Yoshiyuki Tomino Doesn't Want You To Read This Articleby Lauren Orsini,
Tomino has never been coy about his dislike of “Cucuruz Doan's Island.” The fifteenth episode, which originally aired in 1979 during Mobile Suit Gundam's initial run on Nagoya Broadcasting Network, was a particularly off-model episode of an already strained production.
Still, Bandai complied, and the result was that episode 15 has never been released outside of Japan. Overseas DVDs, Blu-rays, and streaming versions of Mobile Suit Gundam all skip over the episode as if it never happened.
If Tomino had not attempted to conceal “Cucuruz Doan's Island,” it would probably be a forgotten footnote in the show's history. But since he did, the mystery around Gundam's “lost episode” has only grown. Now, even a feature film based on the episode is slated to open in theaters in 2022.
How did the director's least favorite episode become so popular, and was it really so bad to begin with? Let's explore the history of Mobile Suit Gundam's lost episode.
What's Wrong With “Cucuruz Doan's Island?”
There has never been an official reason given about why “Cucuruz Doan's Island” was excluded from all overseas releases. However, we can glean clues from a Q&A with the director held at Anime Expo New York on September 1, 2002. Anime News Network columnist Mike Toole was in attendance, and asked Tomino face-to-face about why “Cucuruz Doan's Island” was left out.
“I asked that it be skipped,” Tomino said through a translator. “There's a reason, but since the staff is still alive, I can't talk about it.”
Tomino has never been more direct than this, so we can't know for sure what his reason was. However, the most popular fan theory is that the episode simply isn't up to Tomino's standards.
From a narrative perspective, “Cucuruz Doan's Island” is a side story to the main plot of Mobile Suit Gundam. Protagonist Amuro Ray lands the Core Fighter on an island where he encounters a deserter from Zeon, the enemy nation in Mobile Suit Gundam. After he was shocked to find he'd orphaned three civilian children in combat, Cucuruz Doan leaves the war and instead uses his Zaku to defend the children and their caretaker, a young woman. It is the only time in the series that we meet a character who isn't affiliated with either side of the war.
There's nothing wrong with the plot, but the animation is another story. Doan's mobile suit is a spaghetti-slim Zaku that barely resembles the proportions of the heavyset enemy grunt suit seen elsewhere in the show. A particularly low point is at the episode's 18-minute mark, when Doan's Zaku's shoulders are flipped, showing the spike armor on the wrong side. Another famous moment renders the Gundam's head as hilariously inflated. Still, episode 15 is far from the only episode to have funny animation errors. Is it so much worse than anything else in Mobile Suit Gundam?
“Cucuruz Doan's Island” was only one casualty in a series of challenges plaguing the 1979 TV series' production. In the 2019 NHK documentary Making Gundam: The Inside Story, the production team on Mobile Suit Gundam spoke extensively about their difficulties creating the series, from a lack of resources to a lack of time. One of the biggest blows to the team came midway through, when art director Yoshikazu Yasuhiko faced an extended hospital stay. The diagnosis: pleurisy, a serious lung infection possibly accelerated by overwork. Without Yasuhiko to keep keyframes cohesive, Gundam's art became increasingly inconsistent in his absence.
“It was so hard to watch,” he said in Making Gundam, “I felt so bad. I couldn't give it my undivided attention. Every time I did I thought, 'oh no, that's wrong' or 'oh, that's so bad.' I was in a private room with a bed and kept pulling the blanket over my head until I was completely underneath unable to watch anymore. I would sneak a peek and see a terrifying Gundam staring back at me and think of how terrible it was. I feel bad for the people that worked on it, that's just the conditions they had to work with.”
