Friday, January 31, 2014

Mobile Suit Gundam Movie I - It's Another Semi-Theme, Bear With Me.

Like the title suggests, yeah. This is part of a semi-theme this year. As I'd mentioned last year in my pre-gaming for Pacific Rim, I'm a fan of Japan's Gundam franchise. It's been through a lot of ups and downs, but it's still overall a fairly enjoyable ride for me.

Also, this year marks the 35th anniversary of the original series debut in Japan. After which, it's still trucking (...hey, it's not that weird - look how long Star Trek and Doctor Who have been going.)

So I figured, for the 35th anniversary, it would be fun to do something for it on here. Naturally, a full coverage wasn't gonna work. We'd be looking at several 50 episode shows to watch and review, and while I like writing this blog, that's kind of pushing the reasonable limit. Then I got to thinking, to this point, they have safely passed twelve on the movies. Now, Gundam and films admittedly have had kind of a tumultuous relationship with fans. While they can have some strong points - in fact, one of the high points of the franchise is one of the movies that will be getting covered later - there is a pretty consistent tendency towards issues with trying to tell a larger story in the span of a feature. But we'll be addressing that point on a case by case basis.
So, with a mix of compilation films and some straight-to-feature stories, I'll be covering one installment for each month this year (and yes, I realize this one's cutting it close.)

So yeah, this isn't going to be as target intensive as the Halloween writeups or last month's MST3k blitz, but it's gonna be a recurring theme all the same, so you know.

Now then, let's start out at the obvious jumping off point.

But first - a history lesson!
We're gonna go back in time here. The year is 1979. I'm not even at zygote phase yet, and I imagine that goes for several of you readers too. Enter Japanese director, and depending who you ask in his later years, eccentric madman Yoshiyuki Tomino. At this point, after working in supporting roles on several series, he was now fresh off his first two full time jobs as head director on projects (Zambot 3 and Daitarn 3, respectively.) The two titles, in particular the former, established his reputation for wanting to tweak some of what you could do with Japanese giant robot entertainment. In 1979, in one of these attempts, he struck gold. The original Mobile Suit Gundam, a militaristic reskin of the giant robot formula partially inspired by Heinlein's Starship Troopers, makes its debut. For the time of its release, the show is a considerable change in what's out there. And, like many such shows of its time, it does badly. The show is cancelled with nine episodes left to go.

Then along comes merchandise...or, more accurately, along comes merchandise that actually manages to sell compared to the first batch. Bandai takes over, bringing plastic model kits to the show's offerings, and they sell like hotcakes. Alongside this, the show also gains a second life in reruns.

Like Star Trek before it, the title is reborn out of the ashes as a new hit.

Planning to capitalize on this, Sunrise animation studios set to work on a new project to cash in on the renewed interests - recutting the series into a trilogy of compilation movies, with new sequences to remove some of the more toyetic designs pushed by sponsors and replace some of the dodgier sequences of animation in the original series. The latter of which got bad enough at points as to result in Tomino calling for an episode to be removed from the run when it was released to the US in the early 2000s.

Anyway, jump to circa 1981. The first movie comes out in theaters, to great success.

Which brings us to now...

The Mobile Suit Gundam movies are kind of an odd bird as compilation movies go. Most often, compilation movies exist with the fans as their main target. Which sounds like it should be a no brainer, but after you watch enough debates over whether these movies are substitutes for just watching the show, it does bear repeating. With this in mind, many compilation movies tend to have a track record to play more like a highlights reel than an actual film. In this regard, the Gundam trilogy is one of the compilations that actually comes the closest to really being able to stand alone as movies in their own right.
That said, I'd still advocate giving the series a shot if you can, but these are at least less likely to be confusing as Hell if you've never seen the show before.

The story is, in some regards, classic space opera with some tweaks - it's a far future known as the Universal Century. Humanity has moved out into giant orbiting space colonies. Things go fairly smoothly for the first century or so...but where's the story in that? In the mid 0070s, a movement for colonial independence starts on one of the colony clusters, declaring themselves the Principality of Zeon. In a few years, war has broken out, with Zeon leveling the playing field with the development of mobile suits - piloted giant robots (yeah, it's a bit silly. It was the 70s!) By the time the story begins proper, it is nearing the end of UC 0079, and a neutral colony is being used as a testing ground for the Earth Federation (the acting government) developing their own mobile suits. A Zeonic recon team gets wind of this project, and one short-tempered pilot launches an attack. Enter our hero, introverted civilian Amuro Ray (voiced by Tohru Furuya) who, by a mix of chance and skewing the trope of piloting the robot your parents designed, becomes the pilot of the Federation's new prototype - the titular Gundam. He fends off the attack, but not before the colony takes heavy damages. What follows is the journey that he and a crew of soldiers and fellow refugees, fleeing aboard the Federation carrier White Base undergo trying to survive being thrown into a vicious war that has already seen half the human race wiped out.

 Because the point bears visual aids...
Some VERY 70's visuals

There's a lot of other plot points I could discuss, but that about hits the main overview.

