(Welcome to Ani-time Ani-where, a regular column dedicated to helping the uninitiated understand and appreciate the world of anime.)
It’s taken some time, but it’s finally time to address the Gundam franchise in this column. Mobile Suit Gundam is arguably the biggest anime franchise there is, and one of the biggest media franchises around. In many ways, it is Japan’s answer to Star Wars, and much like the galaxy far, far away, the Gundam franchise includes so many entries, timelines, and universes that it can be incredibly daunting for newcomers. So let’s explore the easiest (and best) way to dip your toes into this massive property — by watching the excellent Mobile Suit Gundam: The 08th MS Team.
Set right in the midst of the One Year War that both kickstarted and also defined much of Gundam, The 08th MS Team moves away from the epic space battles and instead focuses on a grounded, grittier side of the war. Deep in the jungles in Southeast Asia, we meet a Federation soldier named Shiro Amada who, after a fateful encounter with separatist Zeon soldier Aina Sahalin, starts to question the nature of the war and whether he really wants to fight the other side instead of running away and marrying an enemy soldier.
What starts as the misadventures of a dysfunctional group of soldiers quickly escalates into an exploration of the pointlessness of war, with a poignant anti-war message. Oh, and there are also giant robots with laser swords.
What Makes It Great
First things first. This ’90s show came in nearly 20 years after the original Mobile Suit Gundam show, but even though it doesn’t feel the need to over-explain things to the audience, it also makes it accessible for complete newbies. Like in Star Wars, or Legend of the Galactic Heroes, there are two factions at war, but unlike the former (and more similar to the latter), this is not as simple as an evil Empire and the noble Rebels. Both the Federation and the Zeon have seen evil people performing crimes against humanity, and also plenty of sympathetic people — but more on this later.
What makes the show, and the franchise, so great is its affinity for sympathetic and complex characters. Rather than focusing on the big picture, the generals and commanders that make history and command huge armies like the original Gundam, The 08th MS Team is all about the average grunt soldier enduring the horrors of war. The members of our titular 08th Mobile Suit Team all have unique personalities, backgrounds and personal struggles that they overcome throughout the season. We see how they go from mistrusting to relying on one another and building unbreakable bonds. For example, there’s Terry, nicknamed “The Reaper” by other soldiers because his units always get killed. He starts out alienated by other soldiers and with huge insecurity because of his bad luck, but learns to open up to his new team. Even the soldiers on the Zeon side get some time to shine, though not as much as you’d expect given the show’s message of empathizing with your enemy.
Then there’s Shiro and Aina, our lead couple on opposite sides of a war. The 08th MS Team is the rare Gundam show that’s centered on an actual romance, and the show really sells their relationship. Their scenes together may not be extensive, but they are emotionally raw and passionate, and you get the sense that they have each other’s back even if they are on opposite sides of the war. Meanwhile, their voice acting makes this blossoming romance feel real enough that you understand why they’d risk so much for it.
In a show about giant robots set in space, it’s not easy to really grasp the enormity of the mobile suits, but The 08th MS Team really puts a lot of effort into portraying weight that sets the show apart from the rest of the franchise. Maybe it’s because this was an OVA (Original Video Animation) and the makers had more time to pay attention to every tiny detail, but the result is simply astounding. The ground erupts whenever a mobile suit falls down, or gets smashed through a cityscape, and tons of debris fly as the Gundams fall. Characters constantly make reference to the huge scale of the mobile suits, and mention how they are armed with anti-personnel mines that can maim footsoldiers.
A scene where a team of mobile suits threaten a small village becomes terrifying because the animators play with the huge differences in scale, which will make fans of Attack on Titan nod. The show also does an interesting thing in that it treats the mobile suits like actual bodies, and whenever they fight, oil fluid gets spilled like blood.
What It Adds to the Conversation
The 08th MS Team doesn’t have a grander message about the future of mankind or the rise of fascism, but is grounded in its portrayal of how the stories of average soldiers get lost in the grand scheme of things.
Sticking to the show’s grounded approach, the focus is on everyday things, like when a soldier’s girlfriend is getting afraid because he hasn’t written her in too long, or whether a soldier’s dream of having a song of his play on the radio will come true. As for the mobile suits, The 08th MS Team pays attention to the mechanics of the behemoths. They are production models that break down constantly, and a lot of the show is dedicated to showing soldiers having to fix their mobile suits on the fly — even in the middle of combat.
Since this is a Gundam show, there’s bound to be an anti-war message under all the cool fighting. Unlike most shows in the franchise, however, The 08th MS Team doesn’t let its flashy fight scenes with robots wielding laser swords get in the way of its message. The fights are ugly, the deaths have gravitas, and the soldiers are afraid to die and know that they may die for nothing. As cool as the action may look at first, the show makes sure you don’t feel the same way by the time it’s over.
Because we don’t follow commanders and generals, and because the show doesn’t really dive into philosophy or politics, it becomes mostly about the bureaucracy of war and the profit of war. The true main villain is not a commander, or even an ace pilot, but a weapons designer who cares not for the men working for him, but with enhancing his latest creation. Because the show is centered around two soldiers from both sides of the conflict, The 08th MS Team explores atrocities being committed by both sides before it ends.
Why Non-Anime Fans Should Check It Out
Mobile Suit Gundam is the quintessential anime franchise. An epic, long-spanning exploration of the pointlessness of war that features fantastic world-building and giant robots. The 08th MS Team perfectly boils down everything that makes the franchise great into a self-contained story. The characters are memorable, the action is stunning, the romance is compelling, and it introduces a larger conflict and world without being overwhelming. If you’ve never seen a Gundam show before, now’s the time to do it, and this is the show to start with.
Watch This If You Like: Legend of the Galactic Heroes, Star Wars, Code Geass
The 08th MS Team is streaming on Hulu.
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