Mobile Suit Gundam: The Origin features some of the most top-rate action animation made in years.
“Prequel saga” is a phrase that, at this point, elicits otaku dread and disappointment. After all, how much do we really want to see our favorite heroes and villains back when they were sad kids? The answer, as it turns out, depends on realizing that auteur theory—the idea that a director is the “author” of a movie above all others, even the writer—might just be a bunch of baloney. For just as we’ve discovered that so much of what made Star Wars great were things George Lucas DIDN’T do, so too has it gone with Mobile Suit Gundam, the gold standard of giant robot warfare anime that has inspired so much since. We call director Yoshiyuki Tomino “the creator of Gundam” but upon review of his later work along with a mountain of interviews and essays it’s clear he really, REALLY didn’t do it alone.
Yoshikazu Yasuhiko’s official credits for the first Gundam are generally limited to technical matters, such as character design or animation direction. But it was always telling that YAS was then credited as the co-director for the third film of the original Gundam trilogy, which featured the largest amount of changes from the initial television series … and is also often considered the best of the set. Twenty years of candid interviews and articles later, YAS then spent a decade writing and drawing Gundam: The Origin, a manga retelling of the first Gundam where events transpire the way HE thinks they should’ve gone … and it was so phenomenal that we now have a Gundam: The Origin anime in which Yasuhiko has returned from his decades-long exile from the anime industry (see sidebar) to oversee the task of bringing his comic to life. (Yes, it’s obviously his character designs in Gundam Unicorn, but he made those for the novels, okay?!)
With a title like Gundam: The Origin you expect some sort of well, origin of Gundam. But that didn’t happen in the manga until the fifth and sixth volume of Vertical’s English release—halfway through!—at which point we got the Berserk-like extended flashback sequence that encapsulates what this four-part anime series covers. Now retroactively referred to as the Char/Sayla Collection, contained within is a tale that has always been alluded to in passing but never told in detail within the anime medium: what, specifically, transpired in the years leading up to where the first Gundam began? How did the war between the Federation and the Zeon come about? What made them develop giant humanoid robots for doing battle? And if they were of such political significance following the assassination of their father, how did the boy born as Casval Rem Deikun end up becoming the iconic masked antagonist/anti-hero “Char Aznable, the Red Comet” for the Zeon forces while his beloved younger sister Artesia Som Deikun ended up becoming Sayla Mass with the Federation without anybody knowing of their true identities?
It’s this last question that The Origin focuses on most closely over the 11 years it unfolds. Under the pen of an event-focused writer such as George Lucas or Yoshiyuki Tomino, this would probably be the absolute last thing a Gundam fan would ever want to watch, especially because we’re talking about a timeframe that precedes Gundam robots even existing. But Yoshikazu Yasuhiko cares about these characters, particularly the incidental ones we didn’t get to see too much of in Mobile Suit Gundam before they met their ends. Characters aren’t just chess pieces on a board; an extensive amount of time is spent on fleshing out the backgrounds of not just Char and Sayla, but also cult fan favorites such as the duo of Ramba Ral and Crowley Hamon, the Black Tri-Star trio, the various members of the Zabi family, and others who are unique to just this tale. The longtime Gundam fans to whom this is aimed will find it more tragic knowing their ultimate fates after getting to spend time with them, and such is the Hell of war, but first-time viewers shouldn’t have trouble following along. It is the beginning, after all!
Gundam anime almost always looks good, but The Origin features some of the most top-rate action animation made in years; the legend of YAS demands nothing less. Still, the most memorable aspect of the animation isn’t that stuff blows up with aplomb—and boy does it ever—but that those brief little moments of exaggerated, cartoony reactions that are peppered throughout YAS’s manga are retained for the animation. As Attack on Titan fans will attest, a little bit of levity in your otherwise grim war goes a long, long way toward making characters likeable, and it’s the sort of thing that was desperately needed for subsequent Tomino anime made without Yasuhiko’s involvement. Yoshiyuki Tomino famously doesn’t think highly of any Gundam anime that he wasn’t in charge of, and The Origin is no exception. But the difference in relatability and coherence between the recent “main timeline”/“Universal Century” Gundam anime created without Tomino’s involvement, such as Unicorn, Thunderbolt, The Origin, and recently Twilight Axis, is quite drastic compared to that of Tomino’s Reconguista in G, ostensibly set millennia later.
If there’s one criticism I would levy toward Gundam: The Origin, it’s that it is guilty of falling into the common prequel trap of having our characters be directly involved in EVERYTHING major that happened in the past. As if Char wasn’t already ruthless enough, now we get to see how he was involved with the start of the cataclysmic One Year War, the very first Mobile Suit battle, and even a few noteworthy character pairings. Plus, he’s got the sickest moves on the basketball court! No wonder future titles such as Code Geass were conceived with the basic premise of “what if we had a character like Char, only he was just straight-up the hero?” At least Amuro Ray remains a slob otaku. Now there’s someone I can relate to!
Despite originally being planned for just these four episodes that effectively cover the Char/Sayla “origin story,” the success of Gundam: The Origin was so great that two additional episodes have been announced, the first of which will be available by the time you read this for those dedicated enough to pay Japanese prices. Luckily, it’s not like they’re short on material, since Yoshikazu Yasuhiko’s manga covers all sorts of unexplored ground that can easily be fitted into the main continuity without contradicting matters.
Mobile Suit Gundam: The Origin—Chronicle Of Char and Sayla Collection is available from Right Stuf/Nozomi Entertainment.