This is where it started.
You hear a lot of things about original Gundam before you actually watch it. Things about its history (it had its run cut short by 10 episodes but rushed to an ending so it could conclude) and about its animation quality (it sucks). You hear that it found its audience only after it was canceled, just like the original Star Trek. You hear how its creator, Tomino Yoshiyuki, was forced to add in mecha purely so new toys could be sold.
What you hear most often, though is something like this:
Yeah, the animation quality sucks, but if you get past that it’s one of the best Gundam series’ ever. Maybe one of the best mecha series’ of all time, too.
Then you watch the first episode, see the 70’s character designs and shoddy animation and you think, “Get past the animation? Yeah right. This looks like garbage.” And you go on thinking that for an episode or two, right up until the point where you start slamming through episodes as quickly as you can get your hands on them. Somehow, at some point, the writing in the series takes control of your brain and you just stop seeing the animation quality as a problem. The original Mobile Suit Gundam series, when it clicks, is so well written that I ended up remembering things looking far better than they actually do.
Mobile Suit Gundam introduces us to the Universal Century timeline. We join the world in 0079 (how much do you love a calender system that pads its year with zeros?), in the midst of the One Year War. As would become a cliche in the Gundam franchise, the war is between the Earth Federation and the government of one of its most powerful colonies, the Principality of Zeon. In its effort to claim its independence, Zeon launches a brutal war against Earth, killing millions of space colonists still loyal to Earth and, eventually, dropping one of its colonies onto the planet itself. After half the population of the Earth Sphere is killed, the Antarctic Treaty is signed, banning the further use of nuclear, biological weapons as well as outlawing further colony drops. Yet the war rages on.
The series itself begins with the war in stalemate between the technologically superior Zeon and the more populous Earth Federation. Zeon’s mobile suits have given it a tactical edge over the less powerful vehicles of the Earth Federation, leading Earth to launch Project V: the development of a mobile suit capable of closing the gap between itself and Zeon. But when Zeon learns of Project V’s existence, it sends its top pilot, Char Aznable, to steal the result of their research: The Gundam. The ensuing battle forces the Gundam designer’s son, Amuro Ray, to pilot the prototype suit and join the war against his will.
A lot of what makes up the spine of Mobile Suit Gundam is cliche mecha plotting. Young boy without training becomes pilot of super-advanced mecha and becomes the hero of the war. What made Mobile Suit Gundam so different was the darker, grittier take on the war itself. Rather than a introduce a purely good heroic faction to fight a pitch black nation of evil, Tomino muddied the moral lines. Zeon is definitely run by bad, bad people – the Zabi family who have taken it over are quite comfortable with using mass civilian casualties to achieve their ends – but like all armies their soldiers are mostly regular people forced into battle.
Many of the enemies Amuro faces through the series are sympathetic. Take Ramba Ral, the desert commander who harasses Amuro and the crew of White Base – the ship on which he travels – for a handful of episodes. Ral proves to be a loyal, career military man who’s hamstrung by his own commanding officers. Yes, he’s fighting for a nation we’ve identified as our enemy, but his focused dedication to the battle he’s been ordered to fight lets us feel for him even as we want Amuro to win the day.
Even better, look at the interplay between Char Aznable, arguably the main antagonist of the series, and Garma Zabi, another short-term hunter of White Base. Both have complex reasons for fighting the war. For Garma, the youngest son of Zeon’s Glorious Leader, he is desperate to prove himself. So desperate, that when the opportunity arises to sop White Base and capture the Gundam, he loses sight of all other dangers. When Char Aznable offers to help in the pursuit, he accepts, though Char’s motives have little do with the Gundam. Char, we learn, is the eldest son of Zeon Deikun, the founder of the Principality of Zeon. He’s kept his identity secret, for Deikun was assassinated by the man who now rules Zeon: Degwin Zabi. Father of Garma. And he wants revenge against the people who killed his father.
What makes the interplay between Char and Garma so interesting is that Char likes Garma. Char has no love of Earth, and in fact is more than happy to see it defeated. But both of those desires take a back seat to his desire for revenge, leading him to lure Garma into a trap where White Base and the Gundam can kill the son of his foe. Unlike the one dimensional villains most Mecha offered, Mobile Suit Gundam gave us antagonists that were arguably more interesting than the heroes.
Not that the heroes aren’t any fun. The cast of Mobile Suit Gundam might be the most iconic of the franchise. Noa Bright, commander of White Base, is so cool he appears in every major Universal Century story through Char’s Counterattack. Mirai serves as love interest to Bright, but is drawn as a strong enough female character to make an impression beyond mere romantic entanglements. Kai and Hayato, two crew members, start off looking like your standard, boring foils for the hero but develop into likable people by the end. Then there’s Sayla, the communication’s officer who turns out to be Char’s sister; remember, this came out two years after Star Wars. In case the beam sabre the Gundam carries around wasn’t a big enough clue.
I’m ignoring Amuro’s girlfriend Frau. I suggest you do the same.
Like many Tomino series’, Mobile Suit Gundam has a problem with too many stand alone episodes that feature pointless battles. It’s a rhythm Tomino never managed to shake through all the series’ he directed. Some of the battles, like the plots involving Ramba Ral and Garma Zabi, have real meat to them. Others, like the battle against the mecha that looks like medieval armor, are more forgettable.
Getting the cancellation notice early might have been the best thing to happen to the series, though. The last 10 or 15 episodes gain so much momentum it can be hard to keep up. We learn that people born in Space sometimes gain strange, psychic powers that enhance their combat abilities. Called Newtypes, they add a strange mystical element to humanity’s move to the stars. Both Amuro and Char are, unsurprisingly, Newtypes, and what that means to them is an important piece of their final encounters.
The series is good all around, but its ending is unmatched in the franchise. Most Gundam shows end with a big battle, but the original culminates in an encounter whose scope is comparable with the massive battle of Endor in Return of the Jedi, and there ain’t much that compares with that. Earth launches a full scale assault on Zeon’s military fortress, A Baoa Qu, throwing every single piece of war machinery they own into the maelstrom. As the battle rages, the personal feud between Char and Amuro comes to a head, leading first to a mecha duel between Gundam and Char’s incredibly bizarre looking Zeong, then to a mano-a-mano swordfight between the two men. A swordfight in zero gravity, using vernier jets to fly around as they battle. It’s pretty awesome.
Mobile Suit Gundam is, in many ways, one of the most nuanced and textured entries of the franchise. Though it came out in an era that didn’t care for the complexity of its story, it pushed out a story that many still feel is the best of all of Gundam. I’m not sure I agree, but it’s a position I respect. Mobile Suit Gundam is the real deal.
In fact, most of the cliches of the franchise found their start in this series. Char was the first masked mobile suit pilot, an archetype that can be found in every single Gundam show since. The struggle between Earth and Space and the debate over whether humanity should remain on Earth at all found its start here, as did the ever-present threat of dropping a colony onto Earth. The Gundam design would be reworked over and over again, but the distinctive head and overall shape of the Gundam would stay the same through most of the future shows.
If nothing else, Universal Century is a great universe, and it’s hard to understand its juiciest running plots without starting here, at the beginning. Its follow up series, Zeta Gundam, is another favorite, but many of its best bits tie back to character arcs set up in Mobile Suit. Force yourself through the first couple of episodes because you’ll appreciate the rest of Gundam much, much more if you do, but trust me: you’ll end up loving it without really meaning to.