The Mike Toole Show
Gundam of the Century

by Mike Toole,

Last month, MS Igloo, the oddball 3DCG member of the Mobile Suit Gundam family, came out on Blu-Ray, finally replacing the long out-of-print Bandai Visual USA release. I mentioned this on my Twitter, and got a response from a fan asking if this meant that all of Universal Century Gundam had finally been released on DVD or Blu-Ray. I responded that he was correct, because I was pretty sure he was. It sounded like a reasonable assertion to make, right? You got the TV shows from First Gundam to V-Gundam (or Turn A Gundam, if you like), you got the movies and OVAs… heck, even Gundam Evolve got a DVD release! That's pretty much all of it, right?

Of course, I was wrong. Or was my Twitter pal wrong, for suggesting it in the first place? Well, I get it wrong most of the time, so I'll take the responsibility. I realized my error last week, when I got a copy of the Zeta Gundam: A New Translation movies in the mail. Yeah, alright, but those movies are an easy thing to overlook, right? And since they're back in release, isn't all of UC Gundam now available for fans to enjoy? The answer is no.

Before I elaborate, I wanna talk about those Zeta Gundam movies, because they're such a weird product. Back in June, at Anime Next, I was talking to the boys from Trigger, who'd graciously taken a moment to sign my fanboy crap. I had a copy of G-Reco: Reconguista in G for Shigeto Koyama to sign, because he'd done some of the design works for the series. We got to talking about the show, about its dense, jargon-heavy dialogue and about how the series director Tomino made a snap decision to change the title from “Reconquista” to “Reconguista” (I always thought this was daffy, but weirdly elegant), and then I did what I always do when I'm confronted with someone who's worked with Yoshiyuki Tomino: I asked Koyama for his Tomino story.

This is something I talked about with the Anime World Order crew a few weeks ago on an episode about Tomino's completely incomprehensible Aura Battler Dunbine redux Wings of Rean. If you're at a convention or appearance and have a chance to speak to a Japanese creator who's worked with Tomino, just ask them what that was like, about their impression of the man. Over the years, I've heard a range of stories, from Romi Park's tale of him bursting into the recording booth to explain in detail how it felt to be kicked in the balls, to Yasuhiro Imagawa recounting Tomino's expansive ideas about Newtypes. (Hint: as babies, we are all Newtypes, but we lose our special powers as we get older.) Koyama didn't have a specific story, but as soon as Tomino was brought up, he whipped up this fun little doodle of the man:

I told them my favorite Tomino story, which is the one about the autograph session at Anime Expo 2002. After a pretty lively Q&A panel, Tomino abruptly announced that he was ready to sign autographs. This was not on the schedule, so a handful of us rushed up to him and got some items signed. (I was one of the lucky few.) After dealing with the scrum for eight or ten minutes, Tomino announced that the signing was over and there'd be no more autographs. If there were any autograph sessions left on the grid, they were canceled.

Fifteen years after that moment of weirdness, Yoshiyuki Tomino remains one of anime's most compelling, polarizing figures. Not too long after AX2002, Tomino began work on a new Gundam project: a trilogy of compilation films based on Zeta Gundam, with brand new footage and a new ending! Man, I have to tell you, I spent years and years avoiding these movies like the plague, because they just sounded like the worst thing ever. That might seem harsh, considering that the original trilogy of Gundam films uses the same concept and is arguably better than the TV series it retells, but something about marrying 20-year-old cel animation with state of the art digital animation just rubbed me the wrong way. My suspicions seemed to be borne out by the poster art, which looked fantastic but depicted versions of Kamille, Quattro, and the other Zeta Gundam characters that looked startlingly different from the original promotional artwork. Adding to the discord was a raft of new songs by glam rocker and celebrity Gundam fan Gackt, whose moody, guitar-driven rock also sounded nothing like the lilting, winsome Neil Sedaka-built anthems of the original. (Here's a Tomino story: he's a big Sedaka fan, so he licensed some of the pop legend's music for Zeta Gundam. He then rewrote the lyrics completely, under his pen name Rin Iogi. This is something that's allowed in Japanese music publishing licensing, but it's a big no-no in the west!)

At some point, I peeked at the DVD version of A New Translation, because I just couldn't help myself, plus this was during Bandai Entertainment's fire sale so I got em for $3 per disc. What I saw, briefly, was about as dire as what I expected. In short, they used a filter to make the digital animation appear to have film grain, so it'd look more like the TV series' blown-up 16mm (and, sometimes, 35mm) film. On DVD, it didn't work at all—the TV footage looked about how you'd expect, and the new digital animation clashed with it. It was akin to trying to stitch Star Wars prequel footage to the unremastered original.

