How do you review something when regardless of your verdict, people will hate you? The same way you review everything else.
When I set out to watch Gundam the very first time, I did so partly because I wanted to know more about it. I greatly enjoy trying to understand what other people love and in anime circles it doesn’t take long for Gundam to pop up as a subject. The range of this franchise is astounding and in Japan it’s borderline to a religion. But in all honesty, the first time I saw Mobile Suit Gundam ’79, I absolutely hated it. It looked like ass and when one of the first things I saw was Haro, I immediately labeled it “fucking stupid”.
And that was that, end of review.
Roll end credits.
No, of course not. If you’re anything resembling a long-time reader, you know I’ve talked about Gundam before so clearly my interest didn’t go away. I gave Gundam a try again and voila, here we are several years down the line and I’m reviewing G Gundam.
G Gundam takes place in the future. That’s about as specific as I intend to get about that. The Earth has been pretty much abandoned and people that still live there don’t really rank high on the class list. Instead people live on colonies orbiting the Earth named after their country of origin, such as Neo America, Neo Japan, Neo France and so on. The only time the people living on the colonies really pay any attention to Earth is during the Gundam Fight, a tournament where all the colonies send one representative in a giant robot to battle for supremacy. The winning nation takes home the right to rule all of space for the next four years when a new tournament will be held. This has in essence eliminated all wars.
Domon Kasshu is Neo Japan’s representative in the 13th Gundam Fight and has traveled to Earth to challenge the many opponents standing in his way. But Domon has a more pressing objective than securing ruling rights for Neo Japan. His father has been placed in cryogenic prison after Kyoji, Domon’s older brother, made off with the Devil Gundam, a mecha so powerful it could destroy Earth completely, killing their mother in the process. The only way to release his father is for Domon to go down to Earth and find the Devil Gundam and his brother and destroy them both. But unbeknownst to Domon, a much larger conspiracy is brewing and a destiny unlike anything he could imagine awaits him.
G Gundam, to this day, continues to divide members of the Gundam community. It’s either a brilliant piece of fiction or it’s the biggest misstep of the franchise to this day. It’s a harsh split but one that I entirely understand because I see both sides of the argument and unfortunately I lean more towards the latter than the former.
But regardless of how you feel about the show itself, or have no feelings at all because you don’t watch Gundam and don’t know anything about G Gundam (welcome, rest of the world!), it’s impossible to deny the impact G Gundam has had on the franchise itself and I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the Gundam franchise wouldn’t be as popular, widespread or long lived as it is today without G Gundam.
Because alternate timelines, that’s why.
From its initial airing in 1979, the Gundam franchise told, mostly, a single story with no real end in sight. Except for “War in the Pocket”, a side story, and “SD Gundam”, a parody of the franchise, this was all the franchise was for 16 years. Then G Gundam came and everything changed, for better or for worse. You see, G Gundam has no relation to the first 16 years of the franchise. No, this is a new story with new characters telling of a new future. Gone are the deep, philosophical musings about war and the terror it inflicts on all sides and instead we have a tournament where big robots beat the scrap out of each other.
So you can see why some people would think G Gundam is a bit of an affront to a franchise that up until then had taken itself pretty darn seriously, even when it wasn’t trying very hard. Instead what we have here is a straight shonen affair with mechas and if it didn’t have Gundam attached to it, I doubt we’d still be talking about it today. The plot is pretty straight forward and nothing you haven’t really seen anywhere else. Domon travels the world, beats up a bunch of silly looking robots then finds his brother and beats the snot out of him and discovers who was really behind it all. End of story.
At the halfway point…
When I first watched G Gundam, I was rather enjoying myself. The story, while trite, hit all the right notes and seeing Domon gather a group of friends each with their own, unique Gundam based on their country of origin… more on that later, was satisfying. He meets his Master, we get to see the dire state Earth is in and there’s plenty of fighting to sate our violent desires. Fighters shout the name of their special attacks at the top of their lungs and despite being in a fight for their lives there’s always time to discuss philosophy and one’s outlook on life.
