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"Gundam Unicorn" Volumes 2 and 3: Brilliance Undimmed

The first episode of Gundam Unicorn (a.k.a. Gundam UC) was an outstanding accomplishment; it was a reintroduction to the long-lived Gundam franchise capable of both engaging new viewers and pleasing long-time fans with its incisive narrative and first-rate production values that are more than worthy of an animated feature film. With The Second Coming of Char and The Ghost of Laplace the story is half told, and now this title can count consistency among its many virtues; these episodes handily live up to the high standards set by the beginning.

The action picks up where the first volume left off, with our hero, Banagher Links, about to take the title Unicorn Gundam into battle against Neo Zeon ace Marida Cruz and her Kshatriya mobile suit. Victory comes easily thanks to the machine’s extreme capabilities; the Zeon wisely withdraw while the Federation’s Londo Bell forces bring a now-deactivated Unicorn aboard their flagship Nahel Argama. The battle is over and Banagher’s home space colony is out of danger, but this is only the beginning of the struggle between the “Sleeves” and Londo Bell over the Gundam and the secret of the enigmatic, all-important Laplace’s Box. Banagher has little time to recover from his experience and be reunited with Audrey and his friends Takuya and Micott before the Nahel Argama comes under attack. Leading the assault is “Full Frontal”, the masked leader of Neo Zeon and a man said to be the reincarnation of the legendary “Red Comet” himself, Zeon leader and ace pilot Char Aznable. Thanks to his prodigious skill and the insane speed of his red, high-performance Sinanju mobile suit, the Londo Bell soon finds itself in a losing battle.

For good measure Audrey is outed as none other than princess Mineva Zabi, a surviving descendant of the Zabi family that founded the former Principality of Zeon. Tense negotiations follow; Londo Bell tries to use her as a hostage to ensure safe passage for the Nahel Argama to a safe port, counting on her symbolic importance to many of Frontal’s followers. Frontal, in turn, feigns doubt about her identity and demands the Gundam, the so-called “key” to unlocking Laplace’s Box. To protect “Audrey” and his friends Banagher intervenes and resolves to sortie the Unicorn, which has attuned itself to his biometric signature and will now function only for him. With this, the lad is now irrevocably involved in the fight over the box.

After all the obligatory introduction and setup accomplished in the first volume, these episodes do the necessary job of moving the plot forward and exploring all sides of this strife; it’s a well-balanced presentation that gives Gundam UC serious credibility as a sci-fi war drama. Characterization takes center stage, and fortunately our leads are chief beneficiaries of that. Banagher retains the maturity and conscientiousness that made him such a refreshing contrast to traditional Gundam heroes in the first volume. He is in a difficult and unique position. What we have here is not a youth ending up on either side of this conflict, but rather an individual who has no choice but to adjust to the fact that he has become the nexus of it. He shares Audrey’s anti-war sentiments and he doesn’t want to see further bloodshed over the Unicorn and Laplace’s Box. After all, why fight over a thing that no party involved even understands? Yet as commander Daguza Mackle of Londo Bell points out, that uncertainty is why the box cannot be given away without a thought. The risk that the Neo Zeon are right about its value is both real and grave. What if it triggers another full-scale war? “How,” Daguza demands, “would you explain to all those families that their loved ones had to die because you didn’t know?”

Thus it is made clear that the path of least resistance is no moral option. But in the face of hard truths Banagher does not despair, he does not complain about the unfairness of it all, he doesn’t imitate the Gundam teenagers of the 1980s and remark on the stupidity of adults. He takes action, and despite some reticence he later comes to accept that he has a responsibility to fulfill as the Unicorn’s pilot: the enigma of Laplace’s Box must be solved even as this thing is kept away from partisan hands and prevented from becoming the catalyst for a new war. Our heroine “Audrey” goes through a similarly satisfying development. As Mineva Zabi she’s all too willing to provoke her own death and possibly get both the Unicorn and Nahel Argama destroyed, if that is what it takes to keep Laplace’s Box away from Neo Zeon. Instead, Banagher’s words and deeds create an opportunity, and she seizes an opportunity to attempt secret negotiations with the Federation Government in a bid to keep things from escalating any further. In two very different roles, Banagher and Mineva struggle to give peace a chance.

