The Last Good Gundam: Turn A Gundam

We all know that Yoshiyuki Tomino, Sunrise’s most famous director, will always be remembered for his seminal classic, Wings of Rean. Now, however, we will discuss a little-known entry in his creative career called Gundam. You may have heard of it. In…

We all know that Yoshiyuki Tomino, Sunrise’s most famous director, will always be remembered for his seminal classic, Wings of Rean. Now, however, we will discuss a little-known entry in his creative career called Gundam. You may have heard of it.

In the 1999 series Turn A Gundam we see a Sunrise in the throes of transition: cel animation giving way to computers, the sprawling slow-paced shows of 80s Sunrise replaced with the frenetic into-the-deep-end shows of 00s Sunrise, Universal Century ceding popular dominance to the slew of alternate universe shows, Tomino signing off on the Gundam franchise as a whole. The last television installment in the franchise to involve Tomino’s hand happens to also be the last television installment in the franchise to not be an offensive, repulsive mess.

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No, Turn A is an extremely entertaining mess. Messes are what Tomino does; that’s his directorial technique, or “shtick” if you will. Here’s my theory: he plays off his directorial weaknesses as strengths. The bizarre attempts at pacing, either ass-draggedly turgid or breakneck out-of-control; the exposition and characterization that largely manifest themselves as either ponderous voiceover or stilted, shouting dialog; the motley crew of misfits entrusted with an all-powerful prototype combat robot, a gun-laden air or spaceship and three-and-a-half plucky war orphans. These are all established institutions of anime involving giant robots nowadays — I suspect Studio BONES has a shrine to Tomino set up in the foyer of their office, complete with a fog of incense and libations of milk and Flintstones Chewable Prozac.

(OK, maybe that last one was lifted from Space Battleship Yamato, but which anime director who got his start in the ‘80s didn’t lift from that love child of Leiji Matsumoto and Yoshinobu Nishizaki? Which brings me to my next theory: Tomino’s style partly came to be as a reaction against the dry, contemplative directorial cues that hang thick around most any Matsumoto project, Yamato definitely not being an exception.)

Turn A occupies an odd position in Tomino’s repertoire then. Not as silly as Gundam ZZ and Combat Mecha Xabungle, nor nearly as serious as Zeta Gundam or Aura Battler Dunbine. It’s an odd thing to describe this show as a middle ground, though.

The concept of Turn A is as outlandish as the craziest of the alternate universe Gundam shows: A post-Victorian, pre-World War I society finds itself under attack by long-lost ancestors from the Moon. With the invaders comes a slew of high technology thought to be a legend from olden times, including giant robots. It is only when they inadvertently find similar weapons buried deep in burial mound-esque mountains across the continent that the Earth dwellers stand a chance.

Tomino’s greatest creative strength is his ability to be the idea man. There are few other high-profile personalities in anime who can build worlds and show concepts with such a consistent degree of invention and apparent effortlessness as him. All of his shows are similar to one another, variations on a theme, yet manage to grab the imagination, regardless of the recycling. Turn A Gundam recycles in more ways than one.

Turn A, unlike every other giant robot anime ever, does not feature a massive war at the center of its narrative. A ceasefire between Earthling nations and Moonrace is declared early in the series and becomes the narrative hook, as the conflict constantly fluctuates between hot and cold. All the while both sides frantically seek to ramp up proliferation of the destructive robots buried under the Earth. If Mobile Suit Gundam referenced, at least partly, World War II, then Turn A references something closer to the Cold War and the world we live in today. I’ll go out on another theory here (bear with me) and say that Tomino must have been reading about the state of Israel while writing the draft for his show.

Like the Israel-Palestine conflict there is a minority population with a massively-lopsided technological and military advantage claiming to be “returning” to land that was always theirs on grounds of a millennia-old prophecy — land already populated by the local majority. Likewise, that majority sees these newcomers as alien (in Turn A, quite literally so) invaders whose claim rings false and must be driven out by any means and at any cost. It’s a rich context to draw from, extremely relatable for anyone with a passing grasp of international events since WWII, and a large part of what makes this show so infectious.

Neither side is a monolithic empire. The Moonrace is split between militarist and pacifist elements, and on a larger level between a traditional noble class and more hawkish military aristocrats. The Earth dwellers of the continent of Ameria (not a typo) live in various nation-states, chief among them Inglessa and Luciana. The relations between Inglessa and Luciana, as personified in Inglessa baron and industrialist Guin Lineford and Luciana noble family representative Lily Borjarnon, become key to the continued resistance to Moonrace expansion. Their nations have militaries with their own personalities and agendas. A recurring theme in the show is Lineford’s inability to exert real authority over the Inglessa Militia, with often dire consequences. Ironically, he owns much of the fledgling industry that keeps the Militia supplied, so it’s no one-sided relationship either. All of that for what’s ostensibly a show intended to sell model kits to kids.

From the first episode onwards, the viewer can tell something is up visually. Futurist Syd Mead worked on mechanical designs for the series. The mobile suits piloted by the Moonrace truly look like things designed and operated by a completely alien culture. The Turn A itself, which has its own links to Moonrace technology, reflects the same aesthetic.

