Looking a Gift Unicorn In the Mouth: Gundam Unicorn, Episode One “Day of the Unicorn”

We here at Colony Drop are known for complaining about the decline of the Japanese animation industry, due in part to the Japanese companies’ increased interest in pandering to certain groups of fans. Nothing guarantees sales like getting on your knees and serving up enough obvious fanbait to make brain-dead fanboys (or fangirls) tune in.

It isn’t hard to see why this practice is creatively bankrupt: a focus on fans’ desires over the creators’ ideas means having to sacrifice originality in the name of surefire profit. We, the eternal optimists behind Colony Drop, aren’t so naïve as to claim that this hasn’t always been a part of the anime industry/fan relationship, but in recent years, it’s become downright epidemic. As you may expect, such pandering generally makes no attempt to woo the sensibilities of the discerning Colony Drop staff. However, times have changed, and, for once, someone in the Japtoon-making business has wisened up and created a new cartoon that caters to dudes just like us: Mobile Suit Gundam Unicorn.

I could be hyperbolic and claim that a new Gundam series is a big deal, but it really isn’t. New Gundam projects have been coming out consistently since the late 1980s, most of them serving only to remind fans that having the Gundam name attached to a title is far from any sort of seal of quality. The one way in which Unicorn might be a big deal is that it takes place in the Universal Century timeline, originally established by the first Gundam way back in 1979. In recent years the Universal Century continuity has largely been shoved aside by newer, alternative timelines created by shows like Gundam SEED or Gundam 00. As such, Unicorn has generated a lot of excitement from older fans who still carry a torch for the early series.

Unicorn takes place in U.C. 0096, three years after the events of Char’s Counterattack. This provides an opportunity for some venerable designs to make an appearance, while leaving the creators room to go in their own direction. It’s worth noting that Unicorn is adapted from a series of successful novels written by Harutoshi Fukui, rather than a newly created story like most Gundam spin-offs, and for that reason, plenty of people already know how the story ends. This marks a key difference between Unicorn and other Gundam OAVs.

Episode one, “Day of the Unicorn,” makes a grab for the Gundam veterans right from the beginning, with the subsequent 55 minutes spent reinforcing the idea that the creators really wanted old fans to like this. It starts with a Zeon ship fleeing Londo Bell forces (consisting of the Jegans from Char’s Counterattack), and it’s not too long before we’re awash in familiar-looking Mobile Suits, space colonies, Haro and women with hairstyles straight out of Zeta Gundam and/or Janet Jackson’s Control-era.

The intention is obvious: this show is meant to make fans of the older series’ feel right at home, and the production staff seems to be making a conscious effort to avoid scaring them off with moé girls or foppish androgynous protagonists. It’s the same old Gundam tropes that we’re all-too-familiar with: Zeon loyalists, a young protagonist with father issues, a prototype Gundam and a love interest on the wrong side of the war. Thankfully, what could have come off as uninspired and overdone has instead turned out to be a well-executed return to the classics. Though there is little in the first episode of Unicorn that is new or unexpected, there’s a definite sense of competency in how the story is being handled. Whether or not it ends up going in an interesting direction is yet to be seen, but the staff has shown that they can manage the basics of Gundam just fine.

I’ll admit that the cynic in me questions whether or not they’ll be able to maintain the momentum of this first episode. The pacing is balanced, with a good mixture of action to break up the more dialogue-heavy scenes. Characters and situations are introduced without giving away too much, and enough mysteries are hinted at to keep the viewer eager to see how the story pans out. Bandai has lavished a budget large enough to live up to the hype that this new series has been receiving, and Unicorn is impressively well-animated. Though it lacks the detail of 0083 or dynamic action of MS Igloo, it’s still no slouch when it comes to visuals. It’s hard to escape the look of modern digital animation, but enough attention has been given to the old-school touches that even a digital-hating curmudgeon like me has a hard time finding much to complain about.

The largest fault of the episode, if you’d even consider it that, is that there’s no attempt to throw a lifeline to Gundam novices. If you’re not familiar with the Universal Century mythos, much of the plot will leave you scratching your head. This isn’t a bad thing, considering just how many Gundam fans there are out there, and it’s nice that they don’t feel the need to reinvent the wheel yet again. This further exemplifies what I mentioned earlier: Unicorn is clearly intended for existing fans of the franchise. Visually and thematically, Unicorn sets out to evoke the atmosphere of vintage Gundam titles. At this point, it remains to be seen if this is merely a first-episode ploy to hook older fans, or a planned theme for the entire series.

It’s impossible to judge a six-episode OAV series by its first episode, and whatever competency is displayed here can easily get eroded by budget cuts, time crunches or staff changes. “Day of the Unicorn” is a promising start to what may be a return to the classic Gundam OAVs of the 80s and 90s, but the series clearly has its work cut out for it, and the expectations of a fickle fanbase to live up to. I wouldn’t dare to guess whether or not it will succeed, but I sincerely hope that it will.

