The Mike Toole Show
by Michael Toole,
I sat across from the producer, picking his brain, trying to figure out how it all worked. First of all, where was Gundam AGE? Everyone knew it was flopping out of the gate, sure, but it was being streamed on YouTube and a dub was being produced for television in Southeast Asia. Neither of these translations were on offer for fans outside of that region, though. “We'd prefer to have a broader strategy with that title,” he replied. “There are toys, plamo, other stuff – for a TV show, we'd like to have deals like that on the table before entering a market.” I kinda knew that one was coming, because those deals and expectations had always been part and parcel of Mobile Suit Gundam's foreign licensing, and why only subsidiary companies like Bandai Entertainment and Bandai Visual USA had really been able to make it work. But while the answer was logical, it didn't make a lot of sense for an admittedly weak entry.
I had another big question for Mr. Producer: why was Gundam Unicorn priced higher than everything else in so many markets? “It's a prestige release,” he countered. “The production values are very high, the quality of the show is good, and we believe that it's worth the premium price. Plus, we're including an English dub and subtitles across the board—that's key.” He had a good point there. Gundam Unicorn was planned to reel in adult fans of the franchise, and it sold like gangbusters in Japan. But it also seemed to do fine overseas – the existence of that dub meant that it could be rapidly exported all over the globe. Five years later, they're poised to do it all again with Gundam: The Origin.
Confronted with Gundam Unicorn's plot description, my brain spat out “Oh god, not another Universal Century show” and “Oh finally, another Universal Century show!” in equal measure. I think it's reasonable to strike a balance like that, you know? Loving UC Gundam and sometimes not wanting any more are my Betty and Veronica; it's possible to think of both at the same time. And to Gundam Unicorn's credit, it isn't a direct, immediate continuation of a major chapter's ending. It isn't another nutty dogleg in the mind of original creator and celebrated cranky old guy Yoshiyuki Tomino. Instead, it's a fairly challenging piece of work originally penned by an established SF author, Harutoshi Fukui.
Fukui gets an awful lot right in Unicorn, and it translates directly to the screen; director Kazuhiro Furuhashi has said that the author was heavily involved in the animated version's planning. Turns out that the conflict, sadness, and death that we all love about the original big, bad Mobile Suit Gundam goes all the way back to the founding of the Earth Federation and the establishment of the Universal Century calendar, with the organization's prime minister commemorating the planet's new commitment to cooperation and spacebound expansion interrupted by terrorists who kill everyone in the area, including themselves. That spark starts the slow-burning conflagration that eventually leads to every tragic war story that comes up 70 to 80 years later – a war story that, in many ways, is about the conflict between the ruling faction on Earth and separatists who live in space and establish their own nation, the Archduchy of Zeon.
In Gundam Unicorn's world, which takes place in Universal Century 0096 (a good 17 years after the famed One-Year War), Neo Zeon is still a thing; despite the spacebound nation being soundly beaten in the war and kept lean and hungry in subsequent conflicts; remnant groups still stick it out, opposing and attacking the Federation when they can. A schoolboy named Banagher Links is caught up in the conflict when he meets a mysterious young girl named Audrey Burne—a girl with a role in the Neo Zeon government who's trying to prevent her side from obtaining a secret weapon. At this point, the series pretty quickly drops back to the old Gundam fallback of teens try to keep the adults from killing each other. The big twist? Char Aznable, the missing-presumed-dead antihero of both the One Year War and numerous conflicts afterwards, is seemingly back, operating under the eyebrow-raising name Full Frontal (I have to hand it to the US producers, who described Frontal's driving motivation as “NAKED ambition” in a catch-up trailer).
Trying to absorb the plot of the 7-episode Gundam Unicorn is challenging, possibly even more taxing than swallowing gummi bears whole. I'm a longtime enthusiast of both Gundam and its Universal Century timeline, and I found the show demanding, even when it started to edge back to the refuge of familiar characters and situations from earlier shows, such as one of the many clones of Gundam ZZ's Elpeo. The character is a wacky (and terrifyingly skilled, pilot-wise) kid in ZZ; here, 7 years later, one of her many clones is a hardened professional soldier. After a certain amount of story, the name of the battleship Nahel Argama comes up, and the viewer will immediately start anticipating the arrival of Bright Noah, the ship's commander going all the way back to the original series, who's just as awkwardly charismatic as you remember him. When a pilot begs to join his crew, Bright snaps “I'll use you if I need you, just don't get yourself killed in the meantime.”
