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"Gundam Unicorn Volume 1" Is Expensive But Outstanding

This is not the review I expected to write. When the the six-part OVA Mobile Suit Gundam Unicorn (a.k.a. Gundam UC) was first announced in 2009 as the flagship commemoration of the long-running Gundam franchise’s 30th anniversary, I was hoping for a high-quality product with strong characterization and thrilling giant robot action, but I was also expecting something for die-hard fans only—those who had been watching Gundam titles for years and knew most of what there is to know. After all, it takes place in the latter part of Gundam‘s main chronology, the Universal Century, with far more history behind it (eight animated works) than in front of it (two).

But while this first episode is indeed a treat for veteran fans, it is also the best introduction for a new viewer short of watching the original Mobile Suit Gundam. The key to Gundam Unicorn‘s accessibility lies in the fact that it exists as a sequel while daring to be a sweeping story that, we are told, has been in the making for generations. As such, throughout the episode the viewer is offered a concise reintroduction to Gundam history that offers more than enough information to understand the context of the story and why its events matter.

The story of the original Gundam takes place in Universal Century 0079, but our story opens with a literal bang in the year 0001. As a unified Earth Federation begins the process of colonizing outer space in earnest and brings the Anno Domini calendar to an end, its Prime Minister optimistically addresses humanity from his residence on the space colony Laplace. As he is in the midst of declaring an new age of prosperity free of the divisions of the past, a terrorist attack tears the colony apart.

Fast forward to UC 0096. After a succession of bloody conflicts between the Earth Federation and the space colonist independence movement Zeon, the Federation’s power reigns while a “Neo-Zeon” remnant force known as “The Sleeved” continue to offer resistance. One of their ships heads for the Anaheim Electronics Industrial Colony in pursuit of an offer from the wealthy and influential Vist Foundation that the Neo-Zeon believe they can’t refuse: the handing over of the mysterious “Laplace’s Box,” which is stated on separate occasions to be both the secret of the Foundation’s prosperity for nearly a century and something that could either “destroy the world” or “bring light to this Universal Century” depending on who holds it and how it is used. As the Zeon prepare for their rendezvous with Foundation head Cardeas Vist, a young woman named Audrey Burne abandons the Zeon vessel with the intent of talking Cardeas out of the exchange. When she literally falls into the life of technical student Banagher links, she asks him to help her find her way and stop a war that she believes is imminent. Sure enough, as Audrey and Banagher evade Audrey’s comrades, battle looms as the Federation special forces group Londo Bell follows the Zeon to the colony. As you’ve likely guessed, it’s only a matter of time until circumstances place Banagher into the giant robot of the title, the Unicorn Gundam, a machine that may be essential to locating and opening Laplace’s Box.

For the hour that passes all too quickly, Gundam UC’s first episode is a riveting good time. This is thanks in no small part to the superb English production done by NYAV Post, which has done similar work for such titles as Ah My Goddess!, Kurokami the Animation, and Slayers Revolution. Stephanie Sheh’s Audrey and Steve Cannon’s Banagher are competently performed and felt right to me from the start, while Steve Mann’s marvelous secondary role as Cardeas Vist makes me hope that we see much more of him in anime dubs to come. Tara Platt’s no-nonsense performance as Zeon ace Marida Cruz is arguably a bit of a difference from her Japanese counterpart, but it’s a take that strikes me as completely legitimate given the context of the story. Furthermore, the English script credited to Michael Sinterniklaas and Dan Green is smart and perfectly incisive. The English subtitles are certainly sufficient for those who prefer the original Japanese, but this is one of those few times where I feel that one is missing out by overlooking the English adaptation of what is a very well-written story.

As one might expect for a high-profile release such as this, the animation studio Sunrise have paid superb attention to the art and animation. The mecha (giant robots) themselves were designed by veteran designer Hajime Katoki and do not disappoint; they are impressive but also realistic improvements that completely respect the continuity of Gundam‘s longest saga. Yet the biggest star is easily the Zeon mobile suit Kshatriya, a winged terror of surprisingly graceful movement and deadly power. Characters and mecha alike are brought to life with fluid movement, vibrant colors, and a competent attention to detail that take full advantage of a lavish budget and the OVA’s high definition production. Here we have the Gundam 0083 of this generation, and the end result is a movie-quality experience that renders Gundam UC the most visually appealing Gundam title yet. Fortunately, in contrast to 0083, the eye candy is more than matched by substance this time around.

