By Andrew Osmond.
Gundam is a big franchise, encompassing nearly 40 years of anime, and leaving even some seasoned fans lost amid, say, G Gundam and Gundam 00. Zeta Gundam comes from 1985, when the franchise was in its early days. It’s the sequel to the original 1979 Mobile Suit Gundam, which Anime Limited released as a two-part Blu-ray. Set eight years later, Zeta deals with a new war on Earth and in space, fought by warriors in new versions of the giant “Gundam” robot suits. The early episodes introduce many new characters, including a troubled teen boy piloting the famous mecha. But as the series progresses, it drops in many old faces from the first Gundam; this is less a ‘next gen’ than a ‘cross-gen’ story.
One obvious difference between the two Gundams is their protagonists. The hero of the first series, Amuro Ray, had his share of emotional and personal issues, but he was basically a straightforward kid. Director Yoshiyuki Tomino described him as “a very ordinary person.” Zeta Gundam introduces us to Kamille Bidan, a much more alienated, pugnacious, screwed-up teen. His parents were brilliant professionals in a loveless marriage where his dad was openly adulterous – a comment on social norms in Japan? Kamille loathes his ‘girly’ name and resents being treated as a child, yet has infantile tendencies (he bites his fingernails.) Scurrilous trivia: Kamille’s Japanese voice-actor Nobuo Tobita was in the 1980s Japanese sex anime Cream Lemon, where his character has more scandalous family issues.
Zeta Gundam starts deceptively like the first Gundam, with Kamille’s home, a space colony affiliated with Earth, infiltrated by soldiers from the AEUG, or Anti-Earth Union Group. True to tradition, Kamille finds himself inside a Gundam robot while the fighting’s going on, and finds he can pilot it. But Kamille flips the script; he instantly joins the rebels and fights the Earth forces. It’s less of a shock given this is Gundam. Even in the first series, Earth was never clearly “the good guys”; as we said in our write-up, it was “a story of people who couldn’t choose their sides, who must find their own meanings in what they protect.”
In Zeta Gundam, Earth uses elite soldiers called “Titans,” mercs who act with callous brutality. In the second episode, a Titan beats the hell out of Bright Noa, a captain in the first Gundam – this has some turnabout irony for Gundam fans, as Noa famously punched out Amuro, leading to the immortal protest, “Even my father never hit me!” The Titans are opposed by a mix of groups in Earth and space, including the enigmatic, blond-haired commander Quattro Bajeelan. In the first episodes, he leads the AEUG raid on Kamille’s home colony and sees the boy’s defection; sensing potential in Kamille, he takes him under his wing as they head out to space.
Quattro should look (and sound) very familiar to viewers of the first Gundam. (If you haven’t seen the first series, a spoiler follows… now!) It’s obvious from the first scenes that Quattro is actually Char Aznable, the legendary Zeon warrior, who survived the explosive finale of the first series. (Come on, you didn’t think that would finish him?) Amusingly, though, Quatto/Char spends much of the show denying or dodging the question of his identity, even as more and more people recognise him. This device foreshadows many Gundams to come, which feature characters resembling Char with different names. Examples include Glemy Toto in Gundam ZZ, Zechs Merquise in Gundam Wing and Rau Le Crueset in Gundam Seed. While these characters are clearly Char-alikes, not Char himself, the later Gundam Unicorn keeps viewers guessing for much of its length about if its brilliant blond commander is the “real” Char.
Beyond Kamille and Quattro/Char, Zeta Gundam’s crowded cast includes many more female characters than the first series, to the point that Kamille objects to so many women “in the battlefield that belongs to men.” Whether we’re meant to agree with him is debatable; what’s clear is this reflects a new kind of anime in the 1980s. While the first Gundam was seen as a kids’ show in 1979, a cinema version drew crowds of older viewers, and Japanese marketers realised there were viewers who liked girls as much as robots. Notably, Zeta’s closing credits feature the cute girl Fa (and Gundam’s robot mascot Haro), though she’s not a major character. But cute girl SF was in. Zeta Gundam was broadcast the same year (1985) as Dirty Pair, the Dirty Pair being two hapless girls in bikinis (based on illustrations by Gundam’s Yoshikazu Yasuhiko). They were followed in anime by girl-heavy space operas: Gall Force: Eternal Story (1986) and Gunbuster (1988).
Zeta Gundam’s other women characters include Emma Sheen, who’s a former Titan who defects to the rebels early in the series. Later, she becomes a tough ‘mother’ figure (and subject of Oedipal attraction) to Kamille. If that sounds like Evangelion, just wait till Kamille later gets involved with a depressed, unworldly enemy pilot called “Four.” Four claims to come from a laboratory, her identity stolen while she’s forced to fight endless battles – all very Rei Ayanami. Gundam’s creator Tomino, though, hates comparisons between his franchise and Eva. For Tomino, Gundam is not about exploring teen neuroses, but asks what kind of people need to be born for humanity to survive. Zeta Gundam includes mystical-sounding lines like “The souls of the people of Earth are attracted by its gravity” – as opposed to the souls of heroes like Char and Kamille, who were born in space and take the human spirit beyond borders.
This idea comes to the fore when Amuro, hero of the first Gundam, is brought into Zeta midway through the set. He has a big role, this is a different Amuro from the one we saw before, weighed down by his personal losses and by being confined to Earth for years. His relationship with Kamille, who reflects Amuro’s lost potential, is one of the most interesting in the show. Many other characters return from the first Gundam, in cameos or bigger roles. Even the boisterous trio of Gundam kids come back, now in their early teens. We learn they were adopted by two former White Base crewmembers, Fraw Bow and Hayato, who are married. While Fraw’s appearance in Zeta is brief, Hayato plays a substantial part; meanwhile one of the kids, the boy Katz, is impetuously determined to join the rebels.
Along with the returning fictional characters, three of Gundam’s famed creators came back for the sequel. Zeta Gundam was helmed by the franchise’s creator Tomino, with character designs by Yoshikazu Yasuhiko and mecha by Kunio Okawara (working with another mecha designer, Kazumi Fujita). There’s a change in Art Direction; Mitsuki Nakamura from the first Gundam is replaced by Junichi Higashi, who worked in the ‘80s on City Hunter and would go on in the 1990s to Cowboy Bebop. He’s worked on many other Gundams; recently he was art director on the third part of Gundam: The Origin.
Zeta Gundam is a creature of the 1980s. Compared to the 1979 series, it has brighter colours, pretty girls and hunkier designs – look at the new Char, exercising his right to bare arms. A brief ‘date’ between Kamille and Four amid the Hong Kong nightlights feels quintessentially 1980s. Even some mecha have contemporary resonances – the Earth freighter planes look strikingly close to those in Miyazaki’s Nausicaa, released the previous year. Like the hero Kamille, Gundam and anime change and develop on screen. With Anime Limited due to release 1986’s Gundam ZZ, 1999’s Turn A Gundam and 2014’s Gundam Reconguista in G, we’re getting a cross-section of anime history.
Zeta Gundam Part 1 is released on Blu-ray by Anime Limited.