Yes, if you like this sort of thing, G Gundam is definitely a show you’ll enjoy and in all honesty, I was set to like it. I’ve liked considerably poorer shows than this based on nothing more than pure catharsis so I SHOULD be enjoying this show more than I did.
But this time it just wasn’t enough to overlook the glaring issues, the major one being that they simply didn’t know when to stop. The plot is bad, it’s the same story we’ve heard a million times before but with mechas and that’s fine as long as the show itself knows it but at times G Gundam pretends like it has a deep and involving plot. Which only serves to get in the way of why we’re all here:
That’s not to say there are no good sides to the story but it’s rarely in the central core of the show but rather in the periphery. Two of Domon’s eventual friends, Chibodee Crocket and Argo Gulskii, are portrayed as genuinely sympathetic characters with fleshed out backstories but very little time is ever spent on actually exploring these characters and they tend to disappear only to reappear when convenient. The same can be said about some of the opponents Domon comes up against, at times being given quite a bit of backstory to justify their participation in the tournament and, again, it’s interesting but due to the nature of the beast, they never have the time to explore them in a more satisfying way.
No, the show never lets you forget that the story is all about Domon and sadly he’s the least interesting character, saved only by his energy which carry you along the show’s sluggish pacing. When he screams his attacks for the umpteenth time, you’re still there imitating the moves with him… if you’re into that sort of thing. But when the show slows down to explore him as a character, the narrative progression grinds to an absolute halt and they retread the same ground over and over again.
For being such an unparalleled badass, Domon takes absolutely forever to actually get anything done. One particularly egregious example of the story simply not moving is when he’s trying to figure out how to unlock his Badass Mode and there’s a sequence wherein you sort of think “Oh, he figured it out.” only to keep struggling with it pretty much up until the last episode.
Another focus is on his relationship with his mechanic, Rain Mikamura, and their “will they-won’t they” drama. A relationship that suffers from many of the same problems as Domon’s evolution, complete stagnation followed by countless rewinds to the point of aggravation. Soap operas are less fickle with their relationship than this pair and it does nothing but drag the show down. It became such an issue they had to center the last three episodes around this very aspect of the show just to give them some closure even though there was nothing left to say, really.
Rain doesn’t really exist outside of her relationship with Domon, when she’s not fixing his Gundam, getting kidnapped or getting in the way of the fighting she usually isn’t seen and much of her backstory is only explored in tandem with Domon’s. Given her relation with Domon she should’ve been the second most fleshed out character but after seeing the show I still struggle to recall any immediate details about her. Except that she’s in love with Domon, her father is an asshole and she’s good with Gundams. Oh, and she’d look gorgeous as a dominatrix.
But that’s this show in a nutshell, missed opportunities for characterization and none are so blatantly underdeveloped as the two villains of the show: Master Asia and Kyoji Kasshu, Domon’s Master and brother respectively. Yeah, that’s a bit of a spoiler but it’s spoiler-light, it’s the worst kept secret of the show. The number of episodes you can realistically keep thinking Master Asia is a good guy can be counted on one hand.
Before I go on about Master Asia, I just wish to say that any complaints I have do not in any way diminish his status as an absolute badass. He’s the Asian equivalent of Chuck Norris, no, he’s the one Chuck Norris looks up to. When Chuck Norris celebrates Christmas, he dresses up as Master Asia and punches his way through a chimney. Master Asia’s status as a badass is unassailable.
Which sucks because his motivations as a character is just confusing. I’m still not sure what his actual motivations were as he seems to change his mind every five episodes, trying to kill Domon first only to teach him the super secret technique central to defeating the next mecha. Then he tries to destroy the planet then he says it’s all to teach Domon something then it’s really about healing the planet and oh my God, I lost interest.
The only interesting villain the show has to offer is Kyoji but it has less to do with him as a character and more the mystery surrounding his condition throughout the show. It’s not so much that you don’t know WHAT is going on but rather HOW it came to be. You see, Kyoji is supposedly piloting the biggest of all mechas, the Devil Gundam and yet the pilot Schwarz Bruder from Germany bears a striking resemblance to Kyoji and seems to know a lot about Domon!
However, unlike with Master Asia, who pretty much wore his heart on his sleeve, the situation with Kyoji and his relation to the German pilot Schwarz Bruder is something I’m gonna leave undisclosed as it is one of the few genuinely interesting aspects of the show.
