Amuro, Book Review, Char, Comics, Federation, Fraw, Giant Robots Fighting, graphic novel, Guest Author, Gundam, Interview, Joshua Jammer Smith, Kunio-Awara, Leopardon, Manga, Michael Greenhale, Mirai, Mobile Suit Gundam, Mobile Suit Gundam: The Origin, O'Neil Cylinder, Sayla, science fiction, terraforming, The Comics Classroom, women in comics, Women in Manga, Yoshikazu Yasuhiko, Zeon
I’m the sort of person who, when asked if I would like to participate in a back-and-forth text-based dialogue dedicated to intellectualizing and examining a genre-defining manga with a former college classmate my immediate response is: Hell fuckin’ yeah that sounds fucking amazing. I’m fortunate enough to have friends who suggest such amazing enterprises, and so when my friend Michael Greenhale saw through my regular GoodReads-Facebook posts that I was reading the first volume of Mobile Suit Gundam The Origin, he proposed this dialogue in what I assume was a melodic tone. I’m honestly not much of a fan of the Manga genre of comics (it’s the uniformity of the artwork that nerves on me), but at the same time I try open myself to new ideas and new art-forms,and so this back-and-forth exchange seemed a chance to open my doors to Manga once more.
I asked Michael if he would mind if I published our exchange here on White Tower Musings and he magnanimously said yes. Michael began by asking me to compose five questions about the series Mobile Suit Gundam, and these questions were designed to get the conversation going about the series, as well as to determine “where I was” in terms of my knowledge of the series and the genre. He answered each of these questions, demonstrating his capacity to reveal intellectual insight into almost anything, and also making me realize I should have added a few more three-syllabic words in my questions. What follows then is the first half of our exchange of Volume 1. Please enjoy, and please also forgive my woefully pathetic responses. Michael’s the true genius here and it should probably become apparent.
Also before my reader objects, yes I’m publishing my correspondence as content here. The end of the letter-based, paper-based communication strategies has created a desert for future historians to understand how people communicated and so I’m doing my part for the future scholars. What are you doing with your Instagraming and Face-timing? Huh? Answer me that.
Mobile Suit Gundam Q&A Volume 1
1. It seems that the story largely follows the struggle of a “post-Earth” society warring mostly through animatronic suits. A kinda of uber-Iron-Man mechanization. Why is the size of these suits so significant? Or put it another way, why does the technology have to increase the body so that it becomes greater.
ANSWER: I think one of the neat things within the Gundam UC (Universal Century) setting is that while, yes there are mobile suits such as Gundams and Guntanks and similar tools, there are also what could be classified as ‘conventional’ space-ships. There are also the units such as the RB-Ball unit ships, right? These things are big spheres with arms and thrusters, they look like something more closely related to what you might see in today’s space construction operations. I think part of the idea within the setting is that war has different tools for different jobs, although the book we’re talking about, Mobile Suit Gundam: The Origin #1 obviously has the highlight be, surprise (!), the Gundam unit. Still, there is obviously a tremendous amount of ship-to-ship combat, along with conventional land-based vehicles being used against mobile units, etc…
So, I’ll mention something about the ‘size’ issue in a meta and then a non-meta manner. In terms of the nature of the story, back when this series was first made in the 70s, manga robot stories were inspired by, I am dead serious, Marvel comics. There was a Spider-Man giant robot called Leopardon that aired in 1978/79. Gundam came about in 79/80, so some of the convention about the issue of size, I think, was that Tomino and Yatate wanted to capitalize on something fun. I mean, look, there are things you do because they ‘make sense,’ and there are things you do to make a story interesting. Aserious story with space colonies and war will sell better and be more interesting to watch if, hey, they have giant robots. Gundam was an anime first and a manga second, so the initial idea always revolved around making something that young kids and teens would want to watch.
Gundam: The Origin is a very beautiful kind of ‘HD Remix’ of the original Gundam story from the 70s. While there are a lot of superficial changes, the idea is still the same and the plot is ‘the same, but expanded,’ if that makes sense? Think of it as the Deluxe Game of the Year Edition, with all the narrative DLC packs installed so you get the Char Backstory DLC, the Zeon/Federation Lore DCL, etc… So, in a ‘meta’ sense, there are these things called Minovsky Particles which are mentioned but not explained thoroughly until later in the manga. They’re sort of an answer to the idea that, if you’re in space, why would you want to let yourself be targeted by long range missiles or lasers? Minovsky Particles jam radar and disable ‘lock on’ technology. The meta answer to why these things exist is because Tomino said there’d be no reason for giant robots to exist if there could be long range weapons that worked all the time. Mobile suits, in a ‘meta’sense, exist to fill a combat role where there is 1) no ability to have tracking weapons that are reliable and 2) where you’re dealing with vehicles that need to transition from a zero-g to gravity impacted environment. The design being based around a human, I believe, helps facilitate a ‘human’ flow to combat between mechs. You need a multi-terrain capable weapon delivery system that can, feasibly, traverse artificial mountains or barriers, go inside and outside ships and colonies, and also be suitable to repair and salvage operations. The issue of size is more that, to accommodate the supposedly ‘large’ power cores these things carry, they’re around as big as a modern tank in terms of mass, but they walk upright to accommodate the mobility that bipedal legs affords.
