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.