By Andrew Osmond.
Gundam ZZ is a shocking series. It follows on from the original Mobile Suit Gundam serial and its sequel Zeta Gundam (both available from Anime Limited), which had taken viewers through a hugely tragic space opera. Gundam fans had seen heroes perish, casts of thousands obliterated, and a central conflict whose warring sides bewilderingly shifted and re-permutated; war has no happy endings, and indeed never really ends. And after nearly a hundred TV episodes of this, fans might have felt they’d seen everything.
And then Gundam ZZ comes along and does the unthinkable; it makes Gundam wacky.
One reason why this comes as a shock to unsuspecting viewers is that Gundam ZZ is presented as a direct continuation of the earlier Gundams. Many other “sequel” anime distance themselves from their predecessors; some leave you guessing if they’re really sequels at all. Not so with Gundam ZZ, which started in Japan a week after Zeta Gundam ended. The first episode recaps the Gundam saga, and also shows us the aftermath of Zeta’s final battle. Zeta’s two alpha leads – the legendary Char Aznable and teenager Kamille Bidan – are out of the action, seemingly for good. However, several other characters limp away from the battlefield on the spaceship Argama.
The second episode introduces us to ZZ’s new characters. The new cast is no shock; Zeta also introduced a raft of new characters, while the first series characters mostly moved back into support roles. We noted in our Zeta write-up that Gundam started with a very ordinary hero, Amuro Ray; the sequel Zeta introduced Kamille as “a much more alienated, pugnacious, screwed-up teen”. ZZ’s protagonist is another teen rebel, Judau Ashta (voiced by Kazuki Yao, who now voices Franky in One Piece).
Like Amuro and Kamille before him, Judau is introduced on a cylindrical space colony – in this case, the very dilapidated, corruption-ridden “Side 1” colony. His hometown is called Shangri-La; the name reminds us that what began as a fairy-tale dream would seem dull and tatty to later generations. Judau is a wheeler dealer, less Luke Skywalker than Rodney Trotter. He salvages space junk, the debris of Gundam’s war, for any buyer, while thumbing his nose at teachers and authority. He’s a delinquent, but more emotionally stable than Zeta’s Kamille. His absent parents haven’t left him with a raft of complexes. As far as he’s concerned, he’s doing fine; he’s part of a gang of youths, a bit like the bikers in Akira (which was well established as a manga when ZZ was broadcast, though the film version was two years away). Or maybe it’s just Judau’s crimson jacket that reminds us of Kaneda.
Judau is thrilled to see the spaceship Argama docking at his colony, for its spectacular exploits rather than any interest in interstellar politics. Meanwhile, his salvage group retrieve a space pod containing another survivor from Zeta’s last battle. No, it’s not Char. Rather, it’s one of the Argama’s foes, who persuades Judau and his friends to help him board the ship. The kids plot to steal the Argama’s most famous mecha, the Zeta Gundam itself, former steed of Kamille Bidan. But when they board the ship, Judau sees their “ally” casually murder a member of the Argama crew (who was a regular character in Zeta – this is still a show by Yoshiyuki “kill ‘em all” Tomino).
Judau explodes into rage, and pilots the Zeta Gundam into battle. Although his neophyte piloting is clumsy, he quickly draws the notice of Argama’s captain, Bright Noa. Yes, that Bright Noa, who was thrust into command of White Base back in the original Gundam so long ago. In a very “meta” moment, Noa observes the callow clumsy boy who has a strange rapport with the Gundam, and flashes back to Amuro and Kamille in their own first battles; he senses Judau’s story destiny long before the lad himself does.
Many of ZZ’s early episodes are set on Side 1, with the Argama hiding from its enemies. Meanwhile Judau insists he just wants to steal the Zeta for cash, while still helping the Argama crew. But eventually both Judau and the Argama head into space, where Judau is given more personal stakes in the battle, tied up with his annoying but beloved kid sister Lenia. (Leina’s casting looks like an in-joke; the little sister is voiced by Maaya Okamoto, who voiced the way more mature Emma Sheen in Zeta.)
This story outline looks like straight Gundam, and indeed the first battles are trad enough. But very quickly, it’s clear that there’s been a big change in the show’s tone. True, old-school Gundam was never as dead-serious as some write-ups suggest; there always were goofy, campy elements. Think of the show’s mascot ball-robot Haro; its comic-relief tearaway kids; or the super-hunky redesign of Char in Zeta. But ZZ quickly sends the goofing into overdrive, scandalising fans who loved Gundam for its epic tragedy.
The adversaries are especially camped up. By Gundam ZZ, the space war has reconfigured once more. The Titans (Earth’s brutal fighting force in Zeta) are out of the picture, and the fight is between AEUG – the anti-Titan movement that united foes like Noa and Char – and Axis Zeon, remnants of the Zeons from the first series. And Axis Zeon’s representatives in ZZ are well, surprising.
