Mobile Suit Gundam is an absolutely massive franchise. To cover all of the entries, or even all of the main themes that the series ever tackles, would be an absurd undertaking. Perhaps one I’d be willing to do at some point but right now I’ve only seen a limited selection of Gundam anime and that won’t be changing any time soon. At the same time, it’s an incredibly important franchise, one which shaped the entire medium. The core themes of the series are worth investigating, even if not in a strictly chronological sense wherein we go through all of the various shows.
As such, I’d like to propose an order through which we can chart the development of Gundam’s primary thematic elements and tensions. This order will not be chronological but instead will simply flow based on how deeply the various thematic elements are explored. Thunderbolt may be the most recent of the anime I’m looking at here but it’s being arranged at the front as its ideas are the least elaborated upon and the most basic of the franchise. Turn A, on the other hand, is arranged at the end due to the fact that it serves as a sort of thematic conclusion to everything, fully investigating the ideals and themes brought up in previous entries and synthesizing them into a broader, workable thesis. By examining these four works, I think we can gain a good grasp of what the franchise as a whole is trying to say, without having to look at every single series.
I want to be clear that I mean no disrespect to Thunderbolt in putting it at the front. It’s simply the least interesting from a thematic perspective. Thunderbolt is a bloody, violent, and nihilistic series. Hope is almost totally lacking and while individual human actors can be good, there’s no real sense that the show has any belief that humanity can better itself. War is hell here, as it is in every Gundam series, but more than that it’s totally pointless, both from a narrative point-of-view and from a thematic one.
Thunderbolt is, of course, set during the One Year War, that oft returned to conflict which is always ripe with potential. Like many side stories, it tries to take a somewhat neutral approach, with both the Federation and Zeon coming across as distinctly immoral here. And that’s not a problem. What is a problem, at least to some degree, is the whole setup of the show. This OVA takes place, at least initially, in the titular Thunderbolt Sector, the ruins of Side 4. What makes this fail to work is that there’s no real reason for any of the battles here to be taking place. By the time we meet our characters, we’re within a month of the war’s end, if not closer. Side 4 is long-destroyed and lacks any living colonies, at least in this sector of it. I can understand why people would want to protect their homeland but there’s no homeland to even protect. Why is either side letting their forces waste manpower here, as Zeon becomes increasingly desperate and the Federation becomes increasingly offensive?
But I could deal with that. Not all decisions made in a war are smart after all and showing that certainly would help with the anti-war message. The real problem comes in when the Federation begins to use child soldiers.
I’m not going to pretend child soldiers are an oddity in Gundam. They aren’t. After all, Amuro is only 15 during this period as well. What makes it fail is that this isn’t a case of a few teenagers happening to become battle hardened. These are school kids who have no reason to be here. As I said, this sector is pointless at this point. Is this just an attempt to sell the idea that the Federation leadership is awful too, willing to send children into a bloodbath just to defend some destroyed colonies? Sure, the Federation sucks, we can all agree on that, but are you really trying to paint them as poorly as you paint the literal Space Nazis?
So, the narrative fails to justify why the war is that bad and goes over-the-top in portraying its atrociousness. Still, it is anti-war. That’s good enough, right? Well, somewhat, but the series falls prey to one big problem: the presence of spectacle.
Thunderbolt is easily one of the best looking Gundam series, if not the best outright. The perfectly drawn 2D Mobile Suits bring the series to life in a way that’s never been seen before, modernizing designs which are decades old while preserving their iconic power. The cut of a Zaku grunt dealing with the Full Armor Gundam really demonstrates the terrifying power of the series’ titular mechs. The battles are flashy and amazing. It has by far my favorite real robot combat in all of anime.
But that’s not a good thing. It truly is an amazing looking show but because of that, you could call it “over-animated”. As a viewer, watching the Mobile Suits battle in this show, you get absorbed into the spectacle, forgetting the fact that it’s supposedly an anti-war series. And this is the paradox of anti-war fiction, particularly anti-war film, in general. In the depiction of war through film, even if as a criticism of it, you end up accidentally glorifying it through the camera, or, in this case, through the animation. Sure, I can believe that from a detached standpoint, the show is trying to say that the conflict between sides is pointless and destructive, though from a very nihilistic point-of-view. However, I simply cannot believe that in the moment. How can you call the combat here anything “but” glorified? It’s simply too cool, too fun to watch. And that distracts from the point that the show is trying to make. Because of this, the series ends up as a bit of a thematic mess, with its actual points falling flat in the face of the amazing animation. As a demonstration of mecha combat, it’s truly an outstanding series. But as an anti-war anime, it’s poor. That said, it does serve as an introduction to the anti-war elements the other Gundam series we’ll be looking at use as well. It thus functions as the best starting point for this thematic timeline, showing us the most base level of thematic depth, establishing what will be explored more deeply and coherently in the other works.
