2010 Playstation Network Cartoons: Gundam Unicorn, Episode 2

For decades, fans of the Gundam multimedia toy advertisement franchise have felt left out in the cold. Despite a near constant stream of new toys, comic books, video games, novelty undergarments, toiletries and, yes, animated cartoons, the hardest and smelliest of the hardcore Gundam fans have been crying desperately for something new. Not new like those “alternate universe” spin-off Gundam series, which dared to try and appeal to new generations (and new demographics) of fans rather than pleasuring the thirty-somethings who clutched their Magella-Top model kits tightly to their ample bosoms. For those who could not let go, there was nowhere to turn for an experience just like the classics other than, well, the classics: the original Mobile Suit Gundam, Zeta Gundam, and Char’s Counterattack (maybe 0080 and 0083, too, in more progressive factions).

Begging for something new that was also exactly like the shows they already loved, fans screamed and cried and moped until finally Sunrise decided the time was right, selecting the fan-favorite light novel series, Mobile Suit Gundam Unicorn (UC), for a balls-out animated adaptation. Featuring character designs by Yaz himself, and copious amounts of the finest digitally-animated robot action you could hope for, Gundam UC is exactly what we were promised: a complete recreation of classic Universal Century elements.

Sometimes it’s better not to get what you want.

Like most of the Gundam fanbase, and indeed most of the popular Universal Century series, UC is obsessed with Char Aznable, the masked pseudo-villain and breakout character of the original Mobile Suit Gundam television series. His campy-yet-suave demeanor and his impressively violent efforts to complete his vengeance against the tyrannical Zabi family from the inside won over countless fans every time the show was rebroadcast, and not only did he appear in the major sequels to the original series, but “Char-like” characters appear in countless other robot shows, including the various “alternate universe” Gundam series.

Naturally, Gundam UC needs to have Char in it, since it’s a direct follow-up to the “main” UC storyline, following the events of Char’s Counterattack — except that Char died in that movie! (Or at least came as close to dying as executives would ever allow such a popular character to come: last seen in the midst of a certainly-fatal situation at the end of the film.) So what are we going to do? Obviously, we add a character that’s basically exactly like him.

Full Frontal, perhaps the dumbest name in a Sunrise robot show since “Quattro Bagina” or “Shot Weapon,” shall be playing the role of Char in this story. He looks like Char, with beautiful blonde locks and a sweet white mask obscuring his face, he sounds like Char, sharing veteran voice actor Shuuichi Ikeda, and he acts like Char, balancing his roles as The Best Robot Pilot and as the charismatic leader of a military force (as in Zeta and Counterattack). Not only is all of this incredibly obvious to the viewer, it’s also incredibly obvious to the characters in the show. Full Frontal’s potential identity, and the significance of the image he projects, are a key part of this episode, and everyone with any sense of history seems to be aware of this, and most of them vocalize these observations. Heck, the protagonist, Banagher, flat out asks Full Frontal if he’s the legend himself when they meet.

Like most of UC, the whole situation feels like a dull and self-conscious retreading of ground that’s already well-worn by Gundam series of all shapes and sizes. There’s not really anything left to do with Char’s character. We’ve already seen him go from vengeful young man to a conflicted soldier struggling with his legacy to a man prepared to sacrifice everything for his ideals; heck, the whole point of Char’s Counterattack was to put a full-stop on the end of his story. Even just within the wider Gundam franchise, Gundam Wing’s Zechs Marquis, Gundam SEED’s Rau Le Cruset (and SEED Destiny’s rehash of said rehash), and according to CD’s resident AU Gundam Expert, Chris, Gundam 00, Gundam X and even G-Savior all feature Char-style enemy super-pilots, usually blonde and/or masked and noble despite fighting the heroes. Is it possible that Full Frontal will actually put a unique spin on the “Char-type” character which doesn’t overlap greatly with any of these other attempts? Yeah, sure. Is there any evidence in UC episode 2 that this is the case? Nope.

And so it goes for most of the other characters and situations in this episode. There’s a similar sense of self-consciousness when it comes to our hero, Banagher, and the giant robot he fell into, the titular Unicorn Gundam. Rather than just being some sort of super-prototype unit (because it’s that, too), the Unicorn is constantly described in that cryptic Japanimation way as “the key to Pandora’s Box,” which in addition to being a obvious mythological reference is also supposedly a weapon or tool which could completely change the balance of power between the Earth and the Space Colonies. This makes possessing Banagher and his robot an active goal of the factions in the series, when they’re not busy pontificating on what exactly the Box is.

