"Zeta Gundam: A New Translation": I'm Not Sure, But I Think He Said He's Happy
Gundam is often criticized as money for old rope, a franchise that has survived for 30 years despite allegedly telling the same story over and over. It’s a certainly an argument that original creator Yoshiyuki Tomino has offered, feeling that Gundam should be put to rest so that new stories can be told in original settings. Likely not helping matters is the franchise’s love of compilation movies—glorified clip shows that often see a theatrical release. Nearly every animated Gundam series has received one, even if they’re a simple direct to video piece to squeeze that tiny bit more money out of the fans. Most commonly they’re released at least a few years after the show itself concludes, often retconning existing story details if they turn out to scupper sequel plans. It’s a cocktail of these factors that make Zeta Gundam: A New Translation (released a full 20 years after the original TV show) stand out.
A New Translation is a trilogy of theatrical films originally released in Japan starting in 2005. An American license was announced soon after but BEI sat on it for nearly half a decade, likely due to the incredible drama that was trying to get the original television show out in some form in America. For whatever reason they are slowly but surely releasing their Gundam archives, a trend started by the release of SD Gundam Force season 2 a few years ago and more recently the surprise announcement of cult hit Turn A Gundam.
Coming 20 years after the original television run, one would likely expect the movies to utilise brand new animation and indeed they do … kind of. The much-publicised trademark animation of A New Translation is a concept that merges new with old . Essentially, the majority of all three films is reused animation from the original episodes occasionally inter-cut with brand new footage. The initial minutes utilise this technique as you may expect, replacing a cel-animated space colony with a shiny new CGI one. However, the usage quickly becomes a lot more random. Whilst it is often used to create new narrative bridges to replace cut episodes or reward fans with brand new scenes (like inserting cameos from Gundam 0083 designs, set before but produced after Zeta), the majority is a questionable mishmash as new animation seems to be inserted whenever the camera angle changes. Entire scenes are often reanimated, but there’s also plenty of switching over for sometimes less than 5 seconds. You’ll be watching a scene presented as the original animation, only for it to change for a line of dialogue or two and then revert back. This stands out for a few reasons, including the obvious technique advancements that have been made in the 20 year gap (many of the new scenes contain atmospheric lighting and visible depth, only for the same setting to lose it once we cut back to 1985 TV animation). One of the key noticeable changes though is character design. Originally, Zeta‘s characters and their animation were overseen by veteran Yoshikazu Yasuhiko. The new scenes are instead overseen by a different director and it’s quite apparent that the designs have been altered, looking generally more wavey and pretty boy. I will give credit as it’s publicly known that the new director was so disappointed that he couldn’t exactly mirror Yasuhiko’s style that he was considering suicide out of shame. As a design graduate myself I know all about attempting to live up to the work of your idols, and even if I wasn’t I’m sure anyone will agree wanting to kill yourself over a work of animation is silly. The new designs may not quite be my cup of tea but they’re far from terrible either.
The first movie, Heirs To The Stars, moves at a frantic pace. Things begin with a very vague opening narration covering the events of the proceeding original series before we’re thrown into the AEUG’s attempt to capture the Federation’s new Gundam Mk II suits. For the unitiated, seven years have passed since the epic space war between the Earth Federation and the Principality of Zeon. In order to stop further uprisings by space colonists, the Federation creates the military police known as the Titans. The Titans do their job too well, wiping out entire colonies if even a fraction of the population protest. This behaviour gives birth to the AEUG, a people’s rebellion made up of civilians and ex-military officers who can’t support the Federation’s direction.
The quick pace means that our first meeting with protagonist Kamille Bidan occurs as he’s under arrest for assaulting a Titans officer, the assault itself not shown until a newly animated flashback later. Whilst this does serve to remove some of the more pointless ‘people like to beat up Kamille for no reason’ scenes, it also removes a fair bit of early characterisation for our lead. Kamille goes from being under arrest to escaping and harassing his human interrogator with a stolen Gundam while he laughs manically. It’s not quite the most sympathetic of introductions. The rest of the movie tends to turn the early episodes into a series of united battles, with much of the back and forth required to work in a weekly format removed. However, this also means that the movie comes across as consisting of a series of relatively random space battles followed by five minutes of each side ranting about how they can’t stand the other. Whilst generally possible to follow, I’d say this is a weak opener which makes it far too clear this is a compilation project. One positive I will highlight is the complete do over of an early scene where Kamille vents his frustration over his broken home. This has some real pathos to it, so I was always kind of amazed that the adult characters present treat him like he’s whining and to a degree even make fun of him. Here, the rage is still generally impotent, but there’s a much more caring response from Quattro, Reccoa and Emma. It goes to show how Tomino himself has changed in the two decade gap.
Movie II, Lovers, is a generally superior outing. As the title implies, the focus here is on the various romantic relationships in the story from young love to adult lust and even those who use the emotion to manipulate others. Front and centre is the ill-fated romance between Kamille and the Titan-created ‘cyber Newtype’ Four Murasame. There are a few issues with this; Kamille’s time with Four is directly related to his need to return to space, the original arc ends with him achieving this. The result is a case of star-crossed lovers on fast forward, with the two forming a deep romantic bond in seemingly 24 hours. Sure, teenage emotions run high and both characters are Newtypes, but their whirlwind romance comes across as just that. This makes it particularly odd that Tomino dedicates himself to giving Four a clear onscreen death, whilst at this point in the television series he resorted to a fake out so he could expand her and Kamille’s bond later. Surely a repeat of such would make even more sense here but instead Four is a means to an end: a sad face that Kamille can plant on all the soldiers the Titans will send after him later.
