Sheila Whitely and published in 2008. In his piece on cinema, John Mundy discusses the patterns of “sentiment, nostalgia, and wish-fulfillment” that characterize the genre. There's a romantic appeal, a certain “magic” to these works that's unique to these films.

Maybe that's why audiences are reluctant to embrace Die Hard as the consummate Christmas movie—it lacks the schmaltz. But if so, there's a vacuum to be filled. What movie will smart-alecky conversationalists cite as the secret best Yuletide experience? Easy: Gundam Wing: Endless Waltz.

Gundam Wing concluded its original 49-episode run on March 29, 1996. While the ratings oscillated from middling to decently strong, the show garnered an enthusiastic fanbase. Sunrise, the financial and creative stewards of the series, quickly greenlit a sequel to satisfy fan demand. Endless Waltz, originally conceived as a three-episode OVA, came out the next year. A theatrical version with additional scenes and music followed in 1998 to commemorate the franchise's 20th anniversary.

The lavishly animated sequel picks up one year after Wing's climatic conclusion. The numerous Gundam pilots had spent months fighting—sometimes together, sometimes not—against the tyrannical forces (first the Earth Sphere Alliance and then its paramilitary offshoot OZ) that threatened to dominate the dozen or so space colonies that orbited Earth. Eventually, after a seemingly endless procession of military coups, diplomatic feints, and tactical errors, they found themselves battling a separatist group that planned to annihilate life on Earth. After preventing calamity, the survivors spend the sequel contemplating what it means to live in a demilitarized world as they take steps to ensure peace.

To its credit, Endless Waltz is tinged with far more pathos than its predecessor, which is one of the principal reasons why it's a more memorable—and better—work. It exudes a nearly palpable sense of holiday spirit, checking off all the requirements of a standout Christmas film: it hinges on nostalgia, features an evocative musical score, and cultivates a distinct atmosphere of comfort. Like the perennial favorites, it casts a spell over its audience, creating a fleetingly brief illusion of peace and goodwill in a world of hardship and strife.

An Idealized Nostalgia

Despite the rampant commercialism that now consumes the month of December, Christmas remains—at least in part—sentimental. As John Story puts it, “the invention of Christmas was driven by a utopian nostalgia: an attempt to recreate an imaginary past”. The various traditions that make up the holiday, both religious and secular, encourage participants to engage with memory. Crawling through a cobweb-infested attic to retrieve an assortment of ornaments does little for one's mental or physical health. However, the faded colors of an old tree-topper take on new dimensions once it illuminates a room covered in objects that evoke past joys. The annual routine of tree decoration, no matter how tedious, allows individuals to escape the concerns of their workday life and disappear into a dreamworld of their own imagining

Christmas films are much the same; they attempt to capture a heartfelt sense of longing. Consider Hallmark's annual slate of holiday films. True, these televised specials have been derided to the point of exhaustion; the jokes are just so played out it's almost as if they occupy a post-satire space. But public mockery aside, these archetypes resonate on an intimate level. The thirtysomething career woman who returns home only to find her steely-eyed resolve melted by an old flame and a newfound reservoir of Yuletide spirit, speaks to the desire to turn back the clock and bask in a romanticized past that never was.

Gundam Wing: Endless Waltz relies on nostalgia too. Of course, it assumes that viewers have watched the TV series. But even so, it goes so far as to erase elements of its predecessor to create a more uniform and dynamic version of prior events. Take the opening, for example. It begins with the final battle of the television show, as pieces of the derelict Libra battleship plunge toward Earth. Most jarringly, however, the five teenage protagonists now pilot five completely new Gundams (famously redesigned by veteran mechanical designer Hajime Katoki). There's no fanfare, the film doesn't try to put forward some ham-fisted reason as to why these signature mechs suddenly look different.

This subversion encapsulates one of Endless Waltz's greatest strengths: its ability to both lean into and challenge its own mythology in the most evocative way possible. There's this surreal quality to EW that's compounded by this turn away from continuity. It's a film of reunions and imagined what-ifs—"What if Treize had a daughter?”; “What if there was another Trowa Barton?”; “What if Operation Meteor wasn't as it seemed?”—as the creative team attempted to anticipate and deliver on fan expectations. As producer Hideyuki Tomioka admits, “the people called for an encore, so an encore they got.” And so Endless Waltz turns war-torn cityscapes into dreamscapes, to spectacular effect.

