Mobile Suit Gundam (1979)

If, like me, you were a child of the 80s then you’ll remember cartoons such as ‘He-Man’, ‘Transformers’ and ‘Thundercats’ as big part of your childhood. But do you have dim memories of ‘Battle of the Planets’ and the ‘Star Fleet’ puppet action series? If so, then you came terribly close to Gundam. Earlier this year, off the back of ‘Deathnote’ and ‘Attack on Titan’, my other half suggested we try ‘Gundam 00’, a recent anime show–and we loved it. My other half has since gotten into Gundam in a big way and I imagine I will be surrounded by plastic robots that he has spent weeks painstakingly piecing together and I must never touch for fear of breaking them. Turns out that ‘Gundam 00’ was just the latest iteration in a 36 year old run of series. So… we thought… why not try and watch them all?

So we started with the very first series ‘Mobile Suit Gundam’ and its 43 episode run…

Set in 2079 humanity has spread beyond earth as a federation of colonies on planets and massive space stations. One faction, Zeon, has declared itself independent and sparked a war, and while Zeon was outnumbered, their giant mecha battle suits helped them hold their own against the federation forces. A young boy, Amuro Ray, is swept up into the war when Zeon forces attack their colony, and thrusts him into the controls of the Federation’s own prototype advanced Gundam–the Gundam RX-78. It just trips of the tongue. Amuro and other survivors, many of them children, are forced to take refuge in a lone Federation warship, the Whitebase, which falls under the command of inexperienced Captain Bright Noa. Together they form an unlikely and often uneasy crew, first to fight for their escape from the Zeon, and then, through their proximity to Zeon they are tasked to take the offensive. All the while they are pursued by the Zeon hero, Char Aznable ‘The Red Comet’.

‘Mobile Suit Gundam’ is something of a curiosity. It’s a kids’ show, that’s certain from the streaks of silliness in the action and the animation, and the occasional simplicity of the plots. Yet it has a curious tone which on one hand seems to want to make something of the morality of its lead being a 15 year old thrown into fighting a war, but then seems to get distracted by robots fighting one another. I mean ROBOTS fighting ROBOTS! Awesome! Which, fair enough, is quite distracting–and cool.

The relationships between the characters are a little off, and I don’t know how much of this is a cultural thing, or how much is literally lost in the translation–we watched the dubbed version. I know. Lazy. Whatever is going on, it’s fair to say that the characters don’t really get along all that well… Or at least they seem to be written in a way that gives that impression. Whatever it is, this isn’t a folksy crew of friend companions here.

The adults in Bright and Mirai act as father and mother to the young crew, on one hand questioning the nature of using kids to fight, and then berating Amuro and the others for being childish (kids tend to do that) and Bright isn’t afraid to slap Amuro about to teach him a lesson–in what has become known as ‘the Bright slap’, and remind the kids that they are soldiers now. I guess it’s something about the age of the show that made an adult slapping a kid seem a little shocking–for a kids’ show. There’s another scene where Mirai is reunited with her fiance which she isn’t that enamored with–only for a male crew member to slap her for the disrespect. Yup. Slapping people towards your point of view. Great message for the kiddies. Just seems a little odd.

All that said though, while there is little characterisation, this isn’t a show of black and white good and evil. These are people pulled apart by war and the heroes and villains are not as clear cut as you might expect. Sayla, one of the Whitebase crew, has a secret, and they end up with a spy on board. The villains certainly have their own agendas. There are also boobs. Yes, I know, I just dropped random boobs. But when was the last time you watched a kid show and suddenly one of the female characters is in the bath or shower and there’s boobs. There’s also little kids naked and being showered down. It’s a funny scene, but still, just seemed a little weird… And moving on… There are a handful of characters that do stand out, Kai the cynic who starts off as a bully but ends up fighting alongside Amuro, along with Hayato. There are moments where its all fun robots fighting and then you are reminded how these three are just kids–fighting in a war. Along with Mirai and Bright I did find myself caring about these characters, especially in the close calls they have in the frequent action scenes.

Nearly ever episode the narrator asks ‘who will survive?’ the next episode. It wears a little as deaths are not really that frequent, but when they do they aren’t sanitized–people burn up, get shredded or impaled. A lot of it is implied but it still seems more than I ever remember in my regular 80s cartoons. There was one–a sacrifice–and it really packed a punch as the characters just completely fall apart with the guilt. Seeing Bright lose it and fall on his hands and knees crying. It’s uncomfortable. Like seeing a parent cry. I don’t know how it would’ve affected kids at the time, but I don’t mind saying that it got me in the feels.

The oddness continues within the stories themselves. Just why does Char wear a mask? If he was live-action he’d be a dashing blonde hotty–but he wears a mask. Even when he’s kicking back with his buds. It’s not always clear what the over all story is either, often being Amruo and co fighting a robot-of-the-week, and the direction of the Whitebase and the show isn’t always that well fed to the viewer–where are they going? What’re they doing? Kids probably don’t think too much about such things, so perhaps I’m overthinking it. You’re not left hanging for long, though, as a mission will suddenly give the show purpose, an enemy will rise and the episodes will follow a mini story arc into a showdown.

The series shoe-horns in a Jedi-like force power aspect in the last quarter of the run, where certain characters seem to develop a spiritual affinity with their machines and an oneness with the universe, and suddenly everyone’s talking about ‘newtypes’–humans with powers–like it’s a thing. It really really wasn’t. That, along with beam sabers *cough ‘lightsabers’ cough* suggests a little borrowing from a certain movie that was pretty big the year before this was rolled out, but despite these little ‘similarities’ Gundam strikes out enough on its own to not feel like a rip off.

It’s 36 years old, so the animation isn’t as slick as today’s standards, but the series does some good world building, delivers some likeable characters, can be fun, and while it is a little cobbled together and a quite odd, it’s never dull and definitely worth checking out if your inner child needs some vintage cartoons in its life. Not one for a binge watch though. I’d give it 3 robots out of 5.

Have you seen it? What did you think?

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