Putting such emphasis on the possession and uses of the main robot is one of UC’s few departures from the classic Gundam style, where the robots, no matter how cool, are considered to be just weapons, but it makes sense as a part of the series’ greater obsession with the details most important to hardcore fans, like how totally sweet the hero’s robot is. Banagher, for his part, gets to step through almost all of the classic Gundam teen hero cliches: he gets to give an “Is that how you adults do things?!” speech, he sorties in the robot without permission, he reflects on his dead dad issues, has a breakdown when he realizes he’s killed a man, etc. And yet his most standout trait seems to be that he might actually get to spend a significant portion of the series lusting after the same doomed Gundam heroine before she finally gets inevitably killed off.

So it’s a very pretty, very slow, and very boring retread. Yeah, there’s some exciting robot fights — though they’re not nearly as nice as the first episode’s, and with a lot more 3DCG interfering — and it’s great to see old-style Yaz designs in a new show again, but I wish it were all in service of something interesting. UC thus far is still much more interested in making sure we know how much respect it’s paying to the beloved classics of Gundam than it is in being entertaining on its own merits. The cast seem almost as exasperated as we are to see yet another faction invoking the name of Zeon and the symbolism of their royal family to stage a Colonies’ Rights revolt against the corrupt and stagnant Earth Federation.

This story’s been done, a lot, and it was pretty great the first couple of times. But I’m tired of it. I have a lot more respect for something like MS IGLOO, ugly duckling that it is, for putting a new perspective on familiar events, than I do for UC’s blind repetition of the exact same material with the names changed. Maybe you’re gnawing at the cage anticipating a chance to watch the exact same show again with newer, flashier robots and a dye job for the main cast. Great, go watch UC. I’ll be over here singing “Soldiers of Sorrow.”

17 Comments

  1. Do any of you guys at CD really have high hopes for this not to be another Macross Zero (pretty to look at at but ultimately irrelevant plot-wise)? I think it’s pretty obvious considering the copious amounts of UC fan pandering and the ridiculous retcon Fukui tried to shove down UC’s history.

  2. The baffling thing about Gundam is that it’s hard to figure out if the majority of Gundam fans actually want all these recycled cliches, or if Sunrise just thinks everyone wants these recycled cliches.

    Unicorn is clearly aimed at an older demographic with some familiarity with the Universal Century, so these cliches are all old news for viewers. I doubt that anyone watching 0080 or Igloo would complain about the lack of a Char clone. At least with the AU Gundams, you could argue that the cliches weren’t as familiar to newer fans.

    Inevitably, Unicorn will be a favorite with fans because it’s well animated. The cliches will be justified by saying “Well, that’s just Gundam” (ignoring that previous UC OAVs were largely devoid of them) and by reminding you that UC shows are so uncommon, we should just be thankful for what we get.

    And thus the self-hating cycle of Gundam fandom continues.

  3. “Full Frontal, perhaps the dumbest name in a Sunrise robot show since “Quattro Bagina” or “Shot Weapon,” ”

    Personally, my favourite is Sentinel’s “Brave Cod”. It’s always made me imagine a squadron of zeta pluses majestically swimming through the ocean of space, taking occasional leaps into the air as they prepare to spawn around the big mother Deep Striker.

    As for Unicorn itself, the details that annoy me the most are those incessant namedrops in the background. Calling a shop “The Black Tri-stars” or having a cinema screen “The Fourth Tragedy”. It smells by far the most of “see? We *care* about you fans. Now hand over more of your money for another few remodeled Zaku kits”.

  4. My observation has always been that Japan as a culture are perfectly content with surviving purely on redundancy in their entertainment. Sunrise knows that they can recycle all the Gundam tropes over and over and fans would still eat it up.

  5. I think what Full-Frontal does new is actually explain and discuss his ideology in full (punny). My main beef with Char’s Counterattack is that all we ever got from Char in terms of motivation was the odd one liner, about how the feddies keep polluting the earth with plastic beer rings and clubbing seals.

    When FF has his conversation with Banana Linx there is no hippie bullshit, no whining about adults. They have a mature conversation about the two sides of the war, and FF explains that he will do anything to give the spacenoids suffrage. I’m down with that.

    We’ve had gorgeous animation and fight scenes in Gundam plenty of times before, so the fight scenes and mecha designs in UC don’t do anything for me. I’m interested in the politics of Gundam, the ideologies and the way the world works. For that reason the second episode of UC was catnip for me, I loved each lengthy, ideological argument, because usually that’s reserved for one liners as two pilots duke it out in mulit-coloured mobile suits as they swing their lightsabers and shout “ADULTS ARE BAAAAAD!”

