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Apr 05 2012

Anime Review: Mobile Suit Gundam Unicorn

The MSN-06S Sinanju

It's red and it's 3x faster. I'll leave the rest for you to figure out!

By now virtually anyone who has the slightest interest in anime has heard of the massive Gundam franchise. Spanning dozens of television series, OVAs, films, books, manga, videogames and models, Bandai’s Gundam franchise in all its incarnations has become a hulking juggernaut in the anime world. One thing that most people don’t really understand unless they are familiar with the Gundam franchises is that Gundam is split into two broad categories which are very different from one another.

More after the jump…

Alternative Universe Series
On one side you have the scores of alternative universes (AU) series, most of which take place in separate universes from each other, let alone the main Gundam universe. These would include a few series fairly well known in North America such as Mobile Suit Gundam Wing, Mobile Suit Gundam SEED and Mobile Suit Gundam SEED Destiny. These Gundam series have a strong tendency to aim at somewhat younger audiences and to be focused around ridiculously super-powered mobile suits (which is what the mecha in the Gundam universe are called). Frankly I find the vast majority of the AU series to be pretty shallow. While I’ll admit I consider Mobile Suit Gundam SEED somewhat of a guilty pleasure (really only its second half), what regard I had for the series was utterly annihilated by the unbelievably poorly written sequel.

Mobile Suit Gundam Wing: The Endless Waltz

Mobile Suit Gundam Wing: The Endless Waltz...Why hello there cheesy mc. cheese!

The Universal Century
On the other side you have the main storyline of the Gundam universe, set in the Universal Century timeline, which features such series as Mobile Suit Gundam, Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam, and Char’s Counterattack as well as quite a few more side-stories, OVAs and so forth. This is the far more grown up Gundam franchise, where most of the series are written focused on an overarching theme that war is hell and traumatises its survivors almost as much as its casualties. The original series, Mobile Suit Gundam, is quite dated at this point since it was made in 1979-1980, but I still consider it well worth watching if for no other reason than to introduce you to the world and characters of the UC universe. It opens the door to the many excellent OVAs and TV series set in this timeline, of which above all I would probably highlight Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam as one of the dramatic peaks of the Mecha Anime as a whole. Zeta in many ways takes the war is hell motif to its logical conclusion in showing you a period in which the “good guys” have become the “bad guys” and vice versa, and where virtually no-one escapes the hellish battles unscarred.

[As a side note: Universal Century Gundam is so well known in Japan that one of its main anti-heros, the charismatic Char Aznable, is as well known a cultural trope in Japan as Darth Vader in North America. Char is also probably my favorite character in the entire UC Gundam universe.]

Char Aznable

Char Azable's face when someone asks him to pilot a mobile suit that isn't red...

Mobile Suit Unicorn Gundam
I mention all of this by way of introducing Mobile Suit Gundam Unicorn. An Original Video Animation (OVA) series of six one hour films that began release in 2010. When I first heard of this series I was immediately prepared to dismiss it out of hand based on its absolutely ridiculous title. Gundam Unicorn?! Really?

Imagine my surprise when I discovered that Mobile Suit Gundam Unicorn was in fact the first new series intended for wide distribution produced in the Universal Century timeline since 2004’s Mobile Suit Gundam IGLOO: The Hidden One Year War and before that 1996’s 08th MS Team. Also of note is that this is the first UC Gundam series adapted from another format as it is based on a series of light novels of the same name. With that in mind, I decided to give the series a shot and watched the four of six instalments that have been released so far.

I have not been disappointed. It’s been a couple of years since the last time I sat down and watched a UC Gundam series and I had almost forgotten the much more grown up tone, the far more realistic and well thought out mobile suit designs and combat, as well as the more in-depth examination of the psychological tolls of war on the people who fight. Mobile Suit Gundam Unicorn is set in UC 096, three years after the events of Char’s Counterattack, and chronicles the story of the events unleashed by the search for a mythical item known as “Laplace’s Box,” which has existed since the founding of the Universal Century and is rumoured to contain the power to destroy the Earth Federation (which has ruled Earth and the colonies since the dawn of the UC era, notwithstanding the many attempts of those who live in space to free themselves of the Federation’s domination in the many Zeon movements).

This mythical item was entrusted to the care of the Vist Foundation, a nominally charitable organization focused on transporting art from Earth to the colonies, but in fact a shadowy player in manipulating political events within the UC era. Mobile Suit Gundam Unicorn begins with the Vist foundation’s chairman Cardenas Vist, deciding that the delicate balance between the Earth Federation and the remnants of the Neo Zeon movement (which have essentially tolerated one another since the events of Char’s Counterattack) looks set to break down.

In light of this Cardenas Vist first considers turning over the box, which he believes has the power to correct the mistakes of the UC era in the right hands, over to the Neo Zeon forces. He is quite concerned that this may end up being no better than turning it over to the Earth Federation however, as he sees that many in the Neo Zeon movement still harbour a desire for revenge and would likely use the box to destroy the Earth Federation. His trepidations are only increased by the meteoric rise of a man known as Full Frontal within Neo Zeon, whose penchant for mask wearing and red mobile suits gives birth to persistent rumours that he is the second coming of Char Aznable. Given the somewhat extreme lengths Char had gone to in the past in his quest to gain political independence for the colonies, Cardenas Vist’s trepidation is quite understandable.

