Mobile Suit Gundam, Episode 1 – Gundam Rising

We see the Earth, adrift in space. The sun peeks over the horizon, outlining the planet in a corona of light. The image begins to flash as music starts to play. As the word ‘Gundam’ rises into view, we hear, “Moegare! Moegare! Moegare, Gundamu!”

Thus begins the first episode of Mobile Suit Gundam, one of the most influential mecha anime of all time. When it originally aired in 1979, though, it’s safe to say that no one watching knew how huge this show was going to get. In fact, during the entire run of the original series – spanning 43 episodes airing from April 7, 1979 to January 26, 1980 – Gundam barely registered in the public consciousness. It was a flop; initially set to run for 52 episodes, sponsors cut that number down to 39 (though staff was able to negotiate a small extension, buying them 4 more episodes to wrap up the story).

It was only in 1980, when Bandai began producing plastic model kits based on the series (now popularly known as gunpla), that people began to take notice. The model kits were a huge hit, and people were interested in where the designs came from. As a result, reruns of Gundam did very well – well enough for show creator Yoshiyuki Tomino to rework footage from the series into a trilogy of compilation films released in 1981 and 1982. These films were massively successful and paved the way for the franchise as we know it today.

Watching this first episode of the original series, however, it’s easy to see why Mobile Suit Gundam became legendary. It’s a show about giant robots, but it strives for realism. It’s an action-heavy anime, but its message is unmistakably anti-war. It’s got a kid protagonist, but it doesn’t shy away from adult subject matter. It is a show that is completely uninterested in playing by the rules. Of course, this also explains why it almost failed – the target audience (kids who would buy toys based on the show) wasn’t paying attention, because Tomino wasn’t writing for them.

All that history aside, let’s talk about this first episode, shall we? I’ve already touched a bit on that theme song, titled “Fly! Gundam,” which was composed by Takeo Watanabe, with vocals by Koh Ikeda and lyrics by Tomino himself. It’s genuinely a pretty catchy theme, in my opinion. The opening animation that accompanies it is fairly good, as well – it shows off the Gundam, Guntank, and Guncannon, as well as all the major characters.

Once the episode proper starts, we get the opening narration that explains the setting: the year is Universal Century 0079, mankind has moved into space, and there’s a war going on between the space colonists of Side 3 (now known as the Principality of Zeon) and the Earth Federation. During this exposition, we see one of the most iconic images of the franchise: the dropping of a massive space colony on Sydney, Australia, Zeon’s greatest blow against the Earth Federation. Although this action – called Operation: British – would later be fleshed out further in supplementary materials and shows like Mobile Suit Gundam: The Origin, even here it’s clear how big a deal the colony drop was. We see fleets of Zeon mobile suits and ships guiding the colony’s descent and the destruction of an entire city, all while the narrator explains that half the human population has already died in this war. It sets a grim tone for the rest of the show.

After this segment – which recurs in future episodes to ensure that even new viewers understand the setting – we begin the episode proper. We’re greeted with an extreme close-up of a mobile suit that is arguably as iconic as the RX-78-2 Gundam itself: the MS-06 Zaku II, which serves as the main grunt suit of the Principality of Zeon for the majority of the series, and influenced countless other grunt suit designs throughout the franchise. There is something timeless about the design of the Zaku II; simple, yet imposing, with a distinctive asymmetrical silhouette and that single, glowing eye. Kunio Okawara was the mechanical designer for this series (a fun aside: Okawara was the first person in the anime industry to be specifically credited as a mechanical designer) and he really knocked it out of the park with the Zaku II.

Anyway, three Zakus are infiltrating a colony known as Side 7 as the episode begins. What struck me the most about this scene was the level of detail. Not only are the mecha themselves a bit more realistic than one might have expected, but as they enter the colony, they bump into a mechanical docking arm, which breaks off and floats into space. It’s completely unimportant, but that’s what I love about it – it’s only there to add to the atmosphere and realism.

