Saturday, May 24, 2014

Mobile Suit Gundam F-91: The Pros and Cons of a Clean Slate

It's that time again! We delve back into the history of one of Japan's most lucrative brands to involve giant humanoid robots in celebration of said brand's 35th birthday.

At this point, some of you out there may have been wondering why I've felt the need to preface each entry in this project with a bit of a history lesson leading into the film's place in events. This is being done for three main reasons:

First, because hey, it IS an event project. Let me try and make this one a little special.

Second, because while I know some of the reader base is familiar with Gundam, there are quite a few who aren't. So these explanations are partially to help clarify things, especially since some of these movies are direct sequels to shows and would be pretty damn baffling on their own without explanation.

And third, because it really helps set context for some of the decisions that go into the films, ESPECIALLY in a case like this month's entry.

Now, as we'd last left things, original series creator Yoshiyuki Tomino had finally gotten the chance to close the book (or so he'd hoped) on some of the more prominent and played up elements of the Gundam brand at the time. Most notable were the Federation-Zeon conflict, and the fates of fan favorites Amuro Ray and Char Aznable. With the Universal Century's core story fulfilled, Bandai was trying some new things with the brand. The previous movie was followed, for example, by the brand's first direct-to-video sidestory Gundam 0080: War in the Pocket, which would prove successful enough to see several other sidestories produced after.

At this time, Tomino had started work on another full length series. Whether this was at studio insistence, or he was genuinely interested to take the brand in a new direction is another one of those stories that, sadly, is lost behind the language barrier. In either case, Mobile Suit Gundam F-91, so the stories tell, was his attempt to make a whole new series for the Gundam line. Taking place thirty-five years after the events of Char's Counterattack, this was his attempt at making a completely new Gundam story. The setting was the same, but thanks to the passage of time, there would be no returning characters or call backs to risk reheating the One Year War premise again. The show was in production and slated to be a fifty-two episode run.

"Oh yeah! Door's open, boys!"

What happened next...the stories are a bit hazy on. Whether it was conflicts in production staff or a decision handed down from Sunrise higher-ups, the idea of making F-91 into a series fell through. The problem was, they had already been pretty busy at work on the show at the time things fell apart (as fun facts go, the show's chosen opening theme, never featured in the movie, still appears on several Gundam Singles albums.) Wanting to at least salvage what was worked on, a greenlight was given to recut what footage had been already put together into a single movie.

And so, in March of 1991, the movie cut of Mobile Suit Gundam F-91 was screened for Japanese audiences. The result was somewhat mixed. Certain elements of the movie, such as its titular Gundam and its main theme have enjoyed some degree of popularity (further bolstered by its manga sequel, Crossbone Gundam) but in general it's kind of settled into a place as one of the more middling offerings of the Gundam brand over its run.

...okay, history lesson over. Let's get into the workings.

Like I said before, this is set to take place roughly thirty-five years after the end of Char's Counterattack, the lay of the land has changed a LOT. Zeon is now but a fading name in the history books (much to the disappointment of some fans, I'm sure,) and the Earth Federation is finally expanding its territories establishing new space colonies. Of course, because a story of peaceful expansion makes it hard to sell fighting robots, this era has also marked a rise in a new faction: the Crossbone Vanguard - an organization whose primary modus operandi is to establish a new ruling system based on the old world concepts of nobility and, essentially, space feudalism. With this in mind, they promptly set to work taking over many of the newly established Frontier colonies, with the film starting with one of these takeovers. In the chaos, we're introduced to protagonist Seabook Arno (Kouji Tsujitani) and several of his friends as they seek to escape from the colony that has now been turned into a war zone. Further adding to the complications is the plot involving Seabook's friend-cum-love interest, Cecily Fairchild (Yumi Touma,) who actually has blood ties with the leaders of the Vanguard. As the movie unfolds, Seabook tries to navigate both the survival story, in which (as is often the case of these stories) he finds himself the pilot of the titular machine, as well as trying to talk Cecily into leaving behind her family ties in the Vanguard to escape with the rest of them.

Worry not, dear viewers. The overriding ethos has changed, but it still has the same great taste of space-based fascism you've come to know and love!

If this starts to sound overly complicated and confusing, I can only say the movie doesn't help make it any easier. Like I said last month, Tomino's use of in media res is a double-edged sword for him. When he uses it in the series, it can be a great tool to get people coming back to figure out what's going on. Yet in film, where time is precious, it's something that takes a much more controlled hand to use right. By comparison to Char's Counterattack, F-91 is arguably the worse use of the narrative device. For starters, there's no actual indication in the movie as to just how long has passed between the start of Char's Counterattack and F-91. In fact, the only real indication we have that it would be around that particular era is the Federation's still using Jegan mobile suits, though we see them being phased out. The year is given in supplemental materials, but is never established in the movie proper. Further this film completely eschews any idea of establishing anything else out of the gate. We start, quite literally, with the Crossbone Vanguard infiltrating a colony and attacking.