The overriding theme of this first episode is the idea that, to date, the first Universal Century has been a crisis of wasted potential. Just as the original ideal of the Federation as an institution ultimately gave way to a new division between the Earth and people living in outer space, so too has the concept of man’s capacity for near-limitless greatness been lost. In the Universal Century this lofty ideal is given a form and a name with the concept of the “Newtype,” a theoretical next step in evolution where “as humanity expands into space, all of our latent abilities will blossom in order to adapt to that great void,” eventually leading to a state of existence where humans can “understand and accept one another without misconceptions.” As shown in the episode and in prior Gundam adventures, these developing “latent abilities” include heightened awareness and even telepathic powers. Yet due to such individuals meeting with exceptional success on the battlefield, they were quickly regarded for their prowess in warfare rather than for the potential that they represent. The mystery of Laplace’s box and its contents, then, is an intriguing hook on multiple levels. It has been with the Vist family for generations since the start of the Universal Century. It is the catalyst for the conflict of the story and regarded as something that could change the balance of power, but it’s also referred to by Cardeas as something with “the power to restore the future that was meant to be.” It is much too soon to know what direction the story will go in after this beginning, but the way it’s revolving around the Universal Century’s core issues so far suggests the potential for Gundam Unicorn to be about considerably more than just one extra round of the Federation vs. Zeon.

Aside from the standalone nature of the story, another unexpected surprise that’s worth mentioning is protagonist Banagher Links. As with other Gundam stories set in the Universal Century, his role is traditional and very familiar: he’s a civilian teenager living his life until it’s disrupted by warfare, after which circumstance brings him to the cockpit of a Gundam mobile suit. His personality, however, is a significant break from predecessors such as original Gundam‘s Amuro Ray and Zeta Gundam‘s Kamille Bidan. Rather than starting out as an immature teen forced by war to grow up in a hurry, Banagher is a relatively mature and surprisingly competent person despite having no living family that he knows of. Nonetheless, he remarks early on that “It feels like no matter what I’m doing, I don’t actually feel like I’m there.” Like many a young person who hasn’t quite crossed the line into adulthood, he is struggling to find his place in life. Having encountered Audrey later and gotten a sense of the seriousness of what could be at stake, he practically begs to be allowed to assist her further, remarking that after meeting her “Everything that felt off in my life just slid into place.” He isn’t sure whether he has the will and resolve to do what he must do, but even so he knows that “I need her to need me!” Much like Laplace’s Box itself, I feel obliged to say, Banagher’s character possesses peril and promise in equal measure. Peril because this need to be needed could easily become tiresome and possibly even pathetic if the writing harps on it overmuch. But also promise because this trait suggests the possibility that Banagher can be an ideal candidate to discover and pursue a higher purpose with zeal. I can only guess which way his character and the story at large will go, but what is certain is that it’s more than worthwhile to stick around and find out. With the second episode due for Fall 2010 it is clear that the six episodes of this saga will be a long time in coming, but at least we are suffering the same wait as the Japanese fanbase.

As enjoyable and accessible as this anime is, there is a catch. It is exclusive to Blu-Ray and will likely not be arriving on DVD outside of Japan anytime soon, so fans lacking the ability to play high definition media will be out of luck unless they finally upgrade their hardware or demonstrate exceptional patience. The Blu-Ray itself has everything that you would expect from a current release: 5.1 TrueHD sound in both English and Japanese, subtitles, and 1080p high definition picture. Some extras are available via BD-live, though for North America they are currently restricted to the usual trailers and TV commercials. Aside from the exclusivity, price is also a significant factor. As an OVA release that is essentially being sold directly from Japan to the rest of us, the price is one that’s about average for Japan but a premium cost to the rest of us. Thanks to Bandai’s arrangement with Amazon the sticker price is always substantially reduced, but you can expect to pay no less than $35 for an hour of show. Whether this is a price worth paying to get a top-notch, movie-quality anime at the same time as the Japanese is really up to the individual. This is literally a situation where you are getting what you pay for.

In truth, even as a Gundam fan I wasn’t sure whether Gundam UC would justify the money that I was spending on it. However, I can now say without hesitation that I do not regret my purchase in the slightest. After its work on the brilliant science fiction OVA Freedom from 2006 to 2008, studio Sunrise has produced another triumph. Here is a superbly-produced, well-written, visually glorious, and flat out ambitious production that can delight devoted Gundam fans and command the attention of those willing to give it a look. With its mix of giant robot warfare, science fiction elements, drama, interesting characters, and a multilayered narrative, it is an amalgamation of the Gundam franchise’s best qualities. Despite the price, volume one of Mobile Suit Gundam Unicorn has my enthusiastic recommendation.

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