Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam: Reflections

I’ve been a big fan of Mobile Suit Gundam since I was a teenager. Well, at least a fan of the original film trilogy, which I had bought when one gratuitously overpriced anime DVD every few months was all that my allowance could afford. For the longest time, though, those three films and Mobile Suit Gundam 0083: Stardust Memory (thanks to its Adult Swim timeslot) were all I’d seen. Zeta always loomed over my fandom, with its revered status in the fandom as the “serious one”, taunting me as if I could never call myself a true fan until I’d seen Tomino’s masterpiece.

Now in my thirties, nearly half my life stands as the distance between myself and those teenage years as a Gundam fan. And finally, I can say that I’ve watched the Zeta Gundam, with my own jaded adult eyes. And while I still think I prefer the original, I’ve collected some thoughts along the way:

Familiar Friends

The most thrilling parts of Zeta for me, initially, were the parts that already held some familiarity from the original series. Of course, we encounter Lt Quatro (Char’s new persona) and Bright Noah early in the series.

Bright’s ever-stoic presence provides continuity, but Char’s presence was more interesting. In the original story, he spends much of his time subtly undermining the leaders of Zeon while establishing himself as Amuro’s chief rival. In this series, though, he’s an ally of good, joining the Anti-Earth forces in their battle against the corrupt and powerful Titans. Here, Char is not so much an extremist, but a somewhat wizened and war-weary soul. Amuro, by contrast, is totally done with warfighting and piloting Mobile Suits. He shines during a few moments, but mostly lives as a recluse, under constant surveillance by the Earth Federation. As a hero, Amuro was always kind of apolitical, and that’s true here, too. He does what he can to help his friends currently fighting against the Titans, but does not seem all that concerned with the way the world has shaped around him since the Federation’s victory in the original series. I have to say, watching as an adult, I really liked Amuro’s role in Zeta Gundam. It felt relatable, as an adult who has also settled into a place in the world that is perhaps a bit less full of romantic heroism than I once dreamed it would be. In the end, I really did think that Amuro was a nice surrogate for Zeta’s adult audience.

There are other cameos were nice – but really amounted to little more than fan service. And while it was nice that Zeta allowed us to see where most of the MSG characters ended up after the One Year War, nearly all stayed somewhere in the backdrop, aside from Char. So, what about the new stuff?

Kamille, the AEUG, and the Titans

As a direct sequel to Mobile Suit Gundam, I admit I found Zeta to be a bit confusing. Over 5 years after the end of the One Year War, so much has changed. At first glance, there’snot much about Z that seems to lead directly from MSG, and that took some getting used to. Who are the AEUG? Who are the Titans? How are they different than the Federation? Why are the Titans using Zeon-like Mobile Suits while the AEUG are using, uh… Federation AND Zeon type suits? There are answers to all these questions, but in many cases, they are answers that you will not find if you just rely on the show’s own storytelling. The picture eventually become clear to me, but for a while, it was just tough to keep track of it all.

As far as Kamille goes, contrary to a lot of people’s reactions, I liked him quite a bit. I felt like he was similar to the OG Amuro, but with a little bit more of a cynical edge. Sure, his motivations for joining the AEUG aren’t very good, but he passes the authenticity test as a “moody teen”. His interactions and emotional arcs with his crewmates never feel fully developed and I feel like a lot of interesting stuff was left on the cutting room floor – but honestly, I would say the same thing about the original series. All of this is disappointing, but forgivable.

The titan villains are where I found the show generally to be far weaker than the original. Jerid is a far, far cry from Char. His cyber newtype girlfriends who Kamille kills one after another are not very interesting. For most of the action, it seemed like the show was unable to commit to a villain, and instead felt a lot more serialized than I would have expected, i.e., “new week, new villain”. The original worked this way too, but I feel like each stop villain had a lot more personality than the ones in Zeta – with a more distinct personality and more discernable mobile suit.

Things improve dramatically, I thought, when the remnants of Zeon show up. These villains have some personality, and the way our “heroes” come to grips one-by-one with the fact that their fight has led them to a morally grey alliance with the heirs to Zeon is easily one of the more interesting plotlines. The show also leaves off, surprisingly, with the story just getting good.

In Conclusion

Zeta Gundam was an interesting watch for me, so many years later in life from when I originally encountered the series. Was it an improvement on the original? In some ways, sure… in other ways, perhaps I felt like it’d been surpassed by later OVA’s which have taken Tomino’s themes and best ideas and spun them into works that are a little bit more even and consistent. But that’s OK! In the end, Zeta Gundam was easily compelling enough to set the stage for an entire Univeral Century’s worth of sequels, OVA’s, and tie-ins.

Now I’ve just got to get around to ZZ Gundam…

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