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"Gundam SEED HD Remaster Limited Edition Blu-ray Box 1": Cropped SEED

Roughly a decade ago I became a Gundam fan thanks to the British television broadcast of Gundam Wing. It was a very odd situation. Not only was I coming into a then-already 20-year-old franchise produced by a country speaking a completely different language, but even the fledgling wave of new American fans were a good year ahead of us. There was much head scratching and blank looks as I headed online to try and find out more. What the heck was a ‘Newtype’? Were Lagrange Points real science? Was Bits honestly the name of a weapon?

ImageLuckily for me, the playing field was soon evened when a brand new series was announced: Gundam SEED. Suddenly, the same older fans who had formerly stood as vast vessels of lore were reduced to the same stance I was, guessing and speculating as news and images trickled out. I remember at the time being quite excited both with this experience and the actual facts that were emerging from it. This ‘SEED‘ series sounded like it was going to be awesome.

Time makes fools of us all.

Ten years on, SEED sits in an interesting position. Whilst certainly considered a critical and commercial success in Japan, it evokes controversy both there and in other parts of the world. The series flopped hard when it ran on the American Toonami block, and the sequel, Destiny, is often considered a mess that most fans like to pretend never happened. A sequel movie was announced but has basically become trapped in production hell. However this hasn’t stopped a surprisingly patient fan base from waiting, and they have been rewarded with the SEED HD Remaster project, which involves re-releasing the original SEED with some minor tweaks to mark its tenth anniversary.

The plot remains unchanged. In the future mankind has become split into two branches: the relatively untampered-with Naturals, and the genetically enhanced Coordinators. The Coordinators are exiled to space and tolerated by the Earth government so long as they continue to produce advances in science and technology with their augmented brain power. Tiring of this, the Coordinators demand equal treatment and are met with a nuclear attack on one of their colonies. In retaliation, the Coordinators launch a military invasion of Earth, their advanced technology and abilities locking the numerically superior Earth Alliance in a stalemate. In desperation a segment of the Alliance produces prototype mobile suits of their own within a civilian colony. The Coordinator army ZAFT discovers this fact and launches a devastating attack to seize them. A lone prototype is saved thanks to the efforts of teenager Kira Yamato. A Coordinator himself, Kira wants nothing to do with the war, especially not after discovering one of the enemy pilots is his old friend Athrun Zala.

The storyline holds up surprisingly well. Genetic engineering is a science on the rise, so the idea it may one day lead to a clear divide in human ability is a plausible one. It helps that the Coordinators aren’t depicted as having super powers but instead boosted potential that they have to work to fulfill, much like humans with a natural talent one still has to put effort into. It also goes a long way to justifying why Kira becomes the pilot of the lone Strike Gundam. A mobile suit is effectively like controlling a whole second body alongside your own, a fact I think other entries in the franchise often overlook. The idea that mobile suits are a weapon designed for the augmented abilities of a Coordinator and that the Naturals can barely make the things move is a nice dose of realism.

Aside from this, the obvious drama of SEED lies in the idea of finding yourself on opposing sides in a war against a friend. Kira’s conflict is very understandable as he finds himself forced to protect one group of friends by fighting another. The 12 episodes presented on this set serve as a nice little arc as he and his friends come to terms with their situation and resolve to take an active role. This is of course familiar territory for a Gundam show, but it gains a poignancy here as Kira’s friends step up out of respect for his constantly risking his life and personal moral code for their sake. The one bad apple is Kuzzey, an embodiment of the fact that no matter how hard others work in life there will always be those with nothing better to do then be pessimists and stir up unneeded drama. Whilst his presence is realistic in being a mouthpiece for the ‘We’re trusting a Coordinator to fight off other Coordinators’ misgivings of the crew, he really is infuriating and useless.

ImageThe sympathetic display of Coordinators also makes their army, ZAFT, fairly unique. Usually Gundam antagonists are depicted as warlords who have shaped the dispossessed into an army. Whilst there are hints dropped that the Coordinators obviously aren’t squeaky clean (their immediate response to the Earth’s nuclear attack has equally devastating consequences in its own way), it’s also hard not to sympathise with humans segregated into a slave race over fear and ignorance of genetics they had no part in obtaining.

Actual pacing is definitely an issue. Whilst SEED doesn’t rush through things, it certainly does plod. Story flow seems to take twice as long as it should, and the show is very dialogue heavy. Combined with a subtitled presentation and a noticeable lack of comic relief, the show can be pretty taxing. I actually found it easier to watch one episode at a time rather than trying to marathon.

