Reflecting on Mobile Suit Gundam

Well, friends, it happened. Last week I finished my series of recaps for Mobile Suit Gundam–one of the very first projects I started on this blog. Next, I’m going to tackle the sequel series, Zeta Gundam, which I’m beyond excited for! I recently finished my first full watch of that series and it’s extremely good. I can’t wait to revisit it with you. But first, I’d like to take a moment to look back on MSG.

When someone is first getting into the Gundam franchise, it can be a bit overwhelming. There’s forty years of history there; where does one begin? A lot of people recommend shows like 00 or Iron-Blooded Orphans, and I can see why: those are great series, and they aren’t tied to the expansive and sometimes confusing Universal Century timeline. But if there’s one thing this re-watch proved to me, it’s that the best way to get into Gundam is with the show that started it all. People might gripe about the outdated animation, but if you can look past that, there’s so much to love here.

First of all, I don’t think anyone can dispute how iconic these mechanical designs are. The Gundam itself, the Zakus, Char’s custom red paint schemes–these are images that stand toe-to-toe with other titans of the genre like the Doctor’s TARDIS or the Millennium Falcon. It’s easy to see why design concepts present in the Gouf, Dom, and GM recur throughout the entire franchise. Gundam as a whole has this beautiful and unique visual language, and that all starts here (with characters and ships, too, not just mobile suits). Blue-and-white suits for the hero, red for the rival, mono-eyes, masked villains–all of this stuff shows up again and again, all thanks to how deeply memorable they are made here.

Beyond designs, though, there’s a story here that deserves better than to be brushed off simply because the animation isn’t to your liking. Mobile Suit Gundam does something that feels impossible: it takes a kids’ show meant to sell toys and uses it to weave a complex narrative about war. And while the show picks up steam as it moves along (establishing an intricate web of Zeon sub-factions, carefully developing characters, and building elaborate arcs around military targets and rivalries), it’s important to remember that it comes out of the gate swinging. The first two episodes see the destruction of our hero’s home, and it’s partially his fault. No punches are pulled here.

Speaking of our hero, Amuro, he’s another huge part of why this show works. He’s not a perfect protagonist. Especially in the early episodes, he’s naïve, self-centered, and angsty (though not without reason). But that’s the point–he’s a kid being thrust into a warzone, with all the baggage that comes along with that. Watching him grow, both as a person and as a pilot, gives the viewer such a sense of investment. His flaws and foibles are relatable, and we can understand and empathize with him. It’s a bold move for a show like this, made in this time period, to actually address the stress and trauma of the kid hero. I love that it does so not just in big, dramatic ways (the occasional outburst or the arc where he abandoned White Base altogether) but in small ways, too (I am legitimately haunted by the scene of Amuro, in the depths of his depression, sitting alone in a dark room, mechanically shoveling down a sandwich as he stares dead-eyed at the wall).

While Amuro’s story is central and his arc is wonderfully realized, the show doesn’t skimp on the rest of the crew, either. Bright, Kai, Sayla, and Mirai all get satisfying arcs as well, and even characters like Fraw and Hayato get a good amount of depth. That’s not even going into recurring characters like Matilda and Wakkein.

Building on this discussion of characters, one of the most fascinating things about Mobile Suit Gundam is the focus it gives to its villains. Past a certain point, Char basically becomes the show’s deuteragonist, with a good chunk of each episode focusing on what he’s up to with Lalah and Kycilia. Char is the obvious example, since he became one the most beloved characters in the franchise, but each of the Zabi siblings are given a lot of depth and personality, too–each one feels distinct and interesting, and each poses a different kind of threat to our heroes.

Are there moments when the show flags? Sure. Its gender politics are wonky, there’s the occasional bit of odd character work (I think Sayla is somewhat inconsistently written throughout the show), and every once in a while there’s an episode that’s a real dud (looking at you, ‘bombs on the Gundam’ episode). But overall, this is a strong series with great characters; it’s easy to see how it made such an indelible mark on the mecha genre. I’m going to miss writing about it. Luckily, Zeta Gundam is a truly worthy successor that raises the franchise to new heights. It’s also known for being one of the more tragic series, so check back next week to find the answer to that age-old question: who will survive?

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