Friday, March 14, 2014

Mobile Suit Gundam III: Encounters In Space - Well THIS is Rare in a Trilogy

It's time for this month's installment for the 35th Anniversary project. I promised the reviews would be back, did I not?

Anyway, after the four month turnaround between movies 1 and 2, the climax of this trilogy would take another six months before hitting Japanese theaters in 1982. This is partially because, of the three movies, this one had the most extra work done on it. And it benefits greatly from the extra work. In fact, this may be one of the rare trilogies I can think of out there where the third part actually winds up being the best.
This is just a minor side note, but it is surprising how most trilogies tend to hit their peak on the first or second part, and how very rarely they save the best for last.

So, much like last time, this movie picks up almost exactly where the second movie left off. As Soldiers of Sorrow left things, the Federation had successfully rolled out their own mobile suit forces and driven Zeon off the Earth. They're now poised for the big win and launching their counterattack to take back space. We start with our protagonists on the White Base, just leaving Earth. With the events of roughly the final twelve episodes to pull from (minus some content the show had given over to one-off Zeonic weapons and characters who mainly arrived to be an enemy of the week) this movie has a pretty straight shot to the finish. Along the way, we also get to see more of the Zeonic higher-ups, who were largely in absentia for the second movie. The de facto leader Gihren in particular comes into his own as the movie's primary antagonistic mover. Char remains the overall big antagonist, but the movie makes it clear that Gihren is the bigger threat here. We also see the much-hinted at Newtype storyline of the first two movies come into its own here, most notably with the arrival of new character Lalah Sune (Keiko Han,) a myserious woman who becomes a sticking point in Amuro and Char's conflict. All this set on the backdrop of the final explosive days of the war.

In the far-flung future, the giant robot version of the old 'banana in the tailpipe' prank elevates the stunt from a cheeky hi-jink to a surprisingly lethal shenanigan.

Okay, so that's kind of a scant description, but considering how much I'll be going into detail from here, summarizing would be redundant.

As I've said before, this is a rare case where this is arguably the best movie in the trilogy and one of the highest points in the franchise. One of the biggest advantages this has over the first two movies is how focused the narrative is (by comparison). From the moment the movie starts, both sides are being steered towards the coming final battle. Even the White Base's stop off at the neutral colony of Side 6, which is not as directly connected, moves things forward by laying groundwork for several characters' actions in the battles to come. In particular, Amuro gets some considerable developments here, from meeting the above-mentioned Lalah, and from from being reunited with his father (Motomu Kiyokawa,) - a reunion that doesn't fare much better than his earlier reunion with his mother.

"Trust me on this, son. You put this baby in the Gundam and you can get all the free cable you want.
Even the dirty channels.
ESPECIALLY the dirty channels!"

This is one of the arcs that I've come to appreciate more in the original Gundam than I had given much credit to on first watching. Amuro's character arc has been a source of a lot of mixed response in the fandom over the years, with people viewing him as everything from an interesting take on the mecha hero archetype, to a neurotic whiner who should have been jettisoned at the first signs of protest. The fact is, like his early parts or not, the coming of age storyline at the heart of the plot is actually rather well-handled. The scenes with his parents serve as vital points of driving home that he's changed (and so have they) and that he can't go back. The arc in this movie is actually one that, while I can admit to having joked about it before, I will also concede is actually kind of dark - after being left for dead in the first movie, Amuro learns his father has effectively gone insane as a result of prolonged time out in space, thanks in part to his own actions. That's a lot to expect a kid to run with, and Tohru Furuya sells the performance well.

Compared to Amuro's arc, many of the other major character plots run the gamut in quality. The next big standout here actually goes to the Zabi family - after having been largely fringe villains, the talking heads to which their soldiers answer to mostly, in the first two movies, this film actually really sees them fleshed out into personalities. These run anywhere from the brash, but surprisingly noble Dozel (formerly played by Daisuke Gouri, played in this version by Tesshô Genda) to the shrewd Kycillia (Mami Koyama) and patriarch Degwin (originally Yuzuru Fujimoto, played here by Hidekatsu Shibata.) Degwin's arc in particular makes for an interesting one. Despite being the leader who started the war in the first place, when we see him he's an ultimately broken man: his power has been supplanted by his eldest son, in whom he sees a growing megalomania, and the war has already cost him his youngest son. By this point, he's a man who's looking at his legacy and asking himself "My God, what have I done?" Though this man's actions have cost billions of lives, one can't help but pity the man as he makes several futile attempts to try and defuse the situation before it gets any worse. To make matters worse, even as he tries to fix this course, his children continue to plot and scheme against one another, arguably proving bigger threats to themselves than their own enemies do.

"...and they called me Space Hitler.
Well who's Hitler no--?

Next after this is the storyline involving Char. This is a point where I should point out for anyone who hasn't been playing at home (and it's only been somewhat addressed in the first two movies, which is why I hadn't really gone into it sooner) that there's a running plot throughout the movies regarding Char's true lineage. In a fashion that will likely phase no one in a generation that's been brought up on Star Wars, Char is actually the son of the deceased leader of Zeon's republic. On top of this-as we learn early on-Sayla is actually his sister.
Yes, it's kind of a cliched plotline, but again, take it with a grain of salt. These movies are over thirty years old by now, it still had a bit more life in it as a plotline back then. With everything building to a climax, both of these storylines are also stepped up. In the case of the storyline with Sayla, it's kind of a relief. As one of the more dated elements of this story, their storyline feels a touch overly melodramatic in a lot of its invocation. It also at points feels like a derailing of Sayla's character as a result of said melodrama. When she's finally confronted about it in this movie, the story actually starts to come more into its own. The melodramatic elements of much of the earlier encounters are stripped away and, able to finally just get it out there, Sayla handles matters with a surprising amount of maturity that makes their later somewhat understated reconciliation feel much more earned.