The next series worth looking at is the first, 0079. It too is set during the One Year War but its tone and presentation could not possibly be more different from Thunderbolt. Certainly, the war is equally ghastly. Time and time again, we’re shown that it results in tragic slaughter, in the deaths of many innocents, in the breaking up of families and the mass loss of life. As the opening narration always makes clear, this war wiped out half the human population in the matter of one month. It is thoroughly anti-war. But it approaches that with a much more sensible and mature framing. The war here is awful, but it has a point. Zeon is run by genocidal maniacs but it’s understandable why they would take actions they did given their circumstances. The same is true for the Federation. Decisions made by these factions and the people within them may not always be smart but they make sense. When the Federation does something bad here, we get why that is, instead of it just sitting there as a poorly thought out plot point that exists solely to make the war even worse.
Of course, this is not the final entry I’m looking at, so it’s only so many steps forward from Thunderbolt. While it lacks that series’ flashy animation and brilliantly choreographed mecha combat, it does maintain plenty of spectacle. Here though, it primarily comes from the show’s super robot influence. This may have been the first real robot anime but it did not shed all of the genre’s tropes from the get-go. The Gundam transforms, has some absurd weapons, and isn’t always treated as a machine of war. Fortunately, this was all cut in the recap movies which are significantly better from a tonal perspective, but the point remains.
This is made even worse by Zeon. The number of Mobile Suits and Armors that Zeon trots out in this 4 month time span is absurd. How did they produce all of these things? Why didn’t they standardize their production? The answer of course is that doing so wouldn’t have sold as many toys but that doesn’t change the fact that it hurts the narrative and thus the themes. The less the Mobile Suits are treated like weapons and the more they’re treated like characters with identities, the weaker the anti-war elements become. It’s understandable why these elements would have to be in the series in order to make money but that doesn’t change the fact that they meaningfully hurt the show’s themes.
But it’s not all bad. Amuro for instance is certainly a character you’re supposed to see as somewhat cool. His ability to pilot the Gundam at 15 with no prior training makes him particularly interesting. His rivalry with Char and romance with Lalah add a sense of intrigue to him. However, we are not meant to see him as solely a cool hero, coming in and saving the day from the Space Nazis. His suffering is apparent and the war has a negative effect on his mental state throughout the entire show. That he manages to fight through it and survive is a testament to his skill and bravery, not a showcase of how the noble soldier will always prevail with enough might.
Furthermore, 0079 introduces the concept of Newtypes. While not always relevant in a direct sense, I believe the philosophy surrounding them is worth examining. Newtypes are evolved humans, people who have adapted due to the conditions of space living and thus have become more adept at communication and understanding. Effectively, they are supernaturally empathetic. Of course, in reality, this just means that they’re good as tools of war due to their greater combat ability. That said, I believe Tomino has a point with his inclusion of Newtypes. While Thunderbolt possessed little in the way of hope, 0079 carries some. That Newtypes exist here at all proves that humanity can become better and stop destroying itself if it truly makes an attempt to do so. This is not followed up in this work, though, as the Newtypes in this series certainly do not manage to truly understand one another and evolve further, but that’s a discussion for another video.
Basically, to sum it up, 0079 is nowhere near free of the anti-war paradox. And this applies to Tomino’s other UC entries as well. That said, it understands that the paradox exists and tries to address it, simply failing to do so along the way. This is most benefited by the political overtones, making it clear that all of this suffering is the result of real actors and systems, not simply human nature being fundamentally evil and cruel.
It’s not a perfect anti-war story. But it is a good one. It takes effort to humanize the clearly wrong faction without forgiving them and this series manages to do that. The Federation is better, to be sure, but it’s not great and Zeon’s grunts clearly have understandable issues with the Federation that were unfortunately channeled into a disgusting regime. Having Gihren be a literal Hitler wannabe might have been a bit much but I ultimately think that while this series fails in certain ways with its themes, it established an excellent base and is still worth talking about. This war is hell and it’s a hell of human making but it was not inevitable. We can avoid it. That the show failed to present a clear thesis on how to do so is a shame but as the other two shows will show us, it did a lot of the early lifting nonetheless.
