Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Anime review: Mobile Suit Gundam Wing

Years after it aired on Cartoon Network's Toonami block, I decided to give Gundam Wing a second chance, as I didn't really get into the series back then. I was never particularly fond of the combination of Victorian-style clothing and architecture with space-bound mecha, but at the same time I figured it was a minor annoyance and more of my own personal nitpicking at the series. The further I got into watching Gundam Wing, however, the more and more I realized that the Gundam series are split into two seperate story types for a reason. Those who are fans of the Universal Century series follow it due to its more realistic scenarios and continuous story from varying viewpoints. Most Universal Century series are, at worst, considered to be 'decent' and, at best, considered to be 'great'. Not every one of the Universal Century series is going to be ranked as highly as others, but there are very few Universal Century series that Gundam fans would generally consider to be 'bad'. The Alternate Universe series, on the other hand, vary greatly and are meant to cater to a wide variety of viewing tastes. They are not directly connected, by neither creative staff nor plot and characters, and this variations boils up more opinions (and often harsher criticism).

Gundam Wing carries a very ‘spy vs. spy’ feel about it, with the Gundam pilots acting against Treize’s regime and the Oz forces on behalf of organizations within the colonies’ populations. The Romefeller Foundation acts as the governing organization for both Oz and Treize with their immense wealth and prestige, yet it becomes obvious early on that Treize and Romefeller have a difference in ideals. The threat of the Gundams shakes things up for Oz and the Romfeller foundation, and the Gundams become a prize of sorts in order to assure the stability of the plans of the various factions that are ultimately caught up in the conflict.

The lead characters are elite pilots selected by the colonies due to their combat capabilities and their focus on the battlefield. While it makes sense that each of the five pilots should be quick to react in a tight situation, as well as have a great deal of intel on enemy units and the like, they often tend to jump to conclusions without much evidence between their claims and the subsequent actions taken. Interestingly enough, this only works to their disadvantage on a small number of occasions over the course of the show, but following gut instinct isn’t a particularly practical way to go about the events of the series and ends up making the story more and more predictable as things progress.

The characters of Gundam Wing are a mixed bag, with the antagonists more often than not being more interesting than the protagonists. Granted, Treize Khusrenada and Zechs Marquise make for the most intriguing antagonists as both higher-ups in the system as well as Gundam pilots. Treize is an unorthodox leader for Oz with his own ideals about what humanity should be fighting for, and these contradict much of what the Romefeller Foundation wants. His cleverly laid-out plans over the course of the series almost always ensure that Treize is on top and he completely avoids being a cliché villain – in fact, to call him a villain isn’t entirely accurate. Zechs is one of Treize’s closest friends and allies at the start of the series, while focusing on the future of his former home of the pacifistic Sanc Kingdom. Zechs aligns himself with a number of factions over the course of the series and finds the Gundam pilots to be both his enemies and allies as things progress. Treize’s other close ally and underling is the ever-cruel Lady Une who keeps her troops in line with her cold-hearted attitude. She believes the Gundams to be a severe threat to Oz early on, but later on she develops a split-personality and preaches peace to the colonies. These two personalities greatly conflict with one another and lead many of her troops and contacts to become incredibly confused with regards to her intent for the colonies.

There is pratically no information revealed to the viewers about the five main characters of Wufei Chang, Trowa Barton, Heero Yuy, Quatre Winner, and Duo Maxwell. In fact, secondary characters such as Noin Lucrezia, Relena Peacecraft, and Sally Po lead more interesting narratives. This, combined with the fact that the English dub voice actors deliver a strikingly minimal amount of emotion makes it difficult for viewers to associate with or enjoy the characters. The only three characters in the series that are performed well by their English dub voice actors are Quatre (voiced by Brad Swaile who voiced Amuro Ray in the original Mobile Suit Gundam), Duo (voiced by Scott McNeil), and Noin (voiced by Saffron Henderson). Many of the actors provide voices for Oz soldiers and characters who make brief appearances, so viewers can expect to hear Quatre, Heero, Trowa, and Zechs’ voices from a multitude of minor characters. Gundam Wing was one of the first Gundam series to receive an English dub and as such a certain amount of leniency should be allotted in regards to the voice acting. Even so, Gundam Wing is easily the weakest dubbed Gundam series, as well as one of the weakest dub of any anime series, that I have seen to date. In contrast, the original Japanese voice actors put forth ridiculous emotions that make the characters seem more fit for a soap opera or teen drama series, removing practically any believability from that part of the viewing experience.

