This post is as spoiler-free as humanly possible. – J
I was talking to my friend Andrius (readers of my long interview with him about Final Fantasy 14 may recall him) about Gundam Unicorn and realized that people may want some as-brief-as-possible explanations about what’s going on. Indeed, he asked me if the show was good.
I said, yes, the show is pretty good. Little to complain about. I mentioned that the show had a Char clone. He replied, Gundam shows always have a Char clone. (That is, a character similar to Char Aznable, often wearing a mask.)
I said… …no, I mean, an actual clone. DNA. Test tubes. Physical cloning. He said, and I paraphrase, that’s just ridiculous. (^^)
So, let’s start with the present and work our way into the past a little.
How We Got Here
Gundam Unicorn is an OVA (Original Video Animation) released on disc and through Playstation Network downloads (in Japan at least). Unlike recent incarnations of the franchise, this show follows the timeline began by the original Gundam.
While the Japanese title is abbreviated to Gundam UC (Unicorn), this also takes place in the “UC timeline,” that is, the Universal Century timeline.
Char Aznable was one of the main antagonists of the original Gundam, carrying a heavy burden and life story and acting as a kind of blend between The Man in the Iron Mask and The Red Baron. Long story short, he survived the initial struggle, though his “side” lost the war.
This was a war between the Earth Federation and the Republic of Zeon, a Germanic, fascist dictatorship dedicated to liberation of the space colonies that some four fifths of humanity’s population was moved to in order to free the Earth of our polluting ways. The colonies were then run as colonies, as in, colonialism for the benefit of the elites who stayed behind on Earth, slowing down the emigration and benefiting from the heavy labor of space colonists.
Ironically, it was a space colonist, a boy who happened to be the son of a brilliant robotics designer who was creating the Federation’s primary hope of countering the main Zeonic weapon of war, the Mobile Suit, a ~55 foot tall, one man humanoid robot. Reconnaissance troops of Char attacked the colony after having discovered the mobile suit development program. With regular military officers slaughtered, this boy, armed with a manual in his lap, and it becomes gradually apparent, latent psychic ability, Amuro Ray, age 15, pilots his father’s masterpiece, the Gundam, and destroys two Zeonic mobile suits, saving what remains of the colony – for the moment.
Char and Amuro would become bitter rivals, finally falling in love with the same young woman. This woman, Lalah, intervened in a battle between the two and put her machine in the way of Amuro’s attack to save Char. Thus, Amuto slew a girl he loved with his own hand.
So, Char survived the end of the war, disappearing. Seven years later, he re-emerged in a different disguise, this time fighting fascists that had developed an “elite” all-Earth-born army to further oppress the colonists, culminating in a poison gas attack that killed every last soul on a colony, radicalizing opposition into a privately funded paramilitary army complete with a small number of ships and mobile suits.
This plot is covered in Zeta Gundam, of which a compilation of three movies was recently made to remake the story into something somewhat less bleak than the original
However, Char emerged from the conflict changed. Once again, he disappeared, believed dead by some, and well nearly having died, but instead, he spent his years watching… and regretting trying to save the Earth, it would seem.
While I am not all that fond of what his character was turned into, Char Aznable returned, this time under his “real” name, and took command of a revolt against the Earth Federation, but quickly culminating in an effort to drop a pretty huge asteroid on Earth. This “asteroid drop” would have plunged the Earth into a nuclear winter and cause Earth to no longer be inhabitable by mankind, thus (in his mind) removing the source of conflict and oppression for the colonists.
Char was also guided by a desire to settle his score with Amuro, but thanks to the massive psionic amplification abilities of the experimental Nu Gundam (“Nu” in the Greek sense), which drew on the anger of both rivals (at this point Char was in a cockpit escape pod only, having lost his duel), and the common wills of pilots on both sides who tried to stop what was happening, the huge chunk of asteroid still hurtling towards Earth was enveloped by a green glow and telekinetically pushed off a collision course.
Three years passed.
A nigh-mythical repository called Laplace’s Box is being sought by both sides of this seemingly eternal conflict. Using a colony as camouflage (a familiar story), Anaheim Electronics, a lunar surface based arms manufacturer usually serving the Federation (but having armed its enemies at different junctures depending on circumstances), secretly develops a prototype Gundam that is considered the “key” to unlocking the box.
Whatever the box contains, both sides consider it a way to permanently alter the balance. Even as Neo-Zeon forces engage in operations to locate the Unicorn Gundam, Federation military forces are in no mood to simply allow this to occur.
