Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Anime review: Mobile Suit Gundam Unicorn

The first full-blown U.C. Gundam series to be released in more than a decade, Mobile Suit Gundam Unicorn is a bold undertaking for many reasons. Of course there is the fact that, aside from the MS IGLOO side stories, the Universal Century timeline had remained dormant since the mid 1990s, while alternate universe storylines took precedence, and rekindling viewers’ interest in the context-heavy legacy of the U.C. side of Gundam would require some finesse in plotting out events. Unicorn Gundam was subject to a significantly higher production value than most of its predecessors, building off the animation style of the Zeta Gundam film trilogy and effectively turning each episode of its seven-part release into a mini-movie. But what is perhaps most telling about the advances in the production and distribution of anime both in Japan and stateside is the fact that Unicorn Gundam saw simultaneous release in those two regions, with original Japanese voice work and an English dub accompanying the initial blu-ray releases.

In fact, that release structure would remain true even as Bandai of America shut its doors and handed the U.S. release of Unicorn Gundam over to Sunrise. While there are plenty of new faces in the fiction of Unicorn Gundam, there are more than a few familiar voices, with veteran voice actors returning to reprise their roles as some of the most iconic faces in Gundam history. Unicorn Gundam is a curious attempt at catering to both veterans of the franchise and newcomers alike, one that pays off in spades. While many other Gundam OVAs have been scripted with a singular story in mind, there was typically some degree of implication that viewers would already be familiarized with the major events of the One Year War from the original Mobile Suit Gundam, the major players in the Gryps conflict from Zeta, and so forth. Unicorn Gundam does refocus the story on the mysteries surrounding the newtypes, as presented through the eyes of young protagonist and hero of circumstance Banagher Links, as well as lead antagonist and revolutionary ideologist Full Frontal, a man shrouded in mystery, but who bears an uncanny resemblance to Char Aznable.

Unicorn Gundam begins with a flashback to the beginning of the Universal Century calendar system, as representatives from the Earth and her colonies gather to take part in a treaty signing and declaration of their vision for the future. However, things quickly go awry as a small group of insurgents tinker with the rotation of the space station where this event is being held, altering its rotation, and leading to the deaths of many of the VIPs and civilians on board. The focus then jumps back to present day to introduce the Vist Foundation, one family’s legacy to help influence the course of progress for spacenoids, though in a less violent or direct manner than the major players of the Principality of Zeon or even Axis had previously done. While the full motives of the Vist Foundation’s influence are not made clear from their first minutes on screen, it is apparent that their interests are more in the development and future potential of mobile suits and related technologies.

Meanwhile, Banagher Links jumpstart into the brewing conflict is not unlike the introduction Amuro Ray and Kamille Bidan received years before him, as Banagher finds his everyday routine of life on a colony thrown upside down with the arrival of the Sleeves, one of the last remaining Neo-Zeon organizations. Within the first two episodes, Banagher crosses paths with many important players in a tangled web, and each juncture will be explored in significant detail by tale’s end. Unicorn Gundam balances its characters in a way that few other Gundam series attempt – while Banagher, young VIP Audrey Burne, ace Sleeves pliot Marida Cruz, and resident anti-villain Full Frontal frequently take center stage, each of the hour-long episodes rounds out the involvement of the Londo Bell forces, the crew of the Nahel Argama, the high-ranking staff members of Anaheim Electronics, families long-since affected by the tragedies of the One Year War, and the scrapped-together remnants of Zeon lying in wait on Earth.

While offshoots and remnants of the Principality of Zeon have long been spotlighted in Gundam OVAs and side stories, few have proved as compelling an organization as the Sleeves. As Full Frontal directly addresses Banagher, he informs him of a greater vision he has in mind for spacenoids, and even goes so far as to reveal his face from behind his symbolic silver mask. Full Frontal understands that he has a legacy to live up to – the legacy of Char Anzable – and yet, the way he intends to go about reaching the ultimate end goal of Laplace’s Box and championing it to his cause puts things in a somewhat different perspective than what longtime fans might expect from the Red Comet. Full Frontal is a complex individual, one who constantly reveals more and more about his personal values, but always leaves his enemies (as well as viewers) wishing to know more. Full Frontal holds a great degree of respect and trust in his followers, which in turn leads to their having a greater degree of faith in their own plans and skill on the battlefield – they are strong-willed and determined, but rarely bull-headed or ruthless.

At its most basic of framework, Unicorn Gundam is about a race between Banagher Links and Full Frontal to reach Laplace’s Box and discover what the truth of its contents mean for the future of mankind; spacenoids and Earth-dwellers alike. But with so many parties keeping close watch on the events that unfold as they anxiously await how this endgame reveal might affect their lives and the conflict at hand, it’s hard to ignore just how masterfully crafted the story of each individual is. While many of the biggest reveals lay in the later episodes, it is hard not to find some degree of entertainment and empathy within nearly every major character. It’s a wonderful return to that special spark that made Mobile Suit Gundam a standout anime more than thirty years ago, while taking into account contemporary methods for handling both character and story progression. Unicorn Gundam offers plenty of cleverly-timed homages to older entries in the franchise, but at the same time, it weaves a story that is more than capable of standing on its own for those not familiar with the larger Gundam lore.

While there were some large gaps in the release time between individual episodes, the time and care put into each bend of a mobile suit’s limb, each beam round fired through the blackness of space, each tense expression on a pilot’s face during an escalating combat scenario proves well worth the wait times. Unicorn Gundam is, without question, the most visually polished entry in the long-running series. The soundtrack is similarly impeccable – percussion-heavy battle tunes harken back to the march-style music that frequently accompanied tense moments in the older series, while softer melodies offer a mesmerizing pairing to the dark glows of colony interiors and the crest of the Earth’s rotation as ships leave its orbit. A rare breed, indeed, Unicorn Gundam is not only a major step forward for the franchise that helped shape what mecha anime is today, but a modern masterpiece that simultaneously breaks from what many fans have come to expect of such a specialized genre while catering to series veterans via guest appearances and hinting at connections that might be.

My rating: 10 (out of 10)

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