So You Want To Get Into Gundam

Gundam is great.  I’m not kidding.  It’s probably the best thing since sliced bread.  Or Dune.  And it definitely beats whatever passes for Star Wars these days.

But it’s dated and it’s Japanese, and it’s massive.  The original TV series dates back to 1979, created by Yoshiyuki Tomino.  Although not the best success upon its initial airing, it did better on reruns partly due to its successful toy and model line.  Now, the entire franchise spans seventeen TV series, three films, and numerous OVAs, video games, specials, and toy lines.  But I get ahead of myself.

What the Hell is Gundam?

If you’re a millennial, you probably saw some Gundam crap on Cartoon Network back in the day.  And as a kid, you probably thought it was pretty cool but also sort of retarded, and you’re mostly right on that count.  The stuff Cartoon Network aired with any regularity was mostly mid-90s and early-00s knock-offs that didn’t even take place in the main Gundam canonical storyline.  So let me give you a rundown on how this all breaks down.

Gundam is the name of a massive media franchise.  With so many series and movies and whatnot, it should be no surprise that many of them do not take place in the same fictional timeline.  For simplicity’s sake, there’s only a few distinctions that need be made.  There is what’s called the “early UC Timeline”, and then there are the rest.  Early UC (Universal Century) Timeline includes the main canon of the Gundam franchise and the main thing that has become known as Gundam to the Japanese pop culture.  It’s what kicked off the franchise in the first place and it’s what has had the most works done within its boundaries of the franchise.

The franchise itself revolves around giant robots fighting each other.  They’re considered ‘realistic’ giant robots, at least in the sense that they aren’t the magical sort popularized in the 70s by the likes of Mazinger and continued into the present day with shows like Gurren Lagann.  That means that things like military terminology, technology, antiheroes, space exploration, and other staples of  science fiction and war fiction are present in spades throughout much of the Gundam franchise, highlighted especially in those works with Tomino’s direct involvement.

Because the franchise is so large and confusing as to what’s important and what isn’t, I’ve decided to write this guide as very cursory overview of what you should expect from the major titles that have been released so far.  While there are plenty of novels and comics around, I only dedicate space to one particular comic and dedicate the rest of my time on the animated works.

What’s Up With All These Film Retellings?  Do I Have To Watch A Whole Series If There’s Already A Film Version?

Welcome to the world of anime.  It sucks.

The short answer to this question is that there are only two instances in the Gundam franchise where this happens.  The first is the original Mobile Suit Gundam series and its film trilogy counterpart.  The trilogy is better in just about every way; it’s closer to the original vision Tomino and much of the main production staff had in mind when creating Gundam, it fixes some of the more atrocious pacing issues that plagued the original series, and it brushes up some of the animation.  The last film in particular creates entirely new footage of battles and basically turns Gundam’s finale into one of the most memorable and exciting finales in Japanese sci-fi entertainment.

The films were done only a few years after the conclusion of the original series, when its popularity had finally begun to take off and Tomino was given a bit more free reign to do what he wanted with the story and characters.  Since the films and series are so close together in the production timeline, the inter-splicing of new, more thorough animation isn’t all that jarring in sequence.  But since a majority of the films are comprised of recut footage straight from the series, pacing issues still abound and a lot of the animation remains subpar.

That said, you will be missing out on some of the more cheesy and memorably silly elements of the old Gundam series if you only see the films.  For some viewers, these more wacky elements are part of the charm of old mecha anime and par for the course.  For an ordinary sci-fi enthusiast who is sane only inasmuch as someone subjecting himself to anime can be, these episodes are entirely worth cutting out and you wouldn’t miss anything with their passing.  In Mobile Suit Gundam’s case, you can by and large skip the original show in favor of the films and only stand to gain.

The other instance of this film/series  treatment is the MSG’s sequel, Zeta Gundam.  Originally airing in the early-mid 1980s, the show is the result of Tomino having been given a larger budget and more creative room to expand on his original ideas.  The show thus reflects, to a large degree, his intentions for his vision of Gundam, space warfare, and the degree to which ordinary people are affected by large-scale conflict.  And it’s pretty good.

