The Gundam Experiment: An Introduction

I’ve been watching some Gundam recently. Because I am clearly insane and have no concern for my mental well-being, I decided that, having seen the 0079 movies, War in the Pocket, and AGE over the course of the past year or so, the next logical step into the Gundam universe would be to watch Gundams 0079 (the series), Zeta, G, Wing, Seed, and 00 all at the same time. Blogging this every week would be too demanding a task for me – especially given that in addition to these six Gundam series, I am following no fewer than seventeen currently-airing shows – so I decided that, once I’ve finished all of them, to take a step back and take the time to compare what makes each Gundam tick. Having just hit the first-quarter mark of each series, I think I’ve gotten enough of an idea about the basics of each series to comment on a couple of the driving forces behind the Gundam franchise in general (you know, besides the whole “selling toys” thing), which will be some of my central points of comparison in the upcoming Gundam Experiment post(s).

At the core, each Gundam series is a variant on essentially the same story, with the primary difference being in their approach. The different series will differentiate themselves by adding or removing elements to or from the core Gundam story, or by putting forth a different interpretation of some existing part of that Gundam mythos. Some of these variations are further from the base story than others, but they are all, at heart, Gundam series.

At first glance, what appears to be the center of the Gundam mythos is a conflict of rebellion. The story revolves around two groups: a large federation representing Earth, and a rogue faction of colonies that has become disenfranchised with the larger group and broken off to pursue its own ideals. The conflict tends to be rooted in moral ambiguity, such that neither side is definitively “right” or “wrong” (though the moral quandaries are often laughably simplified). A Gundam series is never completely impartial, though, as one side is followed more closely and more directly humanized than the other, if only slightly so. Whether that side is the united federation or the scrappy bunch of rebels varies from series to series, but each side will always have its fair share of both good and bad people.

While it is the rebellion that broadly defines the conflict, a closer look at the Gundam story reveals that its primary source of tension and intrigue stems from a current of racism – not only between factions, but within them as well. In addition to a blinding hatred for the other side of the rebellion, this racism becomes further apparent in the tension between the normal humans and the race of superhumans with whom they share their world. Called “Newtypes” in the original Universal Century timeline, and “X-Rounders”, “Coordinators”, and other names in later Alternate Universe series, they are a race of humans with enhanced physical and mental capabilities – such as faster reflexes, higher accuracy, and greater physical strength – as well as a form of telepathy between each other, often portrayed by way of naked spirit touching. Newtypes will exist on both sides of the main war, and while the larger political struggle presents a more general racial conflict, the intra-army friction between Newtypes and Oldtypes more specifically focuses on the ideas of racial supremacy and human enhancement, asking whether being a Newtype makes one any less human, and whether humanity itself is truly an inferior race when compared to these exceptional pilots.

As these conflicts gradually progress further and further down their own slippery slopes, what they bring out in the characters is perhaps the series’ ultimate virtue – a desire for the avoidance of violence. Death is so prevalent a thing in Gundam that it has earned creator Yoshiyuki Tomino the nickname “Kill-em-all”. It’s to the point where, if a character at any time appears to be approaching any level of happiness with their place in life, you can expect them to die within the next episode or two. In a fictional world so war-torn that one can seem to “catch the death” as easily as they would a cold, it make sense that the end of this constant violence would be a key motivating force for its inhabitants. Each character has his or her own way of moving towards this end, some more effective than others, and it is devotion to this ideal that is Gundam’s true dividing line between the “good guys” and “bad guys”. The division between federation and rebel or Newtype and Oldtype, as mentioned, can be misleading – in the end, the “good guys” are those who seek to end violence, and the “bad guys” are those who do not. A good part of the intrigue of Gundam is the many ways this desire manifests itself – often a character will believe that the only way to stop violence in the future is through violence in the present, or face some similar conflict of values.

What this ultimately leads to is Gundam being about each character’s struggle to find his or her own way to reach this ideal, and the reconciliation of the characters’ conflicting paths to this goal.

Also, there are giant robot fights in space.

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About BokuSatchii

Yoroshiku ne!
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2 Responses to The Gundam Experiment: An Introduction

  1. Fadeway says:

    Thanks to this post, I will, at some point in the future, watch every Gundam at the same time, one episode per day. It will probably help me get through the abominable Turn and G too.

    I don’t really feel the racism thing though. It was the centerpiece of SEED (and I loved it for that), played a big part in X and Age, and showed up late in 00; in 0079 and other UC shows, Newtypes are too rare to start any racism subplots (a theory I like is that they are mutations caused by time spent near military ships/Gundams/battlefields/space tech – it explains why adolescents mutate earlier and show more power, why most Newtypes are colony folk, and why many long-time pilots either start displaying potential or greatly increase their initial abilities) – to the point where serieslong companions of the main character, usually a very powerful Newtype, sometimes doubted the very existence of Newtypes (and people outside the main cast more often than not hadn’t even heard of the concept). I really can’t call the random mentions of the White Base as a “ship crewed by Newtypes” or the rare Zeon operation investigating espers or the mythos about super soldiers racist. Victory doesn’t even have Newtypes, set many decades after the original UC shows.

