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Last spring marked an unusually robot-heavy season of anime where three mecha shows, Gargantia on the Verdurous Planet, Ginga Kikoutai Majestic Prince, and Valvrave the Liberator, took three different angles each of which had their own unique appeal. I originally wrote about them as a package, so now with all three shows finished (aside from the fact that Gargantia has another series on the horizon) I figure it’s best to look back on them all at once.
Ginga Kikoutai Majestic Prince, which had a strong tokusatsu or even 90s anime feel to it, ended up progressing almost as expected, but without it being tedious or losing something in the process. In shows like Majestic Prince, there’s usually some sort of humble beginnings, in this case the main heroes being the “losers” of their class, and comedy gives way to a more serious story as the narrative progresses until it ends up in a giant space battle. It’s par for the course, but while I can’t say Majestic Prince will change the way we think about giant robot anime, I do find that the show is a little bit of everything, nothing in particular that screams, “Wow, this is amazing!” but lots of minor things done well which make for an overall satisfying experience, and a more consistently forward-moving story compared to Gyrozetter. It’s a popcorn anime, something you might show to an anime club or a group of friends to relax, where you find yourself gradually more invested by the final string of episodes. Because of this, Majestic Prince is the show I simply have least to say about, though I do want to point out that it has one of the most memorable death lines ever. You’ll know it when you hear it.
Although Majestic Prince isn’t a show I can talk about too extensively in terms of conceptual or thematic depth (it skims the surface of topics like genetic engineering and human behavior at the very mosy), Gargantia on the Verdurous Planet is the strongest of the three shows in terms of both its ideas and how it presents them. Its initial format, where Ledo, a boy from another galaxy who knows only war, is exposed to the everyday lives of the Earth characters and their concept of family, acts as a part of the science fictional exploration of its world and which become the backdrop for the show to reveal its secrets was somewhat of a source of disagreement and controversy. As people wondered how the story would turn out, there were both complaints that Gargantia spent too much time focusing on the daily lives of characters and that it too much time on its narrative drama. Personally, I think it ended up striking a very nice balance, as we got to learn about the culture of Earth away from the galactic war which they were ignorant of (perhaps for the better), but when it came time to get “serious,” the show effectively used the context it established to make the circumstances and solution directly connected to the characters’ “everyday.”
Significantly, the series did not do the predictable thing and “bring the war to the people.” Instead, it brought the philosophy and ideas which came out of the eternal state of war in which mankind out there in space had become accustomed to, and challenged the people of the Earth (as well as the lead Ledo) to confront and address them. The everyday lives of the characters became the very “weapon” by which they could defy the way of thinking imposed by the world Ledo comes from, and I think there’s a lot to think about in that regard.
Out of the three anime, however, I suspect Valvrave the Liberator will, if not be the most memorable show, stick around the longest in the overall consciousness of anime fandom, though not necessarily for the best reasons. The rape scene in Valvrave is going to remain infamous, and it’s something which is impossible to ignore but also shouldn’t define the entire show. I really think the creators of the show wanted to use it for dramatic purposes but didn’t quite understand what they were getting themselves into, evidenced by the fact that they eventually just drop the subject after some questionable followups. Whether that’s better or worse than keeping at it, I’ll leave you to decide that, but one thing I will say is that having the victim still be in love with her attacker doesn’t inherently make for a bad or “harmful” story, as Watchmen manages to deftly incorporate something similar into its narrative and point out the difficulties associated with such a circumstance.
I was once asked why I kept up with Valvrave even though the show has a lot of odd and nonsensical twists to it, and I explained that the appeal of the show for me was about seeing if Valvrave was trying to celebrate the power of youth or criticize it. Even within the same episode it became difficult to tell if the show was saying, “Kids are the future, a source of new ideas and ideals,” or, “Kids are so damn stupid! Man, I can’t believe we let them touch anything!” I think by Season 2 it leaned more towards the former, but never entirely, and to its credit I think the second season was a huge improvement on the first, as its ridiculous qualities were focused down into a clearer direction while still remaining just as strange. Overall, I think the show turned out okay in the end even with the issues mentioned, if only because it managed to use its social media aspect to great effect, and shows a kind of tempered idealism. It also has a more satisfying conclusion than the Gundam 00 movie despite being fairly similar, but I’m not really sure why I feel that way.
