Suggestions For Starting Mobile Suit Gundam

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For the last few months I’ve been watching a ton of Mobile Suit Gundam anime, and I think I’ve reached a point where I can at least put down a small collection of tips for anyone else thinking about getting into it or just taking a glance at it.

Mainly I’ve been watching different parts of the “Universal Century” Gundam shows, which if you don’t know form the main timeline around which the franchise was originally started. There are other shows taking place in their own continuities. I think this guide from Anime News Network is a good glance at the entire franchise, but it’s slightly outdated since a few more UC properties have come out since it was published, and I want to go over those a little bit.

Now is a pretty good time to try to get into Gundam too. For starters the official Gundam YouTube channel — Gundaminfo, is as of this writing streaming a lot of the shows for free, but they seem to be rotating in and out. That’s what originally got me started on this whole trip through Gundam. Over the last few years all the Gundam shows have also been getting new Blu-Ray releases in western countries.

I’m one of those people who got introduced to Gundam when Cartoon Network’s Toonami block aired the English version of Gundam Wing (its own continuity) back in the early 2000’s. Back then it also tried to introduce the UC shows but to only limited success. What was so attractive about Gundam at first glance is that it simply felt a bit deeper than something like Voltron or Power Rangers. Don’t get me wrong — almost every Gundam show is still very much about teenage boys falling into the cockpits of giant robots, but that’s also typically set against a backdrop of war drama. The shows are known for treating the robots a little less like superheroes and a little more like standard military hardware, and for featuring human-on-human conflicts that are less black-and-white.

The UC continuity however can be a bit daunting when looked at from the outside. It’s been added to for almost 40 years and the entries hop around the chronology. I think there are a few good entry points though. The easy thing about UC is that each production in it usually clearly states when it’s set in the timeline, “Universal Century” being the name of the calendar used in the setting.

Basically, the whole setting is about ongoing wars between people who live on Earth and various groups of space colonists who want more autonomy from Earth. The wars are mostly fought with giant robots called “Mobile Suits.” The perspectives of good-guys and bad-guys shift between the different groups throughout each series.

It’s easy to think the very first, original Mobile Suit Gundam series would be the best starting point, and for the most part it is, especially if you choose to watch it by way of the three compilation movies. The downside of it though is that it’s very old — the art and animation are originally from 1979. It just doesn’t hold up visually, and might only be worth a watch if you’re decided to commit to the main body of the UC story. In fact almost all of the “main” UC productions were done in the 80’s, and definitely show it.

I actually suggest starting out with one of the more recent spin-off mini series if you’ve never watched Gundam, mecha anime, or anime in general. Each one is short, goes for a narrower and more grounded story that doesn’t require having seen the original series, and they have higher production values than the full-length TV shows in addition to being mostly newer. Essentially, they’re digestible, visually attractive glances at Gundam.

The one I suggest the most as an appetizer would be Gundam Thunderbolt, which is actually still ongoing. It’s got some of the best animation the franchise has ever seen and might be a bit less off-putting to some people since the main character isn’t a teenager. You can get the first season of four episodes on Blu-Ray and Gundaminfo is temporarily each new episode of the second season on YouTube.

For similar reasons I also suggest 08th MS Team. It offers a slightly better look at what the overall UC setting is about while still mostly focusing on a small corner of it. It was made back in the late 90’s but having just watched it again I think its production values and action sequences still hold up pretty well today.

Gundam 0080: War in the Pocket is another highly recommended spin-off mini series but it’s quite a bit older, originally releasing in 1989. Just six episodes long, it’s a story about how ordinary people deal with the events of the main series and was made for people who aren’t already Gundam fans. Gundam 0083: Stardust Memory (1991) is a good show too, if a bit too heavy-handed in its homages to Top Gun. It ties a bit more directly into the main story though.

You may also hear suggestions that Gundam: The Origin is a good entry point into UC. It’s a brand new, ongoing prequel series to all the other UC entries covering the origins of some of the main characters as well as the political intrigues that led to the events of the main series. Personally, I feel like it was written for people who already know what’s going to happen and are simply interested in seeing the backstories of characters they already know.

I would suggest going back to watch the original 1979 Gundam if any of the above stuff leaves you interested in seeing the politics and battles that form the backbone of the UC setting. I think Zeta Gundam is a good sequel if you’re invested in the characters of the first series. It takes their stories in interesting directions as alliances shift. The compilation movies for Zeta however I hear aren’t exactly canon, so the 50-episode TV series might be the best way to go (0083 is an intrequel between these first two main shows). ZZ Gundam is supposed to be the third part of the main story but I didn’t watch it because I hear it’s less well-received.

The main UC story culminates in the 1988 movie Char’s Counterattack, which was mostly designed to give closure to the main rivalry between the protagonist and antagonist of the original show. I actually don’t think this would be a terrible entry point for someone who wants a short, punchy look at UC Gundam. It does a pretty good job of quickly referencing and explaining the events that led up to it, enough to stand up as its own movie in my opinion.

The capstone on the entire setting though is supposed to be the miniseries Gundam Unicorn and its broadcast version, RE:0096, the latter of which finished up late last year. I was quite satisfied with it. It’s a dependably trope-filled anime, but carries those tropes with a self-awareness befitting a story that’s supposed to wrap things up and bring a sense of closure.

The way I like to think of the UC Gundam shows in general is to say it sits in the middle of a spectrum with character-driven sci-fi shows like Voltron or Gundam Wing or G Gundam on one end, and dense political space epics like Legend of the Galactic Heroes on the other end. It’s an interesting attempt to balance boy-and-his-robot motifs with stories about the horrors of war and politics, told in a relatively accessible way.

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