As the infiltrators observe the inside of the colony, we are introduced to our unlikely protagonist: Amuro Ray. This scene does a great job of establishing not only Amuro’s personality, but also that of his neighbor and pseudo-love interest, Fraw Bow. When we first see Amuro, he’s undressed, he hasn’t eaten, and he’s completely oblivious to the evacuation happening in his neighborhood. He’s caught up in some kind of science project – something Fraw Bow seems used to at this point. It quickly becomes clear that Fraw has taken it upon herself to take care of Amuro, who lives alone despite his young age, and this dynamic persists throughout the series. Also of note here is the first appearance of Hayato Kobayashi, who will become the Guntank’s pilot later in the series. While Hayato is overall a pretty weak character, at least in the original Mobile Suit Gundam, it’s worth pointing out that even in his first appearance he showcases some of the resentment toward Amuro that will be his primary character trait as the show moves forward.

After this round of introductions, we cut to the arrival of the Federation warship White Base – the reason for the aforementioned evacuation, as well as the Zeonic infiltration mission. Here we see Amuro’s father, Tem Ray, for the first time. Though Tem is a minor character, he casts a long shadow over the series; as both Amuro’s father and the designer of the Gundam, his actions have a huge impact. In this first appearance, he actually seems like a decent guy. He has a short conversation with Bright Noa, the 19-year-old ensign who will soon be forced into the role of White Base captain, about the horrors of children fighting in war. Tem even seems to be fond of, and concerned for, his son in this scene. This, of course, does not last.

What stood out to me the most in this scene was how we are introduced to Bright. For those unfamiliar with the franchise, Bright Noa is one of the central figures of the Universal Century timeline. He’s one of my favorite characters, to the point that I actually named my cat after him.

The charming and charismatic captain of White Base.

With all that he goes through, all the character growth and development he gets, it’s easy to forget how Bright started out: an average young officer, eager to please, ready to follow orders. Interestingly, when Tem brings up the idea of children fighting in the war, Bright seems completely unfazed by the prospect, merely stating that that kind of thing happens all the time. His almost callous dismissal of the issue feels ominous, knowing how this series – and the rest of his career beyond that – will play out.

Now that our primary characters are all in place, it’s time for things to get started in earnest. As the new Earth Federation mobile suits are being loaded onto the White Base, rookie Zeon pilot Gene decides that recon is boring and he’d rather make a name for himself by destroying the Gundam, Guncannon, and Guntank before they can even be deployed. This proves to be a disastrously bad idea.

Ah, but wait – there’s one more major character to cover: Char Aznable, the Zeon ace pilot who we learn has been in charge of this infiltration. We meet him on the bridge of a Musai-class ship outside the colony, getting status reports from Slender, one of the three Zaku pilots. We don’t get a lot from Char in this first appearance, but right away his striking character design marks him out as someone special. In particular, his ornate helmet and mask, not dissimilar to that of Darth Vader, give him an air of mystery and menace.

Gene manages to do some serious damage to the Earth Federation base, including messing up the Guntank and Guncannon. Unfortunately for him, teen genius Amuro (now sheltering in a bunker with the other colonists) can tell there’s a mobile suit attacking just from the feel of the reverberations, and he rushes out to find his father, who he knows has arrived on the White Base. In the process, he witnesses most of the Gundam’s engineers getting blown up. Here we see another one of those small touches that sets Mobile Suit Gundam apart: though it’s not directly commented on, the engineers are killed by friendly fire. A missile meant for the Zaku misses its target and instead hits the base. This is a significant choice from the creators – it would have been easy to have the Federation members be killed by the enemy Zaku, but to have them die in a tragic accident better underscores the chaos of combat.

