Gundam is one of the most well-known, influential, and highly regarded franchises in anime history. At this point over three decades old, many changes have occurred in Gundam, but none may be as interesting or so able to fulfill its potential as 1999’s Turn A Gundam. Created to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Gundam and directed by the creator of Gundam himself, Tomino Yoshiyuki, it differs in many ways from other iterations, notably in its setting and aesthetics, but at the same time does wonders with everything it has. It shores up many traditional weaknesses of Gundam and Tomino’s work, and brings a variety of interesting twists to Gundam that don’t just come across as differences merely for the sake of them, resulting in just an all-around strong, engaging, and multifaceted story.
In stark contrast to every other Gundam series in current existence, Turn A Gundam takes place on an Earth with roughly World War I-level technology and social standards. In an age of biplanes and debutantes, the world is flipped upside down when lost descendants of humanity from the moon return to the planet with intentions to emigrate. Because the humans on Earth see this “Moonrace” as alien invaders taking away the land of their ancestors and the Moonrace sees the Earthlings as backwards barbarians prone to violence, tensions rise.
The only things keeping the scenario from boiling over and the Moonrace from wiping out the opposition with superior technology are the fact that the political scenario is not as simple as “Us vs. Them,” and the discovery of ancient and seemingly anachronistic “mechanical dolls” (what the people of Earth call mobile suits) in the mountains, particularly the powerful and mysterious “White Doll.” Caught in the middle of this conflict is a Moonrace boy living on Earth named Loran Cehack, whose love for both his original and adopted homes pushes him to pilot the White Doll in an effort to prevent all-out war from breaking out.
There are certain phrases thrown about when reviewing anime, such as “character-based,” “theme-based,” “story-based,” and “world-based,” as if these categories are mutually exclusive or even contradictory, but Turn A Gundam is a series which strongly delivers on all these levels and more because of the way all of those components reciprocate with one another. The history of the world shapes the thoughts and backgrounds of the characters, who act within that world to create a grand story with many intricate elements, and it ultimately results in the delivery of certain themes, such as “the strengths and weaknesses of technological progress” and “awareness of history,” by taking a large-scale, global perspective and focusing it through smaller and more intimate character struggles.
This can be seen in the way the series portrays the constant clash of values and beliefs at various levels and between different people, consistently showing how many of the people involved are intelligent or enlightened or even kind-hearted in their own way, but are prone to mistakes due to the limits of their experiences. An archaeologist who cares little for religion and ceremony is so intent on digging for the sake of knowledge that he ends up exacerbating the conflict between the two sides by uncovering powerful military technology. Politician characters possess the negotiation skills and long-term thinking necessary to balance out their followers’ shortsighted and hotheaded reactions to the deaths of their comrades, but their high ambitions blind them to their own misdeeds. Qualities praised in soldiers, such as valor and daring, become problematic in the face of dangers well beyond their comprehension. As such, when these characters and many more sabotage themselves it comes across as perfectly understandable.
The cast of Turn A Gundam is absolutely gigantic, but it never comes across as too unwieldy for the show. Civilians and soldiers alike are given proper time and elaboration, and it really makes Turn A Gundam feel like a comprehensive world populated by real people. Loran is a gentle soul, but not one whose desire for peace prevents him from taking action, and over the course of the series is simultaneously built up and torn down by events both within and out of his control. Dianna Soreil, the leader of the Moonrace, is beloved by her people, but must deal with not only the difficulties of being opposed by Earth militias but also political infighting on her side. Her personal bodyguard, Harry Ord, is a loyal and admirable man, but one who over the course of the series shows how he is not blind to deception or his own feelings. Neither of Loran’s companions from the moon, Keith Leijie and Fran Doll, are soldiers or anything close to it, yet their stories about trying to start new lives on Earth are just as strong.
The Heim sisters, the adopted family of Loran (pictured in the middle below), or more accurately, the masters he works for as a servant, probably grow the most in the series. The tomboyish Sochie (left) must deal with her prejudice and anger against the Moonrace, while Kihel (right) and her uncanny resemblance to Dianna puts her in a situation central to the story, where she must push her already clever mind to its limits. Even extremely minor characters exude a sense of place in their world, and in some cases a lack of sense of place actually winds up becoming a strong defining trait in and of itself.
