After many years I’ve finally watched the original 43 episodes of Mobile Suit Gundam (1979-80). Since my teenage years I’ve known the show in detail and didn’t feel it was important to sit through the low production values and dull music. It was so much a part of my younger years that the actual episodes seemed unnecessary. After watching it I can see that I shouldn’t have put it off so long. Although it’s not without its flaws the show really is a gem of mecha animation.
Each episode offers great action and characters with wide appeal. It is rightly recogized as one of the best television shows from Tomino’s golden age. It is popular in Japan to this day. I was surprised to find it airing on Japanese television in the early 2000’s right next to current shows.
Mobile Suit Gundam was easier to recognize and understand for general audiences. Aura Battler Dunbine is an example of a Tomino show that, while great, was harder for many people to get into. The strong World War II influence helped the show resonate with viewers all over the world. Many uniforms, action sequences and machines were instantly understood. Some fans mention western science-fiction influences like the beam sabers borrowing from Star Wars’ light sabers and the Musai cruiser being an inverted Enterprise from Star Trek but these were minor, cosmetic things. The main aesthetic came from the European theater of World War II.
The first of the Gundam TV series had the best storyline and pacing. Tomino put a lot of thought into the One Year War taking place through the 43 episodes. Major events and players in that war were woven into the episodes seamlessly giving later writers in the Gundam Universe much to work with. Some of the conflicts like Odessa Day and the battle for A Baoa Qu were too grand for the animation budget they could muster for a television show in 1979. It’s no surprise that so many side stories and alternate retellings have been made decades later.
Some things about First Gundam are hard to ignore, however. The awkward mecha designs still look silly even after years of admiration. Zeon’s Dabude tank, Zakrello mobile armor, Dopp fighter plane, etc. You may think that Nagano Mamoru contributed some crazy designs to Z Gundam but they were a marked improvement over so many oddballs from Moble Suit Gundam. The music for the show was quite poor. I enjoy many 70’s anime sound tracks and the style of the music doesn’t disagree with me but Studio Sunrise’s work on the show’s soundtrack resulted in dull, annoying songs that very few people will listen to today.
Stories set in the UC Gundam setting in later years would have done well to learn from the first show. Later entries in the Gundam franchise have sometimes veered into simple-minded anti-war propaganda (Gundam 0080 comes to mind) but the first show didn’t set that tone. Mobile Suit Gundam had a pragmatic view of war that didn’t glorify it in any way but had room for the heroics of the main characters and admiration for those who would risk their lives to defend their homes.
One particual issue that has bothered me over the years was later Gundam entries’ desire to write Newtype powers out of Gundam. Although Newtype powers were a subtle influence through much of the show’s run, the final episodes make it clear that Newtype abilities are a key feature of the UC Gundam setting.
It’s a shame I waited so long to watch the original episodes of Mobile Suit Gundam. Although later UC Gundam anime seems to have gotten stuck in the One Year War the first show makes it clear why so many people like that part of the Gundam timeline.