Friday, July 18, 2014

Mobile Suit Z Gundam: A New Translation I- In Which Giant Robots Ride on Dewbacks

Okay, I did shorten it. The longer title of the movie would make this title bar even worse.

Now then, as the timeline goes, I should clarify something now before going any further. This wasn't the next immediate movie after the last entry in this project. In fact, there were a handful of others between that, for a couple of reasons, I omitted from this project. The first reason being- of course- only twelve entries for the year.
The others, let's tick down the list:
-Gundam Wing: Endless Waltz-Special Edition: Really not much to add for this as a movie goes. It's essentially the three episode straight to video sequel all cut together, with a couple of new scenes and a change in vocal song. Nothing was cut for time.
-08th MS Team: Miller's Report: Similar problem. The movie is essentially just a longer version of two episodes of the show stapled together. It makes for an interesting companion piece for the series itself, but not really offering a lot on a movie level.
-The Turn A Gundam compilation movies: These almost made the cut, actually. I had a change of heart for two reasons; first, to fit new titles coming out within this past year and (more damningly) the fact these movies have no translations beyond some Hong Kong bootleg subtitles. Having seen the first, I can honestly say their erratic pace and editing make things confusing enough without having to contend with machine-grade translations to boot.

Which brings us up the timeline (and past a few 'Special Edition' speed reads of some series) to 2004. Around this time, Bandai had its first big movie announcement in a long while: to commemorate its 20th anniversary, Mobile Suit Z Gundam, the popular sequel to the original series, was getting its own compilation movie trilogy. To further sweeten the pot, the project was to be helmed by series creator Tomino himself, with promises of a more upbeat ending.

What followed? We'll get to that.

To bring up to speed for those just tuning in, the story of Z Gundam takes place roughly 7-8 years after the end of the original series. After the devastation of the One Year War, the Federation created a security branch called the Titans to maintain order at any cost. This went about as horribly as could be expected and lead to a rogue faction within the Federation determined to oppose the Titans. In the middle of this brewing civil war is hot-headed teenager Kamille Bidan (voiced in both the series and movies by Nobuo Tobita) whose political views and temper soon get him pulled into the conflict as well.
As the first series after the original, this helped solidify the fanbase of the original Gundam and turn the brand into a powerhouse. Further, the decision to move the stage to a new group of characters with much of the returning cast in supporting roles helped give the brand some extra longevity at a time when they could afford to keep milking the same names and faces.

"Yeah, you're not really in this one much, but look at the bright side, Amuro:
You're still getting a spot in the opening credits over people with a lot more screentime than you!"

Anyway, that's a quick overview.

So how did these movies fare?

On its own,  I find myself really torn by this first movie. I will admit to some bias, both for and against it as a fan of the show, so let me just get that out of my system now. With that acknowledged, I'd just like to start this off saying these movies are kind of a problematic set-up right out of the gate.

What do I mean by this? Let's compare them with Sunrise's earlier, and more well-known compilation trilogy for the original series. The first movie trilogy took forty-three episodes worth of material, with a fair handful removed pretty seamlessly as one-off storylines and was able to pare the whole thing down to three movies over two hours each. Even with that run-time and as much cut as they have, the movies still feel jam-packed, especially in the first two cases.
By comparison, A New Translation takes a fifty episode series, one with considerably less 'disposable' events and cuts it down to a trilogy of movies where each clocks in about ninety minutes. So we're taking a long series with more content and trying to cram it into a space roughly ninety minutes shorter than the previous trilogy.

As you can imagine, a LOT is getting cut here.

In the case of the first movie Heirs to the Stars the cutting is actually not that badly done. Events-wise, the movie covers a span of roughly the first fourteen episodes. Given a lot of the more self-contained character development events in this section of the series, it actually compacts down a bit easier than later parts will. In fact, much as I feel odd admitting it, some of the decisions made here are pretty good. In several cases Tomino opts to streamline the narrative by folding certain events into one another It suits the first half of the movie well, creating a tight narrative without feeling like the fast forward button got broken. Once they come to a break in the action that momentum stalls a bit, but it does make up for it again after a middle slump.

Take THAT, physics!

