Every mecha fan eventually reaches a point where he (or she) contemplates Tomino’s classic sci-fi anime shows. The potent concoctions of drama and tragedy mixed with epic casts of characters and intricate political maneuvers draw so many of us. After the roller coaster ride is finished we’re left wondering what to make of it all. Why did Camille Bidan, after so heroically defending his friends, have to end up as a vegetable at the end of Zeta Gundam? Why did everyone – I mean everyone – have to die in Dunbine and Ideon? This article is one mecha fan’s attempt to explain what Tomino may have been trying to get across to his viewers. Although what follows is the speculation of a fan from the wrong side of the Pacific Ocean I don’t believe that themes in anime are impossible for non-Japanese to understand. I’ll need to discuss some ideas from Japanese culture but what anime fan isn’t also a student of Japanese culture?
There’s Only One Tomino
First let me clarify what I mean by “classic” Tomino sci-fi anime. Tomino Toshiyuki is a name well-known to most anime fans. He has been involved in a great many anime projects since he began his career in 1964. Mecha fans remember him best for his many science-fiction anime shows. To this day, many fans in North America call him “Mr. Gundam” for his brilliant work on the first several Gundam anime shows. During the 70s and 80s Tomino produced and/or directed a lot of science-fiction anime for television. His trademark during that period of his career were shows with large casts, intricate political situations and bleak stories where the heroes battled against superior forces to save the lives of countless civilians. These stories so often ended in tragedy for characters the audience had grown to love that some Tomino fans call it his “kill ‘em all heyday.”
Despite the harsh stories he told the anime from Tomino’s classic period remain popular today. The Gundam franchise is constantly trying to recapture the magic of Zeta Gundam. Toys and models from Mobile Suit Gundam, Dunbine and Ideon still sell well today – decades after the shows finished their runs on television. With so many obvious similarities between these classic sci-fi shows it’s easy to discern Tomino’s classic style. But why did Tomino adopt that style? Why did he tell such bleak stories? Why did he want us to learn the details of the complicated relationships between so many characters? Why so many factions that created such nuanced politics in shows that were targeted primarily at younger boys? Above all, why did we have to see such tragic deaths after tuning in to the heroes’ fortunes for 50 episodes?
This clip shows the death of King Foizan, Elle’s father.
A Japanese Idea
Tomino wanted to stress the importance of a very Japanese idea: community. By community I mean the values that hold a large group of people, a society, together. Unity, concern for others, self restraint, cooperation – these are the values that lay at the heart of classic Tomino anime. This may seem like a rather abstract set of ideas but they tie together neatly when you consider the fact that the Japanese hold these as traditional values. The Japanese language has many words that mean types of relationships between people (both individuals and groups). Several of these words specifically refer to harmonious social relationships. Words like these in everyday use make this concept more concrete to Japanese people. It was a Japanese audience that Tomino was writing for. In the 70s and 80s not much anime was officially exported from Japan so the animation studios weren’t thinking about how their shows would play for international audiences. A lot of anime of that time stressed the importance to boys of learning these values but Tomino wanted to show what happened when a society lost sight of these lessons.
It Takes a Village to Tell a Story
A large cast of characters is necessary for demonstrating these themes. Unlike a lot of the stories we see, Tomino wasn’t concerned with a character learning to value his or her own circle of family and friends. In order to deal with the issues affecting a society a story needs to show a decent sampling of that society. Tomino’s classic anime featured a group of heroes that helped the audience get a handle on things. However, unlike most anime, Tomino showed us a really large number of characters. The heroes had brothers, parents, friends, etc. Also, a lot of time was spent on the villains so that the viewer was seeing both sides of the conflict. Not only that, but the villains’ family members, friends and acquaintances were also brought into the story. As the story progresses the audience sees how events affect everyone. This stresses the idea that no one is an island. Every decision, every action sends out waves that are felt by everyone. A small cast of characters would make it impossible to see this.
Shades of Gray
Western fans have praised Tomino for avoiding the simplicity of good vs. evil in his tales. They point to examples like Mobile Suit Gundam (1979) and say that there are no heroes or villains, only shades of gray. As enticing as this sounds it is untrue. Tomino anime had heroes and villains but he didn’t represent them in simple lights. Mobile Suit Gundam is a good example of this. The Principality of Zeon was murdering whole colonies full of people, dropping those colonies on Earth to create disasters that killed countless civilians and using nuclear weapons in battle. They were villains. The Earth Federation was working to stop these atrocities so the Federation were the heroes of the story. To his credit, Tomino showed us Zeon’s desire for freedom from the Federation’s oppressive government so the situation was not as simple as black and white. Still, the story had heroes and villains.