This was the last Gundam to feature hand-drawn cel animation, in case it needed anything else to further differentiate itself. Visually, it exists strangely outside of time. If you’d told me that Turn A Gundam was produced in 1986, I would have believed you. Old Sunrise visual standards are very much in effect. The result is art and animation that never looks quite great, but never fails to get the job done either.

At times I wondered if Tomino was making Turn A as self-consciously weird as possible in an attempt to sabotage for Sunrise and Bandai the franchise he’d spent over a decade building. I guess by now, looking at the abomination which alternate universe, post-Tomino Gundam has become, his intentions are moot. They certainly are to Sunrise and Bandai.

The standby comments that dominate what little discussion there is of Turn A: “it’s so wacky and silly!” “There are mobile suits from older Gundam shows in it!” overlook the nuanced story that is the show’s true appeal and why it remains such a respected entry in the franchise. If only it ended here.

5 Comments

  1. I think the Israel-Palestine parallel is reading too much into Turn A; it’s more likely Tomino was going for a very stock land-dispute story template. If Tomino had something specific to say about real-world politics, he most likely would have done so in any number of his prior works.

    Still, I like Turn A because, well, it is fairly zany as Gundam goes, but it’s not ADD zany, and it carries a bit more sentimental gravity than other silly-Tomino works like Overman King Gainer. The main attraction of the show, in my opinion, would be the whimsical character direction, where the characters are kooky but still with a fair bit of depth to them. You have the laid-back Loran and his constant harassment by bossy little Sochie, the kooky inexplicable-twins angle with Kihel and Dianna, cool-customer Harry and his laughably bad fashion sense, Po and her strange tendency to cry at the drop of a hat, and of course poor Corin Nander, whose goofiness is constantly interrupted by terrible flashbacks of the Wing Gundam, of all things! And that’s to say nothing of Guin, a man who manages to outwit the fucking Moon using technology that can barely produce airplanes!

    Personally, I think the show is much better pitched to people who haven’t seen it on its zanier merits, because it is one of those weird shows that’s amazingly fun to describe in those terms. “A meek little brown boy from the Moon comes to Earth to make friends and chauffeur around a bratty little white girl and her hot sister who’s secretly the unrelated identical twin of the Queen of the Moon. He digs up a robot when his moon friends come down to start trouble, resolves a few disputes over cows and real estate, takes his friends on a whirlwind tour of his hometown, and spends much of the first ten episodes wearing a very flattering dress! Did I mention this is a Gundam show?”

  2. Well my entire approach was to have a review that talks about the show’s place in the Gundam franchise and Tomino’s repertoire. As anyone who frequents the CD IRC channel knows overly well already, plot summary is just not my bag. Diatribes on history are; I still insist media and entertainment don’t spontaneously generate in a vaccuum and that reviews/articles of said works should strive to place them in a historical context and dig out the direction in which their roots spread. Of course, I’m not supreme dictator of CD yet and can’t mandate this for every article (YET).

    Alternatively, I wanted to see a Turn A review that wasn’t just “LOOK HOW WACKY THIS SHOW IS! CAN YOU BELIEVE IT? AND CHECK OUT HOW SCREWBALL THESE SITUATIONS AND CHARACTERS ARE!” While that’s undeniably a part of the show (and I think I make fair mention of it), it’s a disservice to ignore the other aspects of one of the more nuanced shows of Tomino, a director who believes understatement is for cowards after all.

  3. I was never able to make it past the first 20 episodes mostly because I felt the story wasn’t going anywhere particularly fast, but that was 5 years ago and now I’ve seen Zeta and F91 so maybe things are different.

    What I can say is this: I’m really sad that Gundam has changed so radically into this j-pop monstrosity. I feel like Gundam is in some weird purgatory where the old fans are waiting for the new fans to die out so we can get back to serious business, or at least something better.

  4. One of my favourite aspects of Turn A was how different the dynamic between the cast members was from most shows. With characters constantly double crossing each, changing factions, and in one case switching identities, there was a definete air of tension between the cast. Few people really trusted each other very much, on either side of the war; by the end Sochie couldn’t even trust who she thought was her sister. I think people who talk about how wacky and fun Turn A is are only looking at it from a superficial level, they’re forgetting this aspect of the story.

  5. My take on Turn-A is that its a great pulp SF adventure story. Theres unlikely escapes, dashing villains, heroic derring do, invaders from space, improbable plot conincidences, and bi-planes! How can you not love a series which manages to pitch bi-planes against giant robots and actually pull it off?! Turn-A is the Indiana Jones of Gundam.

    Whats really amazing about the series is how everything you think is a weakness before seeing it actually turns (no pun intended… ) out to be a strength. Like everyone else, I hated the Turn-A design when I first saw, but having since seen the show, its now one of my favourite mecha designs.

    I saw Turn-A shortly after seeing V-Gundam and Gundam SEED, which may have influenced my opinions of it. I like to put it that Gundam SEED is like a highway – it takes you where you want to go fast and efficiently, but the scenery is kind of boring and souless.
    Turn-A, on the other hand, takes the road less travelled – its more winding, slower and easier to get lost, but the views are spectacular.

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