It’s difficult to judge the effect of having so many mecha shows close together has had on anime, if any at all, but it is true that a number of new giant robot shows premiering in 2014, from Captain Earth to the bizarrely named Buddy Complex. I think what I liked most about having each of these shows is that even through their ups and downs, Majestic Prince, Gargantia, and Valvrave all manage to maintain their identities as shows, with developments, characters, endings, and themes which keep the mecha genre from feeling like “more of the same.” None of them are really similar in any way, and I hope this trend continues.
Despite its iconic nature, mecha is often considered a dying genre of anime these days due to a number of different forces, from kids’ changing tastes in entertainment to a shifts in demographic. This is why this season of anime is quite a surprise, as three new giant robot anime have debuted for the Spring: Ginga Kikoutai Majestic Prince, Gargantia on the Verdurous Planet, and Valvrave the Liberator. That’s not even counting the still-running Chousoku Henkei Gyrozetter, and the Mobile Suit Gundam SEED Destiny HD remake. All of them have been out for a few weeks now, and I’m enjoying all three, but what is especially impressive is the fact that all three shows are different enough from each other that they end up fitting rather different tastes to the extent that I can’t necessarily recommend all of them to every single person.
Ginga Kikoutai Majestic Prince is basically animated tokusatsu, a mostly silly show with some serious undertones akin to Magiranger or Kamen Rider Fourze. Featuring a group of five heroes (surprise) known as the “Failure Five” due to their repeated screwups, they’re given extremely powerful prototype robots to fight off a mysterious enemy that seems to have overwhelming numbers as one of its many advantages. The oil-and-water nature of the heroes’ personalities makes for some good albeit cheesy laughs, while on the mecha side each of the robot designs are so varied both in look and function that they each have their own unique flair. For example, the main character’s unit is specially designed to monitor the others, making it actually fit for someone in the lead position. Also, the character designs are by Hirai Hisashi of Gundam SEED fame, who is known for his tendency to draw very similar-looking characters, but who here has more variety than I’ve seen out of him in a long time.
Gargantia on the Verdurous Planet is the most robustly science fictional out of all of them, and probably the one that will appeal most to fans of older 80s mecha anime due to its world-building and clash of cultures. Featuring a setting where humanity has spread into the galaxy and is at constant war, the main character Ledo is a boy who like so many of his peers has been trained to fight from childhood. During a battle, he is flung far off course to another world, where both he and the strangers he meets must adapt to the others’ extremely alien mindsets. The central robot has a very slick yet conventional design, and its rounded look and artificial intelligence remind me of the titular robot from Blue Comet SPT Layzner. It also boasts some serious hard-hitters when it comes to production, with Urobuchi Gen (Madoka Magica, Fate/Zero) on writing and Murata Kazuya as director (Fullmetal Alchemist: The Sacred Star of Milos), as well as Naruco Hanaharu (Kamichu! manga) on character design, who is more famous for his less “mainstream” work. Urobuchi, who is generally criticized for being overly expository, seems to be tempered n this case, making it so far maybe his best writing in anime to date (though of course that remains to be seen).
Lastly, Valvrave the Liberator appears to be a textbook case of the modern giant robot anime, cut from the same cloth as Code Geass. Like the other two shows, Valvrave concerns a future of conflict, but the overtly dramatic personalities of its characters, as well as the focus on them amidst this war, gives it an appeal that the other two don’t quite approach in the same way. The similarities to Code Geass should come as no surprise as Sunrise is also responsible for Valvrave, and the character-centric motivations are capable of pulling in people who are more interested in that character drama. The mecha have some unique yet familiar designs, and the relationship between the main robot Valvrave and the protagonist looks to be an important factor in the story. Personally speaking, I also quite like the character designs in this show.
