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Gundam Wing Retrospective: Part One

Posted 9 May 2008 / By Nick Gibson / Opinion

In 1994, the Gundam metaverse got a new lease on life with Mobile Fighter G Gundam – the first time an installment in the super-robot franchise deviated from the universe established in the 1979 original, Mobile Suit Gundam. The series took the venerable Gundam name and turned it on its head. G Gundam centered on gladitatorial bravado instead of political intrigue, and showcased mechs with names like ‘Tequila Gundam’. The series was a hit in Japan, and sparked a transition from the UC (Universal Century – the timeline for the original Gundam show) to self-contained ‘spinoff’ universes connected by only one thread: big stompy robots. After G Gundam came Gundam Wing, Turn A Gundam, Gundam X, Gundam Seed, and most recently Gundam 00. But only one of those series ever made it big in the United States, and that series is Gundam Wing.

Gundam Wing, moreso than G Gundam or the alternate universes to follow, was an almost charicatured throwback to the 1979 Gundam in terms of geopolitical grandeur and sheer scope. At 49 episodes (plus a straight-to-video sequel; more on that later) the series was already on the long side, but Wing also features breakneck pacing. This makes it hard to even summarize the series in a way that does the complicated plot justice. The premise, however, is fairly simple:

Mankind has largely migrated to space, forming floating colonies around the Earth and moon. Over time these colonies become estranged from their mother planet, and war breaks out. The Earth Sphere Alliance achieves domination over the entire area, and cracks down especially hard on the defeated colonists. In reaction to this tyranny, several of the colonies plan Operation Meteor, in which five super-powerful war machines called Gundams are sent to Earth to wreak havoc on the Alliance – and especially the Alliance’s special mechanized unit called ‘OZ’. (Short of “Order of the Zodiac”.) The story follows those five pilots and their struggles for peace in an unstable age of bloodshed.

Like I said, though – that’s just the barest of backstory. Over the course of the series we’re introduced to a host of additional characters and factions, all of whom criss-cross each other to form a constantly shifting array of alliances. There’s the enigmatic, chivalrous Zechs Merquise. There’s the tenaciously loyal Lucrezia Noin. The ruthless, schitzophrenic Lady Une. The idealistic Treize Khushrenada. The cunning Duke Dermail. The naievely idealistic Relena Peacecraft.

Even the core ensemble – the five pilots I mentioned earlier – are wildly varied. Heero Yuy is a stoic, no-nonsense solider prepared to throw away his life for a mission, while Quatre Winner is an empathetic leader who values life above ideals. Duo Maxwell provides some comedy and much needed vibrancy with his short temper and sarcastic sense of humor. Trowa Barton is similar to Heero in terms of emotionless professionalism, but he goes through some interesting development and comes out almost normal on the other of the series. Wrapping up the central five is everyone’s favorite wacko/zealot Chang Wu Fei – a loner with a chip on his shoulder and a long memory for grudges.

The list goes on and on, and the result is one of the most widely varied casts in the history of the Gundam metaverse. Almost every conceivable mindset or attitude, especially with regards to the meaning of peace and the nature of war, is represented, and it’s on these psychologies that most the plot is constructed. To put it another way, the events of Gundam Wing are totally character-driven. When something happens in the grand saga, it’s because one of the (mostly nutball insane) actors made it happen. And that’s one of the most addicting aspects of Gundam Wing: you can’t help but watch, if only to see what the characters will do next. The series has a real sense of momentum.

epyon wingzero

The only problem…and this will sound odd, considering the genre…is the mecha battles. Now come on, don’t get me wrong. I’m all about ginormous guns and big explosions, but the firefights in Gundam Wing – with a couple of notable exceptions near the end – are forced and tedious. Forced, because the directors seemed to feel the toyetic need to have a fight every single episode, regardless of whether it fit into the story. Tedious, because the combat is constructed mostly out of stock footage (Heavyarms firing missiles up at to the right, Aries squad exploding.) I’m not kidding – the amount of recycled footage is mind-numbing, and after maybe twenty episodes it’ll be deja vu every time someone pulls a trigger. To be honest, I think Wing could have done a lot better without so many mecha encounters, especially since there apparently wasn’t a big enough budget to render them in an exciting fashion.

Apart from that, the animation is solid for a mid-90s Bandai show. It didn’t break any boundaries and the range of motion isn’t too great, but it got the job done. Same for the sound design. The one technical aspect that really, really shines through is the soundtrack. Ko Otani did a phenomenal job on this one, crafting an epic orchestral score that still finds room for jazz and electric guitar. Better yet, the opening and ending sequences featured electrifying singles from J-Techno group Two-Mix – “Just Communication” and “Rhythm Emotion”. Two-Mix went on to find big success in Japan, and Bandai stuck with the dance music for future Gundam installments. Good stuff.

kootani twomix

That’s something I can’t say for the dub. Gundam Wing is bogged down by one of the worst official English dubs in the history of anime, bar none. Yeah, this can lead to some kitschy appeal (“Heero!!! I’m right over here, so come and GET ME!”), but that’s where the fun ends. The convoluted lines are delivered almost in monotone, and this is especially bad when much of Wing‘s dialogue centers on high-end abstracts like duty, love, honor, death, life, peace, and war. I don’t think the actors are personally to blame – several have gone on to much better performances in other anime, particularly Scott McNeil (Duo Maxwell) and Kirby Morrow (Trowa Barton). Heck, even Lisa Ann Beley managed to get a job in Gundam Seed as Marrue Ramius, even after an ear-grating outing as Relena Peacecraft. Rather, fault must rest at Ocean Group‘s feet for bad translation and worse directing. Unless you’re one of the vets who watched the series on Toonami as a kid – and think of the bad acting as part of the charm – I recommend that you watch this one in Japanese.

To wrap things up, the sum of Gundam Wing is greater than its parts. The series isn’t at its prime when the characters are droning on and on about the nature of war, or when faceless mecha are blowing each other up for the umpteenth time. But when the characters are screaming philosophy at each other while blowing the living crap out of the other guy’s mecha, it’s truly something to behold. Because of that – and thanks to other factors I’ll address in a coming installment – Gundam Wing will always be polarizing. It comes down to an individual basis, a question of whether or not the shining moments outweight the lesser ones. Some will hate it, others will love it.

I tend towards the latter.

Next up I take a look at the OVA sequel, Endless Waltz. After that it’s time to close the three-part retrospective with an analysis of Gundam Wing‘s impact on Toonami, the U.S. anime scene, and thousands of viewers across the world.

Part Two
Part Three

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