Gundam. If you know anything about anime then you’ve probably heard about it at least once. Starting in 1979 with the influential Mobile Suit Gundam 0079, the Gundam Franchise has grown over the years into a massive omnipresent aspect of anime and mecha culture. Sure it’s had its ups and downs (I mean one of the only Gundam series to have gained any real traction recently is Gundam Build Fighters), but it helped spawn the Real Robot genre and has produced some really interesting shows throughout its long lifespan.
So I decided to check some of them out! That’s right, from today onward I’m going to be randomly posting reviews about random Gundam series and OVAs from the past and present. As such, I decided to start with one of today’s most acclaimed entries in the franchise, and one of the most recent ones to have made it over here to the states on DVD through Right Stuf’s collaboration with Sunrise. That’s right, I’m going to be talk about the crazy Tomino spectacle that is Turn A Gundam.
Turn A, Turn, Turn A, Turn, TURN AAAAAAAAA!
When I started Turn A Gundam, I thought I knew what to expect. Giant robots, one sided political issues, and a smattering of Gundam references which I may or may not understand. However, what I got was far more unique and interesting than my expectations could have ever predicted.
I mean right off the bat I was intrigued. The opening scene alone is incredibly striking with main characters Loran, Keith, and Fran sitting in the cockpit of a strange mecha, while singing classic nursery rhymes simultaneously. Surprisingly enough, despite how random everything about this scene may sound, it perfectly sets up the tone and themes of Turn A Gundam within the episode’s starting seconds; though that isn’t exactly obvious at first.
You see, at it’s core Turn A Gundam is a war drama about the importance of peace, equality, and the need for societies to learn from their mistakes and forge ahead. Now, as you can probably tell, these themes in and of themselves aren’t particularly interesting. After all, you could technically point to any other crappy mid grade mecha series (Including some of the lesser entries in the Gundam franchise like Victory Gundam) and extract the exact same messages. What gives Turn A the edge over its competition though is in its precise writing and beautifully realized world.
Taking place after a long period of nuclear destruction, the factions of Turn A Gundam are divided by different cultures and technological prowess. While the Moon is still thriving with high tech Mobile Suits and spaceships, the Earthers are stuck catching up to Industrial Revolution technology like motor cars and blimps. This clash of old vs new tech serves as a more unique barrier than most other political faction conflicts, which are usually restricted to rebellions and dictator uprisings (Cough cough, Federation vs Zaon, cough cough). Here though, the divisions and misunderstandings between each party are much easier to understand; making the series ultimate goal of peace negotiations and unity all the more admirable.
Of course it also helps that the world design is just cool in it’s own right. Rarely do you see such clashing designs in a single setting, with sleek mechs standing next to Victorian styled dresses and retro fighter planes. If nothing else it creates a unique platform for the series’ development, as the Earther faction struggle to catch up to the Moonrace by repairing buried ships and Zaku-like Bojarons.
In true anime fashion though, the main underlying strength of this show is the great cast of characters. The protagonist Loran Cehack is a great lead, with a lot of passion and heart behind his top notch piloting skills. And the side characters are even better! From the naive, revenge seeking Sochie Heim, to the sly tongue and wit of Guin Rhineford and Lily Borjarno, most of the cast is consistently relatable and complex. A prime of example of this would have to be Kihel Heim, the daughter of a noble miner, and Dianna Soriel, the Moonrace’s enigmatic leader; who both carry the most effective and interesting subplot in the entire show. Their headstrong confidence and strikingly similar appearances create some of the show’s most thought provoking situations; even if creator Yoshiyuki Tomino’s ruins the show’s overall pacing.
Yep, despite the compelling motivations and conflicts of Turn A Gundam’s many cast members and factions, a lot of it is made moot by Tomino’s clunky visual direction. It’s hard to put the problem into words what the problem is, but the best way I can describe it is jumbled. Scenes transition between each other without much connective tissue and the ordering of plot points and character revelations often feels haphazard. This is partially due to the writing, which definitely has a few weird quirks in its dialogue and structure, but the screen wipes and awkward shot composition certainly don’t help. All of this leads to some very unfortunate side effects, with many otherwise emotionally effective moments becoming tensionless and unsatisfying.
Animation wise things are only slightly better. The character designs and backgrounds here are nice and colorful, with the simplistic impressionist style making each character instantly recognizable. Tron designer Syd Mead also adds some much needed flair to the series’ mechanical designs, with the Turn A/White Doll looking both sleek and classic, but also goofy and charming. Another point in the art designs favor is the backgrounds, which really help create the previously mentioned contrast between the Moonrace and Earther societies. Seeing the vertical canal based architecture of the Moon juxtaposed with the ornate English Manors of the Earthers is truly a sight to behold.
Unfortunately the series actual fluidity and consistency are only so so, with the first half often featuring off model characters and still frame mecha fights. A lot of the second half fixes these issues, with some truly vibrant choreography and energy; but when compared to the shows that came out around the same time it’s pretty mediocre.
However, I would like to point out Turn A Gundam’s surprisingly deft use of recurring imagery and symbolism. Do you remember the nursery rhyme opening I mentioned earlier in the post? Well, that’s an actual motif used by the series. In one of the earlier episodes, Loran meets up with Will Game, an Earther obsessed with traveling to the Moon, and he finds him singing Mary had a Little Lamb while digging out a dead spaceship. Not only does this connect the Earthers and Moonrace together, but it show how similars their societies really are in spite of their conflict. Later on the series also makes use of some heavy butterfly imagery, which represents the two societies attempts to change and maintain peace.
These grand visuals are further elevated by Yoko Kanno’s beautiful soundtrack which, while not nearly as good as some of her classic work on Cowboy Bebop and Escaflowne, is powerful and exhilarating in all the right ways. Filled with soaring orchestral symphonies and rough tribal chants, Kanno’s music here is clearly aiming for a more classical, less experimental tone. This helps support the already grand scale of the show’s plot, and the 2nd ending theme (Moon, performed by Aki Okui and composed by Yoko Kanno) is absolutely gorgeous. The sound effects and voice acting are also pretty top notch with Romi Park delivering an excellent performance as Loran.
Honestly, I’m kind of surprised I don’t have more to say about Turn A Gundam. Then again, that’s probably for the best. I went into Turn A Gundam almost completely blind. Not only did I have no clue who any of the main characters were, but I only had the vaguest idea of what the Moon versus Earth conflict really entailed. The shock in discovering a multi-layered war drama with great characters beneath such a generic premise was exciting, and in the end I think going into this series that way was the best decision I could have made. Even with the awkward direction and occasional clunky script, each great moment in Turn A shines as bright as a star. I can’t recommend it highly enough. You don’t need to know anything about UC Gundam to watch it, and the story is self contained and brilliant. It may not be the most groundbreaking series, but it’s an excellent work of fiction nonetheless.