But when I revisited the films this week, I noticed something that surprised me: Blu-ray's higher resolution makes the aforementioned film grain effect a little less in-your-face. Suddenly, I understood why these movies did reasonably well in Japanese theatres—the big screen is oddly forgiving of Tomino's approach to retelling his classic TV series. And the movies really are different—there are tweaks to shot timing, order, some shuffling of incidental music, and some redone dialogue. The new animation is uniformly excellent, especially the mecha stuff, and there's way more of it than I was expecting. I'd spent years thinking these movies were a sidebar, totally expendable, but they're actually decent. Decent, that is, provided you've seen the TV series. If you haven't, they're largely indecipherable blasts of dialogue and story, punctuated by hot mecha action. Like, there are major characters who just go through the movies without even really being introduced, because Tomino had a lot of ground to cover and just skipped over those parts. Also, as good as the new animation is, it can't gloss over the way that character designs subtly shift, from old to new. For example, let's take Four Murasame:

Then again, maybe I'm being a little unfair. Several really good artists have gotten the chance to draw Four, but nobody did it as good as Yasuomi Umetsu:

One other thing about these movies caught my notice, and that's the continued use of the term “Cyber-Newtype” instead of the actual spoken term “enhanced human,” to describe characters like Four who have psychic Newtype powers due to conditioning or surgical enhancements, rather than being far-out space babies. This is one of those interesting little retroactive continuity terms that Sunrise introduced after they started unifying terminology in the late 90s and early 2000s, when they realized that Gundam was finally going global and it wouldn't be productive to have people arguing over whether it was spelled “Jion” or “Zeon.” See, every now and then, someone asks Sunrise about the old Southeast Asia dub of ZZ Gundam, and the Sunrise rep politely responds that the dub wasn't produced by them and they have no information about it. But that dub uses the term “Cyber-Newtype,” which indicates that, if nothing else, the studio was using translation notes from Sunrise. That's just a piece of minutiae that I find interesting. Another thing I find interesting: the teaser image at the end of the first Zeta Gundam movie, advertising the second. Just look at Beltorchika and Four, leaning against the title jauntily, as if to say “Yep, one of us is definitely gonna die!”

Anyway, the Zeta Gundam movies are proof that, as odd of a figure as Tomino is, his cinematic sensibilities are still formidable. As a Gundam fan, my only complaint about them is the steamrolling of characters like Four, because you can tell that Tomino struggled to find a good place for her in the narrative of three 100-minute movies instead of 50 TV episodes. The same thing happened to a few other characters, like Jerrid, Kamille's hapless rival, an amazing tragicomic figure who bumbles his way through the entire series, getting both friend and foe killed. Oh, well. At least, in this exciting new retelling, evil bridge officer Jamaican's face is as tiny as ever:

I started this piece off by pointing out that we still don't have all of Universal Century Gundam on video in North America. If you're a Gundam-head, you probably nodded sagely, thinking of how we're sadly deprived of the magic of SD Gundam. You're not wrong—heck, I mentioned SD Gundam in one of my first ANN columns ever. Since then, it came back in print on DVD in Japan, and then went back out of print again. But I'm actually talking about a fresh new Gundam series for the new era: Gundam-san!

Gundam-san is only three minutes long, and is usually about one of three things:

  • Char is a complete prat;
  • Amuro is a little pervert; or
  • Other.

“Other” covers a few bases. One of them involves making fun of the weird pose that Bright makes after he smacks Amuro in the face. In another episode, Degwin Zabi plays the role of a dumb, flatulent dad. My favorite episode concerns the notion that there's an actual person who squeezes into the tiny, spherical mascot Haro, and that person is a hangdog working class dad just trying to get through his shit job. Gundam-san is remarkable, and it's part of this whole mini-genre of parody shorts of famous shows like Gatchaman and Lupin the 3rd. I want all of these things, because they're not simply silly cartoons; they provide fascinating context about how Japanese viewers think of these characters and stories.

Gundam-san is rich with funny moments and great voicework. Shuichi Ikeda returns to infuse the proceedings with his grave, smoky delivery—only instead of voicing Char, he plays the above character, a chicken version of the character. Why is there a chicken version of Char? I reckon we'd have to read the original Gundam-san 4-panel manga to find out. The thing is, while SD Gundam is lengthy and will require nuanced translation and expert subtitling to really squeeze all of the jokes and references in, Gundam-san is way shorter and simpler. Therefore, I challenge Sunrise and Right Stuf to break with the established convention of quietly ignoring these weird little gag cartoons, and release Gundam-san! Maybe they can squeeze it in after they release SD Gundam Force and Gundam Age. Once that comes out, we'll definitely have all of Universal Century Gundam on home video in North America.

Then, at last, our souls will no longer be held down by earth's gravity, so we can switch to the manga side and focus on bullying Vertical into releasing Tony Takezaki's Gundam!

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