It’s a theme common in the Universal Century Gundam series that Earth is the birthplace of all conflict. To remain on Earth when we are capable of space travel is to find, as Char has it, “(our) souls … pulled down by [its] gravity.” The vastness of space is where humans evolve into Newtypes, after all, transcending their selfishness. Even battles there seem purer than those on Earth, consisting as they do of graceful, almost balletic duels between angelic mobile suits; even the resulting deaths seem ethereal. When Lieutenant Slegger perishes at the climax of the Battle of Solomon in the original Gundam, there is no blood, just the sight of his body drifting, quiet and weightless, through.
At first, The 08th MS Team seems dedicated to proving this dichotomy. No sooner do spacenoids Shiro Amada and Michel Ninorich land in the jungles of Southeast Asia for a tour in one of the Federation’s guerrilla mobile suit units (the titular 08th MS Team) than they find themselves complaining about how unclean it all is.”God, what a smell. All the trees …” groans Michel, while Shiro, more brusque than his fussy friend, cuts to the point: “The Earth can be really nasty, can’t it?” Indeed, it’s hard not to agree with Shiro’s later disbelief that “people actually live here!” after a botched battle sends him scurrying through a jungle full of leeches, bogs, and a smothering humidity so great it’s visible.
Sympathy comes easy partly because of the series’ slow beginning. The first episode is a tense encounter in outer space that involves daring aerial maneuvers between battleships and mobile suit duels with clear stakes and choreography; the subsequent three are something of a snooze by comparison, muddled as they are by uninteresting direction and clumsily staged skirmishes. Squadmates Sanders, Karen, and Elledore are likable enough—and their camaraderie well enough established that later episodes will mine these dynamics for sincere emotional payoff when the squad’s bonds are tested by a manipulative commanding officer—but feel similarly undirected. Of the three, only Sanders seems to have any personal investment in these battles; the rest of the cast feel at first like unruly children forced to attend a wretched summer camp more than soldiers staring down death. They fidget, chafe against the boredom and the unfairness of it, and so does the viewer.
It is the series’ visual power (here accentuated by Nozomi’s impeccable Blu-ray transfer) that holds our interest in these duller moments and that elevates it to something remarkable. The 08th MS Team has always been one of the most visually arresting Gundam titles, thanks in no small part to an incredibly sharp color palette that favors the rich browns and verdant greens of the jungle but which also has no trouble finding arid golds or glacial blues when the setting moves to a desert expanse or alpine ranges. The animation is similarly striking: mobile suits are rendered with a presence that makes them feel not like oversized humans but the lumbering engines of war they are. This presence then lends the war a sense of consequence: whether watching Shiro bludgeon Zeonic ace Norris Packard with the severed arm of his Ez8 Gundam or the exhaust from a fleeing Zaku obliterate a guerrilla base by accident, one cannot help but feel the weight of these events. Later reflection might make elements of the series’ human drama seem absurd, yes—the core romance between Aina and Shiro is particularly overblown, naive when compared to the complexities of the larger war—but in the moment the conflicts are so immediate and the stakes so real that they command attention.
So while this aesthetic makes it hard to disagree with Shiro’s own complaints about his travails, it ultimately reveals Char’s musings about the evils of Earth not as penetrating insight but as a cynical canard. What one best remembers of The 08th MS Team are those moments of real grace: Amuro and Lalah may have their moment of trippy, transcendent love in space, but sights like that of Eledore seated atop a Gundam’s rifle as the water sent up from a defeated Acguy splashing into a lake falls on him like rain possess a lyrical beauty unmatched anywhere else in the franchise. Even if Earth is a “doomed mudball,” as Zeonic officer Yuri Kellamy has it, it’s still hard to imagine anyone abandoning this gem for the cold beauty of space and the colonies.
studio/company: Nozomi Entertainment
rating: Not Rated