Yesterday, we finished up talking about Gundam's Universal Century period, and how the later series were an attempt to escape from a rather limiting storytelling engine. Ironically enough, that's where we begin today--after the ultra-bleak Victory Gundam, Tomino had little more to say on the subject of Gundam, and there didn't seem to be much point in continuing deeper into the Universal Century continuity.
(Not to say they didn't try, of course--there are plenty of video projects, manga, and movies that either continue or tell continuity-implant stories within the UC. However, by and large, the forward progression more or less stops here)
But Sunrise needed a way forward--15 years into Gundam's lifespan, it was obviously a proven franchise and it had to continue forward . . .somehow.
What to do?
The solution they hit upon was to use the Gundam concept as the blanket concept for series that would be self-contained entities in their own right--they would have Gundams in them, but in all other respects they were going to go their own way with it.
And there's no better statement of intent than the first series, G Gundam. Borrowing liberally from kung-fu movies, Street Fighter II, and the super robots that Gundam had been a reaction to in the first place, G Gundam is one of the most polarizing installments in the franchise. Either you love it's melodramatic boys-adventure qualities and the utterly gonzo "one Gundam for every nation of the world" thing, and the fact that EVERYONE SHOUTS A LOT, or you think it's just the most ridiculous thing ever.
The plot this time is this--instead of costly and destructive wars, the space colonies send Gundams down to Earth to fight in a tournament to decide which nation will control the others. Mind you, after several dozen years of this, the Earth is more than a bit knackered. It's up to Domon Kasshu (who might as well be called Shoutypants McForgreatjustice) representing Neo-Japan to not only win the tournament, but to track down both his missing sensei and a certain piece of technology that was supposed to rebuild the Earth but has gotten more than a little out of control.
G Gundam takes the usual melodrama the series is known for and exaggerates it almost to the point of parody. And yet . . .several facets of the series (the environmental . . .well, it's often a bit too heavy-handed to be subtext, but there is a definite "Earth is worth saving" message throughout every permutation of the show) are right in line with the ideals of the classic show. You just have it presented in a completely different milieu.
When G Gundam had finished its story, it was decided the next series would go in a more conventional direction--another war story. No one knew quite at the time that not only would Gundam Wing become the new template for later series, but would be the series which finally "broke" Gundam in America (for that rare stretch of time when it rode a wave of popularity around the turn of the century)
Back in 2000, one couldn't throw a rock at the Internet and not hit a Gundam Wing page, usually created by some girl passionately arguing for whatever pairing of the 5 Gundam pilots (and every other willowy, gorgeous male character on the show) and how it all made sense. It was . . .God, "epidemic" doesn't even begin to cover it.
Apparently, one of the things that really helped this new era of Gundam shows take off? Ho Yay. Serious Ho Yay.
But never mind that, let's get to the plot: Oppressed space colonists concoct a guerrilla operation known as Operation Meteor, in which 5 Gundams are sent to Earth to undermine the Federation and their elite squad, OZ. OZ, meanwhile, has its own plan and stages a coup against the Federation. Crosses, double-crosses, deaths, fake deaths, and lots of angsty melodrama ensue.
It was a hit in Japan and a hit in America, and turned out to be an ideal entry into America, as it was an encapsulation of everything Gundam was about (but more superficially)and gave you a good taste of what a Gundam series would be like (seeing as the plot of the show is basically everything from Mobile Suit Gundam to Char's Counterattack hyper-compressed down to the bare necessities) Unlike most of the Alternate Universe stories, Wing actually got a sequel--that's how well it did.
Sadly, the follow-up to Wing, Gundam X, didn't do as well. In fact, it kind of crashed and burned. Whether it was because it wasn't very "alternate" (The basic story is "what if the One Year Was so catastrophic Earth took decades to recover?") or perhaps because Evangelion was blowing up the traditional conceptualisation of the mecha anime (and hell, every anime . . .not that this turned out to be a good thing, but that's an entirely other column) but it never caught on, and thus things lie fallow for awhile.
But there's one more Alternate Universe card to be played, and it's played by the series' creator. Turn A Gundam screams "major gamble" from just about every frame--the story is deliberate and (initially) pastoral, the high-tech gloss of the series is largely abandoned for something . . .very different. The titular Gundam doesn't even look like the older-style Gundams.
Turn A takes place after a massive catyclysm has more or less eradicated all technology. To the extent there is tech around, it's very antiquated compared to the present day (minus the odd mobile suit here and there) and it all has to do with a mobile suit called the White Devil. What unfolds is a mystery that's not entirely explained, but just enough to tell a story of what happens when you dig up and use technology you don't necessarily understand.
Tomino's work here is as optimistic and ultimately hopeful as Victory Gundam wasn't at times. It's a puzzling series--the mecha and character designs are a bit unique and it's not a war story initially and it takes its time getting to it.
As a final chapter for Gundam in the 20th century, it was ideal. As we'll see next time, Gundam's attempt to continue into the next century get off to something of a rocky start . . .