2. The art seems to balance between a kinda of realism and cartoony elements. Is this just because of the manga elements?
ANSWER: I am not sure what you might mean by ‘cartoony,’ exactly, but I’ll pick two examples of what I believe purpose is. There are instances where, say, characters make exaggerated faces or sort of ‘devolve’ into more comical moments. Fraw has some of these early on, as does Bright. One thing to keep in mind is that Gundam The Origin isstill an adaption of the original Gundam story which was a 1970s genre anime. Tomino was very sure that kids were his target audience, but that didn’t mean he was going to ignore older audiences. There are a pack of kid characters in the anime who are extremely, uh, ‘cartoonish,’ but that is also because young kids were watching. The idea of exaggerated faces is a holdover from early animation anime needing to produce lots of results on short budgets and limited time, this it was just easier to show characters with stylized, exaggerated expressions and faces so audiences could know ‘oh, ok, that character is happy’ or ‘that character is being comical.’
I also think that life can be a mixture of things which are both lighthearted and serious, so the narrative’s ability to keep the levity that some characters bring to the story, like Bright’s attitude sort of showing he’s a young officer not suited to the situation he is put into, contrasts with the ‘real life’ nature of what, I argue, makes Gundam an enduring story.
3. The character Char is a bit of an oddity and I worry he fits the cliché model of a manga villain. He sees traditionally handsome in a European sense, and he often acts aloof, hidden by a face mark thus allowing a mystery element to him. Is his introduction a satisfactory opening, or does it reek of the traditional manga narrative model?
ANSWER: I think answering this brings up another issue where, in a way, the 1970s story needs to be commented on. Back when Gundam was a TV series, and this was before I believe many of the more conventional anime trends had cooled into ‘genre habits,’ you could think of Char as one of the first prototype ‘handsome villains.’ I am loath to call Char a ‘villain’ since he is as much the heart of the Gundam story as Amuro, but I get why he’d be called such since he antagonizes White Base and the Gundam for a large part of the first manga volume. In a sense, the clichés you might be concerned about are more than likely due to other villains over the decades copying trends set by Charhimself. I am only going to keep things to the first volume since that’s the story we’re talking about, but the idea of a masked enemy character is not really an oddity, I’d think, it’s just a style. A cliché might be what a masked villain would tend to do, and those things are not what Char really does. Consider his actions throughout the manga, for example and consider who and what he is.
Char’s a young character surrounded by grizzled, older war vets or those younger than himself. His superiors like Dozle are part of an upper-crust society, and there are also side figures like Gadem (blink and you’ll miss him, that’s how unimportant he is). Most of the top Zeon fighters who appear later are two Char’s age, so he’s a character who is meant to be more relatable to young boys and girls. He is threatening to Amuro since he is older and more experienced, yet he is young enough to not be leading the Zeon in battle. His looks also sort of serve as an aesthetic thing, right? Who is more likely to be ‘BAAAAAD,’ a scared up, scowl-faced dude with a cape, or Char? I think his looks are meant to make you wonder why somebody handsome and charismatic would beworking with Zeon. Sure, there are a few other characters on the Zeon side who are attractive and young (one in particular is important because is Char’s age), but again: Char is young and his ‘non-grizzled’ appearance in contrast to virtually EVERY other Zeon character makes you at least say ‘hey, what’s his deal?’ I would argue he is the actual star of Gundam Origin because, compared to Amuro anyway, he has a far more interesting history and ‘story.’
I would also put forth that Char sets a lot of bars which many anime villains, and even Western ones, don’t follow. Char is formidable, but he isn’t stupid. He knows when to fight and when to leave. I won’t spoil anything, but keeping just with his actions in Vol. 1, he is certainly less interested in ‘defeating his enemy, Amuro,’ than he is doing to his job. He has a lot of missions to complete and he is actually less concerned with revenge as he is either doing his duty or winning in the way that is most efficient.
As for the mask, he removed it quickly enough, so you know there are other reasons perhaps for wearing it. I know what they are and readers who stick with the story will learn in time, but I think his removal of the mask in Vol. 1 when confronted is sort of proof that he isn’t above taking it off and showing his face. I think that is more interesting than, say, him never removing it at all. If he is using the mask as an aesthetic, does it play into the fact that he is a young up-and-comer in the Zeon ranks and is being flashy? Is it misdirection?