Given that I consider variety to be a valuable asset of the ever-changing entity that is the giant robot genre, I think this spread of shows is a very good thing. What’s even more important is that even though I compared and categorized the shows according to familiar examples, none of them seem to necessarily be absolute retreads of previous works. Majestic Prince, Gargantia, and Valvrave are not nostalgia grabs pining for a better mecha yesteryear, but are firmly contemporary anime that take their influences from different areas. I can’t say for now how any of these shows will turn out in the end, but the unique flavors of each leave me looking forward to continuing with all three of them.
I’m also still watching Gyrozetter.
SEED Destiny HD… we’ll see.
Attack on Titan, the manga and now anime about a world where humans live in walled cities for fear of being eaten by nigh-invulnerable giants, is an interesting and unique title in that it goes against the grain of shounen action series and their conventions, especially when it comes to heroics. In particular, I find that Attack on Titan emphasizes people as a group over individuals in a way which doesn’t really happen in other popular titles.
When it comes to shounen fighting series, especially over the past ten years or so, gigantic ensemble casts are the norm. In something like Inuyasha or even Hajime no Ippo, you have the main characters, their friends and family, rivals, enemies, enemies turned allies, and so on until they require multiple volumes of guide books to keep track of them all. It’s even more the case that titles in the shounen fighting genre will emphasize group-oriented concepts, such as friends (One Piece) or fighting for a greater cause (Saint Seiya), but ultimately it boils down to unique characters cooperating. Where Attack on Titan differs, at least initially, is that it gives you a sense of a world where individual heroics are much more ineffectual, and it is only through the massing of people that they can have any hope of surviving in their world, and a slim one at that.
The reason why I make the comparison to Mobile Suit Gundam (though I understand that the comparison is not perfect) is that Gundam is known for bucking the trend of giant robots as metal superheroes, instead positioning it as an individual war machine as part of a greater force. The Gundam is still glorified to an extent, but compared to the shows which came before it, this is much less the case.
I think my point can be seen by just looking at the opening to Attack on Titan and comparing it to intros from other shounen fighting anime. Popular and long-running shounen fighting anime go through a process where their first openings emphasize a core group of characters, but as the cast expands they find it important to at least show a bit of each remotely significant characters. Whether it’s those slower-paced initial openings or the later frantic ones, though, there is still that focus on a multitude of individuals. In Attack on Titan‘s opening on the other hand, you barely get glimpses of the core cast, who are shown running and jumping from one structure to the next, almost as if the camera can’t stay on them for too long. Even Eren receives only a few brief moments centered on him, and in some of those cases he’s still seen as part of a group of fighters. The fact that the soldiers are all similarly dressed, male or female, instead of wearing unique outfits, and the fact that they all use standardized weaponry, creates a sense of them as a unified army.
That’s not to say that Attack on Titan lacks individualized or unique characters. There’s a clear protagonist in Eren, and there is a core cast of characters who are given personalities and particular skills such as sound judgment and lack of mercy. I’ve also read enough of the manga to know that there are developments which change things up significantly. However, the sense of group which Attack on Titan portrays goes beyond the typical shounen concept of such, and it lends an atmosphere which almost (but not quite) puts more attention on the military force than the people who comprise it. They swarm the titans like ants, which is about as un-shounen heroic as it gets.
When I wrote my overview of anime in 1977 for the Golden Ani-Versary project, one thing I did not mention was the fact that all three of the major robot anime of that year featured to some extent a the relationship between a boy and his father. In Zambot 3, Kappei’s father had been away for a long time before he first appears. In Voltes V, the father of three of the pilots is missing, and the story goes from defending the Earth with the robot and base he built to finding out that he had been working on a noble task that requires him to be away from his family. In Danguard A, the hero Takuma becomes a pilot in order to fight the legacy of his father as the greatest traitor to mankind. Now the reason I did not mention this tendency in the article was that, upon further thinking, I realized that the “shadow of the (missing) father,” whether to be supported by it or to overcome it, is so ubiquitous that examples of it are strewn throughout the history of giant robot anime.
Here are some additional examples.
