Thursday, May 15, 2003

The phrase “it’s an acquired taste” has become a smirked insult these days, but some things really are acquired tastes, and the taste is worth acquiring. It’s been true in my life of wine, of comics, of anime, and of many other things.

So it is of Mobile Suit Gundam, the original anime series that started the sprawling Gundam franchise.

[Amuro Ray]

I’ll clear a few things out of the way before heading into the good stuff: the animation is atrocious. It’s about equivalent to Hanna-Barbera‘s stuff from the 70’s. The music is no better, frankly; it’s pretty much exactly what you’d expect from a kid’s show from 1979. Lots of bad drum rolls and trumpet blares.

But the story…the story.

First, the critical aspect to enjoying this show is establishing its historical context. Mobile Suit Gundam was released in 1979, during the same era as Voltron and Star Blazers. Anime was still very much for kids at this point. Imagine eight-year-olds turning on the television and seeing this:

  • The love interest’s entire family is killed practically before her eyes. In the first episode. There’s a terrible moment where she breaks down over the dead body of her mother. In a kid’s show.
  • The hero, Amuro, (unknowingly) kills his own father.
  • Amuro has no idea what he’s doing, and suffers for it. He doesn’t win every battle through dumb luck and supernatural reflexes; he’s beaten several times by Char Aznable, despite Amuro using a massively overpowered superweapon.
  • When the (few) civilian survivors of Side 7 reach a safe haven, they’re told that they will all be deported to Earth, except for the civilian defenders who used the Gundam weapons. They’ve all been conscripted, because they’ve become privvy to top-secret technology, and the military’s not about to let them wander off.
  • Amuro hates war. He despises the position he’s in, and he despises his commanding officer, and he isn’t afraid to make that clear.
  • Char is absolutely brilliant. He’s constantly thinking a few steps ahead. Ahead of the other characters, and ahead of you.
  • There are no villains. There are just different sides.

Again, to make an anime series that’s this serious, and that is this rigorous with its characters and even its science, was unheard of. This was made in practically the prehistory of anime, and it’s as seriously rigorous with its approach as the best anime of today, despite being a quarter of a century old.

Would that all television was this visionary.

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