Prequels are invariably pretty shit.
If they’re not building upon established, well-worn backstory with unnecessary and uninteresting fluff (the Gungan-effect), they’re unnecessarily complicating existing relationships between familiar characters (the Jango Fett-effect). More over, thanks to advancing technology in both film and animation, prequels rarely look like they predate their chronologically successive progenitors, a problem that pop up most notably in the areas of graphical fidelity and design. With that in mind, hopefully you’ll excuse us if we weren’t too optimistic about the new OVA adaption of Gundam The Origin.
That The Origin manages to avoid these pitfalls, or succeed in spite of them, is due in no small part to the quality of its source material: Yoshikazu Yasuhiko’s sprawling manga retelling of the One Year War, Mobile Suit Gundam: The Origin. Yasuhiko was the character designer for the original Mobile Suit Gundam back in 1979, and has since become both an accomplished director and cartoonist. His Origin manga is an exhaustive retelling of one of the most familiar conflicts in anime, and its success speaks to both his strengths as a storyteller and an artist.
What sets the animated The Origin apart, at least in the case of the first episode, Blue-Eyed Casval, is that it sticks faithfully to Yasuhiko’s work. That’s not entirely surprising, considering the man’s credit as “Chief Director” on the 4-episode series, but it’s reassuring because while this may be a prequel, it’s adapted from volume five of the manga. This means it’s less of a tacked-on origin story, and more a much longer, well-planned narrative. So while The Origin OVA may be only four episodes long, it could easily be dovetailed into a much longer series, focusing on the adaption of rest of the manga’s One Year War timeframe. This is a surprisingly smart strategy from Bandai, given their last big-budget Gundam OVA was the dreadful, little-better-than-fanfiction pap, Gundam Unicorn.
But while The Origin may be setting up for possibility of a Yamato 2199-esque reboot, the first episode makes it abundantly clear that the series is targeted at older fans, already well-versed in the nuances of the Universal Century and the One Year War. Sandwiched between some sharp looking Mobile Suit battles is roughly 40-minutes of political intrigue and machinations surrounding the death of Zeon Zum Deikun, father to both the boy that would become Char Aznable, and the villains of original Mobile Suit Gundam, the Principality of Zeon. The only time this tone shifts is with a couple of brief gags involving a cat, that while faithful to Yasuhiko’s manga style, don’t quite make a successful shift to animation. Thankfully, these gags are pretty short. If politics and Universal Century minutiae aren’t your jam, you’re likely to be frustrated and bored.
The One Year War as a World War II allegory is well-worn and tiring by now, but The Origin does well to present Munzo, the colony that will eventually become the Principality of Zeon, as something of an interwar European republic, beset by political instability and the eventual rise of fascism. It’s a clever approach considering how exhaustively World War II imagery has become conflated with the One Year War, and aside from some Gulf War-era uniforms on the part of the Federation soldiers, it’s an all-encompassing aesthetic throughout the episode.
That imagery isn’t particularly surprising considering the series’ director, Takashi Imanishi, was also the director of most of Gundam 0083: Stardust Memory, and the MS IGLOO series, two shows that relied heavily on World War II imagery. He’s also Colony Drop’s de facto favorite Gundam director, which or may not mean something to you, depending on your taste in Gundam OVAs. Series writer Katsuyuki Sumisawa is also well-versed in Gundam, having had a hand in much of Gundam Wing. Perhaps with these two working together, it means there’ll be something for every type of Gundam fan in The Origin. Or maybe not.
As mentioned earlier, there’s a lot in The Origin specifically designed to appeal to older fans, and the Jango Fett-effect, for better or worse, is a big part of that. Characters from Mobile Suit Gundam show up in spades, which while not-overbearing, often times feels a little too convenient. Sure, part of that is attempting illustrate existing relations already referenced over decades of animation and spin-offs, but it can, as it often does in prequels, feel like its trying a bit too hard. On the other hand, the biker bar from Venus Wars makes an appearance on Side 3 and it’s hard to get too upset about that.
The Origin’s most egregious prequel-related chronological offense is the shoehorning of Federation Guntanks into the story, roughly a decade too early. There’s not much point, or explanation, as to why so many prototype Guntanks are kicking around, but then again, a Gundam series isn’t allowed to have a first episode without an untrained kid piloting a Mobile Suit. It also throws off the pre-existing narrative of Mobile Suits being a Zeon-designed surprise weapon deployed during the One Year War, but hey, Gundam 0080: War in the Pocket got the Mobile Suits all wrong, too, and people trip all over themselves to praise that thing.
One last complaint: early on, a particularly eye-rolling reference is made to Char’s eventual nickname, a line so bad that the best equivalent I could draw would be line from the first episode of Gundam 00, where a character reads “Gundam” on the forehead of a mobile suit and wonders aloud if that’s the mobile suit’s name.
We’ll refrain from drawing any strong conclusions from the first episode, mostly because it’s too early but also because we were way, way wrong about Gundam Unicorn. The strict adherence to Yasuhiko’s work in Blue-Eyed Casval means that, if things continue, we know what we’re going to get because we’ve already read it. The adaption is strict enough that it likely won’t be filled with too many surprises, but considering how terribly most Gundam series finish, that’s not so bad.
The last thing we’d regret not mentioning is just how absolutely pathetic Bandai’s recent efforts with Gundam have been in the U.S. While Build Fighters was streamed nearly simultaneously for U.S. viewers, the currently-airing Gundam Reconguista in G is five months behind U.K. and Australian streams, for no explicable reason. Similarly, as of the time this article was published, the first episode of The Origin is available only via Google Play and Daisuki. The former limits you to browser-playback and Android devices, while the latter apparently doesn’t like credit cards very much (we had to use PayPal). It’s a baffling strategy for a major Bandai franchise, in what we’d assume is a pretty large market.
Perhaps there’s a decent explanation Bandai hasn’t shared, or perhaps they’re purposely sabotaging U.S. releases, but either way, if you’re in the U.S. and trying to watch new Gundam shows like The Origin, it’s a genuinely shitty situation.
Edit: Shortly after this post went live, the episode was added to Amazon’s streaming service.