Thus, the first scenes of Gundam Unicorn, Episode 1, are of a battle featuring the mecha shown above, which longtime Gundam fans will understand to be a successor to older designs.
To make a long story short, and keep spoilers to a minimum, a teenage boy with some sort of secret past and a connection to the designer of the Unicorn Gundam survives the outbreak of hostilities. Thanks to twists of fate involving a “stowaway” girl trying to stop the outbreak of a war, who he knows as Audrey, he winds up in the center of events and is entrusted by the dying mobile suit designer with the Unicorn Gundam.
Normally, the Unicorn Gundam is simply a very high performance Mobile Suit with the kind of power able to match the highly advanced Neo Zeon mobile weapons. It is known as the Unicorn because it was built with the Unicorn as an inspiration, and as you can see above, it has a single horn functioning as the machine’s antenna. However, the reason that this boy pilot survives his first encounter with combat is, in fact, quite simple.
In this mode, the suit can – or more precisely, has to be – piloted entirely by thought, with the machine becoming the pilot’s proxy body. The newtype (originally: “New Type of Human Being,” a more evolved being; since: “a psionic human”) piloting the machine is capable of incredible maneuvers, but the system places an incredible burden upon the human brain, and as such, can only be used for about five minutes before the pilot loses consciousness. The mobile suit shuts the process down before actually killing the pilot, but that is clearly where things would otherwise lead.
Though the boy loses consciousness at the end, he still manages to beat off the Zeonic forces. With survivors from his class, and the mysterious Audrey, the young “pilot” is recovered by the Earth military, which considers the Gundam its property. The aim of this ship is to bring the Gundam to Anaheim Electronics, and as “stealing” military property is a capital offense, the boy finds himself in dire straits.
On the Zeonic side, the leader of the Neo Zeon forces, known as (try not to laugh…) Full Frontal, decides to take matters into his own hands.
It is not at all a show spoiler to say that this is a literal clone of deceased Zeonic protagonist/ antagonist Char Aznable, but this is, I think, the best version of “Char” that I have ever seen. He knows what he is, and he essentially has the attitude of, if people want me to be Char Aznable, then I will be Char Aznable, or the Pope, or anything else they want me to be… because the cause of colonist liberation is not over, and it’s going to be led by someone. As he believes in it, it might as well be him leading the charge.
And so, he sorties, intending to take down the ship single-handedly.
So, Is The Show Good?!?!
Yes. It’s pretty good.
I am firmly of the opinion that this show is very good, for the following reasons:
- Excellent visuals. Simply put, even though you have Gundam 00 with its highly advanced high-definition computer graphics to compete with, this looks better, and more importantly, the virtual cinematography is dynamic and exciting, allowing us to focus on the pure coolness of it and actually honest-to-god cheer what is going on. It has a soul. It feels good.
- Characters who are more than tolerable. There is a minimum of characters who exist solely to be hated by the viewer, essentially playing the roles of corrupt money-grubbing arms dealers, corrupt politicians, small-minded butchers… the sort of people we should be hating. Quite a few characters are intelligent and complex, which leads to the next point…
- A world with a lot of moral gray. Neither big side – the Federation or Neo Zeon – is wholly right, nor wholly wrong. Both want the Unicorn Gundam for their own purposes, large and small, and both have civilians – including children – with hopes and dreams. This is in contrast to the spectacular combat scenes, but the combination makes the story go round.
- You can’t tell what’s coming. Not unless you’ve already read the novels, and I have not, so I can’t spoil myself even if I wanted to. Nor can I spoil you.
So, that’s the long and short of it.
Well Worth Watching
I strongly recommend watching this show. Hopefully it will continue to uphold the high standards it has introduced so far. There’s clearly a lot of plot here, and at this juncture, we really don’t have any idea what Laplace’s Box is. That’s okay; mysteries shouldn’t be revealed quite this soon. Making plain (and the show does make it plain) that there really is something larger at work here is a good reason for the viewer to care in spite of the small, tightly controlled battle zones that the show has operated in so far.
I mean, the visuals have been absolutely wonderful, but without the plot to make us care about something important going on, we might be tempted to ask for giant fleet battles or dozens of mobile suits in combat.
Surely, we’ll see things closer to that in the future, but the point is, giving us a plot to care about is a Good Idea, and we, the viewers, are much better off for it. – J
For detailed summaries of both episodes, I would be remiss to omit links to these summaries by Chris Guanche of MAHQ.net, “Mecha and Anime Headquarters.”