    But I think part of my enjoyment for Unicorn is how I view UC. I love the ideas, I love the characters, I love the politics. But with the exception of 0080, and MAYBE the third Gundam compilation movie, every UC product to me seems… Flawed. Sure I enjoy them, but they are always let down by poor dialogue, deux ex machina endings and forced drama.

    I love Unicorn because I’ve always wanted to see this universe portrayed in a more cinematic, professional way. Perhaps that means I’ve never really loved the Universal Century, I’ve just loved the possibility of what it could be.

  6. >Full Frontal, perhaps the dumbest name in a Sunrise robot show since “Quattro Bagina” or “Shot Weapon,”

    tsuntsun

    >He looks like Char, with beautiful blonde locks and a sweet white mask obscuring his face

    deredere

    :3

  7. I beg to differ, if you want a full bag of silly and/or nonsense names just take a look at L-Gaim.

    Altho I have to give my favorite (we,, one of) Xabungle some grief on that end as well.

    As I feel that Char’s Counterattack is it’s own alt. history I have no burning need to see a long, drawn out OAV series that’s meant to be a follow-on. Wake me when the Double Zeta kids show up.

  8. What I really liked about episode two was when Banana Links eats dinner with Gilboa, his family and Marida.

    Gilboa’s sons tells Banana Links that he is lucky that he is a prisoner of Zeon because they treat him well(LOL One Week War, NBC weapons against colonies), Banana says Zeon are the bad guys and the Federation good, kid respons that the Federation tortured his dad in a prison or something like that.

    They try to show that no side is “good” and no side is “bad”. In the real world and not some stupid Hollywood movie(like they always show) wars are fought between good people against other good people(think I got this from LOGH, check that series out guys)

    All shades of grey guys, all shades of grey no white or black.

  9. Let me contextualize my opinion by explaining that I’ve only recently begun to investigate the Gundam franchise.

    Last year I watched “Double OO” (for my sins) and “08thMSTeam”. This year I’ve gone through the original “movie trilogy”, “Zeta”, “0080”, “Turn A”, “G Gundam” and I’m half way through “0083”.

    Having experienced so many of the franchise’s clichés in such a short amount of time has certainly been tiresome.

    However, “Unicorn” hasn’t bothered me so far. As much as I enjoyed the “movie trilogy” and even “War in the Pocket” most Gundam productions had either had really awkward direction, terrible pacing, bad scripts and occasionally hateful characters.

    “Unicorn”, so far, has had none of the problems with beset even my favourite works. This isn’t to say that I will be pleased if Unicorn simply regurgitates the Gundam story, but if it’s actually going to tell that tale better than the works that have come previously (and focus on some more interesting details such as the early colonists) then I shall look forward to each instalment.

  10. One unexpected utility I’ve found in Gundam Unicorn is that I can show it to my friends who have never seen Gundam before and join them in laughing hysterically at the over-wrought (and sometimes just plain ludicrous) dialog and the often equally silly actions that accompany it. I’ve been a Gundam fan ever since I saw the original series when I was nine or ten and subsequently spent a summer reading every entry on MAHQ, but I’ve never understood how seriously everyone seems to take it.

    Unicorn is shaping up to be pretty fun, although it’s no G Gundam in terms of either the consistency of the plot or the density of entertainment value (I don’t think any other Gundam ever successfully created a world where the ludicrous dialog and insane characters didn’t feel out of place).

    I really wish someone would point out that Zeon was just really bad at their job at some point, though. I mean, everyone always talks about them trying to liberate people in space and no one ever brings up the fact that every plan for that that’s ever been proposed has been not only insane but also unbelievably stupid and unworkable. Idealogical debates in the Universal Century ran out ideas about three quarters of the way through the original series.

  11. And it’s so simplistic, and it’s become very illogical, IMO.

    Looking at vintage info sources from post-Gundam but pre-Zeta gives an interesting picture, to wit: Zeon wasn’t invading the Earth so much as finding political allies among the nations. Looking at a ‘journey map’ for White Base, with the political affillations (zones of control), most all the nations listed as pro-Zeon are nations that have a generally democratic/representative government and strong in a technological and resource way that would welcome free states in space- all of North America and Mexico, Russia, a good chunk of the western part of Africa plus South Africa, north and south chunks of Australia, India.. it’s a real patchwork. There is no possible way to take that much ground by force. The resources used to ‘drop’ millions and millions of troops would wipe out the colonies.