    I get your point that this element, as with all others, is often removed or modified; I just feel that racism is way too rare to be treated as a standard component. Super soldiers, on the other hand, are far more common, and they encompass the “emergent races” as well – in fact, they are usually made to counter them. No Gundam that I can think of misses the opportunity to have super soldiers – on one hand, the X-Rounders and Coordinators, those born naturally. On the other hand, the improved abilities of Vagan by means of their helmets, implied to have heavy side effects, as well as the crazed, often telepathic, super soldiers that pop up in nearly every show, especially in UC.

    But yeah, a funny thing that occurs after you have enough experience is that you can predict how events unfold in a show you’ve never watched, sometimes just by seeing a character for the first time (simplified example: female on the villain’s side, who chose to be there, and is romantically attracted to him? Death or worse.) When I marathoned all series, I was already doing this by Zeta (having seen all of seed, destiny, 00, wing, 0079) – and a ton of fans were having fun doing the same as Age was coming out. It’s like noticing death or romance flags – except using tropes that only happen in this franchise, meaning it works way more often. Gundam always repeats the same story, so fans can guess where a new series will go to a ridiculous extent, but it remains interesting due to the sweeping changes it always makes.

    You should watch more. Victory! After War! ZZ! (the list goes on and on)

    • BokuSatchii says:

      >G
      >Abominable
      Sure, it’s terrible at being a Gundam series, but as a fan of Yasuhiro Imagawa and of the more episodic Super-Robot/Shounen-Tournament approach, what I’ve seen of G has set it as my third-favorite long-form Gundam, behind Zeta and 0079 (and as such my favorite AU series thus far).

      My reference to racism in Gundam refers not only to that between Newtypes and Oldtypes, but also to the racism which is essentially inherent between opposing forces in a large conflict – i.e. Feddies and Zeeks. That tension between colonies is comparable to a tension between nations/races. I generalize because the concept of racism can be expanded to describe the important role it plays in Age and Seed, which focus on it greatly, and to the subtler biases of war in other Gundam series. In addition, while there may not be much overt “racism” toward Newtypes in the sense that the other characters openly resent them in-show (Kamille has thus far strongly resented being considered a Newtype, but that may well just be Kamille being angry at everything), there is the undercurrent suggested by their very existence and their prevalence in combat which questions whether Newtypes are truly a superior race of human (and if this makes them technically human at all), and where the line is drawn between Old- and Newtypes. The very idea of a Supersoldier is suggestive of the question of race – not in the geographic sense, but in the sense of the “human race” and its boundaries. Perhaps “racism” is the wrong word to describe this, but any work of science fiction which introduces the concept of a transcendent form of man is bound to raise such questions, and the term “racism” nicely links both these ideas and the Federation vs Colonies conflict that is definitely central to any Gundam series.

      Incidentally, my true intent with this post was to provide a context from which to discuss each of the series and their similarities and differences as I finish them, rather than to simply comment on Gundam as a whole (which I really can’t do with any accuracy at this point, given that I have only seen War in the Pocket, Age, and the 0079 movies through to completion), and the “racism” section was written very much with the purpose of contextualizing – you guessed it – Seed and Age.

      Interesting that you mention the Gundam-specific tropes. The reason I started this project in the first place was twofold – first, Bandai Entertainment’s US distribution branch was going out of business and I wanted to decide which Gundam series to buy on DVD before they became impossible to find (hence why I picked these particular entries in the franchise), and second, I wanted to see if watching so many Gundams simultaneously made clearer the common threads running through the franchise as a whole. I usually kinda suck at noticing the littler things in a series and at following/remembering long plotlines; I prefer finding a big idea to latch onto, so watching all these series together like this gives me a better vantage point into Gundam itself as a “big idea.” A large part of the enjoyment I’m getting here is, as you said, looking at all the ways the series come together (the plot points, the character types, etc.), as well as the ways in which they differ or put their own spin on the central tenets of the Gundam mythos. It’s been a lot of fun watching all these series and trying to pick out the different reasons for which I like each one.

      I do plan to watch more! I’ll probably need a break from Gundam after this project (which I probably won’t get seeing as how Origin should be coming out soon), but my ultimate goal is to see every “long form” Gundam Series (except maybe SD – I’ve heard… uh… mixed reactions), and the more prominent movies/OVAs. My introduction to the franchise has been pretty… exhausting – I started by watching one 0079 movie a day leading up to seeing War in the Pocket in its entirety on Christmas Eve last year, then watching Age as it came out (but I started late and had to race through the first arc to catch up), and now this – I’ll probably want to take it a bit slower after I’ve finished these six shows. But yes, I am looking forward to seeing all the different places this franchise has gone, so I will definitely be picking those series up in the future.

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