The next series to look at is 0080: War in the Pocket, yet another One Year War anime. An argument could be made that in my inclusion of three anime set during this period, I show an overly reductive view of the franchise. However, it’s pretty widely accepted that the Universal Century is Gundam’s core and contains its central messages. As such, I don’t think there’s a real problem with looking at so many series set during the One Year War, especially given that Sunrise refuses to set UC anime at any other point.
As a 10th anniversary project, 0080 uses its status as an OVA to take everything 0079 did further. Here, the Mobile Suits are almost entirely de-emphasized. There’s no silly super robot action here — while Bandai would certainly like you to buy the Gunpla, these are machines which exist solely for the sake of killing other people and that’s something which is greatly understood. While the animation in their fights is certainly impressive, it’s not to an overwhelming degree. In Thunderbolt I find myself thinking that the combat is cool even in the bloody context. In 0080, I’d find it cool if I were to see the cuts on sakugabooru but in the show itself it’s always clear that this is real violence in the middle of a lived-in colony, something which absolutely no compassionate person should want.
The depiction of soldiers is similarly advanced. None of the forces we see, from the Federation to the Principality, stand out as particularly amazing people but they also don’t come across as complete monsters. They’re soldiers, perhaps by choice and perhaps by conscription and they’re simply doing their best to get by. The Zeon forces above Bernie nearly kill Al when he gets in the way, but at the same time, it’s clear that they certainly don’t want to kill everyone in the colony. They’re willing to carry out acts which are absolutely disgusting but as relatively low-ranking soldiers, they don’t particularly want to kill people when they don’t have to. This applies to Bernie himself as well. While certainly the nicest of the Zeon troops we see, he’s still willing to kill when need be. This is never glorified — it’s simply presented as an unavoidable tragedy. And in portraying our hero as Al and not Bernie or Chris, we’re presented a very realistic depiction of a civilian’s role in this war. If the protagonist is fighting and killing those on the other side, the simple way storytelling works will glorify that to some degree. That never happens here, as our lead is always outside the conflict, observing it and sometimes even affecting it but never having any real power, much as the average civilian in any war has little power over whether or not it takes place.
Additionally, 0080 heavily criticizes the fetishization of Mobile Suits. It introduces some new ones which are certainly cool to look at but it uses that to actively berate the viewer for getting so invested in them in the first place. Al is introduced as a fan of Mobile Suits, any ordinary kid in a neutral colony who wants to see these things up close. His perception of them is similar to that of the audience in an average Gundam show — sure, these are for war, and people die, but look how cool all those parts are! Look at the shell from its gun! Look at the beam rifle! How could you see this as anything but amazing?
And as Al sees the reality of the war, in his little pocket of a supposedly neutral colony, it dawns on him how horrific this all is. Mobile Suits are designed based on human beings. They are inherently made to be magnificent and terrifying, to simultaneously strike fear and grandeur into our hearts. They’re amazing machines but they’re also demonstrations of our failings, of our hubris and collective egocentrism, of our inability to see past our current selves and become Newtypes of a sort. These hulking titans strike death and destruction on those who simply wish to survive. Even Chris, a simple Federation test pilot with no wish to kill anyone, is grilled by a colony official for her battle resulting in the deaths of hundreds. This war is not pointless, though this part of it may be given that Zeon is already doomed. But even if there is a point, it’s not a good one. This should not be happening. It’s an affront to humanity, a humanity that 0080 has hope in. Mobile Suits may look cool but they are no more than killing machines. Al learns that over the course of the story and solemnly takes it in as he cries at what he has lost.
0080 lowers the spectacle almost as much as you can in a series focused on giant robots and demonstrates how the fetishization of those robots is harmful. In this, it near totally eliminates the paradox of anti-war film. This series is against war, not just in theory but in practice. It’s nigh-impossible to come out of this OVA glorifying either side of the conflict, as both are plainly responsible for the deaths of many innocents. It’s for this reason that I find it the most thematically developed of the OYW entries, at least in regards to Gundam’s main anti-war and pro-humanity themes.
And yet, I don’t think it’s the most thematically developed of all entries. No, that goes to Turn A which manages to take things even further in many ways. Again directed by Tomino, this series avoids much of what his other UC anime included. Newtypes are never explicitly shown even if they’re hinted at and the Earth Federation has been long gone for millennia, as have all the various political actors in all the various Gundam series. The 20th anniversary project, this series truly ties up all the loose ends in Gundam’s broader metanarrative, finally fulfilling everything it had the potential to do from an anti-war perspective.
