Gundam is ridiculous. The first Mobile Suit Gundam (1979) is known for pioneering the Real Robot genre of mecha: SERIOUS BUSINESS anti-war stories that also happen to feature giant robots waving beam swords in space.
Now, having stated the obvious, I’m not actually sure how I feel about this. I haven’t seen that many Gundam series (yet), but I’m getting the impression that this is a very hit-and-miss franchise.
You see, there’s a contradiction at the heart of Gundam.
Disclaimer: I can only comment on the Gundam shows I’ve actually seen, which is mostly just AU Gundam (Wing, Seed, 00. Don’t take this post as reflective of UC Gundam, or even Gundam as a whole.
Gundam is (and has always been) a glorified toy commercial, but that’s not necessarily the issue here. The thing is that it’s a war toy commercial. The main highlights of the series are the flashy battles where lots of people die. Gundam says war is hell, but the presence of mobile suits ensures we the viewers will always get a sanitised view of the fighting. The battles are choreographed to look cool, not to be practical, and there is little outright gore to be seen. Like most action stories, Gundam is appealing to the bloodthirsty part in all of us that enjoys acts of war but doesn’t want to live its consequences.
What makes Gundam a little different is that it’s aware of this contradiction. Gundam plots typically don’t just focus on the soldiers. They show equal attention to the politicians. No matter how bad the war gets, there are always people looking for a diplomatic solution. Gundam isn’t just a clip show of awesome mecha fights with a “WAR IS BAD, DON’T TRY THIS AT HOME” disclaimer – it tries to offer real solutions to real problems.
Not all writers have the chops to pull this off, which is why there’s considerable variation in the quality of Gundam series. In Gundam Seed, you have Kira Yamato deciding that both sides in the conflict are equally wrong, so he appoints himself sole arbiter of justice and stops all wars by virtue of having the
largest dick strongest robot. Oh, and he’s totally a pacifist because he uses his overpowered robot to disarm his opponents instead of killing them. He’s definitely not a “holier than thou” prick.
Gundam 00 contained a lot of stupidity as well. Even though the writing was critical of Celestial Being’s mission of intervening in wars, philosophically it still came down to “Y’ALL SO MEAN. WHY CAN’T WE HOLD HANDS AND BE NICE TO EACH OTHER???”
Basically, the Gundam franchise contains a lot of what I find infuriating about simplistic anti-war messages: the appeal to a vague, common “humanity”. I am reminded of what Judith Butler wrote about the nature of humanism:
The question is not whether a given being is living or not, nor whether the being in question has the status of a “person”; it is, rather, whether the social conditions of persistence and flourishing are or are not possible.
– From Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable? (2009)
In other words, as individuals we can choose non-violence but we can’t choose pacifism. When there’s an imbalance of power, violence is a logical effect. Stating an ideology of “pacifism” in this context is merely another way of protecting the violent status quo.
This is why I love Gundam Unicorn. Even though Gundam Unicorn also features the the pacifist ace pilot trope, the writer Harutoshi Fukui doesn’t have such a naive view of pacifism that he sees all conflicts as equal or condemns the oppressed for wanting to fight. (The show does explicitly condemn terrorism, though.) When the princess of Zeon declares that she will do anything to prevent war from breaking out even if that means protecting a broken political system, Banagher asks her, “Why?” Sure, you’d do that if the only alternative was war, but wouldn’t you rather address the root of the problem? Mineva eventually comes around to this point of view.
Overall, I found Gundam Unicorn to be a very empathetic story. It also helps that it drew its solution from a truly extensive in-universe lore, so the resolution made complete sense in context. I think my favourite moment in the series was one of the incidental scenes. Marida, one of the soldiers, complains to Banagher about the hospital food. After trying it for himself and agreeing that it’s bad, he asks her what food she likes. When she asks why, he says this:
I found this to be a perfect encapsulation of the show’s philosophy.
In conclusion, I suppose you could say that Unicorn is the best telling of a narrative I don’t necessarily like. When it comes to denouncing a really awesome-looking war, Unicorn manages to have its cake and eat it too.
After all that, how does the latest Gundam offering measure up? Judging from the first two episodes, Mobile Suit Gundam: Orphans Who Are in No Danger of Getting Anemia is following a very familiar formula, which means it’s walking the same tightrope as all the other series I’ve mentioned above. So far, the visual direction has been competent but it’s been kinda difficult keeping track of all the characters, other than to note the wtf aspects of their character designs.
The success of this series hinges on how well it handles Kudelia, a character who looks as if she has been abducted from the Leiji-verse. She’s your typical naive, sheltered princess who wants to relate to the orphans as equals, and pins the blame for all conflicts entirely upon herself. Her dynamic with Mikazuki is interesting because they are worlds apart and yet it is as if he sees right through her, a fact which Kudelia is uncomfortably aware of.
It seems that the problems of reconciling class differences will be a main focus of the story. How far will Mobile Suit Gundam: Parentless Children whose Blood Includes the Chemical Element Fe tear apart Kudelia’s worldview? The first two episodes have already done a fine job of showing how the orphans, despite being victims of exploitation, have plenty of agency. But hopefully, we’ll get more character development since I can’t remember their names.
So yes, Mobile Suit Gundam: Orphans with Plenty of Hemoglobin is a ridiculous show with serious pretensions, which means it’s every Gundam series ever (except for maybe Build Fighters). Don’t pin this one on Mari Okada. As for whether this series will be good… well, it depends on how thoughtfully it applies those classic Gundam tropes. Will its anti-war message be foolish and misguided or complex and nuanced? Time will tell.
What do you think of Mobile Suit Gundam: Iron-blooded Orphans so far?