Which actually kind of hits well on a point that is both a strength and a weakness for this movie. Like I said before, a lot of compilations, when they aren't going full reboot, operate less as a movie and more as a refresher for someone who's already seen the show - maybe offering some new touches as a treat for the fans. In this regard, Mobile Suit Gundam I is a movie that actually feels like a movie for the most part - it genuinely feels like it's trying to give you as complete a story as possible within the movie format. As a result of this, it also means this trilogy tends to run longer than most compilations, each of the three parts is a solid two hours and roughly twenty minutes each. The plus here is obvious, it's a good effort at being as comprehensive as possible (albeit you do still lose some elements of the characters as sacrifices for time...again, I'd still say if these movies do it for ya, give the show a try.)
The weakness here is, well...each movie has a LOT in it. This doesn't make them complicated per se, but it does leave the movies feeling rather bloated in terms of content. Content that, unfortunately, doesn't always gel particularly well. Individual story arcs still hold up quite well, and while this movie doesn't have as much new material as the later installments, it does still manage the plot on a chapter-by-chapter basis well. The problem is in putting it all together. This is one of those moments where the movie really makes it clear it was based on a serialized television show - the entire pace of this movie feels episodic, with each arc just closing itself down and opening right into the next. Rather than feeling like the traditional compilation where it feels like the whole show is being kept on scene skip, this more feels like watching several episodes stitched together with their openings and endings removed. Despite their best efforts, you can still place where episodes cut off for the most part. In the second half, they do make a bit more of an effort to smooth the transitions, but even those only help just so far. As a result, the movie has something of a jerky start-stop-start flow.

This is a shame because, otherwise, this actually works fairly well as a standalone movie: The cast, while losing some of their full profiles, all still get decent enough introductions and characterization, the world building still does well enough that a newcomer won't be too thrown off, and for its time, the movie's technicals are quite nicely done. In particular, this time around I was actually surprised to realize that this movie did a better job of editing around the more low-budget animation than I had initially remembered. A few problematic bits still leak through, and trust me, you WILL be able to spot them, but for the most part, the movie does a decent job of working around them. On the rewatch, I also have to admit, there are some particular sequences within this movie that are quite well directed. Probably one of the strongest moments, and this is one that really stuck out for me this time, is how the first movie chooses to leave itself off. After the crew of the White Base survive a particularly vicious attack by one of Zeon's aces - who becomes more prominent in the second movie - they are all gathered on the bridge for a news broadcast. The broadcast is a speech by Zeon's de facto leader, Gihren Zabi (Banjou Ginga, in a role that, while minor, he plays to the hilt,) for what is supposed to be eulogy for his brother, he whips it into a propaganda speech, making his brother into a martyr for the cause. The sequence on its own is a well laid out and acted sequence, but the standout in direction is the very end of the scene. After the speech, the crowds have broken down into fervor that the crew of the White Base react to in varying degrees of silence or disgust. The movie ends with them taking off once more, as we still hear the crowds in the broadcast chanting "Sieg Zeon!" over and over (yeah...Tomino was part of the anti-nationalist school of thought that came out of post-World War II Japan.) It's a simple sequence, but the message behind it is really the best way to cap off this installment - yes, they've won a few battles, but the war is far from over, and the crew still have a long road ahead of them before they can even hope to settle. The dialogue in the last moments is almost an afterthought, as that scene really sells the ominous ending of the movie perfectly.

Sorry to disappoint you guys, but you're not exactly gonna be breaking new ground by invoking Godwin's Law on this one.

As far as the acting - well, that's a bit of an odd point here. The version I had to work with, rather than the original 1981 audio track, was a version Sunrise put together back in 2000, with most of the core cast reprising their roles. As such, by this point, they're all quite comfortable in their parts, and by now many are established veterans in the field of voice acting. To their credit, it's also impressive in another regard that, almost twenty years later, the cast can all still reprise their parts as well as they do. In particular Furuya and Shuuichi Ikeda as lead roles Amuro Ray and his rival, Char Aznable.
For those who aren't too sure they want to try their luck with subtitles, an English dub of the films DOES exist, but I warn you now - it is a VERY dated dub now. As a first indication, let me just say if you wish to own a copy of the dub, your only chance is to hunt down the old VHS release. As a result, it's akin to dubs like the old Streamline dub of Akira - awkward sounding voices and some utterly headscratching rewrites of dialogue. In this case, you can look forward to some rather awkward accents (to this day, no one I've talked to has been able to figure out what they were going for with Sayla) and some lines that, despite this show's attempts to play the genre a bit more seriously, insert some extra, for lack of a better term, silliness (besides the seeming inability to pronounce 'Gundam', they add in lines like discussing Zeon's 'roboton invaders.')
Admittedly, it's still interesting to give a look as a sort of time capsule into what older dubs was like, but just warning you - if you go this road, here there be cheese. Well aged cheese at that.

Ma'am, we'd be happy to meet your demands, but we can't understand what the Hell you're saying in this version.

In all, the first Mobile Suit Gundam movie is a bit of a mixed blessing. It definitely feels like more attention was put into it as a movie than, say, the earlier Space Battleship Yamato movie, or even some of the later compilations in Gundam's own library. Unfortunately, it's still trying to take roughly twenty hours of footage and boil it down to a ballparked seven. For what it has to work with, it's still a pretty serviceable retelling, but it can be rough goings at points thanks to the fact the narrative doesn't really flow consistently. The movie tries to amend that, but the ghost of it is still there.
Otherwise, it's still a surprisingly well-aged movie for what it has to work with.
I'd still advocate giving the series a chance if you wind up liking the movies, just understand now: this is still gonna take a while to get going.

Also, because it's an elephant in the room that's gonna need to get addressed: yes, chances are if you've seen enough anime, there's parts of this that are going to look familiar/cliche. That's the rub of being one of the influential titles - yes, you get to see where everyone got the things from, but it also means that, when you see them employed for the first time, you take for granted how unique they were at the time they were first employed. It's not enough to completely destroy the experience, but I figure it's something best nipped in the bud now before we go into the next two movies.

"Yeah, my dad made it. This was how everyone got one back in the day..."

With that, getting the first in under the wire.

Will be back on regular schedule next week, and will have Mobile Suit Gundam II: Soldiers of Sorrow for you guys sometime next month.

Till then!

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