It's beginning to look a lot like...

Arguably, Christmas films have eclipsed the religious traditions that have previously defined the holiday. Annual screenings of cherished movies have become time-honored and sacred routines. As John Mundy points out, “movies, including their soundtracks, have become an integral aspect of our contemporary experience of Christmas festivities”. Bing Crosby's "White Christmas", Albert Hague's "You're a Mean One Mr. Grinch", even the Muppets' "One More Sleep Til Christmas" have transcended their cinematic origins to become fixtures of popular culture. Often tugging on viewers'—and listeners'—heartstrings, these festive songs allow audiences to connect to these stories on a deeply personal level.

Kow Otani's score remains one of the highpoints of Gundam Wing. As his subsequent work confirms, Otani is a versatile composer, classically trained but above all eclectic. Fans often highlight "The Wings of the Boy Who Killed Adolescence" as a standout piece for its pulsing and heart-pumping energy, but Otani also excels at quieter, more contemplative pieces. It's no surprise then that Otani was asked back to score Endless Waltz. And while he gets into the festive spirit, riffing a bit on classic holiday pieces, his work is overshadowed by the contributions of the Japanese pop duo TWO-MIX.

In 1995 Minami Takayama and Shiina Nagano formed the electropop band TWO-MIX. Memorably, they composed "Just Communication" and "Rhythm Emotion", the two opening themes for Gundam Wing. In addition to being incredibly catchy—renditions of their songs can still be heard in karaoke bars decades later—their music oozes passion and elicits a strong emotional response from listeners. Like Otani, Takayama and Nagano were asked to compose original music for Endless Waltz. They wrote "White Reflection" for the three-volume OVA and "Last Impression" for the theatrical recut. And while both pieces are tonally similar and take obvious cues from popular Christmas songs, there's a clear winner.

"Last Impression" plays approximately fifty minutes into the film. Our heroes, backs against the wall, watch as an army of Mobile Suits descend to Earth after a military coup has dramatically reshaped the political landscape on Earth. The narrator states, “As snow continues to fall, peace on Earth has ended after one short year...” Then the TWO-MIX song breaks in, shepherding viewers into a sentimental montage as the proverbial chess pieces move into place. "Last Impression" really elevates this sequence of clips. Not only does it prepare the audience for what's to come, building to the crescendo of the final battle, but it's such a revitalizing composition. Both songs lend so much personality to Endless Waltz and do crucial emotional labor.

A Warm Blanket

Divorced from its religious underpinnings, there's something reassuring about Christmas. Whether it's the reunion aspect or the potent iconography—a blazing fireplace, an array of twinkling lights, a steaming cup of hot chocolate—the holiday exudes a natural warmth, even for non-believers. This “romantic sensibility” translates to films, too. In fact, it's arguably the genre's main draw. And in this aspect, Endless Waltz delivers.

To its detriment, Gundam Wing doesn't really have atmosphere. The environments on display, like the bridge of the Peacemillion or the halls of the Saint Gabriel Institute, while sometimes pretty, fail to resonate emotionally. Sure, there's style to be had (remember the saber-rattling scene in the officer's mess hall?), but it lacks ambience. Endless Waltz, however, has a far better sense of place.

No doubt the animators at Sunrise took advantage of the increased time and money allocated to the project. The film is gorgeous, with each frame pulsing with an energy and dynamism that its predecessor lacks. But it even goes a step further. Like Christmas classics, the visuals in Endless Waltz are a mood. Whether it's Une looking below on the unsuspecting throngs of holiday shoppers as snow gently falls, or Dekim's army of mass-produced Serpents descending to Earth under similarly winter conditions, these scenes are surprisingly affecting. Perhaps it's just their proximity to the 25th—maybe the trappings of Christmas are casting a spell on me. But whatever the case, it works.


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