by Kim Morrissy,

Mobile Suit Gundam Narrative

Mobile Suit Gundam Narrative
U.C. 0097, one year after the opening of "Laplace's Box." Despite the revelation of the Universal Century Charter that acknowledges the existence and rights of Newtypes, the framework of the world has not been greatly altered. The conflict later dubbed the "Laplace Incident" is thought to have ended with the downfall of the Neo Zeon remnants known as the Sleeves. In its final battle, two full psycho-frame mobile suits displayed power beyond human understanding. The white unicorn and the black lion were sealed away to remove this danger from people's consciousness, and they should now be completely forgotten. However, the RX-0 Unicorn Gundam 03, which disappeared two years earlier, is now about to show itself in the Earth Sphere once more: a golden phoenix named Phenex.

The only thing I knew about Mobile Suit Gundam Narrative before I watched it was that hilarious key visual showing three characters striking an awkward pose together. You might have seen it too because it was an Internet meme for a while. As amusing as that image was, it gave no indication of what this film was actually about. It turns out that Gundam Narrative has an interesting concept behind it. Set one year after the events of Mobile Suit Gundam Unicorn, this film covers what happens after the world has come to acknowledge the potential of Newtypes. There wouldn't be a story if human conflict ended as the characters of Unicorn hoped, and so begins a tale of three children torn apart by the so-called “promise” of the Newtypes.

In terms of the scale of events, Narrative feels smaller than Unicorn. The story is contained within a single 100-minute film, and the main conflict is interpersonal rather than world-shattering (although the possibility that these events could spiral into something larger is on everyone's minds). Much of the narrative's urgency came more from discovering what happened in the past rather than the present. Although Sunrise has promised that their current UC project will encompass more than just this film, I don't see how a continuation would work with these three protagonists, except as a means of filling in the blanks. By the end of the film, their story felt complete.

This isn't a film for those unfamiliar with the Universal Century timeline, which began with the very first Mobile Suit Gundam TV series and has continued through various anime projects for almost 40 years. Unlike Unicorn, which felt more like a continuation of themes rather than subplots, Narrative isn't so appreciable as a standalone story. It makes direct references to the original TV series, even recycling clips from the original in flashbacks and montages. There's no attempt to re-animate those old sequences with a more uniform style, so the film is left with a jarring contrast between old and new animation.

Even the story feels like an awkward mash of old and new. The film introduces a heap of returning characters and cameos; some matter to the final conflict, but most of them don't, and this ends up diluting the focus on the new characters. The story is supposed to be about three young people and their desire to stay together no matter what cosmic forces come between them, but even by the end of the film, they feel hardly developed at all. The character who suffers most from this is the antagonist, who came across as a mustache-twirling villain in the final act. Narrative also has a clumsy way of imparting information to the viewer. Almost all the important backstory for the principal characters is told via flashbacks that occur mid-battle. This ends up interrupting the flow of the action, especially after the third time it happens. Even worse, the opening act of the film is packed with ungraceful exposition as old men in various different rooms explain the plot, a sequence of events that genuinely put me to sleep.

And yet for all the deficiencies in the storytelling, the story does end up coming together well. The themes of Unicorn tie together with the climax of the film, and there's a sense of poetry in the end result. Even if it does cement my impression that Narrative is more of a Unicorn spinoff than a fresh take on the UC timeline like the Origin films, you should definitely watch this movie if you have any fondness for Unicorn at all.

Visually speaking, Narrative has its ups and downs. I found the character animation to be disappointing for the most part; the art was off-model from time to time, and the characters hardly moved around. I did like it whenever they frowned, because the thickness of the lines on their faces made their anger feel more tangible, which struck me as an interesting artistic decision. The action animation was solid, especially with the Mobile Suits. Although the Mobile Suits are rendered in CG, the film still sticks with the animation techniques and framing used in the original Gundam TV anime. For example, there isn't much 3D camera work, and the film frequently uses split screens to convey how characters are reacting inside their Mobile Suits as the action plays out. This means that the Mobile Suits come across less like robot tools and more like extensions of the humans inside them, as they should.

The key Mobile Suit in this film is the Phenex, a golden Unicorn Gundam with features like a phoenix. Although I'm ambivalent about the design itself, which is a little gaudy, I do like how it was depicted within the movie itself. Its true capabilities are not seen until the most dramatically effective moment, at which point the film reveals its most impressive visuals and music.

Overall, I liked Narrative, although not as much as I thought I would. The character writing and animation are too weak for me to recommend it wholeheartedly, even if the story had its strong points. It felt like too much fanservice for old-school Gundam crammed into too little movie. As a side note, it's funny that Mobile Suit Gundam is popularly regarded as a “real robot” anime because of mass-produced Mobile Suits like the Zakus, when the series is filled with “super robots” that are capable of changing the tides of battle singlehandedly. That aspect felt even more prevalent in this film, which had only several identifiable pilots, making the scale of the conflict feel smaller even if the damage they were causing was massive. Narrative is over-the-top in a way that blurs the distinction between the two categories even further, so I'll be interested to see what the hardcore mecha fans say about this one.

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

+ Interesting concept, ties in well with Unicorn's themes, solid music and action animation
Crams too many elements into a single story, characterization is sparse, weak character animation

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Production Info:
Unit Director:
Naoki Kotani
Shunichi Yoshizawa
Original Character Design: Kumiko Takahashi
Mechanical design:
Hajime Katoki
Eiji Komatsu
Producer: Naohiro Ogata

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Mobile Suit Gundam Narrative (OAV)

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