Wednesday, 24 July 2019

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 52

It's nuts how long I've been an anime fan without really engaging with the Gundam franchise, one of the absolute cornerstones of the industry for four whole decades.  The reason, of course, was that there's so much of it: I haven't bothered to check, but I reckon there must be at least seventy zillion different Gundam OVA's, films, and episodes.  It seemed like the kind of thing you need a relevant encyclopedia to even go near, and until recently, most of the early stuff was out of print anyway, and all in all it never seemed quite worth the effort of trying to take that leap.

All of that changed when I heard that the movie Char's Counterattack was reasonably standalone, and then soon after discovered a box set of the movies adapted from the original show.  Here at last was a way in that didn't involve devoting a year of my life!  And so, having had my resistance softened by the terrific OVA miniseries War in the Pocket, I decided I was ready to take the plunge.

The results?  Well, that would be reviews of Mobile Suit Gundam Movie 1Mobile Suit Gundam Movie 2: Soldiers of SorrowMobile Suit Gundam Movie 3: Encounters in Space, and Mobile Suit Gundam: Char's Counterattack...

Mobile Suit Gundam Movie 1, 1981, dir: RyĆ“ji Fujiwara, Yoshiyuki Tomino

First let's get the negatives out of the way.  The opening Mobile Suit Gundam movie was released in 1981, composed of footage recut from the TV show, and there's no getting around that fact.  It's tough not to start thinking you're watching an ancient Saturday afternoon cartoon, and the designs absolutely don't help, dating the material unmistakably.  (The one exception, funnily enough, is the Gundam suit itself, which has aged moderately well.)  At any rate, it rapidly becomes apparent that this is material you need to meet halfway if you're going to stand a chance of enjoying it.  And that extends, maybe even more so, to aspects of the world-building: in so many ways, Gundam is lousy science-fiction, with a universe that hasn't been thought through in ways both big and small.  It's hard not to be pulled out of the moment when, in a future so distant that most of Earth's population live in orbiting colonies, someone's car won't start and you realise that cars work exactly the same way they do now - despite the fact that there are spaceships and giant robots and the sheer idiocy of burning fossil fuels in a sealed environment.  Although, thinking about it, maybe I ought to be ranting about the use of machine guns in a vacuum?  Really, if you're after dumb science, Gundam spoils you for choice.

And now I'll stop being pissy about the lack of future-proofing in a nearly four decade old animated film that, given how the series it drew from had already bombed, probably wasn't expected by anyone to turn into a franchise that would still be going strong in the year 2019.  Because, you know what?  The first Mobile Suit Gundam movie is pretty damn great, and perhaps more shockingly, pretty damn resonant even today.  With not much idea of what to expect going in, I certainly wasn't prepared for a story of civilians forced into combat in a desperate war motivated by political greed and blatant propaganda, or talk of child soldiering, or for a film that takes its narrative backbone from the emotional disintegration of its protagonist, as a chance encounter finds him forced to kill and kill and kill again to preserve the lives of everyone he knows.  Amuro Ray isn't quite Shinji Ikari in the screwed up lead character stakes, but it's easy to see that here's the spring Neon Genesis Evangelion would eventually drain to its deepest depths.

In short, war in Mobile Suit Gundam is something pretty sodding awful, which destroys everyone and everything it touches, and the prevailing mood, even in the plentiful action sequences, is one of sweaty desperation and encroaching despair.  If that doesn't sound like much fun, well, there's just enough of a goofy giant robot cartoon ticking away under the surface to keep it away from utter misery, and sometimes rather too much.  Nonetheless, it's startling how much the serious stuff insists on rising to the surface, and how readily you can put aside the dated aesthetic and get sucked into the meaty tale of warfare and realpolitik beneath.  In 1981, for the right sort of viewer, it's no wonder this was mind-blowing stuff, and try as they might, the intervening decades can't altogether erase that impact.  It may look dated and frequently act dated, but Gundam's resonance is the sort that doesn't fade easily.

Mobile Suit Gundam Movie 2: Soldiers of Sorrow, 1981, dir's: Yoshikazu Yasuhiko, Yoshiyuki Tomino

I suppose I should have realised it was too good to last!  Not that the second Mobile Suit Gundam movie is terrible; its greatest flaw is merely that it feels like exactly what it is, a bunch of episodes hacked together without much grace or coherency.  Given the rather ambling nature of long-running anime shows, a solid narrative arc was probably too much to hope for this time around.  And let's face it, the first movie was really only held together by Amuro Ray's increasing emotional damage, and to a lesser extent by his nemesis Char Aznable's machinations.