- Tetsujin 28: The Tetsujin 28, originally a weapon of war invented by Shoutarou’s father, becomes a tool for protecting peace.
- Toushou Daimos: Kazuya’s father, after having designed and developed the titular robot, is killed during negotiations between humans and the alien Baams.
- Mobile Suit Gundam: Amuro’s father Tem is a workaholic who barely sees his wife and child, and who has also developed the Gundam. When they meet again, Tem has gone insane due to oxygen deprivation. Char Aznable must also work through his legacy as the son of the great rebel leader Zeon Deikun.
- Rokushin Gattai Godmars: Takeru’s father secretly built the other five robots in order to protect Takeru.
- Mobile Suit Z Gundam: Camille, after informing both of his parents that they were cheating on each other the whole time, has to watch both of them get killed one after the other.
- King of Braves Gaogaigar: Mamoru inherits not just the will of his father but also of his entire race to protect the universe.
- Psalms of Planets Eureka Seven: Renton must continuously deal with the fact that his father is considered mankind’s greatest hero.
If you factor in the “shadow of the mother,” the list becomes larger as well, including titles such as Reideen the Brave, Panzer World Galient, Eureka Seven AO, Choujin Sentai Barattack, and even overlaps into some titles mentioned above such as Z Gundam and Voltes V. And I won’t even get into grandfathers at this point.
I intentionally excluded one title from the list above that I’m sure many people think of immediately when seeing the combination of giant robots and a strained relationship with a parent, because I wanted to set some perspective before talking about it in detail. Shinji in Neon Genesis Evangelion is sometimes spoken of as nothing more than a teenager with daddy issues. It’s not too far off, and of course the mother plays a role here too due to the fact that his long separation from his father Gendou is the result of his mother’s disappearance, but I think when this aspect of Evangelion is put into relief against the robot shows that have come both before and after it, you can say that it is the common thread which ties him with a lot of the hot-blooded heroes who are often considered his antithesis. The place where Evangelion differs, then, is more the degree to which the shadow of the father, and of the mother, are explored on the internal and psychological level Evangelion is famous for.
I do have some ideas about how this came about, though I also think the reasons may have changed along the way. With a title like Tetsujin 28, which began as a manga in 1954 and the anime in 1960, its back story contains the specter of World War II. The father becomes symbolic of that past, and so the shadow cast was about carrying their legacy or making up for their failure. The 70s marked the rise of the salaryman, and if you look at those 70s titles, they often feature missing fathers who are off either prioritizing their job above all else or working hard for the sake of their families. In this way, it’s not hard to see the relation to someone like the father Kentarou in Voltes V. My thought is that these series addressed a worry of children in this regard in order to assuage their fears about it, criticize the system, or to just point it out as something to relate to.
I haven’t thought through the transition into the 80s and then through the 90s, but Evangelion is often spoken of as the post-Bubble Economy anime, reflecting the reveal that the salaryman system of lifetime employment was not as guaranteed as people originally thought, which speaks to those reassuring images of the hardworking father from those 70s robot anime. It may also be, then, that a show like Eureka Seven reflects the current generation being told that the previous generations were so much better and greater that they wish to rid themselves of that legacy.
The “Golden Ani-Versary of Anime” is a collaborative effort among bloggers, fans, and experts of anime to celebrate the 30th anniversary of anime on television. Coordinated by one Geoff Tebbetts, the plan is to have one article per year from 1963 and the debut of Tetsuwan Atom all the way up to 2012. I’ve included below an excerpt from my entry on the year 1977.
The year 1977 is something of a contradictory time in anime. Although the industry at this point was at the beginning of an animation boom and had been firmly established for over a decade, it can be difficult to pinpoint the exact level of experimentation vs. continuation of formulaic trends, simply because in many cases the individual works of 1977 featured both.
The ’70s were the golden age of giant robot anime, and with six super robot-themed anime debuting (as well as five holdovers from the previous year) 1977 was no exception to that trend. Somewhat unfortunately for the robot anime of that year, the legendary arrival of Mobile Suit Gundam in 1979 tends to overshadow them as a whole, but while nothing in 1977 broke the mold as Gundam would, there were a few series which pushed that mold to its very limits. These shows managed to convey new and interesting ideas while working well within established convention, an impressive feat in its own right.