In classic Tomino anime it’s important to see what makes people villainous or heroic. The Zabis, the ruling family of Zeon, by declaring Zeon an archduchy were returning to a medieval model for society that placed them squarely on top. They placed their own desires before those of the people of Zeon. In their ruthless military tactics they killed many thousands of people without a care and harmed Earth’s natural environment. In their propaganda they declared spacenoids innately superior to people living on Earth. What made Zeon evil was they disregarded the good of other people in their race for their own selfish desires. They were working against the values of unity, cooperation and self-restraint. Zeon’s evil manifested in the fighting that occurred within Zeon’s ranks. Kishiria and Gihren, both members of the Zabi family and leaders in the military, hated each other and wasted resources and lives in their struggle to be on top. Char worked from within to assassinate Zeon’s leadership so he could get revenge on the Zabi family for killing his father. The Federation didn’t have infighting like this. Tomino was showing us the severe disunity within Zeon to emphasize their evil nature.
Camille’s final battle in Z Gundam episode 50.
The Federation’s government, although not nearly as bad as Zeon’s government, also disregarded the values of community. The Federation saw those living on Earth as a kind of elite that deserved a better life. The Federation found it easy to ignore the needs of people living in space colonies. The One Year War of Mobile Suit Gundam was a terrible ordeal for humanity but it wasn’t all Zeon’s fault. The Federation and Zeon shared fault for the situation. The heroes aboard the White Base didn’t want to extend the Federation’s superiority. They fought because Zeon’s evil clearly needed to be stopped. The White Base’s crew were mostly from space colonies and were heroes because they wanted to see society return to a proper balance where those on Earth and in space received equal treatment.
Keep It Together
Tomino was constantly using disunity to make clear who the villains were. In Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam (1985) the AEUG held together well but the villains were an uneasy alliance of the Jupiter fleet, Axis, the Federation and the Titans. Haman Kahn, Paptimus Scirocco and Basque Ohm, each a leader of one of the villainous factions, worked together but were constantly looking for their chances to backstab each other. Aura Battler Dunbine (1983) showed a tight alliance of heroes but terrible discord among the villains. Neal Givens, Elle Hammu and Queen Lapana, leaders of the resistance, cared deeply for each other and never flagged in their loyalty. Drake Luft, King Bishott and Shot Weapon, leaders in Drake’s invading army, were all planning treachery against each other.
A Death in the Family
The many tragic deaths of well-loved characters in classic Tomino anime happened for a reason. The tragedies that occurred on both sides of the conflicts we saw in Tomino’s stories brought home the consequences of ignoring the values of community. Tomino was trying to tell us that, ultimately, the results of turning our backs on our community and pleasing our own desires is the loss of loved ones. All people have many bonds with others. Siblings, parents, children, relatives, friends, coworkers – all suffer when someone dies. Each of the characters we see die in Tomino anime had those connections. The conflicts that resulted from people losing sight of the importance of others lead to many losses. The most heart-rending of these on-screen tragedies was probably the conclusion of Legendary Giant-God Ideon (1980). In the grand battle that tears through the Terrans and Buff Clan we see children killed by soldiers as they try to seize control of the Solo Ship. Tomino didn’t pull any punches.
Powers of the Mind
The final point to discuss is the mind powers that showed up in many classic Tomino anime shows. Aura Battler Dunbine (1983) had aura power, Mobile Suit Gundam and Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam had newtype abilities. Legendary Giant-God Ideon had the Id. Other shows had mind powers by other names. Tomino used mind powers in his classic anime to emphasize the grief that ensues when people forget their connection to society. In the anime, mind powers were a newly discovered phenomenon that allowed people to better connect with others. Newtype ability and aura power allowed people to sense others at great distances. It allowed insight into the emotions felt by others. These new abilities offered the promise of a new era. An age where people would have additional tools to help them understand each other. An age where it was harder for less outgoing people to be ignored. Sadly, in the anime stories where these mind powers surface people find ways of using them for war. Aura powers helped aura battlers move more quickly and win in battle so people with these abilities were recruited as pilots and sent to fight. Initially, newtype abilities helped people piloting mobile suits avoid enemy fire. Advanced technology let newtypes control sophisticated weapons like remote weapons (bits and funnels). People began to fear newtypes and what should have been a boon to society was instead used to tear it apart with distrust and more destructive fighting.
An Enduring Legacy
The popularity of Tomino’s classic science-fiction anime stories will endure for many years to come. The thoughtfulness he poured into his carefully constructed stories show through so well that their appeal spans the world. Understanding the themes he wanted to impart to his viewers helps us understand why he used the techniques he did. The next time you encounter a fan that scratches his or her head over some of the details of Tomino’s classic style perhaps you can help them to see what Tomino was probably getting at. If my speculations have missed the mark or if you have something to add feel free to leave a comment and speak your mind. I’d like to thank the Austin Otaku for valuable help in writing this piece.