Mobile Suit Gundam first aired on Japanese television from April 7, 1979-January 26, 1980. The series was produced by Sunrise and was directed by Yoshiyuki Tomino. When the series first aired, it initially had low ratings. However, after the introduction of Bandai’s Gunpla models in 1980 and the series being re-edited into three theatrical films in 1981, the franchise found success. Almost 40 years later, and Mobile Suit Gundam is still one of the biggest anime and toy franchises in Japan.
The first series is set in a fictional universe in the year 2179 (Universal Century year 0079 according to the Gundam calendar), and the Principality of Zeon has declared independence from the Earth Federation. Zeon launched a war of independence called the One Year War, and the war has affected every continent on Earth and almost all the space colonies. Zeon has the upper hand with a new type of humanoid weapon called a mobile suit. According to the narration at the beginning of several episodes, about half of humanity perishes in the conflict.
At the beginning of the series, there has been an eight-month long stalemate. But the story begins when a new Federation warship called the White Base arrives at a secret research base on the space colony known as Side 7. The ship is there to pick up the Federation’s newest weapon, which is the Federation’s version of a mobile suit. Zeon forces follow the White Base and begin attacking the colony, even though their orders were to carry out a reconnaissance mission. A young man named Amuro Ray finds the instruction manual for the Gundam (the Federation’s mobile suit), and pilots it out of desperation. He manages to beat back the Zeon forces, but Side 7 is ultimately destroyed.
The survivors of the attack become refugees on the White Base, and several end up being recruited to become part of the ship’s crew. Amuro is designated as the pilot of the Gundam, since he already has some knowledge of how to use it. His childhood friend, Fraw Bow, is among the refugees. Their friend, Hayato, also becomes part of the crew. A young woman named Mirai becomes the pilot, and Kai Shiden and Sayla Mass also become part of the crew. Ensign Bright Noa becomes the highest-ranking officer on the ship after the death of Captain Paolo Cassius.
As the White Base heads to Earth, they encounter Char Aznable, a Zeon Lieutenant Commander. He, along with the Zeon forces, become an enemy that Amuro and the others must deal with. During the series, we learn that Char and Sayla have a bond that they try to keep secret from their respective sides.
As the series progresses, Amuro goes through the most character development. He starts out as a brash young man, but he becomes stressed out and possibly even a little depressed after he feels like everyone on the White Base relies on him too much, especially when it comes to fighting in battles with the Gundam. Near the end of the series, it appears that Amuro is a Newtype (which is a person who has reached a new stage of human evolution and has heightened mental awareness). While some very brief hints of this appear earlier in the series, the concept suddenly becomes a huge deal within the last few episodes. If there had been more episodes, perhaps the Newtype concept and Amuro’s awakening could have been spread out a little more and felt more natural.
Speaking of pacing, the first half of the series feels like it’s going at a natural pace. However, once the series hits the Battle of Odessa, which was being hyped as a major battle and plot point, most of the story of the battle is told through narration rather than showing the actual events of most of it. And even then, the narration didn’t start until halfway through an episode, so it felt rather jarring when it happened. Later, after Sleggar joins the crew, the interest Mirai develops in him seems to come almost from out of nowhere, and it feels rushed. When she’s so distraught over his death, it just felt forced and unnatural. Amuro’s awakening as a Newtype, as well as the ending of the series, also feel rushed. My guess is that when the ratings weren’t what Sunrise was hoping for, they cut the episode order down, which forced the writers to rush through some portions of the story in order to fit everything into the smaller episode order.
When Mobile Suit Gundam was re-edited into the three theatrical films, the story felt stronger. While there were some points in the films where the flow of the story felt a little choppy, they were overall tighter than the original anime series.
One thing that I thought was done right in these re-edited films was the fact that the Newtype concept was emphasized much earlier on in the story and felt a lot less “in your face.” Also, I appreciated that the films downplayed the three kids that are on board the White Base. In the original series, they were seen very regularly and were meant to be some “comic relief,” but they came across more annoying than comedic. In the first film, we see that they’re there, but they aren’t a major part of the action. The kids do show up more in the second and third films, but they don’t come across nearly as annoying as they did in the television anime series.
While the first Mobile Suit Gundam anime is nowhere near perfect, it holds an important place in anime history for helping to launch the franchise as we know it today.