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Mobile Suit Gundam movies are a perfect Netflix watch for anime fans, old or new

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Between news about tentpoles like Umbrella Academy and Stranger Things, Netflix took the opportunity of its five-day “Geek Week” to drop an even more vital announcement: the company had acquired the streaming rights to Mobile Suit Gundam Hathaway, the latest feature-length anime in the long-running Mobile Suit Gundam franchise, and the first of a planned trilogy of movies by Shūkō Murase (Witch Hunter Robin, Gangsta). And on top of the new movie, the streamer has also brought the first three Gundam compilation films from the 1980s — Mobile Suit Gundam I, Mobile Suit Gundam II: Soldiers of Sorrow, Mobile Suit Gundam III: Encounters in Space — to the service for the first time.

Mobile Suit Gundam is widely credited with the maturation of the giant robot anime genre and for weaving a complicated and unerringly human story about love, war, and the hope for peace among the stars. And for over 40 years, the franchise has represented a cultural phenomenon on par with that of Star Wars in Japan, a ubiquitous touchstone of science fiction seen in everything from movies and TV series to figurines and postage stamps to life-size statues capable of moving and performing on their own.

Spanning over 30 different anime series divided between 10 separate continuities, getting into Gundam as a newcomer can feel like a bewildering and impenetrable experience for newcomers. While the best recommended entry point for viewers new to the series is a common topic of debate, most longtime fans would recommend that newcomers start with the original 1979 Mobile Suit Gundam anime, set in the “Universal Century” continuity. The “Universal Century” universe refers to all anime, movies, manga, and other assorted media set before, during, or after the “One Year War” waged between the Earth Federation and the Principality of Zeon. These include titles such as the aforementioned 1979 original, movies like 1988’s Char’s Counterattack, sequel series like Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam and Mobile Suit Gundam ZZ, limited series OVAs (original video animations) like War in the Pocket and The 08th MS Team, and the forthcoming Mobile Suit Gundam Hathaway.

Set approximately 79 after humanity’s mass colonization of the inner solar system aboard artificial habitats known as “sides,” Mobile Suit Gundam follows the story of a galactic war fought between the Earth Federation and the Principality of Zeon, a militaristic consortium of colonists fighting for independence. The original anime concerns the story of Amuro Ray, a teenager who inadvertently becomes the pilot of the Gundam, the Earth Federation’s experimental weapon known as when Zeon forces attack his home colony of Side 7. Fleeing the destruction aboard a Federation spaceship, Amuro and co. are involuntarily enlisted as soldiers in the Earth Federation in order to survive the battle against Zeon’s forces.

The crux of the original Mobile Suit Gundam’s appeal — aside from the obvious appeal of just watching cool giant robots duking it out — is the human drama that anchors it. Don’t get me wrong: Kunio Okawara’s mecha designs are iconic and practically birthed the entire profession of “mechanical design” in anime, but the most enduring strength of the series is its characters. Amuro Ray was in many respects the template for Neon Genesis Evangelion’s Shinji Ikari; a teenager thrust into extraordinary circumstances and forced to pilot an extraordinary weapon at the behest of those who only see him as a pawn in their own elaborate game. Audiences witness the gradual unspooling of Amuro’s psyche as the mortal toll of being thrown repeatedly into life-or-death encounters both hardens his worldview and whittles away at his resolve.

Char Aznable, the series’ antagonist, is also fascinating cipher of a character. The masked military wunderkind’s formidable abilities as a mobile suit pilot and commander in service to the Principality of Zeon conceal a seething and ominous vendetta against the government’s ruling nobles. He’s without question one of, if not the most popular characters in the entire franchise; to the point where he’s essentially been transformed into a recurring archetype repeated throughout the other series in the franchise.

For years, the original Mobile Suit Gundam series existed as an essential yet frustratingly inaccessible entry to would-be fans in the West. The English adaptation of the series had originally aired on Cartoon Network’s Toonami block back in 2001, but was pulled before completing its full run due to a resemblance between the events of later episodes and the attacks on the World Trade Center. Aside from home video releases, there was no other means for Western Gundam fans or the Gundam-intrigued to watch the anime that started it all.

Image: Sunrise

That changed last November, when anime publisher and streaming service Funimation announced that the original series would be available to stream via their site starting that month, followed by Crunchyroll’s announcement earlier this January that they too had acquired the rights to stream the original Mobile Suit Gundam series. With Netflix’s own acquisition, which includes the three compilations and the sequel Mobile Suit Gundam: Char’s Counterattack, there’s never been an easier time to get into Gundam. Abbreviating the anime’s 43 episodes into three, roughly two-and-a-half hour films, the movie trilogy has been lauded by Gundam fans and critics alike as a cultural milestone in the history of anime and an ideal entry point for those new to the series.

While some hardcore Gundam fans may scoff at the idea of suggesting that first-time watchers experience the epic story of Amuro Ray in the form of compilation films when the original anime series (with both subtitles and an English dub!) is already available to watch on not one but two major anime streaming platforms, but there are actually several good reasons to check out the film versions on Netflix. For starters, the Gundam movie trilogy tells a more concise story while revising scenes that were rushed during the show’s initial production and adding new animation in the latter films for dramatic effect. And there’s historical significance: the Mobile Suit Gundam movies effectively resuscitated the franchise following the original anime’s premature cancellation.

According to Yoshiyuki Tomino in 2019 Japanese television documentary Making Gundam: The Inside Story, Mobile Suit Gundam was always intended to be a television series that could later be adapted into a feature film — a plan intended to replicate the success of 1977’s Space Battleship Yamato: The Movie, itself a compilation film formed out of edited footage of the original 1974 anime. Despite the series’ grandiose ambitions of weaving a stirring human drama of survival during wartime spanning multiple arcs, the show’s initial ratings neither recognized nor rewarded such ambitions. Halfway through the series’ run, Mobile Suit Gundam was canceled and cut down from its original count of 52 episodes to 39. With the anime now effectively lacking an ending, Tomino and the show’s staff were eventually able to negotiate for a final episode count of 43 episodes in order to conclude the story. Then, something miraculous happened.

The RX-78 Gundam piercing the armor of a Zaku mobile suit using its beam saber.

Image: Sunrise

The ratings success of Mobile Suit Gundam’s latter episodes, combined with the commercial success of the show’s merchandise and a growing fan base among teenagers, convinced the series’ creators that a feature film of the show was still feasible. The success of the theatrical trilogy released between 1981 and 1982 eventually led to the production of Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam, a sequel set eight years after the original.

From then on, the Mobile Suit Gundam franchise has continued to grow and expand. A new trilogy is on its way. And on top of releasing Mobile Suit Gundam Hathaway in July, Netflix is set to produce a live-action Mobile Suit Gundam movie written by Brian K. Vaughan (Y: The Last Man) and directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts (Kong: Skull Island).

The Mobile Suit Gundam films aren’t just a slapdash summation of the original series, but quintessential entries in the franchise’s history and a sufficiently worthy introduction for audiences looking to experience Gundam for the first time.

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