The 2012 Les Misérables movie was my first experience with the story in any format, and while watching it I had a thought that was probably the last one anyone would have: What if Gundam AGE were more like Les Misérables?
(Warning: Gundam AGE spoilers. Also for Les Miserables, but maybe that’s less of an issue because the book is quite old.)
I have a couple of reasons for comparing the two works. First, Gundam AGE, like Les Misérables, is a generational tale with a large cast of characters essentially centered around one strong-willed protagonist. Second, Flit Asuno, the hero of Gundam AGE, is extremely devoted to his quest to crush the enemy who has taken his family and his home, and over time it gets to the point that “eliminate the enemy” becomes a near-dogmatic mantra that he’s created for himself. His unerring path had me drawing parallels to Inspector Javert and his single-minded pursuit of Jean Valjean, while Javert’s personality that would have him rescue a man from robbers and then arrest the same man for not paying taxes further reinforces this comparison.
Gundam AGE suffers from not being able to properly bridge its generational shifts. The choice as to which characters remain and which ones leave (either by death or simply by never being on-screen again) feel rather arbitrary in that show, and so it loses the momentum that a work like Les Misérables manages to keep right until the end. So, if it were possible to revise Gundam AGE, I would make it more like Les Miserables but centered around Javert, with Flit of course being in that role of the straightforward devotee of justice, also reworking the enemy Vagans to be multiple characters playing the role of Jean Valjean-like antagonists, characters who challenge Flit’s black and white world view. However, I would also keep the element from the original Gundam AGE where Flit has a child and a grandchild who eventually rescue him from himself in his old age, so that his life doesn’t end as tragically as Javert’s. I’ve not read the book, but I know it is much more complex than the musical, and I could see a proper story existing somewhere between the two, depending on the audience desired, as well as other factors such as where exactly the broad strokes of the story should be focused.
Of course, there’s one last question to consider: would this version of Gundam AGE have singing? Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad.
This post is my latest participation in the Reverse Thieves Secret Santa Project, wherein fellow bloggers anonymously recommend each other some anime and everyone writes a review of one of their “presents.” Given the Christmas theme of the endeavor, it is perhaps all the more appropriate that I review an anime which takes place in a land of endless winter, but really the reason why I ended up picking Overman King Gainer out of the choices I was given is that I had always wanted to watch it but had never gotten around to doing so.
Overman King Gainer is a 2002 anime from the mind of Tomino Yoshiyuki, the famous creator of Gundam. He’s a man with a long history and resume in the industry, and when people talk about Tomino anime, they usually divide them into two categories: Depressed Tomino Anime and Happy Tomino Anime, with the amount of bloodshed and trauma varying accordingly. Featured above is a gif of Tomino during the production of Overman King Gainer; I’ll let you decide which kind of show this is.
At first glance, Overman King Gainer is a strange show, not only because of its extremely catchy opening courtesy of Fire Bomber and JAM Project’s Fukuyama Yoshiki, Gaogaigar composer Tanaka Kouhei, and both characters and giant robots alike doing the Monkey (possibly the show’s most enduring legacy in anime), but because it presents new information about its world constantly and without any prior warning, making the whole thing quite difficult to summarize.
In the future of Overman King Gainer, humanity attempts to survive a harsh and close to uninhabitable planet by living in massive shelters known as “domepoli,” but among the people there are movements to participate in “Exoduses,” mass pilgrimages to lands with potentially more opportunity and resources, accomplished through the use of massive moving cities. The main character is a boy named Gainer Sanga, a video game champion who becomes the pilot of a mysterious organic robot he dubs the “King Gainer,” and who ends up becoming a part of the Exodus despite his objections to it. There is a complex world underpinning the main narrative, but we the viewers only ever get to see a few slivers of the whole, and even into the final episode the show still keeps a lot of its secrets. In that respect it reminds me of Xam’d: Lost Memories, which shares that similar pacing of world-building = plot progression, but much like Xam’d that’s also where a good deal of its charm lies.