Even that much structure feels like a lot compared with what Soldiers of Sorrow has to offer.  In fairness, I suppose that subtitle does sum things up: the crew of the White Base struggle onward, ground down by unceasing battles and a top brass that clearly don't care about them, except perhaps as lab rats in an experiment, since there's a growing theory floating around that they may all be Newtypes, a next step in human evolution brought on by adapting to existence in space.  But basically what we get is a whole lot of interchangeable fights, a little background plotting, and a series of character-centric short stories that, stripped to their bones, largely fall flat.  The first movie really didn't feel compressed, but this one does, almost permanently.  By way of an example, twice characters are assigned to solitary confinement, only to be let out immediately as it becomes apparent that, with a crew of about ten people, sticking anyone in the brig is inevitably going to be a washout.  You can see how these events would be impactful spread over two or three episodes, but crammed into two or three minutes, they just seem slightly absurd.

Moreover, with Char largely sidelined for the first half, we're even denied an interesting antagonist for the gang to butt heads with, and I honestly didn't appreciate how much fun Char was until he returned in the latter stretch.  His presence makes the last hour an improvement, though not quite enough of one to get around the various other problems.  And with the animation and music very much business as usual, that doesn't leave a great deal to hang onto.  Soldiers of Sorrow is acceptable enough, but two and a quarter hours of acceptable is cumulatively quite a slog.  Ultimately, that leaves the second Gundam movie being roughly what you'd expect if you were being cynical about the whole venture: a necessary slice of connective tissue between an excellent opening and a climax that will hopefully make this slower middle section worthwhile.

Mobile Suit Gundam Movie 3: Encounters in Space, 1982, dir's: Yoshiyuki Tomino, Yoshikazu Yasuhiko

If I'd known the third Gundam movie was as good as it is, I wouldn't have left such a gap after the second before watching it.  And truth by told, even for the first hour of a film that clocks in at well over two, I had my doubts.  A lot of the general fuzziness that afflicted the middle entry was still present, and interminable giant robot fights in space are considerably less interesting even than interminable giant robot fights on land.  Couple that with the fact that it's awfully hard to keep track of the cast, places, and overall conflicts in something that's condensing a vast swath of television, and the result is a start that takes a little too long to settle into its rhythm.

However, what makes Encounters in Space succeed, first and foremost, is the way it steadily narrows its focus.  For all the time it devotes to being space opera on a gigantic scale, it's the personal dramas that are its strongest elements, and they're firmly front and centre by the finish.  In fact, seeing arcs wrap up that seemed like so much time-wasting in part two goes a long way to redeeming that weakest portion of the trilogy.  As such, the entire back end is pretty damn great, and even then it backloads its best material, leading to an action climax that's head and shoulders above anything we've seen so far.

Here it helps that Encounters in Space has a major ace in its hole: the animation this time around is significantly improved.  Oh, not all of it; it's clear that the core is still recycled TV show footage, though even that seems to have received more of a polish.  However, this time there's a good deal of new material too, and it's both significantly better and deployed where it can contribute the most.  Frankly, it makes a heck of a difference, erasing that sense of watching a bunch of badly edited episodes one after another and ramping up to a conclusion that's as visually exciting as it is a satisfying culmination of some very lengthy plot threads.  Seeing the fates of the crew of the good ship White Base wrapped up after spending some seven hours in their company, and watching that happen through the medium of some frequently terrific animation, is both exciting and surprisingly emotive stuff.

Which, I suppose, is the point: given that this is a compilation of a single series, perhaps the best way to approach it is as a single movie in three parts.  From that perspective, it's strikingly successful, a true larger-than-life epic of science fiction that makes up for in scope what it lacks in common sense, and remembers just often enough to keep its appealing characters front and centre.  Here at the end, it's more than possible to see why this was the genesis for something that's still going strong even now.  So while if you come to the Gundam movie trilogy for anything, it'll probably be historical curiosity, be assured that what you'll leave with is a flawed, frustrating, but ultimately rewarding experience.

