Reviewby Lauren Orsini,
Mobile Suit Gundam AGE
Blu-Ray - Collection 2
At 13 years old, Kio Asuno is drafted into the Hundred Year War against the Vagan, the same one that his father and grandfather fought before him. He's been told his whole life that the Mars-adjacent populace is a race of unrepentant killers, but after circumstance puts him face to face with Vagan children, he begins to have second thoughts. Armed with a powerful Gundam mobile suit and the capricious AGE system, Kio must decide whether he wants to fight the Vagan to live up to his family's expectations—or to respect his own principles.
Perhaps nobody was more disappointed by the conclusion of Mobile Suit Gundam AGE than fans who played the video game of the same name. The video game came out on August 30, 2012, giving fans a full month to play it to its poorly received conclusion—only to relive that same ending on September 23, 2012, the day the conclusion of the anime was simulcast in five languages (though not in North America) on YouTube. Level-5, the studio behind both the anime and the game, gave both properties an identical ending, and it wasn't a very good one.
In retrospect though, it makes perfect sense that Gundam AGE cribbed its ending from a video game. The structure matches that of any RPG, in which characters battle what they believe to be the enemy before a bigger, more powerful enemy appears by surprise in the last second. It's certainly a departure from the typical Gundam offering, but different isn't always good. What started as a fairly bland entry into Gundam canon devolved into a sometimes pointless, often maudlin, and frequently nonsensical conclusion.
The second half of the plot focuses around its weakest protagonist yet. Long before he has any formative experiences, he believes in the goodness of humanity—for no other discernible reason than that's what Gundam protagonists are supposed to do. He dutifully fights the Vagan (pro-tip: a Vagan is anyone with a Z in their name), but after a stint on the obviously “we're a stand-in for the Middle East” Vagan homeworld with his sad dying girlfriend (her wildest dream is to go with Kio to the most beautiful place she can imagine: the junk heap), he starts to question his father and grandfather's focus on exterminating the Vagan in earnest. It's an extremely typical conflict between generations, and its resolution has nothing to do with the many repeated scenes of attempted persuasion, but a hallucination involving Flit and his own dead girlfriend (who doesn't have one?) that could've happened way earlier.
The treatment of women in the second half is so egregious it deserves a mention. Every female character exists either to live for a male main character's sake—or die for it. The Federation's healthcare is so poor that Kio's mentor Shanalua has to become a Vagan spy to obtain medicine, even though we're told the Vagan are mostly ill or dying themselves. Romary greets her husband, who faked his own death and abandoned her for 13 years, with happy tears and a hug. Other women die specifically to spark epiphanies in an adjacent male (though just once, this trope is tragically reversed when it comes to the Diva's incompetent lady captain). It's worth mentioning since Gundam as a whole has an early tradition of female characters who are more than props. While people who fall in love in Gundam have always had targets on their backs, they're normally at least well-developed enough for viewers to miss them when they're gone. Perhaps Gundam AGE thought its younger target audience wouldn't notice any dearth of real emotional connection. If there was one Gundam custom to dodge, it wasn't this one.
Plot aside, these mobile suits look sick and they're beautifully animated as they glide through space. Even the three main Gundams, which are fairly generic, take on new life whenever the show's resident Deus Ex Machina, the AGE system, spits out convenient new equipment for them. Kio's funnel combat is magical to watch, and I loved discovering each new X-Rounder's gimmick. The stars of the mecha show are all on the Vagan side, and you can credit their experienced designer, Junya Ishigaki, who also worked on After Colony Gundam X, Turn A Gundam, and Mobile Suit Victory Gundam. Despite the undeniable coolness of the Legilis, I think my favorite is the unique and surprisingly powerful lemon with arms. Just like the people designs flaunt characters' identities through some truly extra hairstyles, the flair that makes these mobile suits stand out is sometimes a little silly, but always special.
None of the opening or ending songs particularly caught my attention in the second half, but the strong background soundtrack persisted. Not the case with the English dub, whose actors were starting to phone it in by the second half. Expect a lot of that stilted “we're trying to match the mouth movement” word filler, stuff like “It sure is something, is it not?” That's a direct quote. It's most obvious that this was supposed to be a kid-friendly show when you listen to it. There are some pretty goofy voices, especially those belonging to the show's children.
In the end, it wasn't the Vagan that Earth really had to fear, but a rogue experiment of Lord Ezelcant's who doesn't appear in battle until the final episode. The unexplained but convenient EXA-DB technology, is never particularly central to the fight, but almost single-handedly carries the conclusion. This final experiment, always called by his first and last name Zera Gins, is an unnecessary final threat who only becomes a problem once everyone else has decided to work together. “And then Earth and the Vagan teamed up and lived happily ever after,” the conclusion breezily explains. I won't spoil the specifics, but one major beef I have is that the Vagans decide to peacefully go back to Mars, after 1) fighting for Earth for 100 years and 2) the fact that they live on a space colony that has canonically been capable of hovering right next to Earth. We never get a full picture of Kio as an adult, either—by the time the war ended, the character designers were already on break.
What went wrong with Mobile Suit Gundam AGE? It simultaneously relies on its source material too much while trying to wildly subvert it. Its three generations match up with Mobile Suit Gundam, its sequel Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam, and Mobile Suit Gundam ZZ, but try to accomplish each homage in a third of the time. It features overt references to the previous canon, like a masked antagonist, and subtler ones, like three children who inexplicably live on a Federation military vessel, and with no reason for these things except reference, they feel hollow. It simplifies the typical “war is bad” messaging by dismissing it as Flit's stubborn refusal to get with the times—peace is what all the kids are into now, Grandpa. But it's not any form of cultural or generational connection that solves the problem, but the handy EXA-DB technology.
This sudden solution pulled out of nowhere is a symptom of a larger issue—there's hardly any tonal consistency as the story shifts from Flit to Asuno to Kio. Flit teams up with the mafia to save lives. Asuno just wants to have fun at school and catch up to his dad. Kio has an unearned and cliché desire for peace. It had a chance to say something interesting about understanding across generations and cultural barriers, but focuses on doing this in only the most superficial possible way. I haven't played the game but I expect it's a lot better than this—in a video game, slick designs and cool mechanics would do wonders to conceal a plot that simply doesn't have the emotional intelligence to resonate with viewers over the age of 10.
Overall (dub) : D
Overall (sub) : C-
Story : F
Animation : B+
Art : B+
Music : B
+ Fantastic mobile suit designs that are well-animated, consistent if kiddie character designs that differentiate its art from any other Gundam show.
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