Original “Airdate:” September 29th, 2006 on Bandai Channel
In the last installment of my sporadic coverage of the world of anime, I discussed Lupin The Third, a sprawling multimedia franchise that first appeared on TV in the 1970s and which subsequently grew like kudzu. The Gundam franchise makes Lupin look like a deep cut. Gundam also arose out of humble circumstances in the 1970s and basically took over the damn world. TVTropes calls Gundam “the Japanese equivalent of Star Trek.” Trek is probably the closest comparison possible, but it still doesn’t do Gundam justice, since Gundam is about twenty times more successful. Looking at TV alone, the Gundam-verse has spawned 19 series. That count doesn’t even include today’s offering, because Stargazer is a companion web series to Gundam’s 11th TV reincarnation, Mobile Suit Gundam SEED Destiny. In addition to TV, Gundam has spawned feature films, direct-to-dvd offerings, manga, video games, model kits and a garbage barge full of toys and other merchandise. Tokyo even plays host to a Gundam theme park. With 19 different shows, I somehow doubt this will be the last you’ll hear from me on this franchise.
It’s also worth noting the fact that this is a web-series. With Netflix, Hulu and Amazon offering critically acclaimed programming, it’s impossible to ignore web platforms in my quest for great TV, but I will have to apply some holistic metrics to determine whether or not any given web series is worth a review. There are a few factors working in Stargazer’s favor–it’s intimately connected to a traditional TV offering while standing on its own as a discrete story, it’s high-profile enough to merit coverage, it was distributed through an established, non-YouTube platform and the entire show gets in and out in less than an hour. It’s three 15-minute “episodes” long, and for the purposes of this review I watched all three. It also helps that it turned out to be really damn good–and sadly topical.
- Giant flying robots. Well, I don’t care about these so much, but I suspect that if you’re sniffing around the perimeter of Gundam you’ve got a vested interest in seeing super-cool giant flying robots, and here they are. It’s actually a pretty canny innovation on Gundam’s part. You want to create a space opera with a focus on war and internecine political conflict, but how do you set yourself apart from the pack? The answer turned out to be 86ing spacecraft-based combat and inserting giant flying robots piloted by vulnerable fleshy humans. Seems like it worked!
- Probing, elegant, multi-faceted exploration of war. Now, to Gundam fans Stargazer might be old hat. The series has long focused on war and conflict, since its titular draw is in fact war machines. It’s possible the franchise’s writers have been running out of fresh insights on the topic, since they’ve been covering that beat for 36 years. But to someone with absolutely no prior experience with Gundam, this was an unexpectedly insightful tour de force. The main theme here is the potential costs of the military-industrial complex’s encroachment on supposedly neutral scientific endeavor, but the show manages to touch on many evils in what amounts to a scathing indictment of warmongering. In this iteration of the Gundamverse, we’re presented with a scenario where genetically engineered superhumans known as Coordinators have established themselves on extraplanetary colonies, while Earth remains the domain of non-engineered humans, known as Naturals. Stargazer takes place in the immediate aftermath of the outbreak of a second brutal war between Earth and the colonies. The overarching story of this war is told in Destiny, while Stargazer focuses on the experience of two new characters during the conflict. Selene McGriff (Sayaka Ohara, XXXHOLiC) is a hotshot scientist at DSSD, a politically neutral space agency hoping to survey and develop areas beyond Mars. She’s working on a cutting-edge Gundam called Stargazer. It’s designed to explore space unaccompanied by humans thanks to advanced AI technology. The first 20 minutes of Stargazer chronicle the immediate aftermath of a cataclysmic attack from the colonial military that destroys, among other things, Beijing. Selene narrowly manages to get to an Earth-based DSSD launch-site to escort Stargazer to a DSSD space station. Meanwhile, we’re introduced to Sven Cal Bayang (Daisuke Ono, K), a soldier in an elite unit of the Earth military which is rapidly being mobilized. Ultimately, Sven leads an operation to claim Stargazer for the Earth army. It’s horrifying to see earnest, geeky, apolitical scientists get gunned down in cold blood, but we only reach this climax after running a gauntlet of similar horrors. During the opening attack, Selene is accompanied by her