Why Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam Is Worth Watching

May 14 2009

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Note: This is the second in my series of articles on each show in the Gundam franchise. I don’t have a specific schedule for this; I’m just writing these reviews as I feel like it. The last one was Why You Should Watch Mobile Suit Gundam.

Four years after the broadcast of the original Mobile Suit Gundam (which was not particularly popular during its broadcast), and the increasing popularity thereof thanks to the three movie compilations released afterwards, Sunrise produced Zeta Gundam. It’s set 7 years after the end of Mobile Suit Gundam, and introduces a mostly new cast of characters and giant robots. The One Year War is over, and heroes must rise to face new problems.

And the cast of Zeta is one of its best aspects. Nearly every character has a role to play, in illustrating an ideal or pushing another character in some important direction. And this with a very large cast of several dozen characters.

Whereas MSG takes place during the final months of the One Year War between Earth and Zeon, Zeta‘s primary conflict is a guerilla war. The Earth Federation military has been taken over by a ruthless, Nazi-like military faction called the Titans, which the protagonists are fighting to stop.

This is a bit of a problem, actually. Zeta doesn’t have quite as tight of a narrative drive as Mobile Suit Gundam did. In the earlier show, the overall state of the war helped to drive the plot of the story, and often directed the characters’ next actions. Because Zeta concerns itself with a series of small military skirmishes, its plot doesn’t feel like it’s building to a big story climax. While there is very much a big climax, the overall guerilla war—though it escalates—doesn’t hold together the way a large war with major military offensives does.

Zeta Gundam artwork

As a result, Zeta spends more time on character moments. When I think about Zeta, I think about conversations between characters as much as I remember cool mecha action. This show contrasts its characters, and isn’t afraid to present characters with whom we only sympathize some of the time. Kamille, the protagonist, is a fascinating study in light and dark: he’s impetuous and vain, but absolutely dedicated to ideals of justice. While Amuro spends most of MSG agonizing over his choice of being a pilot, Kamille makes his peace with that choice early on.

A few other characters show up, and this is another example of Zeta’s strengths and weaknesses. Char works with the “good guys” now, which is awesome; we get to spend more time with a complex character who has multiple allegiances. But he’s now merely an excellent pilot, as opposed to being unquestionably the best pilot alive as he was in MSG. Sure, he’s in hiding and doesn’t want to show off, but those skills would inevitably appear during life-or-death combat.

So it goes with the re-introduction of Amuro, who joins the cast for a while. He’s still a shockingly good pilot, but he suddenly can’t make the kinds of kills he could seven years ago.

On the other hand, Amuro’s a great example of the strength of the characters. Amuro is world-weary, angry at the Earth Federation, and still uneasy in his relationships. He’s an adult, no longer unsure of himself, but still plagued by many of the same emotional problems. It’s a fantastic update to the character (much like, say, Luke Skywalker in Return of the Jedi).

This presages the much darker tone of Zeta. It seems like a solid, more complex sequel to MSG, until about six episodes from the end. Then characters start to die. I won’t tell you who or how many, but suffice to say by the end a lot of characters have gone on to the Great Dip In The Sky.

And it wraps up with perhaps the most nihilistic ending I’ve ever seen in anime. I’ve seen some really dark endings, but usually there’s a ray of hope. Evangelion and Ideon end with quite a bit of hope for the future (well, the final Ideon movie, at least), and even Akira ends with a certain kind of life asserting itself. Zeta ends, er, very much on a downer.

Which explains my initial reaction to the series: tepid appreciation. I felt like it had some great animation and some neat character moments, but that it was just muddled and ended on such a downer.

Until I let time pass.

The more I thought about Zeta, and the more I analyzed its relationships and characters, the more I appreciated it. I realized that the arrogant characters were supposed to be arrogant, and the cold ones were meant to be cold. They were all pushing each other in different directions.

Zeta is a morality play. The action’s cool, but ultimately it’s about a bunch of flawed humans, doing their best to stop injustice.

A good example: one running gag in the franchise is the word “ikimasu.” It means “Here I go,” and it’s what Amuro yells in MSG whenever he launches in his Gundam. There are many different phrases one could use to announce that one is going out; that’s just the one Amuro tended to use. It’s become a standard part of Gundam that, whenever the protagonist steps into the role of hero, he starts to use “ikimasu” when launching.

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Late in Zeta, one of the characters dies in Kamille’s arms. It’s in the middle of a larger conflict, while they’re inside a large structure that’s about to explode, so Kamille reluctantly has to leave her there. She asks him to finish what they started, and he agrees. She breathes her last, and he stands up, walks to the door, then turns and softly murmurs, “Kamille Bidan. Ikimasu.”

It’s a beautiful moment, perfectly representing the kind of writing that Zeta achieves on a fairly regular basis.

One other side note: Zeta is amazingly well-animated. It came out 2 years after Super Dimensional Fortress Macross, which established that anime could be well-animated, and they took that lesson to heart.

For example, when the mecha are maneuvering in space, they have several dozen tiny “Vernier thrusters” all over the frame. The animators actually draw each individual thruster blast as the mecha twist and turn during combat. That’s the kind of detail you get in this show.

So it looks good, and it has complex characters. And it ages like a fine wine. Sure, it has stretches of bland writing and less-than-stellar animation. But overall, it’s a remarkable achievement in the Gundam franchise.

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