Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Anime review: Mobile Suit Gundam SEED

After a hiatus from 1999’s Turn A Gundam, the franchise returned with Gundam SEED in 2002. I first watched the series on Cartoon Network’s Toonami block, but only ever got about fifteen episodes or so into the series. Gundam SEED is, in many ways, a reimagining of the original Mobile Suit Gundam, but is still separate enough that it doesn't feel like a straightforward reinterpretation.

The story begins with Zaft special forces stealing four of the Earth Forces’ five prototype Gundams in the neutral colony of Heliopolis. Kira Yamato, a genetically-enhanced coordinator is placed by circumstance on the opposite side of the war of his longtime friend Athrun Zala. Kira inevitably becomes the pilot of the Strike Gundam and uses it to defend his friends and the crew aboard the Earth ship the Archangel. With their mobile suits now in the hands of Zaft, the Archangel makes a run for Earth Forces’ headquarters in Alaska, with the Buster, Blitz, Duel, and Aegis Gundams in hot pursuit.

While Kira Yamato is technically the main character, the series balances the Earth Forces’ perspective pretty evenly with that of the Zaft pilots. Athrun receives a large focus and due to the time he spends working in tandem with the pilots of the other Gundams, viewers are given a pretty good impression of their attitudes and beliefs.

With the exception of the initial skirmish at Heliopolis, the first ten episodes or so are largely repetitive as Zaft attempts to stop the Archangel, who in turn escapes by the skin of their neck. It seems that the writers wished to devote more time in the early episodes to develop characters, which overall is both a success and a hindrance. By the time the action picks up, viewers already have a feel for who the majority of characters are at their core. But to achieve this, the small amount of action sequences included early follow a nearly identical pattern.

Once the action does get going, it moves at a fairly steady pace as the Archangel makes its way across the desert sands of Africa, battling the Desert Tiger Andrew Waltfeld and eventually arriving at the neutral nation of Orb before heading to Alaska. Things come to a major head following the Archangel’s departure from Orb, and the series shifts to a much more serious and dark tone for the second half of the series. There is far more action involved and the story becomes much more engaging as characters begin to question one another as well as their own individual motives for fighting on either side of the war.

Wrapped up in the overarching conflict between Zaft and the Earth Forces is the controversy of naturals vs. coordinators. Many naturals are opposed to genetic modification of fetuses, and argue that morals are what fuels them to fight against the Zaft coordinators. Zaft, on the other hand, believes that coordinators are the next phase of human advancement (some even go as far as to consider it an evolutionary phase). While the two military forces are in the forefront of this conflict, the series shows the events preceding the war and the chaos that ensued involving riots and terrorist attacks back and forth between naturals and coordinators.

The soundtrack is a bit of an homage to series from the Universal Century, as it is heavy on percussion and brass, with many tunes accompanied by piano parts. While the final product sounds quite good, the same songs – or at times, variations – are repeated over the course of the entire fifty-episode anime. The art style, on the other hand, is an impressive display for the first Gundam series to utilize full digital coloring. Some environments may not be as detailed as in some of the older OVAs or series, but almost half of Gundam SEED takes place in space, so that aspect is somewhat excusable. As for the mobile suit designs, they are largely nods to their Universal Century counterparts, with style and practicality nicely balanced. Late in the show, the appearance of the Freedom and Justice Gundams push things a little closer to series like Gundam Wing, though don’t seem nearly as out of place or ridiculous as the Forbidden, Calamity, and Raider Gundams, all three of which look as though they were rejected designs from Mobile Fighter G Gundam.

The Japanese voice acting is far superior to the English voice actors. While many of the English voice actors take a few episodes to really get a feel for their character, the ones who ultimately do the best job are secondary characters. Samuel Vincent delivers a great performance from the start as Athrun Zala, but Kira Yamato and the crew of the Archangel don’t receive quite the same treatment. Many of Kira’s friends seem over-exaggerated and corny compared to the serious nature of the Zaft pilots. Trevor Devall’s performance is one major exception, as Mu La Flaga seems the most believable out of any of the Earth Forces’ major players. Nicol Amarfi and Yzak Joule are portrayed well enough by their respective voice actors (though the latter seems to dwindle in performance a bit towards the conclusion of the series). A veteran of Gundam series, it’s no surprise that Brad Swaile (the original voice of Amuro Ray in the English dub of Mobile Suit Gundam) provides a great performance as Dearka Elsman, but the voice actor who does by far the best job is Mark Oliver as Rau Le Cruset.

However, I feel like the voice actors are not entirely to blame for some of their lackluster performances. Even in the Japanese version of the show, Kira Yamato comes off as one of the most bland and uninteresting characters in any Gundam series – unfortunate, considering he is the main character. Viewers are given virtually no feel for who he is outside of the fact that he is incredibly focused when inside of the Gundam’s cockpit and that he doesn’t like the idea of war from the start of the show all the way to the finish. Athrun, on the other hand, is constantly wrestling with himself over his loyalties to Zaft and his friendship with Kira. Later on, his father’s role as leader of Zaft as well as his arranged engagement to Lacus Clyne become even greater pressures. Still, he remains calm and collected for the most part, acting as a strong leader character for the team of Gundam pilots. Rau Le Cruset is initially shown to be the leader of any operations concerning the stolen Gundams, but he drifts in and out of the storyline near the middle of the series. When he makes his return near the end, he reveals a great deal of information regarding the characters and the war itself – I won’t give away any specific spoilers, but Le Cruset is one of the most effective Gundam villains ever.

Nicol, Yzak, and Dearka play second string to Athrun’s impressive piloting skills. Dearka and Yzak question Athrun’s authority on more than one occasion (the latter more out of jealousy than any other motive), while Nicol looks up to Athrun, always supporting his decisions but not to the point where he comes off as a suck-up. Kira’s friends aboard the Archangel aren’t all that developed or varied. They seem focused enough while in the midst of battle, but get real worked up over relationships and everyday occurrences. Flay Allster plays the role of Kira’s girlfriend for a short time, but in reality all she wants is for Kira to die in battle, as she blames him for not protecting her father’s ship from being destroyed by Zaft forces. Murrue Ramius, Natarle Badgiruel, and Mu La Flaga make up the command team aboard the Archangel. While their initial role in the story is largely circumstantial due to the destruction of Heliopolis and the ensuing Le Cruset team, I find it odd that the Earth Forces never reassigned a more experienced crew to helm such an important prototype vessel. Badgiruel constantly questions the authority of Ramius and makes her and La Flaga both look bad in her report to Earth command, feeling guilty only for a brief period before continuing on as she normally would. I understand this aspect is for the story’s sake, but it isn’t a very believable outcome, considering the harsh and often unforgiving nature of the Earth Forces’ chain of command.

Gundam SEED both accomplished a great deal for the Gundam franchise and fell short of its own aims. The conflict between the coordinators and naturals is constantly brought up in the story, but isn’t explored in much detail until very late in the series. The characters are either hit or miss, with few being particularly memorable. The battle sequences reuse the same animations over and over and the Gundams never seem to get a single scratch on them – at least nothing that can’t be conveniently repaired before the next episode. The second half of the show makes up for a lot of the earlier shortcomings, but it feels as if the writers actually had no idea where they wanted to go with the story until episode twenty-six. All things considered, for the time of its release and the things the creators hoped to explore and test with this series, Gundam SEED is a moderate success. However, the pacing is incredibly awkward, save for the latter half of the series, the finale doesn’t provide a lot of closure, and there are plenty of improvements that could have been made all across the board.

My rating: 7.25 (out of 10)

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