F91 and the Problem with Gundam Pacifism

by Raymond H

Gundam F91 has all of the franchise's flaws and none of its strengths
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I really wanted to like Mobile Suit Gundam F91. Usually when you hear someone say something along those lines, it indicates that the speaker had some sort of emotional investment with the story before even starting it. However, in my case, I had no real knowledge of what Gundam F91 was about, or what to expect, other than the fact that it was originally planned as a tv series, before a troubled production forced director Yoshiyuki Tomino to turn the first 13 episodes’ storyboards into a movie. It shows. It really shows. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

So first off, for those of you who have never heard of Gundam or who know the name but don't know the details, the original 1979 Mobile Suit Gundam is basically what happens when your producers want to make a super duper robot action show while your writers want to make a serious, gripping war drama. How can two such radically different ideas coalesce properly, you ask? Simple, by taking the tropes and conventions common to a lot of mecha shows and coming up with realistic reasons for them to exist. The teenage protagonists? Military brats who have to take over once the soldiers on their base are all killed in the starting episode's siege. The masked rival? A fallen prince with a quest for vengeance and a need to hide his identity to fulfill said quest. And the super duper fighting robots? Merely the culmination of a series of subtle factors employed in the world-building, based on then-cutting-edge science and actual military history. See, in the world of Gundam, or at least in the Universal Century timeline (more on that in a bit), man has colonized the stars, or at least, the Lagrangian points in Earth's orbit. And as a result, the creoles living on the Lagrangian colonies and the moon have a distant and often frictional relationship with their planetary peninsulars. And, as with the ancient European colonies in the Americas, sometimes this friction results in open rebellion and warfare. This conflict between the colonizing Terrans and the colonial Lagrangians is the central pillar upon which rests each new tv series and movie set in the Universal Century timeline of Gundam. Sometimes when the franchise-runners want to try something new and experimental, they'll make a new timeline with a new set of rules, but the "main", UC Gundam series, of which Gundam F91 is a part, operates under these principles and themes.

Oh, yes, those subtle factors, you ask? Simple really. With the successful development of gas farms on Jupiter, the Earth has an abundant supply of hydrogen and helium with which to develop cheap and easy fusion energy systems for all. Oh, also a scientist by the name of Minovsky has discovered that helium 3 can be used to make a fascinating little particle with the ability to completely wreck any long-rage, electronics guided system. As a result of this, militaries have to adapt by developing a weapon that relies on human sight and is just as maneuverable in microgravity, earth-gravity, and the various levels in between found throughout the various space colonies. Enter the mobile suit, a mecha first developed by the Principality of Zeon (the antagonists of the first series), and enough of a game-changer for everybody to want in (similar to the game-changing status of tanks in WWI). Those of you more familiar with engineering and military history are probably still scratching your heads, but hey, at least the writers were trying.

Unfortunately, after the original MSG became a hit, and it exploded from a simple tv show to a full-on franchise, the writers eventually stopped that nonsense. As with everything that gets popular, people soon forgot just why those things got popular in the first place, and copied the surface-level details without bothering to think through the mechanics beneath the surface. But Raymond, you say, you said it yourself! Gundam F91 was directed by Yoshiyuki Tomino! The man behind MSG's original success! Surely with him behind the wheel, nothing can go wrong!

Exhibit A

Oh, you whisper. Oh god.

Yes, I know. Now then, back to my original point.

The reason I really wanted to like Gundam F91 is that all the elements of a compelling story are there. And in the first 20 minutes or so, the chaotic and overwhelming pace of the film actually works to its favor, because it starts with the Crossbone Vanguard (the antagonists) attacking the colony where our protagonists live, and we’re treated to an engaging sequence of our heroes frantically running around, looking for a way out of this sudden war zone. It’s fast, brutal, and ultimately satisfying when our heroes manage to make it to safety, but not before losing a few people along the way. Also, I loved the idea of the deuteragonist, Cecily Fairchild, unknowingly being a Crossbone princess, and being forced back into the Vanguard, to serve as the audience surrogate who introduces us to the “bad guys” and allows us to see their hidden complexity. It’s a much more compelling way to get us to engage with the Gundam antagonists than the worthy opponent of Char Aznable from Mobile Suit Gundam or the mad Titan of Paptimus Scirocco from Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam, and if we had been given some quiet moments with the people that made up the Crossbone Vanguard, I think Gundam F91 would be one of the more well-regarded UC titles.