The cameos and roles by older characters are fun stuff for the UC fan, but the show rightfully focuses on Banagher, Audrey, and a few other characters on both sides of the conflict. Banagher's an interesting take on the typical Gundam protagonist – not naïve and terrified like Amuro, nor combative like Z Gundam's Kamille, nor wry and dynamic like ZZ's Judeau, Banagher is instead a bright and engaged engineering student who starts the series treating the Universal Century's fiery history of war like some sort of charming fiction. When he's dragged into the conflict, he's refreshingly direct, heatedly questioning the motives of everyone he encounters, all the way up to Full Frontal himself. But like Amuro, Kamille, and Judeau, while he may not want war, he's just too damn good at it, particularly when he receives a powerful mobile suit, the Unicorn, from a mysterious dying man who turns out to be his dad.
The family stuff is a theme of the series. Along with Banagher's mysterious forefathers, it turns out that Audrey is related to the Zabi family, the folks who ended up leading the separatist revolt of the Zeon colony that started the One-Year War. Audrey's later aided by a Federation pilot named Riddhe Marcenas, who turns out to be the great-grandson of that same assassinated prime minister from 96 years prior. His addition to the cast of characters is the smartest one—he fulfills the role of the committed, frustrated second banana, who tries to win the girl and engage in the conflict on his own terms, and ends up getting neither wish. To me, Riddhe's the most real and complex character in Unicorn; Banagher is a little too idealistic and perfect, Audrey's often downright heroic, but Riddhe deals with setbacks and personal meltdowns amidst the battles. He greatly dislikes Newtypes like Bahagher, and is unwilling to acknowledge that he's pretty obviously one himself.
Yep, I said “Newtype.” See, one of the biggest elements of Mr. Tomino's original Gundam was the idea that a new branch of the human race with fabulous psychic powers would emerge after a few generations lived in space instead of on Earth, and his subsequent chapters of the story all featured Newtypes. But plenty of the best Universal Century Gundam tales—stuff like Gundam 0080 and The 08th MS Team—put that stuff aside in favor of concentrating on good, rugged science fiction. Fukui's story brings Tomino's idea of new people back to the forefront, with both sides using Newtypes to their benefit, thanks largely to the ludicrously awesome mobile suits.
Gundam Unicorn's plotting is uneven and a little too convenient, and so its saving grace are the mobile suit battles. They are numerous—there's typically at least two eye-popping battle scenes per episode, For mecha battles that follow the “real robot” aesthetic, I'm hard-pressed to name any that are more bracingly exciting; director Furuhashi and his staff really fill the screen with hand-drawn (though sometimes CG-assisted) mecha action. My favorite bits are in episode 4, when Neo Zeon remnants utilize the exponentially deadlier suits and weapons of late-90s UC Earthside, to attack the Federation capital in Dakar. (Why is the Earth capital in Senegal? Why, indeed. It's never addressed. I love little mysteries like that.) The main pilots all get incredibly awesome unique suits. Bahagher's Unicorn is the kingpin, but Marida's Kshatriya, Frontal's Sinanju, and later Riddhe's Banshee, a powerful black answer to the Unicorn, are all awesome to watch in their own right.
In fact, in conversation with director Furuhashi and Banagher's own Japanese voice actor, Kouki Uchiyama (I was at a convention with them this weekend, natch), each man tipped Gundam Unicorn episode 4 as their favorite. It's not hard to see why; it's in episode 4 that the best battles happen, and it's in episode 4 that Banagher's ceaseless arguing with various authority figures finally crystallizes into a potent desire to step in and use the Unicorn to end the conflict. Later episodes are good, but not as good.
In fact, I'd say that the elephant in this show's room is the finale episode, episode 7. This episode wasn't part of the original plan—Gundam Unicorn was supposed to be six episodes, but it became apparent during production that a) the series was selling well enough for a seventh episode to be on the table, and more importantly b) Furuhashi said that if he hadn't gotten that final episde greenlit, he might have had serious problems getting the show finished properly, both from a narrative and a production perspective. As fans, watching the screen, we seldom think of stuff like this, but Furuhashi admitted that managing the show's labyrinthine plotlines and humongous production staff was one of the biggest challenges in his career, and one that had him mulling quitting the project more than once. For me, it's just interesting to picture a six-episode Unicorn; it seems like it was hard enough just to compress the book series’ plotline enough to get it into seven episodes, let alone six.
