By Andrew Osmond.
The first thing to stress about Gundam 00 is that newbies can most definitely start here. While it’s technically part of the venerable Gundam franchise, it’s also a “new” series, with a new world and characters. Indeed, 00 was perhaps made deliberately to draw in viewers, Japanese and foreign, who hadn’t seen a Gundam show before.
At the same time, 00 has some of Gundam’s franchise fundamentals – young pilots fighting each other in giant robot suits, an epic human conflict between umpteen cultures and ideologies. It also has a clutch of Easter Eggs for fans who have seen other Gundams (for a broader account of the franchise, see here).
00 is set in the mid-distant future of 2307. According to a certain other SF franchise, by this time humans will have eradicated war, befriended aliens and conquered interstellar travel. 00 is less rosy. The world’s still war-torn, with many bloody local conflicts, and three dominant power-blocks in a precarious global balance. The AEU is centred in Europe; the Human Reform League dominates Asia; and the Union controls the Americas, Australia and Japan. Even three centuries on, please note, Japan and “America” remain aligned.
But now there’s a new player on the block. The AEU is holding a product demonstration of its giant robot technology when the event is attacked by a pilot in an unknown kind of robot suit. This suit proves to have technology far beyond the supposed “state-of-the-art” of the AEU. Three more new units quickly appear, spectacularly intervening in global affairs. One of their first acts is to defend a “High Orbital Station” in Earth’s upper atmosphere, saving it from a terrorist attack.
Then the self-declared leader of the quartet appears in a video message. He’s no photogenic young hero; he’s a bald, bearded man who looks like a New Age guru, though many viewers will inevitably think of Blofeld in the Bond films. This man announces to a shocked world that these powerful robots – named Gundams – form a private army called Celestial Being. Their intent is to end all conflict on Earth, through forceful interventions wherever conflicts break out. Forget wars on terror; this is war on war.
We should say that the mystery man, while pivotal to the story, is not Gundam 00’s main character. Indeed it’s debatable if 00 has a main character. The early episodes introduce a huge number of players, including the Gundam pilots, the crew who supports them, the pilots who battle them, and less clearly aligned characters, including a Middle Eastern princess fighting diplomatically for her country, and a naïve youth who’s the unknowing neighbour of a Celestial Being pilot.
Celestial Being itself is kept largely a mystery for the early episodes. We see its members at work, and occasionally play, and their belief in their cause. But we’re left to wonder how these youngsters were assembled, and who is that mysterious guru figure on screen. With no solid answers, the terrestrial authorities respond to Celestial Being in various ways, from confronting it head on, to making sneaky bids to manipulate it into “intervening” in particular ways.
All this amounts to a very different kind of story to the “traditional” Gundams of the 1970s and 1980s. Although some of 00’s action takes place in space, it’s not really a space opera. Its focus is on an Earth in conflict, challenged by a shadow force that many people would call terrorism. In that way, 00 feels like an attempt to bring the Gundam franchise nearer another SF saga by the same studio, Sunrise, made just a year earlier… in short, Code Geass. (Of course, Geass echoed older Gundam series – Lelouch’s character debts to Char, for instance.)
Whereas Geass foregrounded the character designs by the female CLAMP group, 00 turned to a different female artist, Yun Kouga, who’d created the gay-themed manga Earthian. While 00 looks different from Geass, there are points of crossover – the Middle Eastern princess looks especially Geass-ish – alongside some deeply androgynous characters in the support.
00 had both a writer and a director from “outside” the Gundam universe. Seiji Mizushima was most famous for handling a very different mechanically-enhanced hero – Edward Elric in the first series version of Fullmetal Alchemist. As for 00’s writer, Yousuke Kuroda’s expansive CV took in shows as diverse as Excel Saga, Gungrave, Honey and Clover and several video episodes of Tenchi Muyo. Today, younger fans should know Kuroda as the long-serving lead writer on My Hero Academia.
And those Easter eggs for older fans… Well, look out for a friendly spherical robot called Haro, the multiverse-crossing mascot of the Gundam franchise, as well as handy-dandy signal-blocking particles, though the particles aren’t called “Minovsky” in this series. Oh, and the narration in 00 is read by a voice-actor called Tohru Furuya. He’s been in loads of different anime over the decades, but he’s especially well-known for voicing a certain Amuro Ray in the first Gundam and many others.
NB: This blog rarely touches on political issues, but it’s hard to overlook one reference. Early in the series, we’re told that one of Celestial Being’s first run of “interventions” was in Northern Ireland, which (according to the series) has been riven with conflict for four centuries. Thanks to Celestial Being, a ceasefire has finally been declared… by the Real IRA, still going in 2307.
For many viewers, this may be a jarringly tasteless moment, though anime has dealt with terrorism in Japan in inflammatory ways – see Penguin Drum, which took on the Aum Shinrikyo subway attacks. For the record, when Gundam 00 was broadcast in 2007, the situation in Ireland had already improved greatly in recent years. This suggests either that 00’s writers were pessimists by nature, or that they hadn’t been following world news so closely.
For science-fiction fans, 00’s reference may take them back to another time that an SF show brought up conflict in Ireland. In 1990, a Next Gen episode called “The High Ground” tried to explore terrorism, with a script reference to Ireland being unified in 2024 as a result of terror. Consequently, the BBC and Ireland’s RTE declined to screen that particular episode for many years…