Reviews: Mobile Suit Gundam

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A classic.
Mobile Suit Gundam, the original series, is one of the giants of anime history - up there with Mazinger Z in terms of the impact it has had on the medium. It created the Real Robot genre and popularized the concept of science fiction anime aimed at a mature audience. In this aspect, MSG can be viewed as Japan's Star Trek, a comparison made all the more apt by the fact both series had to contend with a shoestring budget and the looming threat of cancellation throughout most of their initial broadcasting.

With this in mind, newcomers to the MSG series probably shouldn't start at the beginning. The reason for this is simple; it is an ugly show. The animation is just plain bad in many places, and while it gets much better towards the last third of the series, it isn't good even by contemporary standards. There are enough off model moments, shading errors, color palette miss-matches and Uncanny Valley facial animations present in MSG to make a fairly lethal drinking game out of. That said, the combat is quite visceral and entertaining by the standards of the time, with lots of tense moments early on. The show does an excellent job of portraying the maturation of the White Base crew from the typical rag-tag band of misfits into mature combat veterans capable of acting as a decisive force in numerous engagements.

Another thing MSG does well is serve as a template for further additions to the genre. While there are still some (rather forced) comedic elements, the series does not shy away from the brutality of war, the casualties inflicted upon innocents by an occupying force, and the horrific destruction caused by the colony drops. Some of MSG's most iconic imagery comes early in the series, when the White Base is dropping off civilians in what was once a highly populated area, but is now nothing but a barren wasteland where only isolated communities survive.

Overall, MSG is a great show to watch after the viewer has found something to like about the franchise as a whole. I'd recommend watching Wing or SEED first to get a grounding in what Gundam can be at its best, then watch MSG. It is a series that requires a distinct adjustment in viewer expectations, but those that can manage that won't be disappointed.
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Much better than I expected
As you can glean from the main page, Mobile Suit Gundam was a watershed in anime history. Not only did it mark the beginning of one of anime's most successful and important franchises, it spawned a new subgenre of Humongous Mecha anime. It is fondly remembered by Gundam otaku, but it's also from 1979/80. How well does it hold up today? Having seen other '70s anime like Gatchaman, I expected something really cheesy and dated, with lots of bombast and overacting.

Surprisingly, that's not what I got. Yes, the biggest problem is probably the art and animation, which are about what you'd expect from this era. Colors are severely limited, character designs are plain and sometimes downright weird-looking, and the animation is often stiff and poorly done. Even the mecha designs are not up to snuff. But I was very impressed with the story. The characters themselves are very believable and well-fleshed out, the plot is as complex and involving as any other Gundam offering, and the series' themes are surprisingly mature and thoughtful for a kids' show. It definitely shares features with other Gundam series: moral ambiguity, an emphasis on war and politics over personal heroics and grandstanding, and just enough behind-the-front-lines soap opera drama and emotion to keep viewers entertained. But this gets credit for doing it first, and doing it in the '70s. Watching this, you are seeing the development of tropes that would inspire Japanese for decades to come. Amuro's vacillating interest in the war he is fighting in foreshadows Evangelion's Shinji, and Char's Magnificent Bastard personality has always resonated in Japan.

This old show holds up very well to more modern Gundam offerings like Seed and 00. However, this raises the question: why not just watch the newer shows? Most modern anime fans will probably just do that, and it's understandable. The show does have its flaws, and it's creaky by modern standards. But if you watch Seed or 00 and get curious about how the Gundam mythos began, it's worth your time to check out this old classic. It's basically the Japanese equivalent of Star Trek The Original Series, or perhaps Star Wars (closer in age). It may look like crap, but sit down for an episode (or one of the compilation movies) and you may find yourself drawn in.
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