Mobile Suit Gundam is the pinnacle of the mecha genre and has been astonishing fans for decades with classic after classic. Whether in the “Universal Century” canon or the numerous alt-universe spinoffs, Gundam has explored so many different possibilities and stories, all under the care of one studio: Sunrise.
It is surprising, then, just how long I went without having ever completed a full Gundam series. I remember watching Iron-Blooded Orphans on Toonami when it aired, but I didn’t get too far into it before moving on to other shows. To be honest, I’ve held off for so long because the Gundam series, as important as its reputation has made it out to be, has always appeared rather daunting.
Just as the Fate series can seem overwhelming from the outside, I was never sure where to start with Gundam. Thankfully, at the recommendation of some friends, I found myself falling in love with a comparably short but oh so deep entry to jumpstart what I’m sure will be a longtime fandom. From Kazuhiro Furahashi, the director of Dororo, Hunter x Hunter (1999), and Rurouni Kenshin, this is Mobile Suit Gundam: Unicorn.
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Amidst great enjoyment with this series came some confusion. After all, Unicorn‘s story tells of a pivotal point in the universe’s history, heavily impacted by the political strife told in the original Gundam, as well as its sequels. One might think, then, that entering the franchise at this point may be ill-advised, but I would say that it is worth some confusion.
Gundam‘s over-arching tale of war and ideological debate is the most interesting thing about the series. However, it is the way that tale is told that makes a great story. While I was new to the terminology, lore, and mechanics of the world, it was an enjoyable enough ride that things clicked the longer I stayed with the show.
Unicorn begins in the year 0096 of the Universal Century. In a future in which humans have been forced into space as a result of over-population, a conflict between those on Earth and those born in space wages on. Three years after Char Aznable led the forces of the Principality of Zeon to attempt to force humanity off of Earth, the remnants of Zeon carry on Char’s will.
On the space colony Industrial 7, a young man named Banagher Links meets a mysterious girl calling herself Audrey Burne, who arrives at Industrial 7 hoping to avert a terrible catastrophe. In reality, she is Mineva Zabi, an heir to a powerful dynasty, who has smuggled herself there in hopes of preventing the tradeoff of a powerful tool known only as “Laplace’s Box”, from falling into the hands of the Federation or the Neo Zeon movement.
What follows is a terrible incident that takes many lives as Banagher finds himself reunited with his father only to be swiftly made the pilot of a new Mobile Suit: the Unicorn. From there, Banagher treads back and forth between confinement and partnership with both sides of a new war, in the hunt for the mysterious Laplace’s Box.
Unicorn is seven episodes in total, each one about an hour, save for the feature-length finale that clocks in around 90 minutes. It’s an exceptionally paced drama that indulges in extensive space battles as well as the tension between an expansive cast spanning the vast political landscape. I would describe the show as an odyssey, taking Banagher to so many different places and on so many different sides, that the story beautifully expresses the merit of both sides’ wills.
Determining the good and evil in Unicorn is never easy because the degree is always arbitrary. For every debatably definitive “antagonist,” there is another character on their side that I came to care for. Gundam puts the humanity of its characters first, deepening what would normally be a cut and dry tale of good vs evil into a fight between human beings.
It is not an original in this way, but the quality of the execution is something to awe at. Banagher can seem whiny and naive, but it is that same naivete that I find myself envying, especially in divisive times such as this. He is a kid who finds himself the sole pilot of a powerful machine that will be used for war, and he wants to strive for the solution that is best for everyone.
This is where the element of the “Newtype” comes in. In the Gundam universe, Newtypes are the result of human evolution resulting from the colonization of space. The capabilities of Newtypes vary, but they typically have something of a sixth sense and are characterized by their ability to connect with and understand others.
Banagher being a Newtype is perfect for this kind of story. This superpower is how Unicorn expresses the concept of peace attainable through empathy. It’s a beautiful tool that adds layer upon layer to the character drama in a way that other sci-fi franchises can only dream. It is empathy given physical form.
There are so many memorable relationships, big and small, that form throughout the tale. Zinnerman, a Zeon veteran aligned with the Neo-Zeon rebels, not only dispenses great wisdom onto Banagher but has a complicated yet heartwarming relationship with his retainer, Marida Cruz. Marida herself, an artificial Newtype, finds a kinship with Banagher that helps her to break her conditioning and see herself as a person rather than a thing.
Banagher himself has memorable bonds with countless characters, most notably Audrey, with whom he refuses to call her by her real name, believing that she is more than her royal status suggests. Apart from the larger relationships formed, numerous small bonds add much-appreciated texture to the climax as lines blur and unexpected alliances form.
The only characters I can think of who grated on my patience were Micott and Riddhe. As to the former, I understand why her character acted the way she did around certain characters, but since she also never added much, I found her somewhat annoying. As for Riddhe, he makes a good rival towards Banagher later on, but his interactions with Audrey never felt fleshed out and his borderline obsession with her made him seem like a psycho at the worst of times.
Apart from those sore spots in the cast, Unicorn‘s story was a dense delight, executed brilliantly by Studio Sunrise and Chief Animation Director Nobuhiko Genma. Genma was also a mechanical designer, accompanied by Mika Akitaka, Junya Ishigaki, and Hajime Katoki. All seven episodes were packed with the most crisp, complex, and yet consistent mechanical animation I’ve ever seen. Even the occasional CGI didn’t detract from my enjoyment. This was an all-star production team delivering the best possible product.
The storytelling was given an extra punch with the help of legendary composer Hiroyuki Sawano, whose credentials need no further elaboration. We haven’t seen the last of this production team either. Sawano, Genma, and writer Yasuyuki Mutou are set to return for the adaptation of Mobile Suit Gundam: Hathaway, coming soon.
Around the middle of the OVA, I thought about the main goal of the plot (finding Laplace’s Box) and wondered if the payoff would be worth it. People can’t seem to shut up about this damn box and no one has any idea what it is or what it does. When the secrets were revealed, I was beyond satisfied. The climax brings the entire story full circle in an ingenious way that explores the themes to their full potential.
I watched Unicorn in its English Dub and had a wonderful time. The ADR director was none other than Michael Sinterniklaas, who directed the dub of the Berserk Golden Age movies, as well as Your Name and Promare. Additionally, he voiced Taki Tachibana in Your Name and Dean Venture in Venture Brothers. A great talent and a solid director by the sound of things. We need more ADR directors like him.
I always had a feeling that I would like Gundam. Sci-fi action and political drama is something I’m already craving all the time. I knew based on the first episode and my friends’ accounts of the show that I would enjoy Unicorn especially. However, I was not expecting to fall in love with Unicorn. That was a very pleasant surprise.
The biggest lesson I suppose is that if you’re interested in Gundam at all but are uncertain where to start with the series, ask a friend. There are more than enough options to suit plenty of tastes. If any of your friends watch Gundam, they can tell you what to watch first. And if my recommendation means anything, you absolutely must check out Unicorn.
Mobile Suit Gundam: Unicorn is available for legal streaming through Netflix. It’s also available on Blu-Ray.
What are your thoughts on Unicorn? Leave a comment below and tell me what your first Gundam was? Also, what other Gundam series would you recommend?
This was a rather impromptu review. Just a day before writing it I had finished the last episode and immediately determined that I had to write about it. On the backlog, I have quite a few reviews, a couple of lists, and even an essay that I’m curious about what people will think of. Lots on the horizon…
Thank you very much for reading. Stay healthy, stay safe, and as always, I’ll see you next time.