Gundam Thunderbolt is good in many ways. It looks stunning, being perhaps the best looking anime I’ve ever seen. Its use of erratic jazz music, while unorthodox for the genre serves the show well thematically. The show succeeds at portraying the horrors of the One Year War, with the entire Thunderbolt Sector being a meaningless meat grinder which slaughters Zekes and Feddies alike. This success leads to its failure however. The show is simply too dark.
The best of this example is the Federation’s use of child soldiers. These high-school age teenagers are brought in to pilot the GMs and Balls with little to no training in order to merely hold back the Zeonic progress. This makes sense, with what we’ve seen in the franchise it’s certainly something that the Federation higher-ups would do, especially this late into the year when both sides are hurting and the Federation wants to end it quick without an invasion of Side 3.
But the fact that it makes sense doesn’t mean it benefits the series. It’s clearly done for two reasons: to show the horrors of war, and to show the moral ambiguity of the two sides. And it does this, but it doesn’t help to serve the show as a piece of art. No emotional connection is made to the series. These kids are introduced and slaughtered not 10 minutes later, confused about where the attacks which are taking their comrades’ lives are even coming from. Sure, it shows how disgusting both sides are in this war, but that doesn’t help the show.
Thunderbolt is centered around two ace pilots whose destinies become linked after frequent combat. On its own this is an interesting plot, if a little derivative. Showing the horrors of the war as it reflects on them is good, and contributes directly to the show in a cohesive way. Massacring children on the other hand, contributes nothing but an idea of how moral each side is.
Those parts that focus on the war from the perspective of the two main characters is fantastic. Io, the main character on the Federation side, is absolutely obsessed with fighting, turned by the war into a machine purely interested in killing. His failure to connect with his girlfriend, a commander forced to send hundreds if not thousands to his death is resonant and works with the actual central focus of the show.
Daryl, the main character on the side of Zeon, shows this even better. Episode 2 is the best episode, as it focuses on him and how he’s been hurt by the war. He had to have all of his limbs amputated in order to serve Zeon, and seeing his fantasies of living a fulfilling life with his family before the war, limbs intact is fantastic, giving a real sense of how much this war has taken away. This episode presents one of the best uses of a Mobile Suit, with him using the Zaku’s limbs as substitutes for his lost limbs.
It’s unfortunate then, that the rest of the series simply doesn’t reflect this emotional potential. The rest of the series piles on things like the child soldiers, which are honestly just edgy ways to make the series darker without adding any emotional backing to it. I don’t hate darkness in stories, Zeta is the Gundam series I like the most of those I’ve seen so far. Stories where there is only darkness though can’t connect to me. It seems to come from a depressed worldview where good simply can’t exist, and while I can understand why someone may have may have that mindset, I don’t find it an enjoyable one to watch.
What Zeta had going for it was despite the deaths, despite the darkness, despite Kamille’s worsening depression as the series went on, there was a clear sign of hope. Tomino clearly believes in the power of youths, embodied in Newtypes, to change the future, even if they were not able to win in Zeta. Thunderbolt really lacks it, with the end of the show making it clear that all that awaits is more fighting at Ao Baoa Qu, with more deaths on the horizon before the war ends.
I don’t dislike Thunderbolt. I actually like it quite a bit, but that all comes from the first two episodes. They were dark, but they had hope. They had humanity, and didn’t serve to say “humanity is shit”. The last two episodes unfortunately go down this route, and it’s a real shame. I’ve heard the next part of the manga is notably more light-hearted, and unless it’s a ZZ level of tonal shift that sounds positive. As it stands though, for such a short series Thunderbolt suffers a lot for it’s unfortunately negative worldview, and with more hope it could have been a favorite for me. For now I’ll continue to look for series which believe in humanity’s potential, which Gundam is fortunately full of.