Mobile Suit Gundam: Char's Counterattack, 1988, dir: Yoshiyuki Tomino

As much as I've listed these reviews in order of film chronology, the truth is, I didn't watch them that way.  Char's Counterattack was actually my second brush with the franchise, after the splendid War in the Pocket.  And given that this was the first original theatrical Gundam release and the culmination of the show's first three arcs, adding up to some one hundred and forty or so episodes, you'd think it would be far from the best watch for someone with almost no experience.  But some random guy on the internet assured me otherwise, I saw a cheap copy, and I thought what the hell?  Worst case scenario, I'd have a couple of hours of incomprehensible giant robot on giant robot action on my hands.*

Fortunately, I didn't find Char's Counterattack incomprehensible, or even particularly confusing, though there were points when it was terribly busy and a fair bit I suspect amounted to shoehorning in characters for the sake of giving them something to do.  But the core is straightforward enough: Char Aznable, having grown angry with the folks of Earth and their disregard for those portions of the human race who've chosen to make their home among the stars, has decided that the best way to teach them a lesson is to drop a couple of asteroids on them, simulating a nuclear winter and nudging them toward abandoning the mother planet once and for all.  Unsurprisingly, not everyone is thrilled with this plan, including Char's long-term adversary Amuro Ray, who also happens to pilot a certain robot suit that was familiar to even a series newbie like me.  Meanwhile, around those two conflicts float a number of subplots, the most prominent of which features teenagers Hathaway and Quess, respectively the son of a prominent military officer and the daughter of the Earth Federation prime minister.

And there, if I may be disparaging about a beloved slice of pop culture, is where the problems begin.  It's noteworthy that the Wikipedia article omits the Hathaway / Quess material entirely, and more so that this has zero impact on its ability to accurately summarise the plot: it contributes nothing, it goes nowhere, and Quess in particular is a screamingly awful character, whose motivations never extend far beyond "I must do the opposite of what people tell me to do, unless those people happen to be genocidal maniacs."  Oh, and everyone immediately falls in lust with her, and she's a natural genius pilot at thirteen, because of course she is.  If Hathaway's a little better, it's only because he barely registers, and because he's the only one of Quess's suitors who's remotely age-appropriate.

There are clearly people out there who love this movie, and I certainly wouldn't question their right to do so.  But I do wonder how the hell they managed to get past Quess, who's like a leaden weight strapped to the neck of Char's Counterattack, dragging it into the depths of mediocrity.  Yet even then, Quess is only a symptom of bigger problems, though ones that are harder to pin down.  I could generally see what the film was supposed to be doing at any given moment, and how series veteran Yoshiyuki Tomino felt he was accomplishing that on a scene by scene basis, but there's a difference between seeing how something should be working and something actually working, and it was rare that Char's Counterattack quite managed the latter.  It doesn't so much juggle plots and characters as fling them in the air and stand there, smirking as they bounce off its head.

Damn, I'm being awfully harsh, and it truly isn't that bad.  Actually, I think I'm being so harsh because it isn't bad, when it really ought to be brilliant.  Like I said, all the pieces are there, and in broadly the right places: Char's master plan is a perfectly adequate arc plot, with his conflict with Ray and the other subplots ticking away in its midst, and it's all very epic and exciting and space opera-y.  Plus the animation is pretty fine, all told - it seems petty to point out that it gets choppy during the action sequences when it's clear it would have taken the budget of a mid-sized country to accomplish such grandiose space battles in any other fashion back in 1988.  And I liked the design work - nothing does cool robot suits like Gundam! - and I'll forgive the universe's flaws as science fiction a lot for the notion of inflatable dummy spaceships.  Char's Counterattack is three quarters of the way to being a glorious late-eighties slice of anime SF; but for me, the apparently random editing, the time-wasting with pointless material, and Quess, queen of the screeching chosen-one teenage heroines, chucked a spanner in the works I could never quite get past.


So am I now a Gundam fan?  I am.  Will I be tracking down the rest?  Probably not, much as I'd like to ... not unless I become a millionaire overnight, anyway, but I certainly feel like I get the appeal.  And while I may not have raved about everything here, I absolutely recommend the experience; these early entries all have their flaws, but they've also endured surprisingly well.

[Other reviews in this series: By Date / By Title / By Rating]

* For the record, I did rewatch Char's Counterattack with the intention of amending my review from the perspective of someone who at least now had a knowledge of the first movie trilogy behind them.  However, to my surprise, other than recognising the odd side character I hadn't before, it really made no difference to my viewing experience.

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