Sunday, May 10, 2009


Are we going to do a theme week every time work keeps me too busy to post anything the week previous?

Anything's possible.

I hadn't initially planned to do another theme week so soon, but an ideal topic fell into my lap, or more accurately, into my hands, recently, that being Dynasty Warriors: Gundam 2. For those of you not in the know, DWG2 basically takes every major storyline development and major character over the entire 30-year history of the Gundam franchise and makes a game effort to bind it all together in something like a reasonable plot so Gundam fans can nerd out mad-style over the fact that characters who would never meet at all fight alongside each other in what would be, for comics fans, like the JLA/Avengers crossover realised in video-game form--a nerd's dream, but the kind of thing that leaves most sane people scratching their head.

So I thought to myself, "Self, why not write about Gundam for a week? You'll be playing the damn game for ages trying to unlock anything, why not make a vague motion to justify it by reviewing the whole thing, or as much as you can get to in one-day installments. Oh yes, and while you're at it, you might try quitting the habit of talking out loud to yourself."

So here we are.

I've mentioned Gundam before, when we were talking about the possibility of comics continuity evolving into something like the Gundam's franchise structure--mainly, stories told with common elements that are simultaneously their own separate story with a definite ending or, in some cases, a sequel series that involves different main characters that moves the continuity a certain point forward.

We'll get to that more in a minute. For now, the two things you need to know about Gundam are:

1. It is the most successful failed series in anime history.

2. It endures despite a marked habit to undermine its own storytelling engine at every turn.

The "successful failure" thing is, of course, the first series, Mobile Suit Gundam. Initially, MSG was a utter failure--its episode order was curtailed and it wasn't until Bandai (who owns 90% of everything on Japanese television, I am led to understand) released the series as movies and released model kits of the various mobile suits (robot-like piloted war machines) that the series began to rise in popularity and, in addition to recouping the investment, created an institution.

The "undermining of the storytelling engine" deal is a bit harder to explain, but we'll do our best. First of all, it's worth mentioning here that MSG's initial contribution to the anime genre (specifically the mecha anime subset) was that it blended the high melodrama/war saga elements of things like Star Blazers/Space Battleship Yamato (wherein the entire series is the length and breadth of a great interstellar war as viewed from the perspective of a small handful of people caught up in the middle of it--some if not most don't survive, etc.) and the then-popular Super Robots like Mazinger Z (or, as we'd know them, the Shogun Warriors) In blending these two elements, Gundam creates the Real Robot genre, in which the formerly superhuman mecha are recharacterised as mass-produced war machines, no more or less special as a tank or a machine gun or anything like that.

It's as much of a realistic take on the genre as it is possible to have in a genre wherein people pummel each other in giant mechs. It struggles with science only enough to make it plausible and sell it's story (Gundam's pesudo-science motivator is the legendary Whatever Particle, the Minovsky Particle, which can do whatever the story requires) The story in Gundam is king (under the best of circumstances, anyway) and the story, as embodied in the initial series, is thus:

In Universal Century 0079, human beings live on both the Earth and in a series of space colonies within Earth's orbit. After a turbulent series of revolutions, one of the colonies declares itself a sovereign state--The Principality of Zeon--and declares war on Earth. The resultant One Year War (which lasts exactly that) begins for the viewer when a prototype spaceship and complement of Earth's latest generation prototype Mobile Suits. The ship and its ragtag crew of civilians and junior officers have to learn to become a fighting unit, as they're constantly pursued by the Zeon forces, one in particular, is their ace pilot, a masked man named Char Aznable, who seems to have his own connection to and plans for the ruling Zeon hierarchy.

Initially, Mobile Suit Gundam is a chase story--the ship is pursued by various Zeon commanders, some of whom we're actually given time to get to know, and as we learn, they're not much different from Our Heroes, and like them, caught up in events beyond their control. It's not unusual for the viewer to feel a certain sadness when some of the Zeons die (the common humanity of people separated by national identity is a recurring theme in the Gundam franchise) just as we're meant to feel sympathy for the crew of the ship, often pushed to their limits and beyond trying to survive the chase (Battlestar Galactica fans should find this familiar)

Then, about halfway through, the tide turns. The crew of the ship link up with Earth forces and begin to turn the tide on the Zeon forces. As things grow moree desperate, the war escalates. Mobile Suits like the Gundam initially a dangerous cutting edge weapon, is soon supplanted by the Mobile Armor--a giant weapon several times the size of a mobile suit. More ominous, however, is the revelation that certain mobile suit pilots, like Char and our nominal hero, Armuro Ray, are Newtypes, gifted individuals who have some sort of extrasensory gift that has never really been all that well explained, but we can reasonably assume might have something to do with the fact that MSG has a lot of hotshot pilots as main characters and Star Wars was released in Japan a couple years before Gundam and is fairly obviously an influence (why do you suppose almost every robot had lightsabers?) on the concept.

Newtypes, I should point out here, and a great example of Gundam's problematic storytelling engine. Newtypes (or their equivalents) are often referred to as the "next step in human evolution."

But Gundam is often about the common humanity of people caught up in war, right? It's hard to reconcile the two, partly because its hard to address common humanity with potential ubermenschen running around and partly because the Zeon leaders frequently use very Nazi-esque "master race" language to further their aims. It's rather hard to line that up with the writer's intent when you're basically justifying the bad guys' rhetoric at a certain level.

It also doesn't help that Newtypes are amazingly ill-defined in terms of what counts as one and what can they do (this flaw actually ends up ruining a major plot point in a later film) but I'll get to that a little later.

Nevertheless, this is the genetic map for all future Gundam series. Some of the elements may be jiggered around a bit, but by and large, the following elements will come into play--A war story, two factions representing space colonies and Earth, an arms race spurred to achieve military victory, a race of potential superbeings, and a group of civilians and the military on the run and several characters who may have their own motives.

We'll look at the first example of this storytelling engine going forward tomorrow. Be here next time when I try to cover a century or so of continuity as quickly and coherently as I can.

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