Unfortunately, we get no such quiet moments. Ever. The fast and frantic pacing that aided the film in its first 20 minutes only serves to destroy any good will the audience had in its remaining 95. By the 1 hour mark I was screaming internally for the blasted movie to just ENNND because I no longer cared about what happened to any of the characters because the movie hadn’t given me any time to care about them. It just continued to steamroll along, presenting the barest bones of its plot and character elements without giving the viewer any time to digest. If my only gripe with the film was this hurried pacing though, I would not have written this article. Rather, my biggest gripe with Gundam F91 is that, thanks to it presenting only the barest of bones, I was able to notice something that had been bugging me about a lot of other Gundam shows, but which I had never been able to put into words.

Gundam has always relied on the principle of war being hell. How well this argument is presented with the presence of super duper fighting robots is a widely discussed and debated topic. However, a less widely discussed and debated topic is the counterargument Gundam makes to war. One would think that, if Gundam is an anti-war series, then it must be pro-something-else. Several Gundam series have done just that. Gundam 00, despite doing so in a hamfisted way, made a halfway decent argument that mutually assured destruction is no replacement for diplomacy, which inevitably is the only way true peace can be achieved. However, despite banging the “war is hell” gong all day long, Gundam F91 never really gives a compelling alternative to the war presented in its story. More than that, Seabook Arno represents perhaps the worst type of Gundam protagonist, who not only insists that violence is wrong under any circumstances, but who continuously segregates the idea of violence into the world of adults, to which he, as a teenager, does not belong. Unlike Kamille Bidan, who had a similarly Salinger-esque worldview at the beginning of Zeta Gundam before he got the shit kicked out of him time and time again (no, seriously, that's how it happened), Seabook never really learns that life isn’t as cut-and-dried or black-and-white as he initially believes. Or maybe he did. I wouldn’t know, what with a new plot point whizzing by me every second in this movie.

Here's the thing I don’t think many people get about peace: it takes EFFORT. You cannot simply whine at someone like a petulant child and expect them to realize, oh yes, I’m a very bad person for going to war and I need to stop. And yet, that’s pretty much what Seabook, and various other Gundam protagonists like him, do. They talk about adults as if they were some species of morally corrupt, repugnant entities, without ever stopping to try and understand just why they might be fighting in the first place. War is bad, end of story, full-stop. If you participate in war, you are bad, end of story, full-stop. But I’m not bad, I’m good. And I must deliver platitudes from my cockpit, because that will totally solve every problem that led to this conflict forever.

War does not happen in a vacuum. Even if the leaders behind the war have corrupt and selfish reasons for starting it, they cannot rally enough popular support to sustain a military unless there are already societal anxieties and/or desires that can be exploited, and Gundam truly shines when it manages to show this. Also, it should be mentioned that pacifist protagonists can create compelling stories. Shu from Now and Then, Here and There and Vash from Trigun are great examples of this. But the thing is, Shu and Vash suffer immensely for their ideals, because pacifism requires tremendous self-sacrifice. You can’t be a pacifist and expect to emerge from a war unscathed. Even emerging alive is unlikely. Oskar Schindler and Paul Rusesabagina may have survived their respective wars, but history is full of people who died so that others might survive in war.

And that, I think leads to the main problem I have with Gundam F91. It doesn’t really allow its characters to suffer. Sure, they lose friends and homes and other things, but we never really see them grieve or undergo any character development because of this. To fit this story into a movie, the film-makers excised everything from the plot except giant robots fighting and the message of “War is bad, you guys!”, and as a result, the final product feels hollow and hypocritical. That’s a real shame, because I honestly really like Gundam, and I really love it when it manages to tell a compelling war story. But Gundam F91 has all of Gundam’s flaws and none of its strengths, and so, no matter how much I wanted to like it, in the end I simply can’t.