It would be a tidy explanation to say that Yasuhiko's hospitalization was the reason for the problems with “Cucuruz Doan's Island,” except that it's difficult to pinpoint exactly when during the production the hospitalization occurred. Yasuhiko drew the character sheet for Cucuruz Doan, and therefore was at least partially involved with the episode. However, we don't know if Mobile Suit Gundam episodes were produced in the order they aired, and the character sheet indeed includes Yasuhiko's handwritten “#?” in the corner. What we do know is Yasuhiko is credited as animation director as late as episode 30. Even if he was out of commission for episode 15, it would certainly be unfair to blame the episode's issues on one person.
Another theory is that Tomino was unsatisfied with the animation produced by the Korean production company credited for key animation for “Cucuruz Doan's Island.” Gundam research podcast Mobile Suit Breakdown noted the credit to Anime Friend, a former Tatsunoko Pro subsidiary in South Korea, in the credits to this and only this episode of the original Gundam series. By eliminating this episode from distribution, Tomino could eliminate all of Anime Friend's involvement with the show.
Still another possibility – and the most far-fetched – involves the name of the young female caretaker on the island. Her name is spelled with the same katakana as “Loran,” the protagonist of Turn A Gundam, though the similarities end there. Perhaps Tomino didn't want to have two characters in the Gundam canon with the same name? We're looking at all the options here. The credit to this one goes to George Horvath, writing for Land of Obscusion.
It's frustrating to conclude, but we simply don't know why “Cucuruz Doan's Island” got the chopping block, and it's doubtful there will be answers as long as the staff is alive, as Tomino explained at Anime Expo New York 2002. And so the mystery lives on, only serving to fuel Gundam fans' outsized interest in the episode.
Gundam's Streisand Effect
As of this writing, “Cucuruz Doan's Island” still has never been released overseas. Conversely, this simply means that more people know about it than they would otherwise. It's the Streisand Effect in action: the more Tomino attempts to hide the episode, the more infamous it becomes.
“Cucuruz Doan's Island” might have been a forgettable throwaway episode, a consequence of a low budget and a strained animation team. But the mystery around its concealment has proved irresistible and is frequently used as an Easter Egg for fans. Here's a shortlist of Gundam products that reference the episode:
- Gundam Build Divers Episode 8 features an in-game event that takes place on an island that is obviously the same shape and size as Cucuruz Doan's island.
- The 2017 OVA Gundam Build Fighters: Battlogue sets the climactic battle between Sei and Tatsuya on—where else?—Cucuruz Doan's island.
- Doan's Zaku is featured in the Gundam Extreme Versus games as the primary non-Char Zaku. It looks like a regular Zaku this time, but its attacks are simply punching and rock-throwing, just like in the episode.
- In the Gundam Battle series for the PSP, Cucuruz Doan's Zaku appears as a special unlockable unit. This one preserves the off-model skinny look and features an expanded moveset with weapons like Small Rock, Middle Rock, and Fire Rock based on Doan's penchant for rock-throwing.
- Mobile Suit Gundam: The Origin MSD Cucuruz Doan's Island is a manga by Junji Ohno that expanded the episode's storyline into a five-volume manga. The series was serialized in Gundam Ace magazine from 2016 to 2019.
- And of course, the latest and most high-profile project will be Mobile Suit Gundam: Cucuruz Doan's Island, slated to open in 2022. The director will be none other than Mobile Suit Gundam art director Yoshikazu Yasuhiko. It's not too soon to guess that he'll have a much smoother time working on this than on the initial episode. Will the anime's “worst episode” become its best movie? Anything is possible.
The more time passes, the less “lost” Gundam's lost episode actually is. As of 2020 there finally has been an official English language release of the episode: the UC Libraries Blu-ray release of Mobile Suit Gundam, which includes the first and only official English subtitles for the episode. This Japanese release is import-friendly since Japan and the US are in the same Blu-Ray region (though at roughly 17,000 yen or about $150, it isn't exactly cheap.) The good news is that English speakers can finally check out this forbidden footnote in Gundam history and see for themselves if it's really as bad as they've heard.
Tom Aznable provided research assistance on this article.
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