I think Char is great because he doesn’t twirl a mustache or brood. He has arrogance and he is prone to playing with his enemies, but he also actually tends to be the best combatant in all confrontations he engages in so … there is a lot of ‘proof’ in this villainous pudding. He laughs, he gets annoyed, he worries, he thinks his way out of bad situations and he acts very human. I don’t think enough manga or anime villains act like Char, and what tends to get copied is the aesthetic alone, the idea of custom weapons or uniforms or masks being enough to make a villain effective. Char is actually a rare kind of character.
4. The notion of terraforming and “off-world” living is a common sci-fi thread, however Mobile Suit Gundam is rather fascinating for the way it presents the terraforming very much in a domestic fashion. The story emphasizes the fact that human are terraforming, rather than trying to explain how the technology works. Does this make it a successful Sci-fi manga or does this actually work against the plot?
ANSWER: I was VERY fortunate to have gotten to hear Tomino speak at the University of Houston back in the mid 2000s, around 2005 when I worked for ADV Films. One of the questions he was asked was what inspired him, and he said NASA and the state of modern technology was deeply ingrained in him and his work. He presents space stations that are using what is called an O’Neil Cylinder design, and (if we assume time is based on the Gundam universe advancing from when Tomino plotted the universe) the date is (in our terms) 2158 AD. In a sense, Tomino wrote a universe that was 179 years in the future back in 1978/1979. He was trying to think of how far we’d come, but that out advances would still be limited to conventional issues relating to things like a Lagrane Point, etc… Nothing in Gundam is actually unfeasible, save for the power units of Gundams and mobile suits which are nuclear, and the Minvosky particles themselves. Much of the technology in Gundam doesn’t have to be explained because it’s based on conventional theories that have already been established to work, we’d just need time to get things together. So, the story says ‘shoot, let’s just skip ahead a few decades and say this stuff works so the REAL story can get going.’ I think it is no different than the way the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica series worked, for example.
5. The women in the story are very different, creating a split personality almost. One the one side there is the blonde bombshell who is a clean-cut stoic military figure, while on the other there is a ditzy brunette. Do these women seem to have a personality, or do they just follow the more traditional manga gender constructions?
ANSWER: I think limiting the dynamic to just Sayla and Fraw does a disservice to Mirai, who sort of helps set up a good ‘three part’ model of female heroism alongside the male trinity which would be Amuro, Noa and Char. Sayla and Char are older, more confident characters because they’re in that age range where they’re experienced enough to take command and be confident, yet still young enough to not be ‘unrelatable’ to the target reading audience. Sayla, a medic, speaks her mind the same way Fraw does, but she also isn’t a teen. Fraw’s emotional responses to Amuro’s attitude or the horrors of war seem fitting when you consider her age. Sayla, obviously, as a medic, would have seen some STUFF so it would be weird to have her and Fraw behave in the same way. Saya is supposed to be 17 while Fraw is 14 or 15.
You then have Mirai, a confident younger woman who would be a few years older than Fraw and is also older than Sayla. I think she is 18 or 19, thereabouts. She is a character who is as professional as Sayla, but more well suited to the military. She is less open than Sayla or Fraw, but she is also a foil for Noa, who is her parallel. They’re the same age, but she is more assured and emotionally stable than him.
All three women have enough personality that we can tell who they are by their actions. Fraw is a kid who frets and fusses over her friend’s attitude, but who also cries and laughs and acts like a very young teen. Sayla is a more confident character who totallypulls a gun on Char and who slaps ignorant dudes. Full stop. Sayla is awesome, but that isn’t to say she is ‘better’ than Fraw or Mirai. Mirao and Sayla both pick up the slack on White Base and hold their own while poor Bright is just trying to keep his head on. I pity Bright, but he also grows into a great character on his own because he has very confident women civilians serving on White Base to make the whole operation function.
If we consider what other kinds of female anime clichés were being cultivated in the 70s, Tomino could be said to have been pioneering a class of very strong female characters who were also human. Believe me, Sayla isn’t all guns and bad-assitude, she has her own share of emotional issues, but it isn’t without logic. Mirai, for example is uniquely meant to come from a Japanese family, while characters like Sayla and Fraw are not, thus their attitudes and mannerisms are different.
About the Authors:
Michael Hale is currently a PhD Candidate for the University of Texas at Arlington. He publishes for Comicosity through the Comics Classroom column series.
If you would like to read more work by Michael, and I most certainly recomend you do, you can find many of his essays by following the link below:
Joshua “Jammer” Smith
What do you mean, who am I? I write, run, and operate this shitty blog all the time. Jeez thanks for noticing…and thanks for not coming to my birthday party. Jerks!
[Author leaves in a huff slamming the door behind him]