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Comments (go to latest)
Arthur B at 12:26 on 2018-07-08
So first off, for those of you who have never heard of Gundam or who know the name but don't know the details, the original 1979 Mobile Suit Gundam is basically what happens when your producers want to make a super duper robot action show while your writers want to make a serious, gripping war drama.

Once upon a time the Picturehouse Cinema in Oxford did a sci-fi all-nighter. This was built around a special preview showing of 28 Days Later, which managed to be extra-scary when nobody in the cinema was expecting zombies, and included (among other things) a screening of Evangelion: Death and Rebirth - which was exactly as hilarious as you'd expect it to be when you're just plunged into it with no prior context.

The person introducing that discussed how they considered Evangelion to be pioneering because of the way it adopted this questioning approach to whether it's even moral to expect teenagers to pilot giant mecha, or whether that's nothing more than a SFnal update of the old kamikaze idea and unworthy of a nation and a world which has made such errors in the past.

The reason I tell this anecdote is that, after watching the movie condensation of the original Mobile Suit Gundam series, I realised that this was bunk. Evangelion is fun because it's trippy bullshit; as far as the pacifism goes, Gundam did it decades earlier, and better.
https://arilou-skiff.livejournal.com/ at 16:50 on 2018-07-08
I haven't actually seen F91, but I *have* seen other Gundam stuff, and I can already tell that F91 seems to be not only very Gundam but very, very Tomino.

Now, I think, to be fair, the "Adults are corrupt" is a position that makes much more sense in Tomino's position: He was born in 1941. He grew up in the aftermath of a world seemingly destroyed by the senseless actions of adults, just like there was a reaction in Germany against the parental generation for the atrocities they committed and the refusal to take responsibility, there was something similar (though less comperehensive) happening in Japan at the time. (combine this with Cold War apathy and the general political culture in the 70's and you can easily see where Tomino is coming from) And it's not just him either, there are other stuff of the same generation that reads kind of similar, there being a real tension between the new generation, who grew up in peace and prosperity trying to figure out why the hell their parental generation seemingly went bananas, and then tried to convince them everything was normal.

"What did you do in the war?" has a very different tone when asking it to your german or japanese grandparent than your american one.

The "Run headfirst into things and seemingly not explain stuff" is actually another of Tomino's signature moves: He tends to show rather than tell (or tell you in oblique terms) like in Zeta trying to figure out what the heck is going on (especially without any previous guide sor having only watched the origianl series) is a huge challenge. Plenty his series don't even get basic stuff (like "Who the heck are the guys fighting?") until halfway into the show. I think the most interesting case of this is probably his last series: G-reco. Which very clearly and deliberately explains basically nothing. (I'm not sure it's a *good* show but it is an interesting one, and has some great bits of incidental animation)

So it's not just about pacifism, although that's a part of it, but it is also a rejection of the last generation enmeshing their children in the web of loyalties, conflicts, etc, that they were a part of. I honestly think the "War is bad" part isn't *that* central (as mentioned, it's a war show, and the kids do eventually fight) so much as it is the kids eventually engaging with the war on their terms, and not on that of the adults. (successfully or not)

But Tomino at his most Tomino is still probably Victory Gundam. That show manages to mix everything (an even more kid pilot than usual, a frantic, bizzarre setting with little explanation, lots of weird imagery (robots that are basically giant wheels! Space guillotines!) psychics! Weird gender politics! Character developments that are kind of hinted at but never explored! Etc. etc. It's in many ways bad, but I can't hate it because it's such a distillation of the Tomino-ness of Gundam. (and it has some pretty good visuals at times)
Raymond H at 10:15 on 2018-07-09
You went to Oxford? Somehow I can see that...