From there, the story flies fast and frantic, with only a few hits landing. Several of the plot threads in this film-stories one can tell would make a lot more sense were they expanded on and allowed to breath in a series- are just thrown out here and discarded or resolved as quickly as they came. One particularly egregious example comes around the halfway point in the movie. We go from Seabook's first sortie in the F-91 on one colony, to suddenly running an infiltration job - that we later learn he took on himself, rather than by any assignment - on an entirely different colony with no explanation of how long it's been or how he got there without anyone asking questions (remember, we're talking travelling between giant space stations here.) I can see why the plotline was left in the final film, to help properly establish Cecily's conflicting alliances, but the fact is, the jump to it is so abrupt, that it's hard to suppress the urge to say "What the Hell?" when Seabook turns up outside the royal family estates. Likewise, the movie's big climactic battle involving a dangerous drone superweapon (BEFORE it was cool for every sci-fi piece to play up) is clumsily set up in a few throwaway lines before it's ever rolled out proper.

Also this weapon, partially pictured here, which I suspect has inspired more than its fair share of horrifying fanart over the years.

Besides the problems in exposition, one of the big faults with this movie's rushed presentation is how many emotional notes fall flat. Early into the film, we're treated to a scene where Seabook and co run into a civilian war curator who decides he'll fight the invading forces using an old tank-type of mobile suit. Seeing the chance to turn the tables, a couple of Seabook's friends take part in the defense. The fight goes...about as well as you'd expect, and one of the friends is killed. On paper, the point of this scene makes a lot of sense - it makes all the death and carnage happening around Seabook become personal. The problem is, because of how rushed everything has become to that point, Seabook's shock feels rather phoned-in - as he desperately tries to hammer home how tragic this death is, it really has no impact for us, as we barely knew the character to begin with. Even sadder, since the movie had up to this point, already made a minor character death carry some emotional weight when an unnamed woman is killed in crossfire. It's a moment that really maintains a sense of shock in that it's something that doesn't often come up in these sorts of titles. Then, later in the movie, a pilot character who has been established as a pretty prominent support role, dies with little more than two people passingly acknowledging he was killed. The result gives the whole movie an emotionally uneven spread. It has a few moments that really hit home, but a lot of them just feel either brushed off, or land with a thud.

"Come on, man. We're in enough trouble with legal on this movie as it is. If we lose our token character in the first fifteen minutes, we might as well end this project right here!"

Which is certainly a shame to say, since there's actually a fair number of interesting elements at play in this movie's story. Just taken on some of the plot points here, we see a fair number of elements that feel like Tomino is trying to riff on some of the more classically 'Gundam' elements that had been established to that point. For example after two of the three former leads falling into the role of 'pilots a robot their father made', Seabook's Gundam is actually designed by his mother. Likewise, the space-based Crossbone Vanguard at times feel like a sort of spin on the Zeon concept - rather than being an independence movement hijacked into establishing a totalitarian regime, this is an organization that has openly declared its intentions to ultimately establish a royal ruling family over all. Further adding to the parallel, either by coincidence or as a means of tweaking, the family's son Dorel (Takeshi Kusao) is almost a physical ringer for Zeon's own Garma Zabi, complete with the desire to prove himself in battle. Meanwhile, the 'Char' style of character is actually split into not one but two characters this time around: Cecily's father, Carozzo (Masaki Maeda,) who hides behind a Darth Vader-esque metal mask as an ideological statement, and Zabine (Kiyoyuki Kanada,) a one-eyed variant on the charming ace rival who is trying to smooth-talk his way to the top. Both characters contain some elements of the Char character, and, either ironically, or as a criticism, both are treated as largely negative personality traits in them. Cecily, of course, is a variation on the 'scion of the enemy leader' role established with Sayla Mass back in the first series, although put in a much more active role politically this time around. Whether or not these elements were all meant to be deliberate riffs on the classic formula or just a wild coincidence, it still makes for an interesting aspect to this story. Even outside of these, however, the movie has several other ideas that it would have been interesting to see explored more - for example, the fact this is the only Gundam storyline so far to deal with a major plotpoint taking place inside a colony under military occupation is rather surprising.

"Come on now, children. Stop recoiling in horror and give your old man a hug!"