    What I find interesting are the nations still opposing Zeon. South America, China, the western nations of Africa, all of Europe and England. Many of the nations that pushed for the ‘moon treaty’ at the U.N. back in the ’60s, nations that wanted to prevent any country from profiting from exploiting the Moon and later the Asteroids, which helped kill off any private corporations from getting into the space game.

    See, let’s have some of THAT discussion instead of yet another Char phantom, huh? 🙂

  12. I completely agree. That would be a great show, but only if it wasn’t written by anyone who has ever written for Gundam, or possibly even Sunrise in general. Turn A is probably the closest they’ve come to really focusing on the politics and economics in a manner that isn’t completely idiotic, and even that has its fair share of ludicrous bits (not that I’m complaining, I love Turn A almost as much as G and the original TV series).

    Honestly, Char stopped being interesting after Zeta, anyway. He was great in the original because he acted like he could have been the hero of an Alexander Dumas novel and he was great in Zeta because you got to see him stumble his way through re-adjusting his outlook and maturing as a person after having finally completed the revenge that had defined his life up to that point. After that he became less a character and more a simplistic political ideology with legs.

    If they’re going to keep having masked characters, they need to be completely different from Char like Harry Ord and Schwarz Bruder.

    Also, am I the only one who thinks Full Frontal in this episode spoke far too reasonably to have some of the followers he does? I really hope he’ll turn out to have a plan that isn’t completely stupid, but I feel like I’ll probably be disappointed.

    Also, the silliest thing about Shot Weapon wasn’t his name, it was that his motivation was being Australian.

  13. Unlike the other char clones in other gundam series, Full Frontal actually makes sense when you consider how close it is in the UC timeline to Chars Counterattack. It’s pretty reasonable for someone who has lived in the same timeframe as Char and Zeon to be influenced by him enough to want to want to take up after him.

  14. Yeahbut.

    See, this is one of the ‘great unknowns’ about original Gundam. We really don’t get any understanding of what’s considered common. Take Char. OK, does the ‘paint it red’ thing, there’s historical context back to WW I, groovie. He wears a red uniform and a chromed helmet. OK, maybe he gets some leeway due to his actions at Rumm or whatever. He’s one of two people known (seen) to have a personal energy weapon in the Zeon military. What’s up with that? And then the mask. That’s kinda out there, isn’t it?

    And let’s not forget his personalized space ship! That must have been a hella big victory he had!

    So OK, all of that is easily explained once you recall that at its core Gundam is just another ‘super robot’ show and all those trappings are the typical way to identify the key antagonist in such a show. So where’s the retcon that shows such things are normal in the Zeon military? MSV kits don’t count.

  15. Your thoughts are dead on. I am simply tired of the rehashing of the same Gundam tropes every other year. There has to be some sort of innovation, or the series will ultimately die off, like anime in general.

    I was getting worried for a second that Ghost in the Shell was heading down the same road as Gundam, but at least they stopped pumping out tv series.

  16. I started Gundam Unicorn after I had watched most of 0079, but before I had watched Zeta or CC. To put it bluntly, I was floored. I thought the animation was amazing, the mech design was awesome, the characters were surprisingly believable, and the soundtrack was one of the best I’d heard in an anime. And something about the artwork and coloring really grabbed me, like it was retro anime with all the benefits of modern production methods. Not garish or overly shiny like a lot of digitally colored anime can get.

    Now that I’ve watched more of Universal Century, I can see how it must seem like a re-tread for everyone who’s been along for the ride so far, but for a relative newcomer like me it was just an excellent experience, even if I couldn’t follow all the names that they were dropping. Regardless, even as a newbie I found nothing “slow” or “boring” about it.

    Actually, now that I think about it, Gundam Unicorn is LESS slow and boring than just about anything that Tomino’s ever done. Now, I have a lot of respect for the guy. It’s not every director that pretty much founds a genre, and I love the general aesthetic, mood, and philosophy behind UC Gundam. But his shows and movies could get DULL and DRY. I’d go so far to say that Unicorn is the best directed and executed Gundam show/movie I’ve seen yet, with 08th MS Team at a close second. Tomino was a real visionary, but as a director he was hardly God.

    I’m tempted to just say “Hey, contrarian blog will be contrarian,” but I don’t think you’re giving enough credit to how superbly executed Unicorn is.

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