In fact, while I have issues with the later two movies (we'll get to those in time) I do have to concede the first part of this trilogy, for what it's covering, isn't that bad for the most part in terms of time management. Really, there's only three areas I'd say its structure suffers. First of these is with regards to the very beginning: the incident that really gets Kamille sucked into the main story is when he picks a fight with a Titans officer and later rival, Jerid (Kazuhiko Inoue.) In the series, you see the fight as it happens, which makes sense. The movie starts off with a decent idea, bringing us in after Kamille's been placed under arrest and he's getting grilled by an MP. This would be a great point to discuss the fight, and possibly flashback to it. We get a flashback- but it's not for another half hour of film and then it's by Jerid in a rather out of left field sequence. It's a sequence that starts off setting itself up pretty well before making a really baffling call on a choice that should have been easy. From there, the other areas that suffer are the above-mentioned momentum break (I can understand why they want to keep the developments of the sequence, but the movie really does just seem to flounder at that point) and another case of a character taking that previously mentioned mysterious bus to Mexico. The latter isn't as much of an issue in this particular installment, since their death would have been near to the end of the movie enough to save discussing it for next time, but they're never mentioned again, so on the bus they go!

Sorry guys, but in the future, teen melodrama DOES still get some priority.

Alongside the storyline issues, there is one other big problem this movie suffers from. In comparing this to the previous compilations, it's worth noting how much time there was between series and movie. Mobile Suit Gundam was only about a year after the series ended. 0083 made its movie before the last episode of the series even hit shelves. Turn A's films were within the year of the show's end, and so on. You can likely see where I'm going with this: these were made shortly thereafter so the new material could still blend in with the existing footage pretty seamlessly.
Then we come to Zeta. I want to reiterate - these movies were being made as Zeta's 20th anniversary celebration. There is a good twenty years between when the show went off the air and these films were made. The transition goes about as well as…let's just say the Star Wars Special Edition joke in the title is there for a reason. Now, to their credit, the new animation is actually quite good. The problem is, it clashes badly with the original footage. This is a problem that time can't really help. The overall quality of productions has changed too much since the old days to properly replicate the footage of yesteryear. So the optimal approach for these films would have been to either use only prior footage or reanimate the whole thing from scratch. Instead, they tried to meet this halfway, and the results aren't great.
I might not dislike this part as much as I would were there at least some consistency in what got reanimated. The new sequences of mobile suit combat, for example, all look great. They offer some nice detail and fluid fight choreography the likes of which the show's older budget was somewhat limited on. On the other side of the coin, there are random parts of newly animated character scenes that seem to be chosen entirely at random. As a result, there are sequences in the film where the footage will be largely old before randomly cutting to one new sequence for a character reaction. If these movies were made in the 80s, this wouldn't be a problem. Given their current age though, the new scenes stick out like a sore thumb.

Here we have before
and then after, when Kamille punches modern production values and flashback lines into the scene a mere second later.

Aside from the problems with story and animation, this movie's otherwise pretty solid. Like I said, the new animation, though it clashes badly, is good on its own. The voice cast are a satisfactory spread of old and new, with the returning voice actors (including the late Hirotaka Suzuoki in his final role) all fitting their original roles quite well, even after all these years. This is especially surprising in the case of Tobita, who can still slip into the role of teenage Kamille pretty easily here. Likewise, the soundtrack is a great mix of old and new: Shigeaki Saegusa's soundtrack to the original series is back here in great form, and it's nice to hear it's held up quite well. Alongside this, the movie also provides two new inserts by Gackt - who provides songs for the whole trilogy - singing the movie's opening and closing themes. For the purposes of this movie, the two pieces really fit the film quite well.

All in all, this isn't too bad as far as Gundam compilations are concerned. It's certainly not flawless by any stretch, mind you. Its age betrays its attempts to modernize, and its brisk runtime, while occasionally helping propel the film, also leads to a couple of confusing creative calls. While the earlier Mobile Suit Gundam films can still be taken on their own, these are movies that are much more clearly intended as a bonus for people already familiar with the series. If you're already a fan, this movie's actually something of a nice refresher. It's certainly no substitute for the series, but as a means of seeing a fresh take on certain highlights, it's an entertaining hour and a half.
 Well, this one fared better than I remembered.

Of course, I recall more of my issues being with the later two movies anyway. So, we'll see how those hold in the months that come.

In the meantime, Summer Reading's back!

Till then!

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