Here’s where things start to get interesting.
Before Mobile Suit Gundam 0080: War in the Pocket, everything in the Gundam franchise had been put together by Tomino Yoshiyuki. Much as Gene Roddenberry was the heart and soul of Star Trek, Gundam was all Tomino. I think there are two points at which the franchises made vastly different choices over how to continue, and I think those decisions have a lot to do with Gundam being the superior franchise.
The first is in how the franchises grew beyond the direct control of their creators, which for Gundam began with 0080: War in the Pocket. The second was its decision that the spirit of Gundam was more important than its continuity and began producing alternate universe versions of its themes, starting in 1994 with G Gundam. The first choice, to open the universe to different creative talents, made the second possible. So where did Gundam get it right where Star Trek failed?
Star Trek grew away from Roddenberry awkwardly, simultaneously locking him out of creative decisions while straitjacketing themselves into a limited conception of the “Roddenberry Vision.” It led ultimately to a string of too-similar shows that were never allowed to push the concept past its high water mark in the early 90’s. Like a religion tied more to its rituals than its spirit, Star Trek became an increasingly empty series of rote repetitions of the same concept.
Gundam, on the other hand, was not as extreme in either direction. Tomino never entirely stopped producing Gundam shows, and Sunrise never felt so tied to some abstract, limiting conception of what his vision was as to let their franchise stagnate. Interestingly, I feel that Gundam managed to stay truer to its roots than Star Trek precisely by being willing to go off the map when they had to. Imagine a Star Trek series as different in form as G Gundam was to everything that had preceded it that still managed to wrestle with the moral dilemmas that made Trek what it was.
All of that began with 0080. The first full Gundam OAV, War in the Pocket did something that I have to imagine sounded crazy at the time. It told a sympathetic story of Zeon soldiers fighting the the Earth Alliance during the One Year War. It also avoided the kind of scope that marked the previous Gundam series’ and film; instead, we follow a young boy, Alfred, on a neutral colony as he befriends an undercover Zeon pilot. Bernie, the pilot, has come to the boy’s home on Side 6 to destroy an experimental Earth prototype. What follows is more coming of age tale than war story, closer to The Red Badge of Courage than Star Wars. Alfred develops a sort of hero worship for Bernie and his comrades and comes face to face with the daily tragedies of war.
0080 is an odd bird, and if you’ve seen any Gundam prior to it you may find yourself fidgeting through the first three episodes of this six part OAV. Like I said, it’s small and intimate, and you’ll see little battle until the end. By the time the battle comes, you’ll almost wish it hadn’t as the war takes a terrible toll on the characters. It’s the kind of small, slice of life story that would have made the Star Trek universe so much richer had it been allowed. The demands of an epic, 50 episode war story leaves little time to see how the average person – or even average soldier – deals with life in the world. War in the Pocket gives us just that. It’s a story of characters at the mercy of larger forced, forced into combat when bloodshed is the last thing they want.
There’s a battle near the end, where Bernie’s unit makes its assault on the prototype’s military installation, that’s brutal to watch. Character after character is cut down mercilessly in a mission that has lost all meaning in the face of the relationship that’s formed between Bernie and Alfred. What follows that battle hurts as much for its inevitability as the actual deaths that the series’ conclusion gives us.
War in the Pocket is canny in how it ties into the mainline Gundam story without ever getting directly wrapped up in it. The prototype under construction is codenamed the “Alex” and serves as an intended replacement to Amuro Ray’s RX-78. Though the project fails to go into production before the end of the One Year War, the technology used serves as a link – retconned though it may be – to the Gundams we see in Zeta. It gives the impression of a realistic, ongoing attempt by the Earth Military to stay technologically ahead of its enemy. Like actual military research, not everything under development becomes reality.
It took me time to come to grips with how I felt about War in the Pocket, but the more I think about this OAV the more I like it. It’s small and quiet and painful. It’s one of the most effective tragedies in the franchise, perhaps the most effective. While Tomino was always good at giving his audiences depressing, nihilistic conclusions, he never quite nailed tragedy. Unlike the endings to Zeta and Char’s Counterattack, War in the Pocket‘s characters do not meet their doom because life sucks. They are trapped by their own decisions and by a remorseless system that has no interest in small, human needs. Bernie goes into battle that final, fateful time because to choose any other way would be a betrayal of self. True tragedy only emerges from characters given the choice between change they cannot stomach and continuing on to their doom. War in the Pocket navigates this tricky narrative landmine perfectly.
I don’t know if I’d recommend War in the Pocket to someone who hasn’t seen Gundam, because I simply do not know how it would play. On one hand, it’s an identifiable, human story regardless of knowledge of the world. On the other hand, it’s an extension of themes developed in the ten years of Gundam’s existence to that point; whether it stands on its own or not isn’t a question I can answer. I saw it very late into my Gundam experience – just months ago, in fact – and cant’ separate my feelings on it from my broader feelings on the franchise.
I can say this: War in the Pocket is an amazing piece of work, and the first step Gundam would take in taking a great concept and turning it into something that could be healthy 30 years after its creation. If only Star Trek had done the same.