That is enough to make Schwarz Bruder interesting as a character but that’s minor compared to the fact that he dresses as a jester. I’m not sure what that has to do with Germany but he dresses like a jester and that’s cool.
Because it’s just gonna hurt that much more being schooled by someone who is so confident that he dresses as a a clown.
Not to be confused with the actual clown piloting a clown mecha, that guy’s from Portugal.
Overall, however, the characters are probably the second most appealing aspect of the show, perhaps mostly because the actual roster is just friggin’ huge. And most of them are colorful and infused with childish glee. I could turn around and criticize the show for being dreadfully racist, which it totally is, and that it stereotypes to a ludicrous degree, which it, also, totally does. I could but I’m not going to. Because this was done in 1995 and came from Japan, saying it’s racist is like being surprised at the Sunrise (if you got that joke, high five!).
Plus it was made for children and it really does a good job keeping this at the forefront during the entire series because this is totally what kids would make if they were told to make a series about bunch of robots from different countries fighting in a tournament. The Mexican Gundam obviously has a sombrero, the Norwegian robot is a viking boat and the
Indian Gundam is a god damned snake. No, seriously, the guy inside Cobra Gundam ride a huge-ass fucking SNAKE in order to control his snake Gundam.
There’s also Fuunsaiki, a horse with its own mecha that both Domon and Master Asia rides because apparently that’s a thing robots need, robot horses. If you’re still trying to wrap your head around this, stop because this G Gundam and thought need not apply. Sure, someone could probably argue that such a mecha is needed because Gundams can’t get into orbit on their own power… but then why not ride a rocket or get in a spaceship like every other Gundam in the show?
Also, why does the horse have to get into that fancy spandex suit but the snake doesn’t? Oh woe, the show lacks internal consistency when it comes to the animals controlling the mechas! Zero stars!
So we’ve established that the series is clinically insane. And normally I like insane so what’s keeping me from enjoying this series? How come I simply do not love it as much as I should? Well, it comes back to what I started on earlier: the plot.
The plot is, in one word, schizophrenic. One hand it doesn’t hide from the fact that it’s simply there for the action, for the glory of having a windmill fighting a giant fish or something. But then every so often it stumbles and tries desperately to look as if it has a point, as if the characters are more than the silly stereotypes they eagerly embody. And that’s a problem because the plot ends halfway through the series.
Yeah, I can’t even call it a spoiler because it happens halfway through. I’m spoiling the ending but at the same time I’m not. There’s a definite ending there where Domon defeats his older brother, the Devil Gundam and his old teacher and reaches the end of his arc. He’s shaken off the shame his brother brought upon his family, he’s bested his own teacher and grown as a human being. This is the punctuation of a story where he’s traveled the world, forged unbreakable bonds and returned to the place where his teacher once taught him.
If you rolled the credits here, no-one would ever be the wiser that more was planned.
But that wasn’t the ending we all thought it was. Instead the plot suddenly remembers that he was supposed to be in a tournament, a plot point the series had been trying to forget for the last twenty episodes or so. But rather than treat it as a new story, with some of the old characters and loads of new ones, including new villains, they simply rewind the clock and pretend like nothing happened. Master Asia is suddenly back, sporting even more confusing motivations and he’s backed by someone I don’t even care about who is so clearly villainous and evil it’s not even funny. He doesn’t even try to hide it, he changes the rules of the fights so it’s perfectly possible to kill the pilot, something that wasn’t allowed before as the cockpit was entirely off limits.
Worse yet, they break their own rules by bringing back characters who had been defeated by Domon previously and were thus eliminated from the tournament before it even began. One who even DIED and is then miraculously returned to life because they needed another character. Sure, the whole reviving thing does play a part in the plot but they already covered that earlier, in the good half of the series, so this also counts as rehashing the same plot point.
So again we have to sit through the same plot with Master Asia plotting something using the Devil Gundam but it doesn’t really come off as all that threatening because we’ve already seen Domon destroy both Devil Gundam AND Master Asia. We’re told we should be worried but it’s hard to get invested when you not only know the outcome but you’ve already seen it. They do go into a bit more detail concerning Master Asia’s motivations but it’s confusing as hell and they try to make it seem philosophical and there’s nothing I hate more than stories trying to be deep and intelligent and failing at it.
