"SD Gundam Force": These Defenders Don't Come Up Short
Gundam is an odd beast. On the one side you have the artists, the Tominos and Imagawas, the guys more concerned with telling a worthwhile, enjoyable and memorable story. On the other you have the executives, the guys who couldn’t give a fudge about character development when it’s taking screentime from new model kits they want to promote. So what happens when you create a spin off which can appeal to wild imagination yet also focus quite easily on merchandise? You get Super Deformed Gundam.
Created roughly a decade after the original Gundam began, Super Deformed (or more commonly SD, as it will be referred to herein) Gundam has endured as a sub-franchise in its own right. For some it brings to mind classic characters in squashed down form for humerous parody. For others, its own branching series of comedy action adventures. It’s the latter which strongly inspired the franchise’s most recent animated work, Superior Defender Gundam Force. With the more standard Gundam series failing to catch on in America, Sunrise dusted off SD in order to try something a little different.
Our story begins in the not too distant future (next Sunday AD?). Humanity has managed to put all it’s current failings behind it and made Earth a utopian environment, where humans and robotic Mobile Citizens happily mingle. Of course, you can’t have plot without a conflict and it doesn’t take long for one to appear. Unknown to most of the populace of the central city of Neotopia, danger lurks in the form of the Dark Axis, robotic invaders from another world who seek to plunder each world they invade of it’s resources for a mysterious purpose. Given the series’ nature of parody/comedy/action, the Dark Axis aren’t quite the things nightmares are made of and their own bumbling nature makes it quite easy for their initial invasion attempt to land them quite far off from the city. One person who is there to see them however is Shute, a young boy from Neotopia. Dark Axis commanding officer Zapper Zaku gives the order to silence the human witness but Shute is luckily saved by the result of Neotopia’s own secret preparations for this conflict – Captain Gundam, a robotic defender. Thus begins the multi-dimension spanning adventures of Captain and Shute…
When news first broke about this series, many fans were ready to declare it a failure. I myself was in this crowd. However, early promos and rash decisions can often make you pass on a gem. Living in the UK, I kept up with the initial talkback threads and website updates and found myself warming to the series. When Bandai began releasing the show on DVD I imported them and finally had the chance to see the show in action myself.
I’m sure many fans could and have said “How can you like this show? It’s nothing like any other Gundam series!!” In other cases, such fans will go to ridiculous lengths such as calling it a ‘disgrace’ to Gundam or trying to invent excuses to somehow prove it not ‘real’ Gundam. To be honest, the fact that it’s so unlike other Gundam is probably why it appeals to me. As big a fan as I am, I believe Gundam itself is in a rut with the near constant re-use of the “Young man becomes Gundam pilot and becomes a legendary ace” plot. SD Gundam Force presents something new, whilst still tying back to the source material via various in jokes. Some are as obvious as the designs of the robot characters being based on existing Gundam mecha, others are more subtle like famous series quotes or Captain using the same technique Amuro did to defeat the Black Tri-Star’s Doms when he first faces Destroyer Dom. It’s all good natured fun and I believe anyone getting bent out of shape by this is taking their entertainment far too seriously.
The initial quarter of the series, however, remains a hurdle for even the series biggest fans. These initial episodes show alot of plot reuse such as a new character showing up to fight for each side (up until the Gundam Force and Dark Axis have at least 3 active members) and after that the repeated plotline of “Dark Axis brainwash Neotopia robot and turn it into a deadly weapon.” Whilst there are good elements to be had, these early episodes stand as the series worst. One of the greatest elements they introduce though is the Zako Zako Hour segments at the end of episodes. The Zakos are midget robot versions of the series famous Zaku II (their name itself is Japanese wordplay, meaning “tiny Zaku”) serving as the series generic villain henchmen. The Zako Zako Hour segments give them a chance to shine as they explain certain mysteries of the show and in general provide a great deal of hilarity. The comedy in these segments is top notch giggle material and I’ve often popped the discs in just to watch these segments alone. Not that we should expect anything less from the same writing team behind the cult Samurai Pizza Cats and Transformers: Robots In Disguise.