A couple decades later, hoping to gin up interest for the OVA series Gundam: Unicorn, the production studio recut Zeta Gundam into a film series and, intending to give a similar treatment to Zeta that the original Gundam series got back in the 80s, reanimated some sequences.  In addition, because important threads of Zeta’s narrative don’t find their conclusions until the following series, Gundam ZZ, the film series also changed the ending in an attempt to give a more streamlined presentation for uninitiated viewers.

All of these things were mistakes.  As bad as much of Gundam ZZ is, the changed ending for the Zeta Gundam films is worse.  In addition, due to the changes in the animation process between 1985 and 2005, the new animation is jarring and ugly against the dated series original footage.  Also, since Zeta lacked a lot of the sillier elements of the original Mobile Suit Gundam series, the job of cutting down Zeta from 50 episodes into 3 films was less intuitive.  The resulting films are a hodgepodge mess of badly edited footage and generally poor directorial choices.  For the average Gundam fan, these films can and should be avoided.

The “I Just Want To Get A Feel For Gundam And I Don’t Mind Being Confused About Plot Minutiae” Official Guide:

  • Mobile Suit Gundam Film Trilogy (3 Films)
  • Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam (TV Series, 50 Episodes)
  • Char’s Counter Attack (1 Film)
  • Mobile Suit Gundam: The Origin (Manga, 12 Volumes, Vertical Press)

This order is basically the most stripped-down essential viewing necessary to have a competent grasp over the main Gundam universe.  You’ll know who Amuro Ray, Char Aznable, Bright Noa, Sayla Mass, Fraw Bow, Kamille Bidan, Fa Yuri, and Quess Paraya are, in addition to the Zabi family, Zeon, the Titans, and the Federation.  You’ll see a couple different Gundams, various mobile suits like Zakus and the Qubeley, colonies, and you’ll know what the basic premise of most Gundam-related media revolves around.

The MSG Film trilogy, Zeta, and Char’s Counter Attack (CCA) comprise most of the main story arc of the UC Gundam timeline.  We’ll get into the series that’s missing below, but for causal viewing, these are essential.  Also, I’ve included the Gundam: The Origin comic; in truth, you could just forsake all of the animated stuff and stick with this and be happy.  It’s a retelling of the story present in the MSG series and films, embellishing certain areas, cutting pieces, and giving greater backstory to important characters.  In fact, it’s one of the best comics I’ve read to date, really defining all of the important elements of Tomino’s vision of Gundam while losing none of the original flavor.  It’s simply great.

The “I Actually Want To Watch Gundam For Real” Official Guide

All of the above, in addition to:

  • Mobile Suit Gundam (TV Series, 43 Episodes)
  • ZZ Gundam (TV Series, 47 Episodes)
  • 0080: War in the Pocket (OVA, 6 Episodes)
  • 0083: Stardust Memory (OVA, 13 Episodes)
  • The 08th MS Team (OVA, 12 Episodes)
  • Gundam Unicorn (OVA, 7 Episodes)
  • Turn A Gundam (TV Series, 50 Episodes)

Watching the original MSG series will give you the full experience of the drama, complete with the pendulum swinging meter in animation quality, goofy weapons, and generally infuriating filler episodes.  It’s by no means a perfect series and, as I mentioned before, it can be skipped in favor of the movies, but if you want the full experience then it’s certainly a must.  In addition, the third Gundam series, Gundam ZZ, is required viewing for the full experience as well.  Gundam ZZ is a sillier show than its immediate predecessor, Zeta, despite picking up directly where Zeta left off and completing several important plot threads.  ZZ follows an otherwise unimportant gang of misfit junkyard kids as they absurdly end up involved with the surviving Federation crew from Zeta.  One of them turns out to be a hotshot pilot and, completely destroying the sort of world building that made Zeta so great, ends up being practically the best pilot who ever lived ™.  In spite of its severe pitfalls, ZZ features some strong episodes in its second half, and it does conclude important stories from Zeta in its first half.  But it’s a grueling chore to see this one to its completion.

