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.