The person introducing that discussed how they considered Evangelion to be pioneering because of the way it adopted this questioning approach to whether it's even moral to expect teenagers to pilot giant mecha, or whether that's nothing more than a SFnal update of the old kamikaze idea and unworthy of a nation and a world which has made such errors in the past.

Yeeeah, I...Evangelion is about a lot of things, but I never thought it was about kamikaze ideas or anything like that. I always thought it was more an examination of depression and the human desire for control and happiness in the vast and uncaring void that is our universe. So, y'know, if Lovecraft did a mecha series. But yeah, when Gundam is great, it's AMAZING.

That's an interesting way of looking at it. Not to sound like a reactionary old fart, but that attitude you described is probably one of the reasons the wave finally died. Sure, it's fine to say something is wrong, but again, what alternative do you propose? As you say, sometimes the Gundam protagonists find such alternatives, but other times they simply come across as immature and childish.

As for Victory Gundam, I honestly think that's the only UC thing I haven't seen yet (except for...you know...). Might I ask if you've seen After War X and if so, if it's any good?
https://arilou-skiff.livejournal.com/ at 09:47 on 2018-07-10
@Raymond H

I have indeed seen Gundam X. (the ones I haven't seen, and that's "started but never finished" is Iron Blooded Orphans, AGE, Turn A and Wing, and I started all of those at some point before dropping them for various reasons)

Gundam X is good. It's not the best of Gundam, and in some ways it feels a lot less gritty war drama and a lot more somewhat less ostentatious super robot show, there is a MacGuffin Princess whose relationship with the main character is actually pretty sweet. There's psychic space dolphins. The "early villains inevitably getting hit by character development" is pretty decent. Etc.

It's not my favourite Gundam (though I know some people who love it to bits) but it's pretty good.
Raymond H at 10:50 on 2018-07-10
Okay, thank you. I've been thinking of watching it for a while now for all the good things you just listed (except the dolphins, I didn't know about that), but never had the chance.

Oh god, Iron Blooded Orphans. I was there! I was there IN JAPAN for its premiere! And my host father, who was a teenager when the very first MSG came out, and who is the single biggest Gundam fan I've ever met, we were both glued to the television when it first premiered, and after it was over, we both just sort of exchanged awkward glances and went "Nnneh? Maybe...it'll get better in the next episode?" By Episode 3 we were cursing all the time we'd lost watching it. Also for his birthday I got Otou-san a DVD set of G-Reco, and he accepted it in that awkward way you do when you hate the gift but love the giver, and I was so surprised by this reaction that I went online to read the series' reviews, and then smacked myself upside the head for not having done that before the gift-buying. Ah, good times. :)
https://arilou-skiff.livejournal.com/ at 13:06 on 2018-07-13
The thing is, I've mostly heard good things about IBO, and that it does some decently interesting things with the "broken child soldiers" premise. I was mostly just turned off by the artstyle.

G-reco is a weird, weird show. But like most other Tomino stuff there is a lot of stuff to like there, the animation is really lively for instance, and there's lot of incidental stuff (one example is that in one scene the main character enters the room wearing a spacesuit and bumps his head on the doorframe while the other people are talking, it's not a joke really, or noted by the other characters, it's just something that goes on in the background, and there's a ton of stuff like that)

Raymond H at 06:53 on 2018-07-15
Yeah, they're broken child soldiers, but they're broken in the same sense a lot of superheroes from the 90's were, i.e. "Crawling in my skin, these wounds, they will not heal. Come, bask in the glow of my smoldering, generic rage." Like, they're only broken in the sense that women may swoon and men may secretly wish to be just as broken as them, and even if people die, war is shown as this manly thing, where manly men prove their manliness as they man up in the face of mantastic odds. But yes, the otaku-pandering moe art style is another deeply annoying factor.

Yeah, the main complaint I heard about the show was simply that too much happened at too fast a pace to really understand what was going on. Apart from that it looked interesting, albeit, as you said, very, very weird.
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