What do you get when you start planning a 52 episode television series but stop early on and turn the project into a film? You get this:
Mobile Suit Gundam F91 is an interesting and difficult film to discuss. Does knowing that the film was supposed to be a full fledged television series cause you to prejudge it, holding things against the film which are not fair? Or does it help explain some of its weaknesses in a way that allow you to appreciate the film for what it is. Both? Neither?
Let’s start here: I enjoyed F91 a lot. More than I expected to, in fact. Despite a flabby middle where the only plot was a convoluted retread of a dozen other Gundam plot ideas, it had a tense, involving opening and an exciting, full-on Gundam battle to close things out. Which, I suppose, makes it the film equivalent to most of Tomino’s Gundam television series. In this one case, film was a kinder medium to Tomino than television; stretched out over 20 boring middle episodes, Tomino’s water-treading can get tiresome to watch.
Describing the plot of F91 isn’t difficult because it’s complicated, but because it’s so banal that the plot barely exists. Set in the Universal Century timeline, F91 is the first Gundam story to take place after the dissolution of the Principality of Zeon. Without his old warhorse of an antagonist, Tomino needed to come up with something new. Instead, he gave us the Principality of Zeon with a different name: The Crossbone Vanguard.
What are the goals of the Crossbone Vanguard? Oh, you know, independence for their colony and the complete takeover of space. Or something. Oh, and their leader wears a mask. Even if you didn’t see him you’d know it because his nickname is “Iron Mask.” As in, The Man in The. There’s some hand waving about the formation of a new space empire, Cosmo Babylon, but other than a lot of talk about destiny and ascendency it doesn’t add up to much. Tossed in is the old standard of Gundam plotting: the lost son/daughter who is actually the prince/princess of the enemy kingdom but is now on the side of the heroes. Or is he/she? Tension!
As plotting goes, F91 is an awkward bridge between former and upcoming Gundam stories. An awful lot of the Crossbone Vanguard stuff mixes well-tread Zeonic ground with some of the odder, less coherent space empire ideas that would get more play in Victory Gundam. The secret princess du jour, Cecily Fairchild, combines two character ideas that Tomino would split in Victory. She’s a blonde mobile suit pilot who’s the romantic interest of the hero (see: Katejina Loos) and the princess whose choice of side seems based on whose ship she’s riding around in (see: Shakti Kareen). Which is to say, Cecily isn’t a very interesting character, and thus neither is much of the plot she’s involved in.
Yet, beyond the daddy issue driven story so common in Tomino’s work, F91 is a lot of fun to watch. The film opens with an assault on a colony – y’know, just like every Gundam – only, instead of it being an attempted theft on the new, advanced mecha, the objective is Cecily herself. The abduction of Cecily forces Seabook Arno (yes, Seabook) to pilot the new, advanced, mobile– never mind, you don’t need me to explain this.
As mecha goes, the F91 is decent looking and not too overpowered, so the battles are pretty to watch. And despite the overplotted nature of the Cecily stuff, it does at least set up Iron Mask as a bizarre, unlikable bad guy who you want to see get into a mecha and be turned into pulp. Also, it was a nice change of pace for the main character’s love interest to be a mecha pilot and not the girl who takes care of the occasionally naked children inexplicably running around the endangered military vessel.
The final battle, with Seabook and Cecily on one side and Iron Mask in a really strange mobile armor on the other, was a surprising amount of fun considering how barely invested I was in the plot itself. It even made me worry about one of the heroes buying it to take Iron Mask out when I hadn’t cared up to that point. As Gundam final battles go, F91’s is one of the better entries. In fact, for the opening and closing battles alone, the film is probably worth seeing.
Unfortunately, F91 doesn’t really tell a complete story. Cosmo Babylon still exists a the end and has more or less trounced the Federation in their only major battle. Iron Mask’s death is pleasant, but like most military villains in Gundam, he was not the real power behind the throne. I understand that the follow-up manga Crossbone Gundam picks the story up and runs it to its conclusion, but I’ve never read it and have no idea how satisfyingly it ties things up – especially since I think it deals with a different group of characters and really only resolves the political plot threads left hanging.
I was expecting to barely enjoy F91. Maybe lowered expectations helped. Or maybe it was just a fun, likable mecha film with enough good going on to make seeing it worth the two hour investment. Certainly, in its own way, it’s a more enjoyable film than Char’s Coutnerattack, even if that film told a better set up story than the grand tale of the badly named space empire. It’s still probably only for Gundam completists, but I think Gundam completists will enjoy the film more than some of the other things they’ll inevitably force themselves through.