23 Comments

  1. Actually, the fact that it’s not helping out new fans is something of a Good Thing–I’ve talked to more than a few people who are going back and watching the original Gundam just to make sense of some things in Unicorn.

  2. I have to agree with wah. Personally, I’m hesitant to jump into older anime titles, however the obscured intricacies have prompted me to read up the UC mythos. Still some time left before the second episode airs, so I can grab the wait as an opportunity to get acquainted with older Gundam titles.

  3. Despite the fact it is being aired on tv, aren’t OAVs typically made to be bought on video by those who know they want to see it?

  4. I’m glad that people are digging it, I hope it doesn’t turn out to be a trap.

    My big headache is how Bandai is marketing this. When the project was originally put together it was going to be the Gundam that takes over America, FINALLY, but in that long birth period the American anime market has all but vanished and the Ameriotaku ™ just don’t give a shit about things like this. So, making the first volume Blu-ray only, Amazon Exclusive and $50 MSRP, of COURSE it’s going to be a GIANT HIT and sell a MILLION COPIES, right? RIGHT?

    (supposedly the BD and a standard DVD release for the general marketplace come ‘later’ but I’ve not seen any offical listing of that)

    Arrggggghhhh

  5. ArOne: True enough, I don’t know if many OAVs, especially those spun off from existing franchises, were ever meant to have very much mass appeal. The closest and most recent Western comparison I can think of is the Futurama direct-to-videos (which are pretty much OAVs in all but name, come on).

    Of course, we could go on all day about the fall of the OAV as a medium for shovelware in the 90s and the debasement of the term across the 00s to the point that it’s now cryptospeak for simulcast miniseries with longer episodes and slightly above-average animation quality.

    Me, I think Gundam works best, especially Universal Century, in the miniseries format, whether it be six-plus episodes or the original movie trilogy. Of course, at this point I don’t fool myself into thinking I watch Gundam for anything except for ballin’ mecha fights from one of the few studios that still has the muscle to do them well.

  6. I had no idea what the hell was going on. Yet I can see why, given the constraints and the audience, they felt no need to explain. I have no problem with that, it just means I go need to do some research in an attempt to work out what was happening.

    I still managed to enjoy it on the level of “Oh, the fights are pretty cool” and “People have proper 80’s hair”. Although when ever anyone had a massive conversation I somewhat glazed over. Still I have some respect for what they are doing because no-one else is doing this kind of thing.

  7. > Steve

    I think Bandai is beyond the point of saving at this point. It’s been years since they started marketing their upscale DVD releases and outside of the Honneamise Patlabor movie boxed sets (which were awesome, and well worth the price) they’ve managed to fail spectacularly with every release since then. I certainly don’t think Unicorn will turn Gundam around in the US, although it’s promising to see that it’s inspiring new fans to check out the original.

    That said, if their foolishness keeps Unicorn released in the US at the same time as the Japanese release, I’m all for it.

  8. Already wrote what needed to be written in the BSS.
    This comment was made to nitpick:

    Fix the aspect ratio of the screenshots. The Leopard-Raws rip needs to be manually set to 1.85:1 since it’s anamorphic.

  9. To Sean: This is good to hear, since I’m more into the UC timeline. The fact that they didn’t throw a lifeline to new fans…well, it might bother some, but still, one can always look up info on the Universal Century timeline from various sources.

    And I loved the Honneamise boxed set releases, even if they did blow a hole in my wallet. I’m all for bringing out GUNDAM UC in the ‘States…although I suppose it’s a waiting game right now, even with the BR Amazon pre-orders.

    I do agree though, that if this gets people to look into the earlier Gundam anime set in the UC timeline, then so much the better.

  10. Sean, I dig your optimism, but so Unicorn manages to actually find traction with the AmeriOtaku. what awaits them as they seek to discover more about U.C. Gundam?

    – A crippled, dub only release of the first series

    – A crippled,poorly subbed (altho a bit better now) version of Zeta Gundam

    – no release of Double Zeta

    – the three Gundam movies

    – Char’s Counterattack

    I could have swore F-91 was considered U.C., did they retcon that? What about V Gundam?

    and the different OAVs of course, with the attendant issues of if they are actually in continuity or not.

    But the biggies, Gundam, Zeta and Double Zeta, that’s a lot. I just don’t see people flocking to these.

    (and I won’t go off into my rant about Char’s Counterattack should be treated as a non-canon story because of huge logic flaws and blah blah blah 🙂 )

    What bugs me? Unicorn is Gundam with a V-Max system (see Layzner). Good lord, can’t something more interesting than THAT have been behind the show?