Watching this show, I couldn’t help but feel that, more than Ikari Shinji from Evangelion or Kira Yamato from Gundam SEED, Gainer Sanga is the true updated version of classic Gundam hero Amuro Ray. Gainer has this strange introversion to him, as well as an aversion to the situation he finds himself in, but he adds this additional modern otaku element from the way he engages in his gaming. As an aside, the fact that he engages in games instead of tinkering with machinery reminds me that the original Gundam came out in a very different era of video games.
The character designs in this show are excellent, with both male and female characters clearly showing that a lot of care was put into their creation. The designs are full of vibrancy and personality, and though not the sole character designer on the show, the influence of Yoshida Ken’ichi (who would go on to do character designs for Eureka Seven and Xam’d) is both quite obvious and welcome. I have to wonder what material would have been made for Overman King Gainer had it appeared in a post-Megami Magazine, maybe even post-Pixiv fandom environment. The show has a large number of female characters who seem to have a fair deal of enduring popularity, and I suspect that characters such as the strong-willed Sara Kodama, the spunky child princess Ana Medaiyu, the spy-turned-humanities teacher Adette Kistler, and the eccentric Cynthia Lane would’ve won the hearts of many current fans had the show been made in the last few years.
Tomino is often known for having rather stiff dialogue, and it’s easy to put Overman King Gainer in the same category, but I feel like that doesn’t quite tell the whole story, because it doesn’t take into account for its usage as a comedic element. The awkwardness of the phrasing and the responses they engender from other characters feels like this constant revolving tsukkomi, and when you take that sort of interaction and apply it to a diverse range of characters, including crazy Koyasu Takehito (see current anime JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure for reference), it makes for a fun if confusing anime which exudes a strange sort of energy that’s hard to find in other anime.
Another element of the anime that really stands out from other shows is its mechanical design, which both Yoshida and Yasuda “Akiman” Akira of Capcom fame worked on. The robots in Overman King Gainer come in two categories, the more basic and grunt-like “Sillhouette Machines,” and the “Overmen,” strangely powerful robots with a variety of abilities from invisibility to lightning bordering on the super (natural). Between their organic appearances and elements (artificial muscle tissue in the limbs for instance), as well as their striking appearances, probably the part of the show which most clearly describes the aesthetics of the anime, and that’s putting aside the whole Monkey-dancing thing.
I know I’m talking more about the components of Overman King Gainer than I am the overall feel of the series, and it’s something I normally prefer to avoid when I write reviews, but again I have to point out that the show kind of messes with expectations. Overman King Gainer is an unusual hodgepodge of elements which perhaps shouldn’t work together but do, and it defies categorization in the sense that it’s hard to say whether the anime is extremely straightforward or extremely obtuse, but which ends up being fun and clever.
A new Super Robot Wars game was announced yesterday, Super Robot Wars UX for the Nintendo 3DS, and the amount of new and unexpected entries makes me want to talk about it, as well as some other SRW-related thoughts.
I think you can roughly categorize Super Robot Wars into two types of games: the flagship titles, and the experimental ones. The former consists of the titles with the best animation and the most-anticipated anime entries into the franchise. The latter can go in a number of directions, from aesthetics (3D models instead of 2D sprites in Super Robot Wars GC) to gameplay (a switch from turn-based to real-time strategy as with Super Robot Wars Scramble Commander), but often times “experimental” simply ends up referring to the titles chosen for that game.
That’s pretty much where UX is. Just look at the debut works for this version.
- Kishin Houkou Demonbane
- Fafner in the Azure: Heaven and Earth
- Wings of Rean
- Cyber Troopers Virtual On’s Fei-Yen HD
- Mobile Suit Gundam 00: A wakening of the Trailblazer
- SD Gundam Three Kingdoms Legend: Brave Battle Warriors
- Mazinkaiser SKL
When you include the other titles that are in this game, the first thing that jumps out is just how new most of the anime are. Not only is the Mazinger franchise represented by its latest one-off OVA series, but the actual oldest anime in the entire game (and the only two from the 1980s) are Aura Battler Dunbine, and then Ninja Senshi Tobikage of all things. If it were a flagship title, there would have to be certain staples, but with a “lesser” SRW like this, it’s possible to inject a ton of new blood into it and not offend anyone.
