Sunday, January 16, 2011

Anime review: Mobile Suit Gundam SEED Destiny

Based on a large amount of negative feedback I’d seen from other members of the Gundam community/fanbase, I decided not to save SEED Destiny for one of the last series I watched with my ‘Project Gundam’ (my attempt to view every Gundam series, OVA, and film ever released). I was afraid that if I were to do so, it might leave a poor aftertaste, and I’d prefer to reach the end of the aforementioned journey on a high note. I was very surprised, however, to find that I not only enjoyed SEED Destiny much more than SEED, but found it to be among the stronger of the alternate universe series.

Unlike with SEED, where things seemed to keep running around for the better part of the series’ first half, SEED Destiny knows where it’s going and how it’s going to get there right off the bat. Though the first few episodes may seem a bit slow going in comparison to SEED’s explosive debut, the pacing throughout SEED Destiny is nearly flawless. There’s an added level of complexity thrown in due to the inner-working politics of the series. Things aren’t as much of a cut and dry “good vs. evil” scenario as in SEED, as the true force driving the war and the intentions of ZAFT chairman Durandal are kept under wraps to be slowly revealed as the series progresses. Each faction is explored in great detail, offering glimpses into the motives and methods of each, something that SEED only managed to scratch the surface of.

The characters are a combination of new and old, and this makes for an interesting dynamic in terms of how each individual views both the previous and current conflicts. Plenty of familiar faces return, including major players such as Athrun, Kira, Lacus and Cagalli, as well as some characters including Murrue Ramius and Andrew Waltfeld, whose roles are somewhat more important this time around (even if they don’t receive much more screen time). The new lead character is Shinn Asuka, the highly-capable coordinator pilot of Zaft’s Impulse Gundam (and later, the Destiny Gundam). Shinn and Athrun carry the majority of the story, with Kira and the crew of the Archangel popping up as need be during the second half of the series. As someone who personally very much disliked Kira in SEED, I was quite happy to find that his role was scaled down in SEED Destiny, even though his personality remained the same.

The conflict is still largely focused of Zaft vs. Earth Alliance, though this time around there is an added level of intrigue with the crew of the Archangel observing from afar and trying to deduce the complexities of the war’s underlying politics. While Lord Djibril is played off as a power-hungry leader pulling the strings for the Earth Forces, ZAFT Chairman Durandal is a far more difficult individual to read. I won’t spoil anything for those who not yet seen SEED Destiny in its entirety, but his charisma/influence and knowledge of the conflict as a whole led me to find him to be one of the most entertaining characters in any Gundam series.

Some of the cheesy elements that dragged down SEED return in SEED Destiny, though the vast majority of these – oddly enough – don’t start popping up until about the last ten episodes. A large part of this has to do with how the majority of the series is told from Athrun and Shinn’s perspectives. It’s true that Kira plays a very important role in the story, but the less time viewers have to sit through Kira preaching about how no one should be fighting and then subsequently blasting everything in sight with beam spams and double standards, the better, as Shinn and Athrun present a far more practical and realistic outlook on the Earth-ZAFT conflict. That’s one of the things that ties SEED Destiny more closely to its UC counterpart Zeta Gundam than SEED was to the original Mobile Suit Gundam – a classic combination of sci-fi action and flair with a grounding in certain realistic situations and relatively believable characters.

The vast majority of the series’ episodes involve one or more flashbacks to prior events. Early on, these are more than necessary, as they provide a good balance of backstory with the tense atmosphere and heavy combat. However, as the story progresses, these flashbacks become increasingly unnecessary and a tad annoying. It’s almost as if Bandai and Sunrise lacked faith in their viewers’ short-term memory. Certain elements of the story that are meant to be played out as somewhat of a mystery – in particular, Neo Roanoke’s true identity and Rey Za Burrel’s role in things – aren’t terribly difficult to solve, especially if viewers are familiar with Gundam SEED.

I am not a fan of recap episodes, and though SEED Destiny has four in total, only one of these provides a cut-and-dry retelling of the entire series in one fell swoop. The other three present interesting perspectives via narration by Shinn Asuka, Gilbert Durandal, and Meer Campbell respectively. Each of these includes some new footage not yet seen until that point and the former of the two (Shinn’s and Durandal’s) further tie SEED and SEED Destiny’s events together in cleverly-executed ways.

Much like the finale of SEED, SEED Destiny lacks any sort of epilogue. That’s not to say that the series leaves any loose ends unexplored, but the series’ conclusion does feel rather abrupt and awkward. Bandai and Sunrise did go ahead and release SEED Destiny Final Plus, which – to my understanding – includes new footage of both the original events of the latter episodes of SEED Destiny, as well as some post-conclusion footage, but it wouldn’t have been that difficult for them to have included this in the original series, especially if they had cut out some of the many unnecessary flashbacks.

There aren’t any drastic improvements in the animation since SEED, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing as mobile suits are nicely detailed and characters and backgrounds lush and colorful. There do seem to be some minor improvements in regards the lighting/shading effects, however. The soundtrack follows a similar style to that of SEED, with a number of pieces constantly reprising over the course of the series. That said, SEED Destiny does have a completely new orchestrated soundtrack that fits the series’ events well.

The Japanese voice actors are largely the same as they were in SEED, so viewers can expect their performances to be pretty solid overall. As for the English voice actors, improvements have been all across the board, with the only exceptions to this being Chantal Strand as Lacus and Matt Hill as Kira, both of whom seem to put forth rather lethargic and poorly-forced efforts, and Samuel Vincent as Athrun, who provided excellent work in SEED and keeps the standard just as high in SEED Destiny. Matthew Erickson does a nice job as angst-ridden Shinn Asuka, though at times he seems to under-dramatize a situation, while Ted Cole as Gilbert Durandal, Maryke Hendrikse as Lunamaria Hawke, and Venus Terzo as Talia Gladys all fit their characters with near perfection.

In short, SEED Destiny is a significant improvement over its predecessor. The story feels far more fleshed out and the characters both more varied and of greater depth. The conflicts of SEED Destiny are presented from a handful of unique and interesting viewpoints, and the quality of the animation and soundtrack are both quite good. If viewers were not particularly pleased with SEED, they might consider giving a look into SEED Destiny.

My rating: 8.25 (out of 10)

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