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.
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.