by Michael Fitz-Gibbon,

Gundam UC

Volume 01

Gundam UC Volume 01
The year is Universal Century 0096, and Banagher Links is a student at the Anaheim Electronics Industrial College training facility at an incomplete space colony. There, he rescues a girl named Audrey Burne and helps her to evade capture by Zeon remnants known as the Sleeves. The Sleeves are after "Laplace's Box" an item the Vist Foundation has had in its possession since the beginning of the Universal Century which can be used to topple the Earth Federation government, and Cardeas Vist, the head of the family plans to hand them the key to it. Audrey, fearful of what will happen, wants to convince Vist not to give them the key. The Earth Federation's Londo Bell unit attacks the Sleeves and Banagher is drawn into the chaos.

Yoshiyuki Tomino's original Universal Century era of Gundam is given a strong revival in this first of six episodes of Gundam UC (titled Gundam Unicorn in Japan but referred to as Gundam UC for the American release), based off the light novel series by Harutoshi Fukui. The story addresses the very foundation of the timeline and the Earth Federation, as our main protagonist is swept up into a conflict involving something that could shake society itself. Themes of hope and forgiveness permeate the surface of this visually beautiful fifty-minute chapter.

Although this series is based on an established (but officially untranslated in English) light novel series in Japan, that they're playing with the very fabric of the Universal Century timeline is very intriguing. Never before has the beginning of the Federation been explored in a “UC” anime series. It was just there, and the viewer had to accept that. You could only guess at the origin or read the volumes of secondary source material (which, again, isn't available to a wide English-speaking audience). Here, by introducing a plot device that threatens to shake up the entire timeline, we learn so much about the very start of the timeline itself. They also integrate the concept of Newtypes and their role as well, albeit briefly, and there certainly are Newtypes in this initial episode.

Because the story involves Newtypes, and because it relies on a lot of established elements of Universal Century Gundam, it would be difficult to navigate without at least some experience with this timeline. Characters seem to sense each other instinctively from near or far. Technology is used with little or no explanation, and subjects are broached that, to a newcomer, would seem completely superfluous. Not only that, there are continuity nods that only longtime Gundam fans would recognize. Basically, this is not the recommended Gundam feature to start with; it's for longtime Gundam fans who know their way around the franchise's twisty continuity.

The main character, Banagher (which is surprisingly difficult to pronounce), seems somewhat like the typical UC Gundam lead, a young boy with parental issues and a tendency to do spontaneously dangerous things on a whim. However, there seems to be a bit less moodiness to him – he feels a little more centered. He's not quite the brooding and depressing lead fans might come to expect, even if he is a little impulsive and distant. Kōki Uchiyama, who voices Banagher in the Japanese language version of the show, is a relative newcomer himself. He's a strong performer, sounding a bit like Tohru Furuya's Amuro Ray in the original series.

The visuals feel like a blend of classic Gundam, taking advantage of modern animation techniques. The classic Gundam character designs by Yoshikazu Yashuhiko have been adapted here, providing a distinct look to the characters. The mechanical designs by Hajime Katoki are clean and stylish, without being overly complex. The mobile suits look more like war machines, and less like toys. The titular mobile suit, the Unicorn, is pretty plain, but still manages a stark contrast to the other mecha. There's also a strong sense of atmosphere to the artificial environments of the colony.

The voice acting is strong, especially from the leads, the aforementioned Uchiyama and Ayumi Fujimura, who plays Audrey. Even some of the secondary characters feel natural while belting out the often ridiculous dialogue. Takayuki Sugo steals the show in the final scenes as Cardeas Vist, though. The music, composed by Hiroyuki Sawano, is good enough. Sawano composed the music for Zombie-Loan, Soul Link, and Sengoku Basara, and his score here supports the most dramatic scenes without becoming overbearing. Chikai Kiriyama's singing debut, "Ryusei no Namida" ("Tears of a Falling Star"), the song that ends the first episode, is also very pleasant, if not altogether remarkable. There is an English-language dub that will be included on the bluray edition of this episode, however it was not provided for this review.

This first episode really feels like a short but impressive feature film, complete with a big budget and a movie-sized plot. If it has any kinks in it, it's that it still falls into the "boy pilots father's giant robot" storyline that's been a staple of mecha anime for decades, even though initially it didn't look like it would go there. However, Gundam UC, at least with this initial approach, tackles that well-worn story with a little more nuance than we've seen before. Otherwise, it's a beautiful entry into the Gundam franchise thus far and a promising start for Universal Century fans.

Overall : B+
Story : B
Animation : A
Art : B+
Music : B+

+ Excellent visuals, plays to the core of the Universal Century
Not for newcomers, falls into a few too many of the Gundam clichés

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