One could easily devote an entire blog to talking about Gundam sequels and spin-offs, but that blog is not Colony Drop. The reason that blog isn’t Colony Drop, at least on my part, is because my interest in the franchise drops off substantially following 1988’s Char’s Counterattack. That’s not to say everything that Bandai has managed to squeeze out after Char’s Counterattack with the Gundam name on it was terrible (although most of it was), but really, what’s the point?
Gundam has turned into little more than the animated equivalent of the Super Sentai franchise, where each new series is wholly separate from the others, but possesses core thematic traits that help to identify it as a part of the franchise. In Super Sentai it’s multi-colored teams of people in spandex suits fighting rubber monsters with combining robots, in Gundam it’s obnoxious children fighting Char clones in prototype mobile suits with V fins.
Thankfully, the under-appreciated MS Igloo and its recent sequel MS Igloo 2 show just how interesting Gundam spin-offs can be when they’re not recycling the same ideas over and over again to sell more model kits.
But first, let’s talk about Space Nazis.
The Nazification of the Principality of Zeon
The concept of the Principality of Zeon as a reference to World War II Nazi Germany is a fairly common idea in Gundam fandom, although judging from the original Mobile Suit Gundam, it probably wasn’t quite what Tomino was intending. While MS Gundam was something of an allegory for World War II, and there is the oft-quoted line by Degwin Zabi to his son Giren about him being “Hitler’s tail,” the similarities are subtle and more a reference to Germany’s role and actions in the war, than an actual portrayal of Nazi Germany itself.
Zeon, like Nazi Germany, was a relatively small country that achieved numerous early successes through the use of new tactics and the employment of new technology (mobile suits). The Federation, like the Allied forces, were originally not prepared to handle the new threat but after catching up technologically their superior manufacturing capabilities and larger numbers allowed them to achieve victory. Aside from these similarities, Tomino certainly wasn’t pushing the One Year War as WWII.
It wasn’t until 1989’s Gundam 0080: War in the Pocket that the Nazification of Zeon really began, with a significant portion of the Zeon aesthetic redesigned to take on a distinctly World War II Germanic style. Beyond just the uniforms, the Zeon mobile suits were significantly retconned to include touches like panzerfausts and Germanic names like Jager and Kampfer.
What makes this retconning interesting is the context in which Japanese otaku culture views the World War II-era Germany aesthetic and how much it differs from the Western perception. In the West we’ve been conditioned to associate Nazi designs and style with supreme evil, and as such, in western fiction that same style is often used when trying to establish a particular character or group as evil without having to actually explain why. It works because as we automatically associate those kind of images with evil, we automatically know that the fictional characters in question are evil, saving the writer the effort of having to establish any sort of motivations or unique characteristics. Its a cop-out used throughout movies, video games and comics because no one is going to complain about people vilifying Nazis, and rightly so.
Viewed from the Western perspective, one could easily assume that that was what the design team for War in the Pocket was trying to accomplish, but that is not the case. The difference is that while the Japanese are educated about the atrocities of the Axis powers in World War II (well, German atrocities in any case), Japanese culture does not have the same kind of ingrained response to Nazi imagery that we do in the West. As such, Japanese otaku culture is free to recognize just how cool the German military aesthetic is on purely visual terms, without experiencing the same attached emotional baggage that we in the west might. Thusly, it isn’t uncommon to see people dressed in full German uniforms at otaku events in Japan, no one in their right mind (save military re-enactors and Hellsing cosplayers with> no taste) would dress up similarly in the West.
Because the depressing truth is that they did have the coolest uniforms (that’s what happens when you have Hugo Boss designing your uniforms) and the coolest tanks (that’s what happens when you have Ferdinand Porsche designing your tanks) and that’s why this aesthetic is so common in Japanese anime and comics, because frankly, it looks cool. Ranging from more proper works like Oshii’s Panzer Corps series, to Kazuhisa Kondo’s Gundam 0079 manga to garage kits of moé girls in German uniforms and MG32s, it’s a common theme among otaku interests and was even more so during the late 80s when otaku culture was focused on military hardware and model kits.
As such, I would theorize that the staff of War in the Pocket was not establishing Zeon as the bad guys by using the World War II-era German aesthetic, but establishing them as the cool guys, devoid of the more proper historical associations that we might assume. After War in the Pocket, 1991’s Gundam 0083: Stardust Memory followed this trend by further establishing more Germanisms into the Zeon aesthetic and maintaining the same look, particularly as evidenced by the Zeons in Africa which were clearly patterned after the desert troops of World War II. Kazuhisa Kondo’s Gundam side story comics also helped, by introducing aspects like Zeon motorcycle troops and mobile suits with zimmerit. By this point Zeon’s German look was well established and since then has continued on as a recognized and ubiquitous part of the Gundam mythos.
More on this later, and how it relates to MS Igloo in Part 2.