“Kamille Bidan. Ikimasu.”
After the premature cancellation of Mobile Suit Gundam, a series of films were made retelling the story of the series. This was done using some animation from the series itself and some new animation in parts where they could afford to re-animate. The films, unlike the series, proved to be popular. So popular that by the third, concluding film in 1982, they were able to get the budget to reanimate about 3/4 of the ending.
Money changes everything. Now with a profitable property on their hands, Sunrise realized a sequel would be a good idea. So, in 1985, Tomino launched Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam, set 8 years after the end of the original series. Zeta was the success the original never became. In fact, many people still consider Zeta to be the best all time Gundam series. I disagree, but I can see their point. Its popularity even today was strong enough to merit a series of three movies Tomino entitled A New Translation that, like the original Gundam movies, reanimated big chunks of the original story. Unlike the original series films, though, A New Translation drastically changes key plot elements.
It’s impossible for me to talk about my feelings on Zeta Gundam without also talking about how A New Translation changed them. As I said, Zeta was not a favorite of mine. Its animation was top notch and the story was dark and mature, but it had narrative problems the original did not. By the last third of the series, Zeta Gundam was reusing plot ideas from ten episodes before. Did you like when Four, Kamille’s enemy/love went crazy and turned on him then seemed to die? What if that happened a second time? And what if we brought in a crazy enemy/sister that piloted the exact same suit and acted the same way, too? Triple the fun, right?
Worse, the series seemed to revel in being as depressing as possible. By the end, I was numb to it all, especially in the final moments when the main character’s fate proves to be both ugly and pointless. Some of the deaths had real teeth, but others just felt perfunctory. I don’t think getting across “War sucks” is so difficult as to require that much nastiness. I find nihilism obnoxious in most fiction, and the Zeta Gundam television series was no exception. What could have been a strong series was ruined by endless meanness.
There were things I liked, but I had a hard time giving the series credit for them until Tomino launched A New Translation. Older, wiser and out of his own personal depression, Tomino seemed to recognize the same flaws in Zeta that tainted it for me. Rather than reproduce the show’s plot with extra pretty, he began a series of subtle tweaks to structure that culminated in a very different ending for the main character. Free of the nihilism, I found a new appreciation for the story.
8 years after the end of the One Year War, Earth has become space’s oppressor. Fearing a resurgence of Zeon, the Earth military has formed the Titans, an elite military unit tasked with hunting down the remaining Zeonic support in the colonies and crushing it. Free of limitations on their power, the Titans have become relentlessly cruel, murdering civilians and gassing colonies that refuse to comply.
Fearful of the Titans work on a new Gundam unit, the Anti-Earth Union Group (AEUG) decide to steal it before it can go into use. Stumbling into the center of the battle is Kamille Bidan, a teenager who steals one the Titans’ new Gundams and joins AEUG to escape them. The series follows AEUG’s efforts to destroy the Titans and free space from Terran oppression.
Zeta Gundam is perhaps the franchise’s most nuanced entry. Rather than play as a straight war story as the original did, Zeta is more concerned with the personal failings of its heroes. Char Aznable, ace pilot of Zeron, is now a member of AEUG. Once again he’s gone undercover, this time naming himself Quatro Bagina. His disguise? Red sunglasses. Somehow, no one ever connects his ace piloting in a red mobile suit to the old “Red Comet” from the One Year War. Just because. Char isn’t the man he was back then. His revenge complete, he’s reluctant to be the leader he’s capable of becoming. Even his piloting skills seem weaker, less confident than in his younger days.
Kamille has problems of his own. He’s an angry kid, bitter at the loss of his parents. The worse the battles get, the more disillusioned he becomes with his elders. Is war all they’re capable of? Will they continue to ignore the concerns of the young men like him who are forced to be the tools of larger forces waging petty battles?
Unlike Zeon, the Titans are basically pure evil. They commit mass murder, experiment on innocent people to create artificial Newtypes (Cyber-Newtypes, to be specific) and generally do their best to drop some big object on some population center in an effort to crush AEUG. We spend time with some of their pilots, like the eternally failing Jerid or the really gross Yazan, but most of them lack the personality of the Zeon foes of Mobile Suit Gundam.
Things get more interesting when a fleet of advanced mobile suits arrive from deep space. It’s Neo-Zeon, led by the villainous Haman Karn. The Titans are evil, but Haman is a terrifying creation. Her imperial ambitions are clear, yet needing an edge to win the war, she’s suddenly courted by both sides. Which is perfect for her; she can do her best to help both sides destroy each other, then clean up the pieces. Around the same time as Haman Karn shows up, one of the oddest villains in all of Gundam rears his head: Paptimas Scirocco. You know he’s weird because he spent a lot of time on Jupiter.
There are many things I love about Zeta. The main characters are, for the most part, pretty good. The mecha designs are all over the place, but the show cranks out some real classics, especially Char’s awesome golden mobile suit, the Hyaku Shiki. Zeta is the series that introduces the Mid-Series Power-Up to Gundam, when Kamille dumps the Gundam Mk II for the transforming, eponymous Zeta Gundam.
On the other hand, we get saddled with a Giant Mobile Suit, the Psycho Gundam, which is both ugly and stupid. Bonus: It transforms into a box. This show has a real love affair with transforming mobile suits. It’s a bit obnoxious. It also brings out a new prototype mobile suit or two every few episodes, which starts to grate on the nerves. These suits are always piloted by boring, annoying pilots who stick around too long. Most of the battles with these kinds of suits involve both sides shooting at each other and missing. A lot. The writing for the female characters is shoddy, too; the worst is when Reccoa, an AEUG pilot, switches to the Titans because Scirocco makes her feel like a woman. I kid you not.
A New Translation cleans up much of this. Because of its shorter running time, the films cut a lot of the plot repetition and toss most of the stalemate battles. Four dies the first time and doesn’t come back for a second round. Even Yazan, king of the pointless battles, has far less screen time. Even better, the brisker plotting gives the ending deaths more teeth, as we’re hit with tragedy after tragedy, almost too fast to process. It’s less melodramatic, and more effective.
The third part, Love is the Pulse of the Stars, not only has the coolest title of all time. It’s also gorgeous to look at and filled with some really well animated mecha combat. It’s fast paced, intense and appropriately brutal to its characters. Tomino toned down some of the worst excesses of his depression, but kept in its most powerful moments. The best moment in the series is retained in the film: After the death of a friend, Kamille leaves the body and returns to his mobile suit with a quiet, sad version of Gundam’s typical launch call: “Kamille Bidan. Ikimasu.” It’s crushing.
Part of me wants to say not to bother with the series itself, but that might not be fair. Zeta Gundam is a classic series, despite its flaws. Even before seeing A New Translation I was glad I watched it. But if you decide to see the series, be sure to at least watch the third film. The new ending for Kamille is deserved, and the animation for the battle for the Gryps Colony Laser is incredible. The final moments of Kamille’s battle with Scirocco are killer, far better than in the series itself.
A final note. The last shot of the Zeta Gundam series is a classic, hinting at Char’s presence in the follow-up series, Gundam ZZ. That was the plan, too, until Tomino got the budget secured for a feature film, Char’s Counterattack, in the middle of working on ZZ. So if you go into ZZ hoping for the continuation of Zeta, you’re not going to get everything you’re hoping for.