Alongside the some of the plot and setting elements, the film's visual style is one of those areas where this leaves one wondering about the series that could have been. The pseudo-classical styling of the colonies as well as within the Crossbone Vanguard, while perhaps a touch deliberately anachronistic, does make for an interesting choice to help further distance this period from the familiar style of the earlier titles. There are certainly enough shared elements to see them as the same setting, but enough different to give the impression that things have changed with time. Likewise, the mobile suit developments add to this. Like I said before, the Jegan, the luckless grunt of Char's Counterattack returns for another round of abuse (this time even more so given the age of the suits,) and along with it, we see the Federations new frontline units, the Heavygun and G-Cannon as plausible, but still very altered descendants of earlier Federation weapons. Likewise, one can see why the main Gundam design- this time conceived by character designer Yoshikazu Yasuhiko, has endured as a favorite even if the movie itself hasn't retained the same level of popularity. Meanwhile, the Crossbone Vanguard suits, to further differentiate the era, maintain a unique aesthetic that distances considerably from the cycloptic weapons employed by just about every other prior antagonist action, employing an ornate design philosophy and goggled look that evokes gas-masked shock troopers for a different emotional response.

Also, no other main Gundam has ever really tried to do the flying death blender trick here, which is a crying shame.

In a lot of ways, visuals are this movie's strongest suit. Alongside the good look of the setting, cast, and robots, this movie, as is often the case for Tomino in film, has a lot of strongly directed individual sequences, even if they don't all come together for a good finished product. Scenes like the initial arrival of the Vanguard's leaders on the occupied Frontier IV colony, a sequence with no dialogue set to the movie's main vocal theme, are more memorable on their own terms than as parts of the overall narrative. Also, while on the weaker end of the spectrum in terms of storytelling, this is another of the movies that stands out for its combat sequences. The opening twenty minutes in particular capturing the chaos and destruction of a fight breaking out in a colony on a level that had previously not been covered in earlier works. Later battles, meanwhile, use the colony setting to good end, allowing for some impressive aerial combat, with the terrain being factored in - especially in one sequence involving ground-based resistance forces joining in and actually providing a viable threat. I have to say, if the stories about much of this footage being put together before the decision to recut to a film was made have any weight to them, then we lost out. This had the potential to be a visually stunning series .

Which is part of why it's a shame that the visuals are really the only strong point here. Even the cast, while largely well acted, are in many cases only interesting as concepts rather than how their characters are actually executed. This was a problem that was already present back in Char's Counterattack, where the movie-only characters felt flat next to returning characters, but the latter at least helped keep things afloat. This time out, we have no returning faces to help buoy the new cast, so they ultimately remain flat. In particular, Seabook Arno is, through no fault of his own, arguably one of the blandest Gundam protagonists the brand has conceived even to this day. I want to clarify on this point, I don't think he's necessarily a bad character per se - but the fact is, as a protagonist, he's fairly singular as far as the movie is concerned - he's really all about protecting his loved ones with little else to his personality. Even his motivation for piloting the Gundam feels almost arbitrary in this line-he's already lost one friend, he won't see another die when he could do it. There's even a line that unintentionally highlights how arbitrary his role is, when he explains about piloting "Somebody's got to do it" and really gives no other reason why it should be him over anyone else. He's the case of a character who is ultimately defined by what other characters throw his way, and doesn't show much in the way of growth in personality as a result. Even when they came back to him in Crossbone Gundam, he still stays mostly just a likable pilot who does some cool tricks with his machine. He's otherwise a bit of human filler. Cecily at least offers a bit more conflict, even if it's a little cliched, and most of the rest of the team are just talking heads. I'll grant this is primarily a consequence of the time crunch, but it certainly isn't doing the movie any favors as it is.

"Let's be brutally honest here: look at yourself, look at me. Who do YOU think is gonna be the protagonist of this movie?"

In a particularly disappointing area, the soundtrack to this movie is probably one of the more forgettable in Gundam's history. Barring the movie's vocal end theme, Eternal Wind by Hiroko Moriguchi, most of the music featured in the score (by Satoshi Kadokura) is really rather unremarkable with one unfortunate exception. Alongside good things said for the end theme, the one other element of this movie's music that really has garnered much attention is one piece that sounds eerily similar to John William's Imperial March from The Empire Strikes Back. To be fair, it's not the most damningly similar I've ever heard an anime score come to cribbing music from another source, but it DOES sound close enough that it's become something of a punchline regarding the film (the fact the main antagonist is an estranged father in a full-head metal mask isn't helping shake that either.)

In all, Gundam F-91 is one of Gundam's more unfortunate forays into cinema. It had a lot of potential to be good, and to this day, English fans continue to wonder if the novels based on the story continue past the film's ending point. Unfortunately, fans didn't take to F-91 in strong enough numbers for it to really see much of a revival beyond a manga sequel that has now become more its own property than an F-91 related piece. In the end, it remains a rather cruel punchline: a compilation movie to a series that never happened. As a movie, it's certainly not devoid of merits, but it's also a rather flawed film that will ultimately never be able to fully escape the shadow of what could have been.

The fact even they were hoping for more here makes this title card even more of a shame on top of it all. Here I wondered if I was going to have enough to say on this one.

This brings this month's entry to a close. Next writeup in general should be coming soon.

Till then.

"So...not to ruin the emotion here, but...I don't remember where we parked."

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