In addition to the main story arc, there are some important OVAs worth a look as well.  0080 and 0083 are side-stories featuring entirely new and independent casts.  0080 in particular is a very well told war story about the effects of the war from the original MSG series upon the daily lives of some kids in one of the colonies.  0083 depicts the development of a secret Federation weapon and a whole lot of nonsensical character development, but it’s got absolutely magnificent animation for anyone into that sort of thing.  And the 08th MS Team OVA follows the daily war adventures of a random group of Federation soldiers as they try to pilot mobile suits, take out enemy emplacements, and basically just not get killed.  Unicorn picks up the main storyline again with some general allusions to the goings on of CCA, but it too is largely its own story.

Lastly on this list is Turn A, which takes place far, far in the remote future of the UC timeline, millennia removed from the action of Bright Noa and Char and Amuro.  It exists essentially in its own storyline, and should be the only alternate-universe Gundam series you should feel bothered to watch.  It’s a great story featuring all the staples of Gundam and even some regurgitations of its characters, but it is not imperative to the main storyline of the UC timeline at all.  Yoko Kanno’s musical soundtrack and background music are an added bonus.

The “I Dig Gundam A Lot and Want More, and Maybe Some Fanservice” Official Guide

All of the above, in addition to:

  • Gundam: F91 (Film)
  • Gundam: The Origin (OVA, 4 Episodes Ongoing)
  • Gundam Build Fighters & Gundam Build Fighters Try (TV Series, 25 +25 Episodes)

So you’ve blitzed through the most relevant bits of the UC Gundam timeline and are hungry for more?  No problem.  Time to check out the OVA adaptation of The Origin manga.  It’s four episodes long (so far), with number four due out in November of this year.  Since you’ve already read the source material by now, you’d only be watching it for the animation—which is well worth it.  The battles never looked so good as they do in Origin.  After that, you might want to check out the Gundam F91 film.  It came out back in 1991 or so, and the animation is pretty spectacular, but the storyline is simply a mess.  Originally devised as an entire series plot, F91 was turned instead into a two hour long movie, almost half of which is nothing but destruction and carnage.  Still technically set in the UC universe, F91 is the first significant title to diverge from the main timeframe and characters of the UC staples; i.e. it’s set about two generations or so after the events of Mobile Suit Gundam, and none of those events are alluded to in any significant fashion.  The characters are weak, the story is a mess, but the animation is great if all you’re looking for is two hours of giant robots destroying each other.

And as a fun and amusing romp through fanservice for any of the dweebs who bothered to recognize, memorize, and identify the plethora of mobile suits that have come up in the franchise so far, an amusing series called Gundam Build Fighters might be worth a watch.  It’s a silly and harmless advertisement for Gundam models, really, even more shameless in its presentation than the original series was.  But it’s fun and it has some memorable characters, as well as some clever ways of poking fun at both itself and the entire Gundam franchise as a whole.

The “I Love Gundam And I Seriously Need Help” Official Guide

All of the above, in addition to:

  • MS IGLOO (OVA Series, 3 + 3 + 3 Episodes)
  • Zeta Gundam Film Trilogy (3 Films)
  • Victory Gundam (TV Series, 51 Episodes)
  • Mobile Fighter G Gundam (TV Series, 49 Episodes)
  • Gundam Wing (TV Series, 49 Episodes)
  • Gundam Wing: Endless Waltz (OVA, 4 Episodes)
  • After War Gundam X (TV Series, 39 Episodes)
  • Gundam SEED (TV Series, 50 Episodes)
  • Gundam SEED Destiny (TV Series, 50 Episodes)
  • Gundam 00 (TV Series, 50 Episodes)
  • Gundam 00: Awakening of the Trail Blazer (Film)
  • Gundam AGE (TV Series, 50 Episodes)
  • Gundam Reconquista in G (TV Series, 26 Episodes)

Ok.  By now you should be exhausted and sick of Gundam, because if you aren’t, you’re about to be.  This stage is pretty much where the wheat is separated from the chaff.  Build Fighters was your reprieve before the descent into the absolute hell hole that is Gundam obsession.