In the aftermath of this explosion, Amuro finds the Gundam’s manual, and this is where the series shows its age a bit: it’s a literal instruction book, rather than, say, a tablet with relevant files or simply a ‘tutorial’ readout in the Gundam’s cockpit. In the late 1970s, I’m sure this made complete sense, but nowadays it feels odd to juxtapose a piece of machinery as complex as a mobile suit with something as comparatively archaic as a physical booklet. Oh! And the manual describes the Gundam as possessing a ‘learning computer,’ presumably in order to handwave the untrained Amuro adapting to its controls so quickly (and not to indicate that the Gundam is in fact a very large Terminator). Even the writers must have eventually realized that this explanation was a bit lacking, as the Newtype mythology would be introduced later in the series and go on to define much of the Universal Century.

After Amuro recovers the Gundam manual, he finds his dad and advocates for moving the colonists onto White Base, and here’s where Tem Ray’s true colors come through: he doesn’t care about the colonists, he’s only concerned with loading up the mobile suits. Now, sure, the Earth Federation needs mobile suits to win the war, and the three suits that resulted from the so-called Operation V were extremely important at this point. Still, he’s being pretty cold, and he pays so little attention to Amuro in this scene that he doesn’t even notice his kid is holding the Gundam’s manual.

Much more distressing than Tem Ray’s bad parenting, however, is what happens next: Fraw Bow runs out of a crowd of evacuees to grab Amuro and just barely avoids another explosion, which ends up killing her family. There’s a protracted scene of her wailing over her mother’s corpse as Amuro tries to calm her down. Remember earlier, when I said Tomino wasn’t writing this show for kids? This is the kind of thing I was talking about. One good thing about this scene – it shows that despite his lack of social graces, Amuro is quite empathetic and fairly good to have around in a crisis.

Speaking of Amuro, this is the point at which he makes the fateful decision to climb into the Gundam. Another thing to appreciate about this series: Amuro is a terrible pilot in this first fight. He only survives because the Gundam itself is so superior to the Zakus he’s facing – the Zaku machine gun can’t even penetrate the Gundam’s armor. Amuro eventually figures out how to pull out the Gundam’s beam saber and slices Gene in half, but hey, this is Mobile Suit Gundam – no need to give this traumatized youth an unambiguous victory. Instead, the Zaku goes nuclear as a result of its engine being damaged, and it blows a hole in the side of the colony. Tem Ray is sucked out into space; we won’t be seeing him again for quite a while.

Luckily for the colonists, Amuro is a pretty quick study in mobile suit design and works out how to avoid another such explosion. He takes out the second Zaku, piloted by a guy named Denim (wait, Denim? Gene? I’ve watched this episode three or four times at this point and just realized the pun there) by sinking his beam saber directly into the Zaku’s cockpit. The final Zaku pilot, Slender, escapes the colony while on the White Base, Bright says that trained pilot or no, the crew will need Amuro to stay with the Gundam. Good instincts, Bright.

All that’s left now is the next episode preview, which promises a showdown with Char, and the ending theme. Much like the opening theme, the ending song (titled “Amuro Forever”) was written by Tomino and performed by Koh Ikeda. I’m not as fond of this track as I am “Fly! Gundam,” though it does have some charm.

Overall, this is a strong first episode. Most of the main cast is introduced, and the viewer gets a good feel for their personalities; the setting is established; and there’s a decent fight at the end. On top of that, the music is very good – Yushi Matsuyama, the composer of most of the series’s tracks, created a truly iconic soundtrack. On the downside audio-wise, some of the voice work suffers from the equipment available at the time. In particular, any time a character shouts or is otherwise loud, there is noticeable audio distortion. I assume that kind of thing just couldn’t be helped at the time this audio was being recorded (I should note, by the way, that I am watching the RightStuf blu-ray releases with the original Japanese dialogue and English subtitles).

That brings us to the end of our first episode review here on Roll With It! I’m sure I’ll tweak the format of these a bit as time goes on, but hopefully this was a successful first run. Check back next time for Mobile Suit Gundam episode 2: “Destroy Gundam”!

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