Not only that, but when you look at some of the recent titles chosen for UX, they seem to be among the least likely candidates even among non-flagship SRW games. Brave Battle Warriors is actually an already-super deformed Gundam anime done entirely in 3DCG and based on classical chinese literature, the sort of title one would least expect to represent Gundam even with the fact that SEED Destiny and 00 are there. Though I’m sure it’s based on the anime version, Demonbane‘s inclusion may be the first instance (and correct me if I’m wrong) of a visual novel appearing in SRW, which opens the gate for things like Muvluv Alternative.
Heroman I wasn’t even sure counted as a giant robot anime, though I guess if you think about it, it’s basically a combination of Tetsujin 28/Giant Robo with Gold Lightan (though Gold Lightan has yet to make its debut). Possibly craziest of all is the inclusion of Virtual On in the form of a Fei-Yen dressed like Hatsune Miku. Virtual On in SRW Alpha 3 paved the way for non-anime/manga to appear in Super Robot Wars games, and this takes it to another level, as I’m pretty sure Miku Fei-Yen is nothing more than a model kit!
It might sound like I’m complaining, but I’m really not. I actually love it when SRW games go a little wild like this, though one complaint I do have is that the DS SRW games have never been the most impressive when it comes to animation. My issue isn’t even with the quality of the sprites or an unfair comparison to the exquisitely animated Z series of SRW, but that a lot of the shortcuts taken to try to make the games look better actually end up making them look worse. In particular, I’m referring to the way the DS games including UX incorporate cut-ins, and detail shots. Instead of creating the images to better match the sprites and the visuals of the rest of the game, the DS SRWs basically take screenshots directly from the original anime, and while this means things look accurate, it also sticks out in an odd way and messes with the way the attack animations end up looking in a manner which didn’t quite affect previous games with worse sprite animation.
But it might just be that with a game with this daring of a series list, some things have to give. In that case, I’ll take it, but will still hope for better the next time around.
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.
Ever since Mobile Fighter G Gundam, various anime in the franchise have been accused of not really being Gundam, or for betraying the idea of Gundam in some capacity. Whether that’s robots powered by martial arts, a preponderance of pretty boys, or the presence of a mustache and biplanes, it’s clear that, at least to some, there is a vague idea of what Gundam shouldn’t be, but what I find interesting is that over time these prejudices seem to fade or in some cases even become something of a minority. Where once in the English-speaking fandom G Gundam was seen as a freak accident at best, nowadays you’ll find plenty of people who actually will say that G Gundam is their favorite Gundam, or even that G Gundam is the only good Gundam.
I am not here to judge anyone’s tastes or preferences, but rather I would like to wonder aloud about how and why this happens. In the case ofGundam W and G Gundam, the answer partly lies in the way they were situated in the Toonami block of the early to mid 2000s and were able to build up a fanbase as a result, but I feel like that is just one instance of a more basic process at work.
Whenever opinions form about a current or upcoming Gundam, it seems to come primarily from those most invested and devoted to Gundam. This group consistently has Gundam-ness as a priority, and so the initial discussion is shaped by that established fandom and their values. What I’m thinking is that over time, a series has a greater chance of reaching more people, and eventually they’re found by people who won’t necessarily label themselves as Gundam fans, whose value sets are different. At that point, a series may reach an audience more receptive to its ideas or less prejudiced against it (though they may carry their own prejudices different from the ones of more hardcore Gundam fans).
Essentially, what I’m wondering about is whether or not Gundam series (and perhaps other franchises like Macross) undergo a process where they first start off surrounded by their immediate fandom created by the franchise, and then break through that established core, such that the discussion about these series starts to change, that it’s not simply “a matter of time” but also a matter of reaching people who might be more receptive to it. That might not mean that a series will be loved, but that there is a greater chance of it happening.