By Andrew Osmond.
The shortest way to describe Turn A Gundam is as the steampunk Gundam. It doesn’t start in a space war, nor on a futuristic Earth. Rather, the setting seems to be Earth of a bygone age, around the start of the twentieth century, with airships, period costumes, and vintage planes and cars. Soon invaders are attacking from the sky, and a boy and girl in a coming of age ritual see an ancient statue crumble before them, revealing a giant robot. Turn A Gundam feels like a deliberate return to the past, both in history and anime.
Broadcast in 1999, Turn A Gundam marked the twentieth anniversary of the Gundam franchise. It also saw the return of the franchise’s father, Yoshiyuki Tomino, as director. Tomino had defined Gundam for its first decade, but worked only intermittently in the franchise through the 1990s (the best-known 1990s Gundam, Gundam Wing, was by other hands). With Turn, Tomino serves up a series that begins most unlike an average Gundam. If you’ve watched the dozen-odd Gundams released by Anime Limited, you’ll find the start of Turn bracingly bewildering – “Is this really a Gundam show?” – though it becomes more Gundam-ish as it goes along.
Much of Turn is set on Earth, far more than most Gundams. The first scene, though, is an exception. Three kids descend to Earth in a spacecraft, chanting rhymes like “Mary had a little lamb” and “London bridge is falling down.” On landing, they each head in different directions. While they’ll all play roles in the story later on, we focus on one of the kids, a silver-haired boy called Loran. He travels to find work in a mine in a mountain region; on the way, though, he gets into trouble while bathing in a river and is saved by two well-to-do sisters. As it happens, they’re the daughters of the mine’s owner, who takes a liking to the boy and hires Loran as the family chauffeur.
Turn’s story skips forward fast. By the second part, Loran and one of the sisters, Sochie, are close enough so Sochie chooses him to partake in her coming of age ritual mentioned earlier. That’s when the sky invaders attack and the Gundam is revealed, though none of the Earth people know its name. For Gundam fans, there’s an easy way to distinguish the robot from other models – it has a whopping white metal “moustache,” which somehow manages to look distinguished rather than ridiculous. Credit that to its designer, the American Syd Mead – yes, that Syd Mead, who helped realise the world of Blade Runner.
Both Loran and the invaders come from the Moon, which is also inhabited by humans – a fact unknown to most Earthlings. When Loran was first sent to Earth on a reconnaissance mission, he had no idea of the violence to follow, and he’s appalled by the sight of Moon craft destroying cities. Instinctively, Loran pilots the Gundam to protect his Earthling friends – who, of course, have no idea he’s not an Earthling. Nonetheless, the Earth’s defenders seem outmatched by the invaders’ technology… till it turns out there are other machines in the ground, ready to even the score.
Syd Mead and Tomino aren’t the only famous names on the show. Turn’s eclectic music is by Yoko Kanno – yes, that Yoko Kanno, in what seems to be her only contribution to the Gundam franchise to date. At the time, Kanno had distinguished herself on 1990s mecha anime: Escaflowne, Macross Plus and Tomino’s own Brain Powered. Her Turn score is uneven, with tracks sometimes feeling clumsily placed, but there are sublime parts – for example, a song at the end of the first episode, when Loran throws his arms out joyously toward the moon in the night sky, shouting his love for Earth. Loran is voiced in Japanese by another famous name; it’s Romi Park, before she’d voice Edward Elric in Fullmetal Alchemist.
As we mentioned at the start, Turn can be classed as steampunk. Tomino may have arrived at the genre indirectly; way back in 1983, he’d directed a non-Gundam TV anime called Dunbine, unreleased in Britain. It featured giant robots, but unusually placed them in a medieval-style fantasy world. Dunbine set precedents for the likes of Escaflowne, but it also showed that “robot war” anime could be transposed to other kinds of backdrop, not just spacewars and modern or future Earths.
Turn doesn’t qualify as steampunk under a strict definition – the setting isn’t the early twentieth century – but that’s how it feels. It doesn’t seem coincidental that one of the Moon people’s main fighting machines, a strutting giant called the Wodom, is reminiscent of the Martian Fighting Machines in H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds. When the Wodom sends beams of fire against old-fashioned Earth cities, you could be watching a remake of Wells’ story. After all, Wells’ Martians were mecha pilots too – they just had more tentacles to operate the machinery.
The sight of old-style fighter planes in Turn will remind fans that the Gundam franchise’s most famed character, Char, was based on the Red Baron hero pilot of World War I. Turn has a beetle-goggled character with echoes of Char, though whether he qualifies as a true Char clone is debatable. A later key story development will feel very familiar if you’ve seen a more recent steampunk anime show, 2017’s Princess Principal.
It also seems deliberate that Turn looks remarkably, even shockingly, old-fashioned for its day. It was the last Gundam series to be made in cel animation, but that isn’t the half of it. Remember that Turn was made in 1999, several years after TV mecha titles like Gundam Wing and Escaflowne – both by the Sunrise studio – not to mention Evangelion. Compared against any of them, Turn’s whole look – its character designs, its earthy palette, its freehand animation – all feels like a purposeful throwback to 1970s anime.
That, of course, was when Gundam began, and it was also probably the key decade for Tomino professionally. He’d worked in anime since 1963’s Astro Boy, but the 1970s saw him emerge as a TV director, working towards a statement as distinctive as Gundam. Although Tomino is best-known for his signature SF, he made enormous contributions to a very different side of vintage anime – the “World Masterpiece Theatre” family series, where Tomino storyboarded large parts of Heidi, Rascal Racoon and Anne of Green Gables.
The first Turn episodes often feel like a pastiche of the WMT style, which continues to be seen even after the robot war starts. Many of Turn’s trappings – the deep mines, vintage flying machinery, and green countryside – will look overwhelmingly familiar to any Hayao Miyazaki fans who’ve seen his early work. Tomino sometimes worked with Miyazaki in the 1970s, when both men were developing their careers. In 2019, the Gundam creator said he’d longed to crush Miyazaki; yet Tomino also said he was only able to make Gundam because he’d met Miyazaki and Takahata.
Turn seems to be echoed itself in a later Miyazaki-esque work. A pivotal character in the series, Sochie’s older sister Kihel, bears a striking resemblance to the title girl Marnie in Ghibli’s late film When Marnie Was There. Kihel has a very complex role to play in Turn, as does Loran himself. The boy from the moon spends much time fighting moon people, taking advantage of his feminine appearance rather than wearing a mask. Loran is one of many turncoat characters in mecha anime, fighting against what are theoretically his own people. But what really makes Loran unusual in mecha anime that he’s not driven by anger, revenge or even romantic love, but rather by a reverence for life – all life – that’s deeply innocent.
Innocence, indeed, seems to be a particular concern for Tomino in Turn A Gundam. In the first couple of episodes, Loren spends much time naked, sometimes with girls his age who are equally nude. However, the youngsters are only faintly embarrassed at most. While many viewers will find these scenes funny, they’re mostly not played for laughs; rather the show suggests this is how youngsters with healthy minds should behave. It’s particularly interesting given Tomino’s more recent infamous comments on the blockbuster films by Makoto Shinkai. The tetchy Tomino described them as “films about a boy and girl who are always stretching out their hands towards each other… and yet the boy’s hand never reaches the girl’s crotch.”