The Gundam franchise sits in a weird liminal space, where everybody knows what a Gundam looks like, but many modern anime enjoyers have little experience, at least regarding western fandom. Sure, the original Mobile Suit Gundam spawned a billion-dollar toy empire, with about as many spin-offs, but there are reasons so many consider Yoshiyuki Tomino’s 1979 foray into series storytelling a revolutionary point in anime.
We’ve sure touched upon the show in our one-stop-shop Gundam Guide for Busy People, but we want to dig a little deeper for the discerning who need a bit more convincing.
For our first foray into this new series of weekly brief reviews, as millions of people have come to discover over the last 40 years, the original Gundam is indeed worth wading through 1979 animation to experience.
People who haven’t seen specifically any Universal Century Gundam are probably still familiar with Kunio Okawara’s infinitely enduring RX 78-2 design, even if they don’t know what ‘RX 78-2’ means. Being the original Mobile Suit Gundam, it’s been printed on hundreds of millions of posters and recreated in plastic ad nauseam.
Heck, it almost made Ready Player One worth watching with its 30-second cameo. Almost.
However, even as the Gundam franchise has evolved to incorporate a whole lot of ‘cool robots’, Tomino (the super-robot-directing journeyman turned real-robot innovator) didn’t set out to create a cool robot for its own sake; More essential to the soul of Gundam than any singular mech would be its steadfast and concrete anti-war messaging that still lingers in more modern iterations of the series.
Like the original Mobile Suit Gundam design, even non-fans get inundated with Amuro and Char imagery and reference rather quickly. In the Universal Century, the formal name for the shared timeline all mainline Gundam entries take place in, Amuro fights for the Earth Federation, a united Earth government, and Char for Zeon, a rebellious off-earth satellite colony based group hellbent on freedom.
On the surface, the show wants you to root for Feddies, but Tomino strived to portray both sides of the Federation-Zeon struggle, delving into both Amuro and Char’s dual humanity and dehumanization along the way.
You’ll find similar themes eloquently explored in the most recent Attack On Titan season as well, but we digress.
To say this was a revolutionary point in narrative storytelling across all animation would be an understatement. Yoshiyuki Tomino gambled on turning the ‘Super Robot’ shows, most commonly monster-of-the-week escapades nakedly existing to sell toys like Voltes V and Daitarn 3, into mature stories that spoke truth about Japan’s post-war pacifist sentiments and paranoia alike.
The man was smart enough, however, to pepper the show with memorable Yasuhiko Yoshikazu-designed personalities like the know-it-all Char, gruff dad Ramba Ral, and the burger-loving Bright Noa to get fans emotionally attached enough to stomach this unrealistically realistic portrayal of war.
The original Mobile Suit Gundam remains pretty watchable to this day… if you’re not cowardly about old animation. It moves rough, and Okawara’s Gundam often falls of model, but hell, it’s not like we can’t say the same for Neon Genesis Evangelion.
Mobile Suit Gundam 1979 is homework we’re assigning you, but it’s one series of assignments worth doing. That’s why we’ve provided you this cheat-sheet.
No denying it comes from an older world with older sensibilities, a bit less instantly savory compared to fellow 70s anime all-star Lupin Part 1, but one might call its poetic stiltedness an acquired taste you really should acquire.
We love that original Mobile Suit Gundam and much of what it inspired, but beyond historical reasons, it sure holds up on its own terms.
You can watch the original Mobile Suit Gundam on Crunchyroll.