By Andrew Osmond.
Zeta Gundam is sometimes described as one of the darker Gundam series. That’s largely because of things that happen in the last couple of episodes on this set – this really is a series where no-one, and we mean no-one, is safe.
It’s also because of some very vivid images of mass destruction. Perhaps Yoshiyuki Tomino, who created the series and the Gundam franchise, was thinking of how the original Star Wars film blithely blew up a planet – and presumably millions or billions of people – and then made the audience forget it in the next two minutes. Gundam isn’t about fantasy star wars; it’s about war, as Tomino made clear when I interviewed him.
Still, Zeta Gundam isn’t that grim; it’s cheerier than Gundam Thunderbolt: December Sky, for example. Much of it is actually an exciting space adventure. Nearly all of the second volume takes place in space, though there’s one big mecha battle on Mount Kilimanjaro, and we also visit an artificial “Alpine” environment in a space colony which looks a lot like Takahata’s Heidi.
If you need a reminder of what happened in the first volume, see this article here. The second set continues the running battle between the crew of the spaceship Argama and the brutal “Titan” Earth forces. It also continues more personal feuds, such as the one between the boy hero Kamille and his Titan nemesis Jerid. But Jerid’s just a henchman of the Titan commander Paptimus and he’s especially magnetic now, manipulating and corrupting characters that we don’t expect. Okay, so Paptimus has more than an echo of Star Wars’s Emperor Palpatine. Incidentally, Paptimus is voiced in Japanese by Bin Shimada, who also voices Broly in the Dragon Ball franchise.
Zeta Gundam also brings a third faction into play – Axis Zeon, survivors of the Zeons from the first series. While this group has a child ruler – Dozle Zabi’s daughter Mineva, who we saw being evacuated as a baby in the first Gundam – the power is with the purple-haired Haman Karn, who comes over as another potent space sorcerer like Paptimus. Karn also hold the show’s balance of power, with both the Titan and Argama sides considering deals with her, though this disgusts some characters.
Beyond all this plotting, these episodes push a storyline that’s weirdly like an anime sitcom. Kamille has always been surrounded by multiple females, but now it’s annoying his “girl next door.” That’s his former classmate Fa, who’s on the Argama as well and she’s fed up with all the women turning up in Kamille’s adventures. The females include returning and new characters; one girl inexplicably claims to be Kamille’s sister, leading to a few wish-fulfilment moments before things go dark.
It’s not just Fa who frets about someone close to her. Several of Zeta Gundam’s other characters, including Kamille himself, have their own hang-ups and resentments, often bound up with people who are plainly unattainable. Tomino would depict a similar tangled emotional web in his later film, Char’s Counter Attack.
One thing which viewers may resent about Zeta Gundam is its frequent pontifications about women, being a woman, and what women want. It would be easy to screencap the most egregious lines and present Zeta Gundam as more reactionary and mansplainy than the worst 1960s Star Treks. Yet it’s often questionable if the characters who make the sexist remarks in Zeta are intended as mouthpieces for the show.
Whatever was intended, it’s easy to see the show – where women are manipulated and even weaponised by men – as dealing vividly with misogyny and internalized misogyny. Many of the most outrageous comments about women come from the most manipulated woman character in the series. In total contrast, there’s Emma Sheen, a Gundam pilot who’s not caused up in Zeta’s relationship vortex and fights all the better for her allies. (We saw her defect to the Argama at the beginning, so she counterpoints another character who’s tempted to change sides now.)
The later episodes up the psycho-drama. Characters emotionally project one person on top of another, or watch helplessly as old tragedies are replayed with new actors. Only a couple of infant children seem immune… except the series cleverly points out this is an illusion. After all, there were similar kids in the original Gundam, set eight years earlier. In Zeta Gundam, one of those three kids – a boy called Katz – is a Gundam pilot himself, and he’s as hung-up as anyone else, his mischievous innocence replaced by something angrier.
While Zeta Gundam’s last battle resolves many things – with an infamous “sting” twist in its closing minutes – it leaves untied threads and open questions. That’s because the show’s broadcast in Japan led directly into the next Gundam series, Gundam ZZ, which continued the overall story but with mostly new characters. Also available from Anime Limited, Gundam ZZ started with a shocking change of tone. If you don’t mind spoilers for Zeta Gundam, you can read about it here.
Zeta Gundam Part 2 is released in the UK by Anime Limited.