The Beginner’s Guide to Anime: No. 2 – Mobile Suit Gundam

Mobile Suit Gundam

For the next few columns I want to look at some anime genres that we do not have in the UK, of which there are a fair few.

The largest and most influential of these is “mecha”, a sci-fi genre involving machines, usually humanoid or bipedal in shape, piloted by a human and operating like a giant legged tank.

This should not be confused with something like Transformers which are basically just intelligent robots. But to make things more confusing there are seen as two kinds of mecha subgenre that use the word “robot”: realistic and mature “real robot” versions, and the more fantastical “super robot” versions.

The series I am covering this week fits into the “real robot” subgenre. Gundam is a meta-series, which began with one series called Mobile Suit Gundam in 1979, and has since become so complex that it has sprouted seven different timelines and is still going to this day. Thus you could compare it to Doctor Who or Star Trek in terms of scale and influence.

Mobile Suit Gundam is set in the far future, at a point where humans have since begun to leave Earth and live in space colonies under control of the “Earth Federation”. One of these, Side 3, declares independence, calling itself the “Principality of Zeon” and starts a war against the Federation. In a month half the total human population is killed. In eight months it has become a stalemate.

Another colony however, Side 7, has been developing a new weapon to win the war for the Federation. During a Zeon attack one of the colony’s residents, nerdy teenager Amuro Ray, gets caught up in the fighting. He then comes across an instruction manual for the new weapon, finds the weapon and uses it to defeat his attackers. The weapon is the “mobile suit” RX-78 02 Gundam, a giant white humanoid shaped machine armed with guns, a “light sabre” and a “light mace” for want of better terms.

After using the Gundam, Amuro is called up to join the Federation warship White Base as the official Gundam pilot. The crew are relatively inexperienced; the ship is full of refugees and they are being chased by the Zeon forces constantly, in particular by Zeon’s own ace mobile suit pilot, the masked Char Aznable, nicknamed the “Red Comet” due to his speed in battle and his the colour of his mobile suit and uniform.

Now, as I discussed in last week’s column about Astro Boy, this series is hugely influential, but not without its flaws. The flaws in this case refer to bits of the plot that are somewhat unbelievable, whether in terms of technology or just plain common sense. For starters, the idea of a man learning to operate anything from the instruction manual is pretty laughable, and even more so when you are in the middle of a warzone, just having seen people being killed and under constant enemy fire. Also, for some bizarre reason, Char Aznable is named after French singer Charles Aznavour.

There is however much to draw from this series. Many anime critics have compared Zeon to Nazi Germany. I personally feel that in this original series Zeon is more like World War One Germany, in terms of uniform and some of the characters (“Red Comet” being akin to the “Red Baron”). But signs of Nazi similarities reveal themselves later on. One Zeon character admits to being influenced by Hitler and leads his followers to chants of “Seig Zeon”.

But the big impact of this series was made later on. Almost every mecha anime afterward has been influenced by Gundam. Nearly every series has a teenager as the main protagonist like Amuro for one thing.

In terms of availability, the original 1979 series is available in Region 1 but not Region 2. However, a new manga adaption, Mobile Suit Gundam: THE ORIGIN, which retells the original story, is being animated later in the year.