First off, you should finish off the holes in the UC timeline, specifically beginning your spiral into self-hatred with the terrible monstrosity known as the Zeta film trilogy, following it up with the comparatively alright MS IGLOO OVA series.  IGLOO, not unlike 08th MS Team, tells of some encounters during the events of the original MSG time period.  Unlike 08th MS Team, however, it has very poor characterization and even worse animation quality.  It was animated entirely in CG, and given that it was done back in 2006 and 2009, you can rest assured that it’s about as pleasing to watch as the sharp tips of forks as they plunge into your eyeballs.

From here on out, it’s turd-infested waters.  You’ve already gotten a taste of alternate-universe stuff with Turn A and Gundam Build Fighters, both of which are certainly the best that alternate timelines of the Gundam franchise has to offer.  Now it’s time for the knockout blow: Victory Gundam.  Several years ago, I wrote a review on Victory Gundam that, admittedly, contains some spoilers.  If you read it now, however, I can guarantee that you won’t remember those spoilers anyway.  Victory Gundam is just off the fucking rails.

It takes place in the UC timeline, but similar to F91, it’s so utterly removed from the action of the original MSG storyline that it doesn’t matter.  Taking place some two hundred years after the conclusion of CCA, the events of MSG aren’t even so much as alluded to in passing.  The basic gist of the story is largely the same as the others, however: a group of teenagers, kids, and civilians get caught up in a war for stellar and terrestrial domination, leading to ruin and despair.  Except it’s insane and, though loaded with all sorts of messages, contradicts itself all over the place.  It’s a wild ride of terrible writing and implausible lunacy worthy only of Tomino on his worst days.

Up next, as a reprieve, should be G Gundam.  Although a legitimately fun show, it dispenses with any formalities that Gundam once had and goes straight to super robot style action.  The first Gundam series not directed by Tomino himself, it’s essentially a tournament-styled martial arts series using Gundam robots instead of human bodies.  It’s great, but is it Gundam?  Who knows?  Who cares?

Next, you can punish yourself with the vomit-inducing trash heap of a pretty boy series known as Gundam Wing.  Attempting to capture the intrigue and complication of the old UC-era shows, Wing’s self-important politics, mixed with specialized Gundams and adolescent pretty boy pilots made for a conceivably promising premise, if it wasn’t for how gay it seemed to be.  Watching it, however, will only remind you that instead of doing something productive with your life, like, say, using a power drill to lobotomize yourself, you’re instead watching overrated crap that a lot of westerners here wax nostalgic about because they watched it on Cartoon Network way back when.  Newsflash: it sucked then and it sucks now just as much.

After War Gundam X is, while better than Wing, a comparatively dull snoozefest.  It’s the shortest of the major trashy 90s Gundam shows, but it’s also the least memorable.  The only significant thing to say about is that it shared some of the production team from Wing, so the style and mobile suits all look similar.  If that sounds great, well, check it out.  If it sounds retarded, then congratulations, you’ve still maintained your sanity.

And then we finally dive into the 00s Gundam series, and the less said about these, the better.  They’re all crap.  They’ll all make you hate yourself even more.  They’ll all make you wonder why you’re subjecting yourself to hour after excruciating hour of mindboggling plot reversals, inconsistent characters, retarded writing, and unfathomable directorial decisions.  Gundam 00 has its moments, admittedly, but all total, there will forever be this lurking feeling of regret that you didn’t simply spend your time rewatching Zeta every time you boot up the next episode of AGE, or why you’ve waited so long to splatter your brains on the ceiling with a shotgun when you’re halfway through an episode of SEED Destiny.  Suicide is a better hobby than this.  And more rewarding.