First up to fight the Argama is Mashymre Cello. You can get some idea of his character by noting that the voice-actor, Kenyu Horiuchi, later voiced the manically vain henchman heavy Sanson in Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water. Mashymre is a ludicrous, obsessive poseur, endlessly dreaming of his commander Haman Kahn (first seen in Zeta), while petting the rose she gave him. One flashback has Haman speaking seductively to Mashmyre while caressing the stem of a wine glass; it’s interesting to see what mainstream TV anime could get away with in 1986! After so many heroic enemy characters, Mashmyre is a staple of comedy, the buffoon who thinks he’s a hero.
Later, Mashmyre is supplanted as chief adversary by a woman, Chara. From her split-personality hairdo downward, this lady hails from the glam school of anime villainy, like the genderfluid Zoltar (aka Berg Katse) from Battle of the Planets. And wait until you see how she treats the respectable Captain Noa… It’s like Star Trek’s Captain Picard trapped in a room with Ming’s nympho daughter from Flash Gordon, with cartoon boings and antics a la Tom and Jerry. There’s loads of similar folderol: floating fruit, barnyard animals and mecha in some very silly fights. Oh, and wait until you get to the “Moon-Moon” colony, by which time we’re beyond silly and into the realms of loony.
As it goes on, Gundam ZZ plays more as a straight space adventure, and the crazy comedy disappears entirely in the show’s second half (to be released by Anime Limited soon). It’s as if ZZ had got it out of its system. The obvious question is why ZZ swung into farce to start with. Gundam ZZ, we should emphasise, was still directed by franchise founder Yoshiyuki Tomino, a man who had very serious intentions in creating the first Gundam as he explained to this blog. But maybe Tomino felt that after so much “intense” Gundam, both he and the franchise needed a break. Perhaps ZZ’s farce was a time-out, a way of recharging franchise batteries. It wouldn’t be the first time Tomino had tried a crazy tonal experiment; notoriously, his 1977 series Zambot 3 went from toony hijinks to traumatic tragedies.
It’s also plausible that Tomino was trying to pick up new viewers. He may have calculated that established fans would tolerate ZZ’s comedy, while a funnier tone might pick up viewers scared off by the severity of the past Gundams. Tomino is well aware of the need to capture new generations; see his comments about his later series Gundam Reconguista in G, which also had a wacky side. And while it’s not hard to find fans who loudly hate Gundam ZZ, in Japan the series came second in the 1986 “Anime Grand Prix” voted by readers of Animage magazine. ZZ beat the likes of Project A-Ko (another SF parody anime) and Arion (directed by Gundam artist Yoshikazu Yasuhiko), and was only defeated by Miyazaki’s Laputa.
Certainly, the show can be a shock to anyone who revelled in Gundam and Zeta Gundam as a serious unfolding epic. ZZ would have been far less unsettling if all its characters were new – an approach the franchise would soon take in later incarnations – but that might have discouraged fans from trying ZZ at all. The prosecution can argue that ZZ is Gundam’s equivalent of Batman and Robin (as in the much-loathed George Clooney film). The defence can point to Tom Baker’s Doctor Who, which transmogrified from scary horror-film pastiches to campery that makes Flash Gordon look restrained – and while the latter is certainly loathed by some Who fans, it has plenty of defenders today.
Today’s fandom is broadminded about properties that switch in tone. When Gundam ZZ was broadcast in 1986, Western fandom was denouncing the comedic Adam West Batman as a false superhero. Today, Lego Batman co-exists with The Dark Knight. In anime, anyone who follows, say, the Evangelion franchise is used to anime going from extremes of silliness to seriousness. The newly reissued Martian Successor Nadesico was a triumph of consistency; that is, it was consistently epic and consistently farcical, and we wouldn’t be surprised if its creators had ZZ in mind. If you can’t bring yourself to accept ZZ as a sequel to the previous death-and-drama Gundams, then try discounting its ludicrous bits as non-canon and enjoying those bits anyway.
Gundam ZZ would mark a turn in its franchise’s history. Following the series, Gundam would leave Japanese TV for several years, migrating to movies and video series. These included Tomino’s cinema film Char’s Counterattack, a very serious continuation of the canonical Gundam saga, and War in the Pocket and Stardust Memory, both helmed by new directors. Tomino would return to TV Gundam in the 1990s with the next-gen Victory Gundam, but it would be another ‘90s show that would draw foreigners to the franchise, a decade after ZZ. The show was called Gundam Wing, but that’s another story…
ZZ Gundam is released in the UK by Anime Limited.