By Andrew Osmond.
When Gundam Unicorn was first released in 2010, it was the glossiest Gundam ever. Today there are other contenders for that title, but Unicorn still has the edge. I saw its opening episodes on a Tokyo cinema screen and was blown away by visuals and character designs that aren’t far from an Otomo epic like Akira or Steamboy. And Unicorn really is epic. Originally planned as a three-hour miniseries, it ended up running more than twice that length, serialised on video over four years. It’s a pivotal title for Gundam as a whole, screaming prestige from every frame.
Gundam Unicorn works well for franchise newcomers; it’s also the sequel fans had waited more than twenty years to see. Luckily for newbies, Unicorn’s hero is brand-new. He’s a teen boy called Banagher, who’s with his classmates on a space station at a time of supposed peace, following war between Earth and its separatist space colonies. Banagher runs into that great anime staple, a mysterious and beautiful girl. Meanwhile on the station, a secret transaction is taking place to decide humanity’s future, involving an object wrapped in enigma known only as Laplace’s Box.
When the space station erupts in carnage, the boy discovers his Gundam, a shining white robot steed dubbed the Gundam Unicorn. Banagher, we should say, is a natural pacifist, who abhors violence and warfare. At times, he recalls Miyazaki’s heroine Nausicaa. But like a character in a Terry Gilliam film, Banagher is infected by the medieval legends of knightly chivalry, and vows to protect his Lady. In part one, he sees a series of real French medieval tapestries, The Lady and the Unicorn, with their overtones of courtly love. The tapestries also inspired the titles for the 1982 film The Last Unicorn, animated if not produced in Japan.
A knight needs a quest; Banagher’s is for Laplace’s Box, with clues taking him to far-flung regions, the sites of past battles in space and on Earth. A quest, in turn, needs dragons. One particular enemy mecha looks very like an old-school kaiju from a 1960s monster movie, even if Banagher’s desperate not to kill it. But there’s another adversary towering on the screen, even when he’s not a robot suit. He’s the new saviour of the “spacenoid” colonies, a gold-haired warrior in a silver helmet, riding a satanically crimson mecha. Fans of the Gundam franchise will instantly recognise who he’s meant to be. For newbies, it’s a superb introduction to an anime icon.
The reason Gundam Unicorn is pivotal in the franchise is because it picks up characters and story ideas which had been dormant since 1988. For its first decade, all the Gundam anime depicted the fight between Earth and the space-dwelling humans who’d forged themselves into the Zeon empire. That story ran through the original 1979 Gundam show, then Zeta Gundam and Gundam ZZ. They were followed by the 1988 film Char’s Counter Attack, which appeared to be the final chapter. (All these titles are available from Anime Limited.)
After that, some Gundams doubled back in the established timeline, to tell side-stories and untold episodes, comparable to the Star Wars spinoff Rogue One. Other Gundams detached themselves from the old continuity, telling new stories with bits of the old ones – Gundam Wing is a prime case.
All of the Gundams until Char’s Counter Attack had been directed by the father of the franchise, Yoshiyuki Tomino, whom I interviewed here. After Char’s Counter Attack, Tomino’s own strategy was to make “next generation” sequels, set in the main Gundam timeline but placed decades later with all-new characters. These next-gen titles included Gundam F91, released as a film in 1991, and the TV series Victory Gundam in 1993. Later Tomonio-directed Gundams were ostensibly set millennia after the original series.
Gundam Unicorn, though, was made by other hands and takes a very different approach. It’s a direct continuation of the classic Gundam story, set just three years after Char’s Counter Attack. Several familiar faces return through the series, although one of those returns is poignant. Bright Noa, the commanding officer who was a moral mainstay of the old Gundams, plays a substantial role in the later Unicorn episodes, looking and acting very much as we’ve always seen him. But he has a different Japanese voice actor, Ken Narita, whom mecha fans know as Jeremiah in Code Geass. The original Bright actor, Hirotaka Suzuoki, died from lung cancer in 2006, aged 56.
The mystery girl who Banagher meets in the first episode is another vital character from Gundam’s past. She goes by the name Audrey Burne, a transparently obvious reference to the actress Audrey Hepburn, who’ve we’ve covered in connection to Gundam before. In part one, keep an eye on the backgrounds and you’ll spot a movie poster for what’s clearly the Hepburn rom-com Roman Holiday, though it’s given an alternative title, Runaway Princess.
That’s a cheeky foreshadow of a plot reveal, which I’ll spoil as it’s given away early, anyway. Audrey is really the long-lost heir to the Zeon empire, Princess Mineva Zabi, and she’s a terrific way to tie the classic Gundams together. Mineva was glimpsed in the very first Gundam TV series in 1979, as a baby who was evacuated shortly before her royal father Dozle Zabi fought his last battle. In Zeta Gundam, Mineva appeared as the child puppet ruler of the Zeon survivors. Her return in Unicorn as a young woman with her own determined agenda feels like a triumphant pay-off to a very slow-burning character arc.
And then there’s the hulking crimson mecha in the room. The Zeons have a hero once more, and they call him the second coming of Char. The man looks like Char, he has a mask like Char, even the voice of Char (actor Shuichi Ikeda). Could he somehow be Char, even after the end of Char’s Counter Attack? The pretender goes under the name of Full Frontal, and declares that if the Zeon people want him to be Char, then he will be. Incidentally, if you think Full Frontal is a silly name, it’s better than Char’s alias in Zeta Gundam, when he was called Quattro Bajeena (if you don’t get it, see here),
As mentioned earlier, Gundam Unicorn is not a Tomino-directed Gundam. Instead, it was directed by an outsider to the franchise, Kazuhiro Furuhashi, best-known for his mammoth stint on the anime Rurouni Kenshin. Unicorn’s story originated as a series of spin-off light novels, not by Tomino either but by Harutoshi Fukui. Nonetheless, the story puts Tomino’s concepts such as the “Newtype” – the next evolution of humanity – at the story’s heart, while revealing a whole secret Gundam history to retcon the franchise.
Oh, and if Gundam Unicorn’s stirring, epic musical score sounds familiar, then your ears do not deceive you. It’s by the composer Hiroyuki Sawano, and often sounds close to his best-known anime score – laughably close to it at times, though with music this good, it’s hard to begrudge it. As mentioned above, Gundam Unicorn was released over a four-year period, 2010 to 2014. And as it happened, it was during this period, in 2013, when Sawano also started composing for Attack on Titan.
Andrew Osmond is the author of 100 Animated Feature Films. Gundam Unicorn is released in the UK by Anime Limited.