In any case, at this point you would have seen most of what Gundam has to offer.  There are a few OVAs and specials here and there, and they’re mostly innocuous to everyone but the mouth breathing autismal anime fanboy.  The rest of this post will focus on tailoring some of these lists to those of you who just want to watch what’s worthwhile.

The “I Don’t Care About Anything, Not Even About Gundam” Official Guide

  • G-Savior

Watch this.  In fact, at this level, don’t even watch anything else.  It’s a live-action adaptation of Gundam done by a western studio on the level of Asylum Pictures.  It’s really fucking awful and it makes no sense at all, and I’m hard pressed to see how it’s even related to Gundam.  Officially, of course, it isn’t; the word Gundam is never even used once in the film, but the suit design is as blatantly Gundam-esque as is possible.  Grab some alcohol and watch this with some friends.

The “I Don’t Actually Care About Gundam And Just Want To Relive Cartoon Network Nostalgia” Official Guide

  • Gundam Wing (TV Series, 49 Episodes)
  • Gundam Wing: Endless Waltz (OVA, 4 Episodes)
  • After War Gundam X (TV Series, 39 Episodes)
  • Mobile Fighter G Gundam (TV Series, 49 Episodes)
  • Gundam SEED (TV Series, 50 Episodes)
  • Gundam SEED Destiny (TV Series, 50 Episodes)

With the exception of After War Gundam X, all of these aired at some point on Cartoon Network in edited and dubbed form.  I’ve included After War because came out right on the heels of Wing and features the same art style and mechanical designer that Wing did, despite being narratively unrelated.  For the most part, these series here are the ones people in the West commonly consider when Gundam is mentioned, despite being—with the exception of G Gundam—steaming piles of garbage.

That said, you are an idiot if you want to actually watch all of this crap, and you should probably consider killing yourself.

The “I Only Want To Watch Good Stuff And Cut Out All the Garbage” Official Guide

  • Mobile Suit Gundam Film Trilogy (3 Films)
  • Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam (TV Series, 50 Episodes)
  • Char’s Counter Attack (1 Film)
  • Turn A Gundam (TV Series, 50 Episodes)
  • 0080: War in the Pocket (OVA, 6 Episodes)
  • The 08th MS Team (OVA, 12 Episodes)
  • Gundam Unicorn (OVA, 7 Episodes)
  • Gundam: The Origin (OVA, 4 Episodes Ongoing)
  • Mobile Fighter G Gundam (TV Series, 49 Episodes)
  • Mobile Suit Gundam: The Origin (Manga, 12 Volumes, Vertical Press)

This is pretty much the best of what Gundam has to offer.  It’s got the action-packed fun adventures of G Gundam, the vaguely Ghibli-esque landscapes and post-apocalyptic emptiness of Turn A, the action and excitement of the 08th MS Team, and the high-minded dramatic tragedies that play out throughout the UC timeline.  Granted, it’s skipping the important plot details present in Gundam ZZ, but you can look that crap up online if you really need to.  And true, you’ll miss out on how turbo-crazy Tomino’s Victory Gundam turned out to be, but you’ll be saving yourself purchasing helium tanks to end your suffering should you have to subject yourself to crap like Wing and SEED.

There is more that can be said on Gundam, but that would require going into significantly more detail and summary than I have space for here.  I expect to do some posts on the UC material in the coming months, and perhaps repost some of the reviews I’ve made for things like Gundam Victory.  Hopefully this guide serves as a good navigational tool to the franchise.

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3 thoughts on “So You Want To Get Into Gundam

  1. […] Mobile Suit Gundam went on, more or less, to be the subject of twelve more series and numerous OVAs, specials, & films.  Tomino directed the next three sequel series, up to Victory Gundam in 1993, continuing to work within the Universal Century timeline he’d created with the 1979 series. After Victory Gundam’s broadcasting, UC timeline wouldn’t be wholly revisited again in series format, as future directors and creative teams would focus more on alternate scenarios and universes that happened to feature Gundam suits.  For anyone interested in a guide to the Gundam franchise, I’ve written an overview and guide available here. […]

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