The Vist foundation attempts to guard against misuse of the box by building a mobile suit called the RX-0 Unicorn Gundam that contains a special program (the La+ program) that is designed to test the heart of its pilot and determine their worthiness to obtain the box. It is in essence the “key” to the box. While this sounds hokey, those familiar with the UC universe will understand that abilities of newtypes (those born in space who begin to gain some ESP like abilities) combined with the special brain-wave interface developed for Mobile Suits called psychoframes allows for some very strange quasi-spiritual interactions between a newtype and a mobile suit, which takes some of the mysticism mumbo-jumbo out of this.

Of course, in typical UC Gundam fashion, a series of events leads a teenaged Engineering Student named Banagher Links to be given the Unicorn Gundam and results in him being thrust into the web of competing interests all determined to obtain the box for their own purposes. Banagher has to come to terms with piloting a mobile suit, with war, and with fighting and sometimes killing others as well as whether he should try and obtain the box and how it should be used.

Banagher Links

Banagher Links learns the hard way that piloting a mobile suit in UC Gundam series is no walk in the park

My Thoughts
Having seen the four instalments of this series, I will tell you that I have thoroughly enjoyed them. What a treat to finally be able to see another Gundam series a nuanced treatment of the moral and ethical questions of war. It has been one of the great strengths of UC Gundam to show just how complex these questions can become. The Earth Federation is clearly unjustified in ruling the colonies from Earth and denying political representation to the spacenoids, and has in the past resorted to horrific methods to retain their power, but while a peace under the rule of the Earth Federation is unjust, it might just be preferable to the horrors of war to break that power.

On the other hand the Zeon movements after the first one (tinged as it was by the psychotic Zabi family who assassinated Zeon Zum Dikun, the philosopher and politician who developed the theory of newtypes and first proposed spacenoid independence as a political movement) have clearly had the moral high ground in pursuing political self-determination for the colonists, but have themselves used some fairly ugly methods not to mention repeatedly breaking the peace and unleashing the hell of war to try and achieve their ends. The larger question often in play amongst all the others is whether an unjust peace is preferable to a just war.

I also love the continued examination of the psychological toll taken on the people who fight in the battles, particularly intense for the newtypes who end up fighting on both sides. Newtypes were supposed to herald an era of people being able to understand each other without misconceptions and have instead been turned into living weapons as mobile suit pilots; exposed to profound psychological trauma by the very newtype interface enhanced mobile suits that make them unparalleled combat pilots (because they amplify the inherent newtype abilities of the pilot sometimes causing newtypes to form psychic and spiritual connections with the people they are killing on the battlefield…talk about a recipe for PTSD!). Banagher’s story so far in this series has been an outstanding example of showing the ugly reality of a teenager being forced to confront these horrors and them taking a massive emotional toll on him.

Finally, for fans of the Universal Century universe the quality of animation, mobile suit designs and mobile suit combat in this series is an incredible treat. The animation is absolutely beautiful and the combat scenes really show you how far Japanese animation has come in the 30+ years since the original series. The soundtrack has also been quite good, if not quite at the levels of some other anime with unforgettable sound-tracks (See: Anything where Yoko Kanno did the music).

My only criticisms so far have to do with the somewhat limited nature of the introductions of some of the characters, as well as the very minimal amount of time we’ve gotten to spend with some of them since the series began. Of course much of this is hard to avoid given the time constraints and the scope of the story being told, so I can’t be too harsh about it.

Overall I would give this series an <strong>8/10</strong> so far and I would highly recommend it to anyone familiar with the UC Gundam universe. The fifth instalment is set to be released on May 19 so there’s no time like the present to get into this excellent production.

[For those new to Gundam as a whole I would minimally recommend you watch Mobile Suit Gundam (TV series), Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam (TV Series) and Char’s Counterattack (Film) before watching this so you understand the background of the world and characters before diving in to this series.]

If you’re interested, head to the Official Site for trailers for the first 4 instalments and more.

 

That’s Yo “I can’t believe I didn’t make a single box joke” Garbage!

 

About the author

Lorenzo

Lorenzo tends to utterly emphatic opinions on the things that interest him: Sci-Fi & Fantasy, Video Games, Anime, Tabletop Games, Technology and Internet Spaceships.

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  1. Edgard

    keep up buddy, you guys are doing a great job

  2. Cirlei

    Loved this movie. great review

  3. Diva

    loved this anime! great review, all my thoughts were covered

  4. Steven Olson

    As soon as I saw this site I went on reddit to share some of you stuff, i love it

  5. Maximillion Genius

    added, most of AU gundams including shitblazer film are for fangirls and yaoi fans

  1. Anime Trailer: Mobile Suit Gundam Unicorn – Episode 5 » That's Yo Garbage

    […] in my review of Mobile Suit Gundam Unicorn I mentioned that the fifth installment was due to be released in […]

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