  11. I totally agree with you guys about the atypical Gundam norms being executed perfectly in Unicorn. Everything is just so familiar and normal for a Gundam series. I mean, you have the shallow Gundam hero-boy who accidentally finds himself in the main mobile suit of doom (aka a Gundam) and whose general motivations in life consist entirely of “save people’s lives and protect any and all random chicks while forgetting about that one potential love interest who already has the hots for me”. The only thing different about Unicorn for me was the villains who, so far, are extremely confusing (Who are you? Something about Zeon… blah blah blah) and whose discussions about Gundampolitics were surprisingly dull to say the least. Hopefully this will get patched up with volume 2 and the introduction of a Char.

    Can’t believe Volume 2’s release date is the fall. The animation in 1 was “meh” at best. I sort of expect that quality from the regular TV shows, not a 6-episode OVA that will probably take 2+ years to complete but then again, Gundam shows really only exist nowadays to promote the purchasing of Gundam related merchandise.

  12. for TF:

    actually the gundam unicorn is for fans of the UC timeline if your a Alternate timeline fan like wing,seed,00,x then you wont understand a tiny bit of what the story is all about..

    and the MS in the UC timelines are not super robot in quality, gundam in the UC timeline are all prototypes..

    than why the code RX implies,its a prototype MS..

    if you watch all UC gundam related animes, the gundam need support units such as guntanks,guncannons, gms, jegans, regz, etc..

    the only advantage of the gundam is that it has technicals specs that mass produced units doesnt have..

    so pls,to all gundam viewers out there,all UC related Gundams are not like your Alternate timeline Gundams like.

  13. errr its possible to be a fan of both UC, and alternate universes. I love all the gundams…..with the exception of SEED, and even then Stargazer was allright.

  14. Unicorn had me pumping my fist in excitement. I haven’t been so excited about a mecha series in over a decade, but the fact that I can truthfully make that claim probably removes me from the general anime audience demog. As someone who eat/sleeps/breaths UC, this makes me nerdgasm tremendously, however I can see how the general view would feel lost/dated with this series. its very niche, and I cant see how this sort of gamble would pay off. I think Bandai would have been safer perhaps releasing the translated novels first if they wanted to test American waters. Not that they would have had a better chance, but that it would be cheaper, and probably yield just as much (read: little) in terms of American revenue. That said for every 1 American UC fan, I would expect a few dozen Moon People, and at the end of the day, they’re the ones who determine whether an OVA is profitable or not…

  15. Wow, before laying the blame for the anime industry’s problems on “pandering” you might want to think about the serious structural problems in the anime industry’s business models, which have been pushing towards a breaking point for decades.
    For instance, you may care to consult someone who knows what they’re talking about:
    http://altjapan.typepad.com/my_weblog/anime-industry/

  16. I am a die hard Mobile Suit Gundam UC fan. I have watched every UC series, my favorite two are by far MS IGLOO and 0083. I watched Gundam Unicorn, and right after I finished, I began to watch EVERY UC seriers, in order to the master timeline. So far I am on MSG ZZ and so far, I have to say Unicorn really reminds me of it. hopefully it stays impressive, unlike ZZ, lol.

  17. As far as a kinda older Anime fan I was always more into Robotech/Macross I’ve always put off Gundam because I could never find subs of the whole thing and then Bandai’s releases in the 90’s-2000’s juts pissed me off.

    I’ve watched like 4 episodes of Wing and a few of Gundam X but shrugged it off.

    Finally about 2 or 3 years ago I watched Ideon and King Gainer and started to dig on Tomino and started to work my way through the original Gundam. Then I heard Unicorn was coming out so I picked up the Movie Trilogy and blasted through it and enjoyed it very much and I just finished watching Zeta.

    Now I am on Double Zeta and I’m starting to see why UC was dropped and they Alternatives were made.

    After I finish Double Zeta and Char’s counter attack I plan to watch Unicorn.

    So I guess Bandai’s “marketing” is working like a charm. On me anyways. haha.

  18. Gundam Unicorn is the first Gundam series that actually raised my interest since 0083, Miller’s Report.

    All of the subsequent “popular” series like Seed, Wings, and, 00 bored the hell out of me.

    Here’s hoping the creative team will meet and exceed our expectations for Unicorn.

  19. This is the real deal, someone here said the animation was “meh” man is that guy smoking crack or what???

    I almost died when I watched this, words cannot describe how happy I was. I love 0080,0083 and MS IGLOO so this hit right in the spot

    I for one think after the Zeta movies that Bandai is going to remake Gundam ZZ because it really did suck. Like Moon Moon episodes((REALLY MOON MOON WTFFF)

  20. No, the animation is too shiny and feels very flat to me.

    But meh, I don’t enjoy the rehashed UC tropes much anyway.

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