Like most anime fans who talk about how much they hate anime on the Internet, I didn’t go out of my way to see Mobile Suit Gundam 00. Not only was it not set in the fanboy-beloved Universal Century timeline, it looked like the Gundam Wing version of Gundam Seed, both of which are anathema to us anime elitists. So while Mobile Suit Gundam 00 was quite popular and appeared on all your favorite torrent sites, it was never a hit with people who call themselves hardcore anime fans, because they didn’t watch it. We lived through Gundam Wing, and, after years of therapy, have convinced ourselves that Gundam Seed didn’t happen. So avoiding something that seemed to think these two terrible tastes would taste great together was almost as high a priority for us nerds as continuing to avoid sunlight and the warm touch of a woman.
And this is a shame, because not only is Mobile Suit Gundam 00 actually pretty damn good, it has something that the Universal Century never had: balls.
The Holy Trinity of Mobile Suit Gundam, Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam and Char’s Counterattack might be leagues ahead in showing the horrors of war, or at least what the horrors of war would be like if everyone had a robot with a big ol’ laser gun, but beyond that human drama Gundam doesn’t take its message very far. The bad guys in the original were basically Space Nazis, espousing a new and exciting space racism to prop up their space fascism. Saying that “fascism is bad” just isn’t bold commentary. Other Gundams kept the human drama aspect and did a damn good job of it, but Gundam, and even mecha anime as a genre, has never taken the next step and tried to make an intellectual point, just an emotional one. Gundam 0080 War in the Pocket is one of those emotional pieces of cinematography that just sticks with you, but really, what am I supposed to take away from that in terms of concrete ideas? It’s a tragic story, but it’s not espousing any particular idea.
Looking at 00, the Wing/Seed comparisons are pretty easy to make. I watched the first episode, then the first three episodes, and then the first seven, with friends of mine telling me that it really WAS different, but me not really seeing it. To be fair, it starts out slow, and the first few episodes of the Gundams killing nameless grunts and nearly killing named characters (who have to leave at the last minute before they die) doesn’t help. But I think this is just done to make sure enough explosions happen per episode to fulfill some kind of marketing board’s Juvenile Excitement Quota. We start to see the real action happening in politics, as the world responds to the bizarre Gundam attacks and the shakeup in the world order they’re causing.
See, Mobile Suit Gundam 00 isn’t stupid like Gundam Wing, and definitely not infantile like Gundam Seed, but that’s not why it’s important. It’s one of those few anime shows that can marry complex and compelling plots to exciting action scenes, yet that’s still not the reason why the first Season of 00 has me so excited. No, I’m excited because 00 is the first time Gundam doesn’t pull any punches. We’re not talking about Space Nazis in the future who are the bad guys, but people, governments and ideas in the here and now as the targets of 00‘s criticism. Gundam 00 takes place in the far-off future, but instead of being in a new calendar, it still uses the A.D. system, which is symbolic: 00 isn’t talking about some fictional setting, but the world we live in today. Humanity is building space elevators with solar electricity panels pasted onto them, but early in the first few episodes, it’s quickly reinforced that this isn’t some science fiction story with factionalism completely divorced from the present day.
No, instead all the countries get slightly different names, but we all know who they’re talking about (if you had watched the goddamn thing). America is still America, and they’re still technically doing the “right” thing, as long as it happens to also be something that helps them out politically. The Europeans are still grasping at their perceived loss of influence in world affairs and are trying to make a comeback. Asia and Russia are strong, rapidly developing contenders with values the rest of the world feels are completely alien. These three alliances are all trying to do the best things for themselves, enjoying a high standard of living while playing out a global game of proxy wars in underdeveloped countries, while the Middle East continues to go to hell in a hand basket. The state of the world in Gundam 00 is the state of the world at this exact moment, just with a bunch of space colonies flying about to make it look all science-fictiony.
So the Gundam pilots aren’t blowing up nameless mooks in response to teenage angst; they’re trying to take down the New World Order, which just happens to be the Current World Order of today. Just like in the real world, the situation in Gundam 00 involves some global wars a while back, and while things have settled down, there are still proxy wars going on, economic wars being fought, politcal pissing matches being staged and a whole bunch of countries caught in the middle and being torn apart. The world is similar enough to our own that we know it’s intentional, so the message comes off as interesting but not quite preachy. The first Season ends with a few big questions, so what the directors think is “right” is still up in the air.
The Gundam pilots themselves are a bit different. There’s four of them, and they’ve got Gundams that dropped onto Earth, and they’re kinda crazy, which is partly where all the Wing comparisons come from. But while the Gundam Wing characters have general teenage angst, we quickly find out that the Gundam pilots (and their Suspiciously White Base-like Crew) in 00 are all a tad crazy simply because of the current world situation. The main character of 00 might be totally mentally unbalanced, but hell, he was a child soldier who was ordered to kill his family and did it. He’s fucking nuts, but he’s got every reason in the world to want to change the world. We don’t like the Gundam pilots, but we can understand why they’re so upset at a world that we eventually have to agree isn’t perfect, and how they want to make it better.
In contrast to Wing, 00 keeps the original Gundam‘s “the enemies are probably just regular ol’ decent people who happen to work for a dictatorship” idea, except this time, these decent folks are working for the country you live in. We like that crazy European ace and his one-sided love for the strict military woman. We like Old Russian Dude who cares more about people’s lives than his country seems to, and we like those crazy Americans and their pimped-out robot team. They could have easily been the heroes of their own series, their goals are completely noble (protect their country) and I even found myself going “AMERICA: FUCK YEAH,” at a few points before I realized, hey, these are the bad guys (I always wanted Ramba Ral to win, too). But even if they’re more likable than the Gundam pilots are, we see how the nations use these pilots and their noble ideals for their own selfish reasons, which more or less proves the point the Gundam team is trying to make about warfare being wasteful.
So, it’s a surprisingly deep series, and I think that Gundam 00 might—just might—bring about a change in the way mecha anime, and really all anime, works. For at least a decade we’ve been on a trend towards the dumbing down of anime and their main characters so that they become accessible fill-ins, where Generic Fantasy/Sci-Fi World has a war going on, and Generic Milquetoast Self-Insert Male Character happens to find a robot, and also a girl who is mean to him at first (but only because she cares). Gundam 00 takes place in a thinly veiled present day with a guy who killed his own parents as the lead, and brings up some pertinent real-world issues along the way. Every time Gundam 00 Season 1 stumbles, it’s probably to bring people used to more generic fare back into the fold. Get them thinking long enough, maybe they’ll start to like this whole thinking thing, and until then: pretty anime girls! Robots! Amazing-looking explosions! It’s telling that an unexpected amount of older fans watched Gundam 00, when the producers thought they’d get more younger viewers: the Universal Century is mined out, and finally there’s something for us older anime fans to like aside from rererereinterpretations of the One Year War.
So will Bandai fuck all this up by Season 2? Yeah, probably. The first half of Season 2 doesn’t have the Genius-Per-Episode quotient that the first had, and I bet some expensive suit-wearing asshole with a pie chart put in some of Season 2’s more ridiculous elements (MISTAH BUSHIDO). But there’s enough still there that the directors could still get it all together by the end, and the first season itself didn’t start really rolling until at least episode 7, so there’s still hope. And even if Season 2 is a complete debacle there’s still Season 1, which not only stands alone as pretty damn good story, but Jesus Christ, it’s the reason for the first time in years that I’m not ashamed to call myself a Gundam fan.