Also contributing to the strength of the show’s cast is the fact that the romance is actually extremely well done. Traditionally this has been a weakness of Tomino’s anime, particularly in the Gundam franchise because it is often ran through at an accelerated rate so that it can be a plot point or cause for tragedy, but Turn A Gundam manages to provide relationships which grow organically over time, particularly the two most prominent ones in the series. In these cases, the characters don’t so much have a moment where they Fall in Love, but rather as you watch them you see how they grow closer. Even the relationships which are a little more fast-paced are given reason in the series itself: in a situation like war, people start to think about their own mortality and regrets.
Possibly one of the reasons why the romance comes across so well is that many episodes are devoted primarily to showing people living out their lives amidst the backdrop of war, what might be deemed sillier episodes but which work to build the characters further. For Loran in particular, he is able to show how the White Doll, the titular “Turn A Gundam” as is revealed later, can function as more than just a weapon of destruction, and even the instances where he ends up having to crossdress (apparently an enduring legacy of Turn A if fanart is any indication) becomes both a plot point and a hint for later character development. War is shown as both the forefront and the background depending on the episode, and it creates a more robust setting as a result.
One topic that is difficult to avoid when discussing Turn A Gundam is the aesthetics of the show because of how the series visually sticks out among its fellow Gundam anime. Central to this is the fact that the Turn A itself is a far cry from the traditional Gundam design, and I remember that back when the series and its visuals was first announced there was a backlash against it. Designed by American Syd Mead (Blade Runner, Tron), the style of the Turn A, with its signature white mustache and strange angles, seemed to go against the image of Gundam that had been cultivated over the years. Even over a decade ago I jokingly photoshopped the Devil Gundam from G Gundam onto a Turn A Gundam head and called it “The Ugliest Gundam Ever.” But now, my opinion of the Turn A Gundam is that it not only looks good, but that it fits the role of a Gundam far-removed from those that have come before it. Over the course of the anime, the “White Doll” plays many roles and carries with it the question of to what degree can we break from the past, and this break in design says a lot in and of itself.
What’s even more impressive to me, however, is that each of the robot designs in Turn A each are strikingly different from one another in a clear manner even, I would argue, when the person watching doesn’t have a particularly keen eye for mecha. The ostrich-like WaDOM looks nothing like the “muscular” Sumo, and even when it shares the same color scheme as the WaD their sheer difference in size makes it plainly obvious which is which. At the same time, the mobile suits of the Moonrace share a certain similar aesthetic quality which unites them thematically.
Compare this with the mobile suits of Zeon in the original Mobile Suit Gundam, where even though there is a clear direction for enemy design, it can potentially be difficult to tell a Gelgoog from a Zaku from a Dom, or from a later series like Gundam W or Gundam 00, where the “Gundam design rules” mean the differences are primarily in little details like weapon types or color schemes or what sits on their backs. With Turn A Gundam, even the retro Mobile Suits found over the course of the series by the people on Earth are so different from each other and everything around them that they gain individual identities all over again.
Like the mobile suits, the characters have a particularly strong pedigree somewhat outside of traditional mecha anime, as the character designer for Turn A Gundam is Yasuda “Akiman” Akira, a man known for his work on the Street Fighter franchise, particularly the creation of Chun-Li. Also like the mecha, the characters and animation for the series don’t seem to carry the best reputation, often times regarded as “okay” or “serviceable” due to the simplicity of the designs, but in my opinion the character designs are excellent.
The designs are deceptively elegant, and that “simplicity” gives me an impression similar to Yasuhiko Yoshikazu’s original designs from the first Gundam. Careful attention is paid to details such as clothing and hair without going overboard, and even the sparse shading contributes to a more refined and subdued look. Much like the mecha, the characters all stand out uniquely at a glance, with one notable (and intentional) exception in Kihel and Dianna.
If I had to describe Turn A Gundam using other anime titles, I would say it has the thematic elements of Panzer World Galient, half the grandeur of Legend of the Galactic Heroes (which keep in mind is still a vast amount), and characterization on the level of Eureka Seven. The show is amazing. It’s gripping in a way that shows Tomino at his finest, with its balance of heavy elements with a sort of lighthearted whimsy which also manages to enrich every aspect of the story, its characters, and its ideas. As I finished Turn A Gundam, I could feel it taking over my thoughts and emotions. It’s amazing, and I can’t get it out of my head.