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.”