Sadly, the actual video remastering is a mixed bag. Transferring the show to widescreen format seems to have been achieved by cropping the existing standard footage. This seems to be a pitfall of the modern home media age, with consumers demanding widescreen presentation and not considering when something was produced in the older screen size. Whilst some shots come off as delightfully crisp and clear, others just look awkwardly zoomed in and grainy. The real problem is that this goes back and forth in episodes, distracting from the overall story and presentation. However, some sequences have been completely reanimated and these go to show the wasted potential of the project. In a similar manner to Zeta Gundam: A New Translation, the new moments are sprinkled in with the old. Whilst this avoids the very stark differences that project suffered from, it does mean a noticeable jump from polished-up 10-year-old animation for often as little as five seconds of beautifully crisp HD animation to cover trivial moments like an enemy GINN firing. Some actual character moments and longer scenes do get some needed touch up, but this only highlights the problem: SEED‘s animation quality was often quite low and things frequently went off model. Whilst it’s great to see scenes replaced with smoother, accurate animation, it draws attention to the remaining cases, and there are still several moments where characters look like vague approximations of themselves or the Strike has blob-like proportions. Additionally, redoing character animations brings them more in line with Hisashi Hirai’s designs, of which I am not a fan. Sometimes animation can improve on the awkwardness of a static model sheet, but here the stringent conviction to Hirai’s limited style is more often off-putting than it is welcome.

Extras consist of clean versions of the new Opening and Ending, a Director’s Concept video and several commentaries. The Opening and Ending are fairly nice to watch, the former having some new scenes added and the latter boasting a new remix of the phenomenally popular ‘Anna ni issho datta no ni’ ending song. The Director’s Concept video is probably best explained as ‘Mitsuo Fukuda makes a SEED Anime Music Video’. It’s literally his concept for a video charting SEED‘s story set to ‘Anna’, covering the whole show. This is actually fairly disappointing, partly because it really does come off as someone’s lame YouTube AMV (video quality even fluctuates throughout) and partly because we’ve seen better. Fukuda produced a brilliant, newly animated music video to promote a SEED plastic model release, and a series of more professional looking SEED music videos were produced only a few years ago for the ‘SEED Supernova’ memorabilia DVDs.

ImageThe commentaries suffer the same problem as the Gundam AGE releases. Whilst the show is presented with optional English subtitles (said subtitles seem to be identical to the ones Bandai Entertainment used for their release of the original version of the show) no such option exists for the audio commentaries, which offer thoughts from both members of the cast and show staff. I continue to believe this is a massive oversight if Bandai Visual wishes fans in English speaking countries to order these releases. With an anniversary release like this in particular, I’d love to know just what those who made the show are thinking a good decade on, about it and the success it has enjoyed. With nearly every one of the 12 episodes having a commentary, that’s a fair chunk of content non-Japanese speaking fans are locked out of on a release supposedly designed with them partly in mind.

The set is available in Standard and Limited Edition releases, with the difference being that the Limited version has its cover art actually coloured and comes with a substantially longer booklet. The packaging is some of the best I’ve seen, with a folded tray sat in a high quality transparent sleeve. The sleeve uses English text to introduce the show and list the included episodes. The tray is decorated with nice art, starting with the aforementioned new image of Kira in his pilot suit by Hirai and an image of the Strike blasting off from the Archangel’s launch catapult. Each disc is decorated with an individual background from the show, and both it and the packaging directly behind it list the contained episodes and extras.

The style of the packaging is neatly replicated with the disc menus. I’m not really a fan of looping DVD menus, but this release gets around that quite nicely. Mostly it’s a black background with white English text, including, thankfully, a clearly marked option for the English subtitles. At the top, sequences from the episodes on the disc silently loop, and are timed to seamlessly transition when the menu starts over. Whilst I respect that some designers have tried to push the envelope on making menus part of the experience, I’ll happily take something like this that is simple and unobtrusive.

Sadly, there is no such English coverage of the booklet. Running about 50 pages, it covers the fairly standard character and MS information, along with an explanation of the HD remaster process and things like the history of SEED plastic models. I’ve always been a fan of this kind of home media pack in, so missing out is a shame but not a total loss. For one thing, there’s an easy to understand map which puts the journey the Archangel makes through these episodes into geographical context.

ImageIs this set worth a purchase? Tricky question. Diehard SEED fans will certainly enjoy it, and this is on the whole certainly the best I’ve ever seen the show look. However, I don’t think the high price tag justifies what you’ll receive. This is still essentially the same programme many English speaking fans will already have on DVD from the likes of Bandai/Beez Entertainment, and the haphazard insertion of new scenes really doesn’t mark it as a break from that. Likewise on the level of English translation.

Perhaps most importantly, SEED HD is being released legally and free on YouTube. I honestly recommend that before anyone puts down the money for this release, they should give that avenue a try. If you watch it there and feel content or drop off, you probably don’t need this set. If you find yourself wanting more, start saving your pennies.

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