Beyond our heroes, the writing here probably benefits the Neo Zeon side the most. At the beginning of this story they were introduced as aggressors; we meet them as the people chasing Audrey and bringing war and destruction to Banagher’s home. But when events bring Banagher into the very heart of Neo Zeon territory, both he and the viewer see the people behind the uniforms, and the exposition of the grievances of spacenoids offers sufficient context without ever getting preachy. Particularly compelling is how the narrative empathizes the importance of Zeon as a symbol; Marida speaks of it as “a new light to replace God” in the eyes of its followers and sympathizers. We also have the example of Full Frontal, who refers to himself as “nothing more than a vessel for the hopes of those abandoned in space.” Banagher demands to know if he is really the legendary Char; Frontal’s simple reply is that he will willingly be what the people need him to be. Char or not, the man is dignified and composed and charismatic in every situation on and off the battlefield; it’s not for nothing that he leads Neo Zeon. His followers are a diverse lot. One named soldier is shown to be a good family man; Marida is shown to be a dutiful but thoughtful soldier who is loyal to Mineva and respectful toward Banagher since he protected the princess; and Full Frontal’s right hand man Angelo possesses a fanatical reverence for his leader and an exceptionally quick temper.

The Federation side receives substantive characterization as well, mostly thanks to Daguza and Ensign Riddhe Marcenas. Our first impression of Daguza is that he’s a severe individual; he thoroughly interrogates Banagher about how he ended up with the Unicorn and takes a hard line against the Zeon. But he does these things because he knows his duty and appreciates all too well the consequences of failure. When the Londo Bell launches an offensive to recover Banagher and the Unicorn, he is fighting at the forefront. Surprisingly, more than any other character he drills that simple principle of responsibility into Banagher and encourages him to live by his conscience. And when circumstance demands it, he lives by his words and does what he must with dignity. For his part Ensign Riddhe is a good-natured ace pilot who develops a respectful rapport with Banagher, and his initial resentment toward Mineva and the Zeon is tempered by Mineva’s palpable desire to put peace ahead of Neo Zeon’s narrow interests. He also happens to hail from a politically powerful family and unilaterally decides to help Mineva attempt diplomacy with the Federation, an act that will undoubtedly have significant consequences in the episodes to come.

Volumes 2 and 3 look and sound every bit as impressive as the first; it’s now clear that the technical merit of Gundam UC will be of a cinematic quality up until the end. The Unicorn is a feast for the eyes when it’s time to get serious; the formidable red glow it displays when its so-called “Destroy mode” activates is a triumphant example of CG enhancing 2D animation on the screen. Full Frontal’s Sinanju is a veritable showcase of how well the show is drawn and directed; it’s downright impressive to see it navigate asteroid fields at top speed as if the feat is a trivial task not even worth mentioning. The rank-and-file mobile suits are presented just as well; any viewer is going to get a tangible sense of the power of these machines and what they are capable of.

On the downside, it’s also obvious that the show itself is liable to be the main and only attraction for this series on Blu-Ray. The second and third volumes contain all trailers and commercials for the prior installment, which raises hopes and questions about whether the sixth volume will include this content for both the fifth and final episodes. There is downloadable BD-live content as well, but unfortunately this is the one part of the release that doesn’t have anyone outside of Japan in mind right now. Audio commentaries are available, and volume 2 offers an interview with Harutoshi Fukui, the original creator of the story, but all this is in Japanese without any subtitle options. Some other video extras on the discs are simply recaps of content, which is useful for the very few people that might be starting this in the middle for some bizarre reason. For good measure these volumes cost $10.00 more than the first volume, or $5.00 for the committed who know they want this and are prudent enough to pre-order future volumes early. Bandai advertises 20-30 minutes of additional extras to justify this, but that doesn’t fly when the latter consist of simple promotional material that’s officially available online for nothing. There is admittedly more value for the primary Japanese audience that can actually use the downloadable extras, but even then common sense demands to know how audio commentaries justify raising the price by as much as twenty percent. One gets the sense that big shots in Japan took a look at how the first episode did and figured they could get folks to shell out a few more bucks out of sheer love for their product.

Under almost any other circumstance this would be hubris, but the confidence is probably justified. Every volume of Gundam UC has been a record-setting best seller, to the point that volume 3 was delayed three weeks to ensure that supply would meet demand. This title is on track to become one of the most successful direct-to-video projects in the history of Japanese animation, and justifiably so since its financial success mirrors its creative success. These episodes of Gundam UC affirm my prior praise that it embodies the best qualities Gundam has to offer: important themes and ideas, authentic characters, incredibly cool mecha, and first-rate writing that fully engages both new viewers and long-time fans. Those who were willing to start on the first volume have no reason to stop collecting now. Meanwhile, the average consumer out there can look forward to getting the first two episodes for half the Blu-Ray price when the extremely affordable DVD release comes out this summer. It is well this is so; this is the most obvious business move that Bandai Entertainment has ever made. This is a show made for a wide audience that dearly deserves to find one beyond the collector’s market these Blu-Ray discs cater to outside of Japan. Gundam Unicorn stands alongside Evangelion 2.22 and Summer Wars as one of the must-own anime titles this year.

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