Turn A makes it clear that war is damaging on both a small and large scale. All the series I’ve discussed do this but this is the best at blending the two. Take episode 27. It treats nuclear weaponry far more seriously than the average Gundam show, imbuing it with the same visceral terror that it carries in real life. It’s truly presented as a threat to humanity which should not exist in this world and the entire tense episode focuses on that fact. At the same time, it leads to the death of an important and beloved member of the cast. It is not simply a bomb which goes off, destroying a colony and killing millions. That shows scope, sure, but when we don’t know the names of any of those millions, it’s hard to truly care. Here, it’s just as dangerous but by directly threatening the lives of those we care about, and eventually ending the life of one of them, its true terror becomes all the more apparent.
Additionally, Turn A’s focus on the Dark History adds a lot. The Dark History is, of course, all other Gundam series, which through some mechanism or another all led to the Correct Century when they ultimately failed to eliminate war. Humanity’s flaw was clearly failing to become Newtypes. As such, the Turn A used its terrifying Moonlight Butterfly to wipe out all of humanity’s progress, resetting things back to 0. This horrific loop played out many a time and it’s clear that our propensity to war is a dangerous beast which we were never able to tame. Humanity failed in Turn A and by extension in every Gundam series. But we do not have to fail and its the presentation of that which makes Turn A a fitting conclusion to the franchise. The Moonlight Butterfly may have been necessary to end the conflicts ravaging our species but it’s also a tool which no one should wish to use and that it even exists speaks poorly of humanity.
0080 did its job in making the Mobile Suits serve purely as weapons of war and not as characters or toys. Turn A takes this a step further. First, its Mobile Suit designs are a mix of incredibly bizarre figures — hardly resembling human beings the way an average one would — and outdated models which we’ve seen a billion times already. In limiting the designs like this, it significantly reduces how cool they are. I might like the look of the Turn A but when it’s shooting something I don’t see it as particularly cool the way I do when I see the RX-79 shooting something. That said, they still possess a sense of life to them and thus are just as terrifying as ever.
The other thing that Turn A does with the Mobile Suits is finding a use for them beyond killing. This comes in two forms. First, they’re quite literally used for non-military purposes. Loran is hardly a lover of war and he’s happy to help others with the Turn A whenever he can. For instance, he uses it to do the laundry at one point and at another helps to transport a guy’s cow. In this the Mobile Suit becomes a more generalized machine.
Second, Loran actively uses the power of the Turn A to minimize conflict and de-escalate whenever possible. As far as I remember, he only ever kills 2 people throughout the entire series because that’s not something he has any interest in doing. Ordinarily, a Gundam protagonist who’s also a pacifist will speak of peace while gunning down 10 grunts in 20 seconds. Loran is aware he’s in a war and accepts that fact but still does his best to prevent too much violence from occurring. The Turn A is an incredibly advanced Mobile Suit, far beyond anything else in the entire series outside of the Turn X, so it only makes sense that he’s able to use it to maintain peace. In essence, Loran transforms the Turn A from a war machine into a peacekeeping machine, disrupting the symbolism of the Mobile Suit. At the same time, it’s still incredibly dangerous, much as a peacekeeper is just as dangerous as a soldier, so it’s fittingly put to rest with the Turn X. The symbolism of this should be clear. With people like Loran and his sympathizers on the Earth and the Moon, humanity will not need to reset itself again. In essence, the characters of Turn A have become true Newtypes.
I find it hard to imagine any other Gundam being as coherently anti-war as Turn A is. 0080 comes close of course but it lacks a real plan of action. There, the war is inevitable and all we can do as average people, as civilians or even as soldiers, is to not support it and hope that it will not claim our lives. Turn A places power in our ability to change our circumstances, to force our way into a world of peace. Loran exemplifies this better than any other Gundam protagonist. Fighting may be necessary but it can be kept to a minimum. It’s fitting that Turn A is both a thematic and narrative destination for the franchise and in the last 20 years nothing has been introduced which could possibly follow up on its themes or take them to an even more advanced level.
Most Gundam shows end up somewhere around 0079 or 0080. All the others I’ve seen are more advanced than Thunderbolt but less than Turn A and I suspect that trend will continue. I doubt any Gundam can truly solve the anti-war paradox, especially when there’s always new Gunpla to sell. But Turn A is by far the closest and I’m happy to call it my favorite in the franchise. I’d like to reiterate again that this is not to put down the less developed shows, as all of these have their own benefits and downsides. Gundam probably can’t ever develop its anti-war themes any further than Turn A. As long as you’re focused on giant robots which are meant to sell toys, there’ll be at least some level of glorification, no matter how slight. But if it could, I’d be extremely excited to see how it does so.