Yesterday, we talked at length about Gundam's Universal Century continuity and the progression of sequels to the original that carried the franchise through the 1980s. As the 80s gave way to the 90s, there was a question as a new Gundam series was prepared of where they could go now. They'd pretty much solved the Earth Federation/Zeon rivalry, and most of the series' major characters had been taken off the board, and so there wasn't a clear way ahead for an immediate sequel.
The answer, as it turned out, was to set things further ahead--thirty years after Char's Counterattack, and use the time-jump as a means of looking ahead to a new status quo. Thus begins the short sad story of the Second Universal Century.
The main motif in the 2nd UC is that the Earth Federation is slowly collapsing. As space becomes more and more heavily colonised (and more populous) and with the powerful, highly organised Zeon finally defeated, the political and military will to deal with colonial uprisings in any coherent way is gone, and into that power vacuum, various groups begin taking advantage of the Federation's impotence (This culminates in the live-action experiment G-Saviour, but we're not going to discuss it because it's so bad that Sunrise--the studio behind Gundam--has more or less disowned it) so, conceivably, any sufficiently organised military could take over a space colony and the Federation wouldn't lift a finger.
Which is exactly what happens in Gundam F91. The Crossbone Vanguard, the private army of the Ronah family, take over one of the newer space colonies and intend to establish an aristocratic system of rule. Naturally, there's more to it than that (isn't there always) and there are plenty of folks within and without who have their own agendas. It's up to Our Heroes to cobble together a resistance to the Vanguard and re-take the space colony, because lord knows, the Federation isn't much help. Luckily, they just happened to have the latest-generation Gundam on hand and the perfect pilot to help them . . .
F91 wasn't intended to be a movie, and it shows. So many random plot threads gets picked up and dropped during the course of 90 minutes that it's glaringly obvious that this was meant to be a series, the plan for which was aborted (for many many reasons) Sadly, we never quite learn how the Crossbone Vanguard is defeated (our only clue to what happens immediately after the film is the manga Crossbone Gundam, in which the Vanguard is reconceptualised as a force for good) but the stage is set for a somewhat familiar but very different reference point in the Universal Century.
For all the promise F91 showed and failed to capitalise on, its successor series, Victory Gundam, achieves and exceeds. It's second only to Zeta in terms of the quality of the series' writing. The comparisons don't end there, either. Victory is darker, more tragic, and more sombre than Zeta.
As I mentioned yesterday, when series creator Tomino is depressed, there is a high probability the series he's working on will be informed by this. It's not surprising, therefore, that Victory, created in the midst of deep personal troubles, reflects this. I'm told that on the DVD collection there's an extra wherein Tomino begs people not to buy it.
If this were Tomino's final word on the series (as it worked out, it wasn't) it would definitely end on a down note, but on a note that's true to the themes of the meta-series, more or less.
Gundam is a tricky beast. On some level, it embraces Japan's romanticisation of the martial spirit and veneration of duty. Time and again, the gifted but unruly misfit (Amuro, Kamille, you name it) is pressganged by circumstance into the military and, after a few rounds of rough military discipline, flourishes as a member of a team. They learn the value of duty and professionalism. There's a sense of ambivalence about this in the best of these sorts of stories, perhaps a result of the post-WW2 generation--having seen what fanatical following of those values brought them, I can't believe here wasn't a lot of questioning of long-cherished beliefs in the wake of that.
But at the same time, while delivering healthy doses of whammo-blammo action, it wants the viewer to see the ugly side (in the best of series--sometimes it's all about the mecha porn and angsty pretty boys, but that's jumping ahead a bit) of battle. How quickly one loses their innocence when killing is a way of life. Forming relationships only to see a friend killed. How a simple misunderstanding can turn into a blood feud and lead to unbelievable tragedy.
When it's not done well, it smacks a bit of trying to have its cake and eating it too--you get the action, you get all these interesting questions raised, and then you don't do anything with it, it's sort of making vague motions at being profound without actually, y'know, being profound.
That's not something you have to worry about here. Uso Ewin, Victory's protagonist, is the series youngest protagonist ever, and the underlying motif is his internal struggle to maintain his innocence and hope for peace and a better future (invoked whenever he speaks about "Kasarelia"--it's an ideal of where he grew up and where he'd like to get back to) contrast against the long bloody struggle against the Zanscare Empire, the latest colonial power to rise up against the wishy-washy Federation, whose favourite pastimes seem to be executing people in increasing raw-ass ways (ex: the guillotine, throwing people out airlocks, etc.) like Kamille, Uso doesn't join the homegrown militia League Militaire out of choice as much as he falls into it. Like Kamille, Uso will find love, and a surrogate family in battle. Also, like Kamille, Uso suffers great loss. No greater example of this is Uso's relationship with his friend and quasi big sister Katejina, who initially tries to protect him, but gradually becomes his worst enemy. The story of their crumbling relationship is very much Victory's story in microcosm, and it's hellaciously tragic.
Again, like Zeta, I'm not going to spoil this too much, because it's well worth seeking out (a touch difficult to do, because unlike Zeta, Victory never got a release outside of Japan) It's not an easy road, but if you want a convincing example of Gundam at its best and most engaging, well, here it is.
With such a grim story and such a bleak (but somewhat hopeful) ending, the minds behind the series didn't have a clear idea of where to go from here. The Universal Century stories would continue, but usually took the form of continuity implants (like Gundam 0083: Stardust Memory) that filled in bits and bobs of "between series" stuff, but by and large, they'd hit a roadblock. Tomino had nothing more to say--seemingly--with Gundam, and yet, it was such a moneymaker, it had to continue.
Fortunately, Gundam had been an institution for nearly 15 years at this point, and a new generation of creators had come up during the time it had been on the air and had some stories to tell. However, these stories would be different, cherry-picking elements of the series' history thus far and adding some twists of their own. Liberated from the bonds of series continuity and given free rein, what would they come up with?
We'll have a look at what they came up with tomorrow, when we begin our look at the Alternate Universe era of Gundam, and, incidentally, talk about that brief moment when Gundam broke in America. Join us, won't you?