The characters are a mixed bunch, providing a nice range. The 3 main Gundams are each drawn from the three major SD worlds. Captain is a human built sentient robot, sworn to defend innocents. Zero is a magically born Knight Gundam, loyal to the captured royal family of a conquered land based on Gundam Wing. Bakunetsumaru is techno-organic Musha (samurai) Gundam, eager to see an end to the civil war ragining in his G Gundam inspired homeland. There are also various allied human characters including Shute, who thankfully most of the time manages to avoid the typical role of kid characters and isn’t just a useless cheerleader. Instead, he is quite willing to do his part in life or death scenarios. Over time relationships evolve. Captain is able to act more human through his interactions with Shute, Bakunetsumaru and Zero grow to respect each others standing as fine warriors and the initial Dark Axis force might just be deeper than the 2D bad guys they first appear to be. This development is neatly wrapped around the show’s 2nd quarter, which sets the standard for the rest of the show. In contrast to the early episodes which many critics use to judge the entire series, the show starts to get darker and more serious. Forces working in the shadows step forth and hints are dropped of major events in the future that our heroes will need to stand togethor against if they hope to prevail. This is where we reach a major problem – the second half of the show was never released in the US. Seemingly a result of more poor planning by Sunrise, the second half was a major step up in which the show finally extended beyond the Neotopia backdrop and introduced a good few shades of grey. The final episode released in America, episode 26, ends on a clear and teasing cliffhanger for these events. With about the only possibilities for seeing these episodes being the option of Bandai selling them on Amazon Unbox or learning a foreign language and importing one of the various official Asian DVD sets, it’s a major loss especially as I believe these episodes could have turned many critics of the show into fans.
Animation-wise, the show is completely cell shaded. I have mixed opinions on this, especially the view that Sunrise’s stance of using their flagship brand as awkward tests for this technology is a bad idea. There are certain benefits, such as the sometimes impressive inclusion of motion capture, but there are also several downsides. These include characters lacking a sense of gravity and objects clashing. Many times a character will move his arm, only to send his shoulder armour THROUGH his torso. It’s not quite on par with a bad student animation but it doesn’t look quite professional. It also seems to suffer from copy+paste mentality. For example, in one scene Bakunetsumaru draws both his swords but a third can be seen sat in one of his scabbards.
Casting wise, I believe this may be my favourite English Gundam cast ever. Much like their choice of writing staff, Bandai drew from actors more commonly known for projects such as the Digimon dubs. Some are less than impressive ( Dominic Joseph voices his villain characters with a poor “RAR, I AM EVIL, RAR!” effort) but the majority do a stand out job. I give specific praise to Doug Erholtz, who plays Captain Gundam and recurring villian Grappler Gouf. The two characters have little in common, giving Erholtz a chance to show his talent by creating distinct voices for both. He manages to make Captain sound perfectly like a friendly but capable robot warrior who’s puzzling his way through human emotion and Grappler sound like a calculating yet cocky villain. If you asked me to highlight two specific moments of his work with each character I’d say his work as Captain in the mid-series finale where he manages to have the character display a righteous anger at his opponents for their crimes and for Grappler a sadistic moment from that character’s first appearance where after firing a missle at a trapped Captain he coldly quips “Time to say goodnight, kiddies!”
Bandai has currently released the first half of the show on nine DVDs, averaging about three episodes per disc. As the English language version of the show was completed before the Japanese version, the former is the only one presented here. The DVD menus are static images using promotional art of the characters and there are no extras. That’s kind of a shame but I can’t really think of anything they could have offered here (if the discs had come later, I’d have loved to have seen the Zako puppet using commercials Japan aired for a while).
Personally, I don’t think enough fans gave this show the chance it deserved. I’d highly suggest giving the show a second chance and definitely learning about the second half. This isn’t your standard Gundam war epic but then SD never tries to be. This is a fun super robot show with some pop culture humour and the chance to geek out at how many Gundam references you can catch. Whilst the show isn’t complete in the US currently, buying the available nine discs will give you at least the first complete story arc and thus Bandai isn’t leaving us hanging too badly. So don’t be put off, give it a shot. And remember, for the glory of the Dark Axis- ZAKO SOLDIERS FIGHT!!