If there is any single character that proves to be the most frustrating, it would easily be Heero Yuy. Quatre is the most level-headed, Duo brings some flair and humor to the battlefield, Wufei is calm and collected, and Trowa is a master of deception, so one would think that there would be some unique characteristic given to sum up Heero Yuy. However, he shows absolutely no emotion over the course of the entire series and it’s difficult to tell if he even cares about anyone but himself, as he willingly teams up with the other Gundam pilots but points out their shortcomings and failures when things go wrong. Heero tells many people over the course of the series that he must kill them in order to complete his mission, but very rarely does he actually go through with it. What Heero says he intends to do and what he believes in conflict on multiple occasions with what he actually does. It’s true that Heero is probably the most perfect soldier out of the five Gundam pilots, but he’s so uninteresting that it almost becomes a chore to watch any scene involving Heero, due his lack of emotion and unexplained background.

There is a nauseating amount of monologuing that goes on over the course of the series. Some characters, such as Treize and Zechs, actually carry across ideas that are well-thought-out and could be put into practical application to either alter the path of the war or aid the world after its conclusion. But when the Gundam Pilots or Lady Une monologue, they try to make simple ideas far more complex than they need to be and manage to drag out a single sentence into multiple paragraphs of spoken lines.

The mobile suit designs are very creative and combine more stylized elements of previous series like ZZ Gundam and G Gundam with more practical weaponry and capabilities such as those in Stardust Memory and Zeta Gundam. The transforming capabilities of the Wing Gundam and Wing Zero Gundam are obvious nods to the Zeta Gundam, but do so with such fluidity and sleek designs that it’s clear how the designers wanted to stylize the mobile suits.

The art style is a bit lacking in comparison to other series from the mid-1990s. It isn’t downright terrible, but character animations are stiff and objects in the foreground are often less detailed than the backgrounds that accompany them, so a number of improvements could have been made. Thankfully, the number of repeated animated sequences is kept to a minimum. Battles between mobile suits do tend to follow similar patterns from time to time, however, particularly when combating the unmanned mobile dolls. The soundtrack that accompanies the series is effective, though not particularly original or complex. It is comprised almost exclusively of keyboard and synthesizer parts, and pieces are repeated many times over the course of the series though, so viewers can expect to be hearing the same sounds time and time again.

Gundam Wing delivers a solid story with many small yet effective plot twists that flow very smoothly with the overarching plot. The fact that the story is told from various viewpoints makes for a more engaging viewing experience. Unfortunately, the coupling of this with such an uninteresting cast of characters makes some episodes seem like more of a chore than others and Gundam Wing as a whole is a notably weaker series than most others in the Gundam franchise. The final six or seven episodes really turn things around as the animation improves a bit, the major characters become more complex and distinct from one another, the story becomes even darker and more intriguing – heck, even the English voice actors seem to finally get a grasp on giving their characters believable levels of emotion (Heero Yuy included). But this all comes into play so late in the series, making the viewing experience overall more than just a bit frustrating. I understand the important role Gundam Wing played in getting many Western viewers interested in both the Gundam franchise as well as anime as a whole, but if you haven’t yet seen Gundam Wing you’d probably be better off skipping it unless you’re a die-hard Gundam fan.

My rating: 6.75 (out of 10)

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