Beyond that, the movie carries on at a strong pace. The exploration of love is used to give a decent amount of characterisation, such as how antagonist Scirocco manipulates talented women by telling them what they want to hear in contrast to how Kamille genuinely tries to understand them. Admittedly the treatment of women does at times seem outdated; there are a fair few intelligent, capable women in the story but many of these receive barely any screen time or those who do seem to have a constant placement as second class, talking about how this is apparently men’s world and they just happen to live in it.
The third and final movie, Love Is the Pulse of the Stars, is interesting for a variety of reasons. Much like the first movie, most of it focuses on a prolonged battle, but here the treatment is generally more competent. Although this telling of Zeta has achieved some serious momentum by this point, a sadly consistent failing is that characters are still generally given little time to distinguish themselves and their motivations. Chief amongst these are the Titans. The movies never seem to cease telling us that they’re the AEUG’s enemy, but unlike the TV show we’re given little clear showing of why they must be stopped. This particularly hurts the in-fighting that dominates their role in the conclusion. The barely characterised leader Jamitov is assassinated with the insinuation that his trusted second-in-command Bask is less than heartbroken about this as he assumes leadership by default. However, Bask then receives little to no screen time until he too is offed in the next stage of the previous assassin’s power grab. The capper for this is Jerid, Kamille’s ongoing rival. Whilst far from effective in the original show, A New Translation opts to have him appear once or twice per movie and even as he fails to beat Kamille while whining about it and loses an even more underdeveloped love interest to Kamille in battle. Here especially, he randomly appears for a final battle piloting a brand new MS only to be put out of his misery.
One particular element of the cuts that stands out is Kamille’s final dramatic psychic attack, wherein the spirits of all the deceased people he’d helped or been allied with appear as spirits to lend him their strength. This heart-warming moment kind of brings the story to a screeching halt when he’s defended by a character who, despite having a plot arc with him in the television show, has no connection to him in this take other than having fought against him once or twice. Awkward.
The key talking point for this conclusion though is the brand new ending. One of the New Translation project’s stated intents was to inject some light and hope into the previously bleak Zeta. Whilst there are brief comedic interludes across the trilogy, sometimes of black humour (the first movie has a particularly amusing joke which plays up that the scene is using older footage out of context) it’s the ending itself which obviously stands out. It is indeed several shades lighter than before, but the path to getting there is surprisingly still stained with a high number of deaths. I won’t spoil the details, other than to say that the ending effectively closes off the many continuations further in the timeline. Admittedly some questionable liberties are taken to achieve this end but I can stomach this as part of an alternative interpretation of the story. A few fans insist it’s a sign of some massive Tomino-led retcon to wipe out the other series and movies, but I think that’s a far too alarmist way to look at it.
Technology-wise, the integration between old and new footage has been refined somewhat by this point. The movie seems particularly fond of overlaying old character animation over new mecha animation, especially for the numerous scenes where characters open their cockpits during lulls in battle. This is an interesting effect though given the earlier statement of misgivings over the character animation, it makes me wonder if this is a sad silent admission that he threw in the towel somewhat.
Most of the surviving actors return to voice their roles again, but there’s been controversy over how various female characters had been recast due to suspicious reasons (the actress for Sarah Zabiarov is apparently even recast again between the second and third films). Whilst I share the general sentiment of disappointment, I have to admit that the new actresses actually do a good job. They deliver strong, lively performances compared to the returning female actresses, who sound too old for their roles to my ear. This is a criticism I hold of Japanese animation in general—whilst it’s great that an actor/actress there can expect to hold onto a role for decades, it also means that slowly but surely you have old sounding voices coming out of characters who are supposed to range from their teens to their late twenties. It’s an especially odd situation as, whilst clearly sounding a bit huskier, most of the male actors still generally provide an air of needed youth to their characters. Additionally, the mentioned dual recasting of Sarah really works as a disadvantage. Chizuru Ikwaki’s initial performance is strong and confident whilst Kaori Shimamura very awkwardly stresses every line as urgent.
The DVDs present the films in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen with a choice of 2.0 or 5.1 audio tracks, both in Japanese with optional English subtitles. It would have been interesting to see a dub provided but we’ve waited so long for this release and Gundam dubs are of generally mixed quality that I can’t really complain. Video quality itself is clear and sharp, and much like the animation technique itself appears to improve with each subsequent movie. Extras consist of the subtitled teaser and full trailer for all three films in addition to the standard Bandai trailers. The films themselves come in standard Amray cases with no inserts. A collected box set is available but this is simply all the separate cased films with a cardboard sleeve to bind them with some sense of completeness.
Like most compilation works, Zeta Gundam: A New Translation is tricky to recommend. Obviously there are flaws and I can’t honestly say they can completely stand in for the full TV show. Character arcs in particular take a general hit. However, Tomino has always proven to be a competent director of such works, making it so you’re still getting a version of the story that can to some degree be enjoyed on its own merits. The new animation and the revised ending I feel in particular raise this trilogy somewhat higher. Gundam fans love to rave about how dark and bleak Zeta is, to the point I half expected blood to ooze over me when I opened the original DVD set. This revised retelling still captures the overall essence of the original but perhaps removes some of the needlessly cynical elements in favour of hope. After finishing watching this trilogy, I was left with a sense of optimism, a reminder that though horrible things may happen in our lives we can make something better of our future as long as we have the strength to carry on and the heart to both open up to and shelter others. Now that’s a sign of Zeta I can believe in.