It's in this final episode that we see how Gundam Unicorn is both constrained and elevated by its devotion to its source material, Tomino's original UC tales. Veteran pilot Cruz, who'd previously served as both antagonist and inspirational figure to the other pilots, is tipped in the end as a tragic figure, sort of this show's Lalah sune, the powerful Newtype who brought the original's conflict to a head. I'm not really sure I buy that, it comes into the narrative pretty abruptly. For all the intrigue surrounding Full Frontal, he turns out to be pretty hollow and something of a gimmick; you suspect that even the character knew this all along. It all ends in a stupendous battle scene, a bunch of talking, a swarm of wacky Newtype ghosts, a big speech by Audrey, and a sliver of hope for the future. Gundam Unicorn is a rich, eye-catching part of the Universal Century's sprawling tapestry, but the manner in which it revisits the franchise's older themes gets a bit slavish in the home stretch.
Still, though, it's a good series. You know, mostly, I just couldn't stop thinking about how Riddhe's dad, Ronan, looked a little too much like Andy Richter. I kept waiting for him to wince a bit comically when he realized he'd set up his own son to fall with the rest of his faction's enemies.
At the beginning of this piece, I'd pointed out that Sunrise were poised to do it all again with Gundam: The Origin. The approach is the same—take a well-respected chapter of the Universal Century mythos, in this case Yoshikazu Yashuhio's excellent manga of the same name, and adapt it for the screen. Make the animation lavish and memorable, package it in a pricey collector's edition, and dub it into English so that American and European releases can ship out at the same time as the Japanese premiere, and voila. I've had other fans ask me if they thought this approach would work, but dude, just look at Gundam Unicorn. It already has worked. If you don't want to spend the big bucks on the collector's blu-ray, the show's rentable over a few different VOD services, and I'd put money on a priced-down DVD-only release down the road, which Unicorn has.
Gundam: The Origin has started off well, sticking to its source material and looking good doing it. In the comics YAS works his magic by humanizing Tomino's original One-Year War tale, providing more depth and background to the conflict. What's interesting to me about The Origin OVA is the way it casts Ranba Ral as a central character. Ral's a very interesting part of the Gundam world— he became a cult figure in the original series, because in a sea of scared and shellshocked kids (even Char wasn't that old in the original), you had this responsible, hardened professional pilot, an honorable man who had clearly Seen Some Shit in his time. His family's relationship to the rise of the Zeon forces and the Zabi family feels a bit too convenient at times, but I think the show was right to make him a major character. It's no mystery that a lighter, funnier version of the character is also basically the grown-up self-insert character in Gundam Build Fighters.
The other interesting thing about The Origin? Well, just story stuff. It's cool to see so many characters a decade earlier. We get to meet Zeon Daikun, who comes off as a weird cult leader. This surprised me, since the original seemed to cast him as more of a Simon Bolivar type. We get to meet the Zabi family, who end up leading the Zeon through a series of ruthless political machinations. There's even some screen time for the family's mysterious brother Sasro, though a sharp twist in the plot explains why we didn't see him in the original series. Beyond that, there are a few fun questions. Like, we all know that Project V was where the Federation's mobile suits came from, right? So what's with all the Guntanks, several years too early? Is this a retcon, or have I missed something about Gundam's apocrypha that explains it? Please take me to school, Gundam experts!
Ultimately, both Unicorn and The Origin are interesting projects—interesting in their sophisticated storytelling and high production values, clearly targeting an adult audience familiar with the Universal Century oeuvre, and interesting in the way that they're essentially being sold as swanky luxury goods. It leaves me curious about Gundam's future, a curiosity that was once again sparked by another meeting with the aforementioned producer this weekend. (If you couldn't tell from the mention of Gundam AGE, the last time I'd talked to the producer was in 2012.) Sunrise's panel presentation at Anime Boston had a few goofy moments (one of the franchise's associate producers entreated the audience to watch Tomino's new G-Reco “when it becomes available,” seemingly unaware that its YouTube telecast had already started; later, one of the producers would start to talk about a future project, with the other hurriedly cutting in to point out that it was too soon to publicly comment on the in-development show), but I'm feeling a little better about this Gundam business than I did in 2012. One of the longtime questions surrounding the franchise has been about how to engage new fans, and Gundam Build Fighters seems to have made an impression in that regard. Now, Sunrise will have to get all of these Gundam BF fans who aren't invested in the other shows into Gundam as a whole. How will they do it? We'll see. I don't think The Origin is the answer to that question. What nags me about Gundam isn't just the unavailability of some of the catalog (we've been waiting for years for Turn A, which finally comes out in English this summer), it's the fact that there's a huge quantity of stuff that's already been dubbed and subtitled. I'd kinda like to see Sunrise get that stuff—stuff like 0080, and Gundam Seed, and G-Gundam—back in reach of viewers. Just like the Unicorn, the big bad Gundam franchise is all about possibility and untapped potential. What's in the mysterious Laplace's box? Well, maybe it's a solid plan to make Gundam truly global again.
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