"We're now two movies on like this, so what say we just get this over with? I take off, you start running after me calling my name all weepy, we meet again in another month and do this again.
Sound good?"

The only storyline in this movie I can really say is particularly problematic is one that's partially a consequence of the series. This concerns new crewmember Sleggar Law (Makio Inoue,) who had previously only appeared briefly at the end of the last film to announce his being assigned to the ship. In both series and movies, Sleggar has the unfortunate case of 'new character syndrome' as the latest add-on into an ensemble that has already gelled into a capable team by the time he arrives. This is magnified by the fact he's a very outgoing, cocky character by design, which makes him a bit tricky to fit into the dynamic without it feeling forced. In this case, the main hook the movies try to work in is an ultimately doomed romance with helmswoman Mirai (Fuyumi Shiraishi.) On paper, it's not a bad idea to try and help generate an emotional investment in the character who we really haven't gotten to know. Yet as it's presented in the movie, it's a very rushed storyline. In the series, while it's still somewhat problematic, it's at least built up more care of Sleggar's generally flirtatious attitude. In the movie, they really only have one major interaction before the romantic storyline is kicked off, and given how that one goes down, the romance carries some rather uncomfortable implications as a result.

Finally, in terms of the overall plotlines, we have the Newtype plotline. This is probably one of the biggest 'love it or hate it' elements of the entire series. I don't know if it's the difference in cultures, the difference in sci-fi, or a consequence of the fact the sidestory OVAs got big here before the main series, but I've seen some pretty insane debates unfold over the Newtype plotlines, and whether or not they're good or not. I've seen arguments ranging anywhere from people criticizing it as a ripoff of The Force from Star Wars (never mind the fact that both are indicative of how 70's sci-fi was quite in love with the idea of psychic abilities) to people arguing it's the one thing that really makes Gundam unique compared to many other robot shows that followed. As far as how this movie handles it, it's very much a product of the times the show and movies were made in. Now that multiple Newtypes are in play in the story, the movie tries to work in the mental element of their encounters, leading to some rather surrealistic imagery being invoked at times (not quite on the level of, say, the spacegate in 2001: A Space Odyssey, but getting there.) Personally, I still think this plot element is handled fairly well for the medium, but it bears warning that it may not be to everyone else's liking.

See? Told you we'd be getting more into the nuts and bolts of the story.

Now for the technical aspects...
To follow up on the narrative focus, this is one of those areas where the movie needing a longer downtime was necessary. Compared to the first two movies, this final installment called for a lot more sequences to be reanimated from the ground up. As a result of this, the movie has a much easier time blending an already focused story arc into a more continuous narrative, and even fleshing it out more along the way. Even at its weakest, the seams don't feel as apparent as they previously did.
As a nice bonus, the newly animated footage is actually quite good. A lot of the new footage stands out because the overall quality has increased substantially, especially where the mobile suit battles are concerned. Both in terms of attention to detail and even some of the combat choreography, the movie does one better over the series on this department.
The cast continues to deliver great work, especially given some of the degree of emotions their characters are put through as the story goes on. Again, it's actually rather impressive to realize this version was recorded years later, but the cast can still slide into roles they had played twenty-one years ago without losing anything in the process. It speaks quite well for the versatility of the cast involved.
Meanwhile, the music also continues to help deliver the emotions here. This is especially necessary given the end of this movie, and the score (some of which was worked on by Joe Hisaishi of Studio Ghibli fame) helps further underscore those emotional beats. One aspect I have to give the rerecord here is in their decision to rework some parts of the music arrangement. I'd need to doublecheck to confirm, but one thing I was struck by looking at the old dub was the fact the movie's two vocal inserts: 'Beginning' and 'Encounter' were swapped. The recent version had switched them around, creating a better fit both in terms of tone and lyrically (which makes it kind of problematic the official releases never subtitled the song lyrics, but I digress.) This is especially true with 'Beginning,' which gets used at a major turning point in the movie and really helps perfectly set the feeling of the scene without it requiring any further explanation.

I'm just going to say this outright. Of the Gundam movies made to date, this is still probably the best. I know this seems like it's gonna be setting the deck against the next nine months, but I'm going to be honest there. Besides, the later movies have their strengths also, just saying, this movie got it closest to perfect.

...this awkwardly translated line aside.

With that, we come to the end of the original series. In all, it was pretty refreshing to sit down and give this a fresh watch from a reviewing standpoint. There's a few weaknesses, but overall, they have held up quite well. Further, keeping their relative perspective in the pop culture in mind helped to further let me appreciate just what made this title a hit on that second run. If you can handle the dated science fiction elements (and let's face it, that's not a problem unique to this series) it's still a rather enjoyable series and film trilogy.

Gonna be interesting to see where this project goes from here. Next month we'll be jumping several years and two series ahead, both in terms of production history and in-universe chronology.

In the meantime, will have other works lined up for you guys as well.

Till then!

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