EVEN worse they pull the same stunt AGAIN near the end. There’s something resembling a definite end only for the series to rewind, pull a new villain out of their ass and go “Right, time to fight Devil Gundam AGAIN!” It’s insanely poorly paced.
Adding to the list of grievances I have, the series trades in the various locations Domon visited in the first half of the series for a single location. Gone are the trips to Egypt, France, the UK, China and America to mention a few and introduced is Hong Kong. Now, having your story confined to a single location isn’t wrong as such, giving us the time to get to know a location intimately as if it was a character in its own right is definitely a good way of doing it. The problem here is that they don’t establish Hong Kong very well as a location nor did they even have the time to do so. Instead it comes off as a cheap trick to save money on animation. Whereas the old Gundam could save tons of money on reusing the same old shots of the same old robots getting blown to smithereens over and over again, here all the Gundams are unique have their own moves so it becomes bothersome to save money that way. So instead they simply reuse the same backgrounds time and time again, saying it’s the same arena so it’s totally cool, you guys.
But I don’t want to come across as too harsh because there are aspects of it that I like. Like I said before, the characters themselves are fun characters and overall the design and animation is really good. There’s a lot of color and while it may be stereotypical and racist of them, that complaint sort of pales when you see a giant viking boat next to a giant bull head robot. If you allow yourself to just accept that it is horribly racist and take it for what it is, there’s a lot of fun to be had. That might come across as hypocritical in some ways but remember that this series is twenty years old now, complaining about it is entirely pointless as it’s not in any position to change.
If anything I’m more disappointed with Sweden’s depiction. Seriously, what the hell does Nobel Gundam have to do with Sweden? The name, I get, but the robot looks like it’s straight out of a Sailor Moon series. Norway gets the viking, Denmark gets a merman and Sweden gets the Japanese school girl! Also, Allenby Beardsley is NOT a very Swedish name. Again, Norway gets Eric the Viking and Denmark gets Hans Holger! We don’t even get to be upset about racism because they just made shit up about us!
But overall the designs are still fun and the outlandish concepts lend themselves very well to the fighting, making for some really good and memorable fights. Because there’s only so many ways you can see a Gundam shoot or lightsaber a robot to pieces before it becomes samey. Here, with its focus on martial arts, the fights are livelier and more energetic, characters shouting and emoting heavily throughout. And that’s bound to rub some people the wrong way but to me it just made it that much more cheesier and that much more fun.
The animation is equally good for a nineties TV anime though there are times when it drops in quality but no more or less than in any other show, really. Couple this with an outstanding soundtrack and you have yourself a pretty memorable show.
But it’s still not enough for me. I wish it was, I’ve never wanted to like something so much in my life but I just can’t. I love the first half but the second half is littered with poor pacing and stagnating characters and the last few episodes are just downright awful. The most important aspect of any show is to know what you are and what you strive for and here they simply didn’t know. I get confused as to what it’s trying to say and then for large portions I’m just bored. Watching Domon struggle to win his fights isn’t exciting because we know he’s going to win it all in the end so why pretend? That’s the problem with having a tournament arc AFTER you’ve already established that your main character is an ultimate badass. If the tournament was set first, they could’ve used that time wisely to explore Domon’s abilities but as he’s already established, as are all his friends, there’s nothing left to do except enjoy the battles.
But that only takes you so far.
I should probably note that I did watch in Japanese and that perhaps the English dubs manages to fix some of these issues. I can’t comment on that so I’ll just that it might be the case and let wiser men argue about it.
Does all this mean I don’t recommend it?
I do actually recommend it because not everyone will dislike the plot as much as I did. And it was my biggest problem with the series so if you can overlook that you’re in for a goofy, action packed series full with memorable moments. Serious Gundam fans should probably give this one a pass because it more or less actively tries to move away from the established ideas about Gundam, for better or worse. But for everyone else it’s probably the easiest Gundam to get into without needing too much investment.