mentor/implicit lover, Edmond Du Clos (Jouji Nakata, Fate/stay night: Unlimited Blade Works.) Just as we’re starting to get a feel for who he is and the groove of his relationship with Selene, he dies horribly in a fight with an attacking Gundam so that Selene has enough cover to get to the launch site. When that Gundam finally gets brought down, it turns out it was being piloted by…child soldiers. In a video message, the children announce that their parents were all killed in the war by Naturals, and with dead eyes they swear vengeance. Seeing this, Sven’s colleague Mudie Holcroft (Rina Satou, Negima!?) parrots what she’s been taught: “The only good Coordinator is a dead Coordinator.” Before long, we’re seeing her terrified screams when she dies horribly. The child soldiers also mirror Sven’s history—he was once a happy and enthusiastic child with a fascination for astronomy and all things space related, but then his parents died in a terrorist attack and he became a ward of the state. After some A Clockwork Orange style brainwashing and reeducation, he’s turned into a dead-eyed soldier with no qualms about murdering the astronomers he didn’t get to become. When Sven’s normally gung-ho colleague Shams Couza (Hiroshi Kamiya, Angel Beats!) tells Sven of the plans to seize Stargazer, regardless of how many civilian personnel have to be killed, Sven’s only response is “I see.” A frustrated Shams bitterly replies, “You’re always like that…making that ‘It has nothing to do with me’ expression.” Indeed, earlier in the episode we saw Sven unblinkingly raze a refugee camp packed with civilians. He mildly asks his commanding officer if he’s to restrict himself to just killing terrorists. His CO replies, “Can you tell the terrorists apart from the refugees?” Sven replies that he can’t. “Well, that’s how it is.” And where does this all lead? The climactic battle ends with Selene and Sven improbably confined together in Stargazer, which is slowly heading back to Earth. It’s not entirely clear, but at the end of the episode it’s strongly implied they didn’t survive the trip home. This is the nature of war: a vicious cycle of humanity’s worst instincts cutting a swath of destruction through everything in its path. Regardless of the politics—regardless even of the outcome—nobody wins. All of the people we’re given any understanding of in this hour are destroyed. Humans get turned into cruel fighting machines, even when humans are trying to turn cruel fighting machines into benign space exploration tools. Stargazer may be the only “character” that really walks away from the fray, but what has it learned? Selene tries to teach it what she learned from Edmond—don’t look to the side to enviously compare and compete with those around you. Don’t look down for the purposes of self-aggrandizement. Look up. Look for the better nature. Look for hope. Look towards the stars. What else did the humans teach Stargazer?
- Opaque battle sequences. I’ve never been a fan of the action genre and especially not the war genre. It’s not necessarily because of any particular aversion to the content or the stories—though I’m not exactly a fan of the good old ultraviolence. A big factor, however, is that I hate not knowing what’s going on in a story. I don’t mean because of artsy surrealism or obfuscation. I get the sense that in the final battle scene here, I’m supposed to know exactly what’s going on. But I haven’t memorized which ships are on each side, because I’m not a hardcore Gundam nerd. I don’t know who’s speaking when their faces are mostly obscured by battle helmets, because I haven’t memorized the sounds of everyone’s voices. I understand what the outcome is when the hurlyburly’s done, but they might as well not show me the battle itself because it’s just a big chaotic mess. And from what I understand, that can be true of the fog of war as well—yelling and screaming and bullets ripping by and complete and utter disorientation. I gather that this is a feature and not a bug for some folks, but it actively gets in the way of my enjoyment because I can’t tell what the fuck is happening. Why not just skip the battle altogether if it’s only going to make sense after close study of the Gundam wiki, which for the record is perhaps the geekiest document on the planet?
Motivation: Survival. Unfortunately, everyone loses.
Final Series Judgment: 9/10. This was searingly on point and also had giant flying robots. What’s not to love? I’m not sure how it measures up to the rest of Gundam-–after 11 preceding TV shows, this might be well-covered ground—but as a newcomer, I was blown away. They really accomplish quite a bit in less than an hour.
NEXT TIME: I’ll struggle to turn in a review of Community that isn’t covered with biased fanboy slobber.