How To Watch ‘Gundam’
Mobile Suit Gundam is one of the most popular and longest lasting anime series out there. It’s the epitome of the “real robot” genre and is something that every anime fan should sample. But with over 30 years’ worth of material within the metaseries and several independent continuities, it might be hard for non-fans to jump in. Don’t worry. We’ve got you covered. Hit the jump for our guide on how to watch Mobile Suit Gundam.
There are several independent universes in the Gundam metaseries. These are denoted by their era, like our B.C.E. and A.D. A lot of hardcore fans would probably agree that the U.C. timeline is the only one worth dedicating your time to. Like any huge IP, the franchise lost its way after a while and became contrived, derivative, and sometimes undecipherable. I’ve stuck with U.C., though I’ve sampled some other timelines only to confirm what the fans say.
With Gundam, it’s best to start at the beginning, not because it will blow your mind but because it’s a prerequisite for what will eventually blow your mind.
The original series, sometimes known as Gundam 0079 ran from April 1979 to January 1980 and introduced us to the One Year War between the Earth Federation and the Principality of Zeon. Zeon, a collection of space colonies, declares independence from a repressive Earth. War breaks out and Zeon defends itself with its new weapon. Mobile suits are giant, humanoid tanks capable of combat on the ground and in space. Super high performance concept models of mobile suits are called Gundams. Amuro, the son of a Gundam engineer, is accidentally thrown into the action as a Gundam pilot, and things take off from there.
0079 has really nice animation considering its age, and its plot is a lot heavier than what 1979 Japan was expecting out of an animated show. It’s the forefather of the space opera genre and is a classic for a reason. The rivalry between Amuro and everyone’s favorite anime bad boy, Char, is unforgettable, and the supporting characters thicken the plot, making Gundam what is basically a space-based soap opera that addresses the concepts of war, loss, and revenge.
Here’s the catch. The series originally aired weekly. But this isn’t the best way to watch it. The episodes were later reworked into a trilogy of compilation movies which are more comprehensible. The weekly shows had a “freak of the week” feel with quite a bit of filler. But the condensed movies explain everything clearly and make use of improved pacing.
Now for the payoff. Premiering in 1985, Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam is a direct sequel to the original series, though it takes place eight years later. Earth is still fighting the space colonies but at a smaller scale. Zeta revolves around the struggle between the Anti-Earth Union Group (AEUG) and The Titans, a highly trained and overly aggressive team from Earth hunting down and killing any remaining Zeon supporters.
Kamille is a wannabe Gundam pilot. But during a surprise attack on his home colony, he finally gets the chance to really pilot a mobile suit and ward off the Titans. During the same battle, his parents are taken as hostages, cementing Kamille’s hate for the Titans. His rivalry with Jerido mirrors the rivalry between Amuro and Char. In fact, several themes mimic those of the original series, indicating that history repeats itself and that constant conflict is a nearly impossible cycle to break.
The five years between the two series saw leaps and bounds in animation production quality, and Zeta showcases these improvements. With zero CGI, Zeta‘s hand-drawn and -painted animation keeps pace with today’s comparatively lifeless animations that are tweaked to perfection inside a computer.
Zeta Gundam is an anime masterpiece and the highlight of the metaseries. It takes the themes and emotions of 0079 and hugely deepens them. You’ll practically fall out of your seat from the intense action and the characters’ interactions will get your eyes watery. It’s an emotional giant robot roller coaster. In practically every episode, you’ll both empathize with one character, thinking, “Man, I’ve been there,” and clench your fist in hate for another. It’s quintessential sci-fi anime in every way.
Zeta is available in episodic and movie compilation varieties. Unlike 0079, I’d heavily recommend watching the 50 episodes instead of the movies. It comes in two separate box sets, and it may take you a month to get through them, but it will be worth it. The movies were created in the mid-2000s and several plot lines have been changed. I’m jealous that it will be your first time watching Zeta.
Mobile Suit Gundam ZZ (Double Zeta) follows a specific plotline from Zeta, though almost all the characters are new. The series was never localized, so we’ll have to skip straight to the next entry, the movie, Char’s Counterattack.
Char’s Counterattack is the end of the first big story arc in U.C. history, wrapping up Char’s rivalry with Amuro and ending the conflict between the Federation and Zeon.
In U.C. 0093, Char comes out of hiding and leads a revival of Zeon. Amuro is called into action and the two rivals suit up to enter their final confrontation.
Char’s Counterattack is the first feature film in the Gundam universe. It had a decent budget, meaning the animation is arguably better than the TV series. It also marks the first time CGI was used in a Gundam animation, though the scene was only five seconds long.
Since this movie wraps everything up, it’s a must see.
Though Char’s Counterattack wrapped everything up nicely, Gundam‘s creators weren’t going to leave it there. Mobile Suit Gundam 0080: War in the Pocket was released a year later. This was the first Gundam series to be released as an OVA, or home video series, and was the first one directed and written by someone other than series creator, Yoshiyuki Tomino.
War in the Pocket is a sidestory about a Zeon pilot who crash lands in a Federation space colony. Alfred, a 10-year-old kid, thinks the pilot, Bernard, is the coolest guy he’s ever met because he’s a Gundam pilot. The two become friends and Bernard develops a crush on Alfred’s neighbor, Christina. Unbeknownst to Bernard, Christina is a Federation Gundam pilot. Bernard struggles between his love of his new friends and his orders from Zeon to destroy the Federation.
At a glance, War in the Pocket might come off as “Gundam for kids” since one of its main characters is a young kid. But this stuff is heavy. I won’t go into detail in order to avoid spoilers but War in the Pocket does still touch on themes of previous series like innocence being tarnished by violence and indiscriminate killing in the name of war.
In other respects, War in the Pocket does depart quite a bit from previous series, given that Tomino did not write or direct the series. Previous Gundam series had focused on NewTypes: young space colonists like Amuro, Char, and Kamille, who developed psychic powers leading to higher empathy and increased battle skills.
Despite Tomino’s lack of involvement, War in the Pocket continues the consistent quality and introspective themes of previous Gundam series. The 6-episode OVA is well worth watching.
The first Gundam series to be released in the 1990s is Mobile Suit Gundam 0083: Stardust Memory. This is the second OVA in Gundam‘s history and is the second series not directed or written by Tomino.
Taking place in U.C. 0083, Stardust Memory is a sort of bridge between Gundam 0079 and Zeta Gundam, with its climax explaining the creation of The Titans. Two prototype Gundams are delivered to a Federation base in Australia. One is quickly hijacked by a Zeon pilot. In the heat of the moment, rookie pilot, Kou, jumps in the other one and pursues him. The Federation team takes off after the Zeon pilot and discovers that their plans are much worse than just stealing a prototype: They intend to execute the biggest space-based attack on Earth in history, hurling Earth and the colonies into another war.
Stardust Memory is more about the dogfights and the rookie showing that he’s an exceptional pilot than it is about personal loss, though there are plenty of tragedies. It’s not exactly a light-hearted series, though it does focus more on the action than the drama.
While Stardust Memory doesn’t have the most memorable Gundams or characters, it does explain why The Titans were created and fleshes out the time between the One Year War and Zeta Gundam, making it worth watching.
Mobile Suit Gundam F91 takes place in U.C. 0123 and marks the return of Yoshiyuki Tomino. The film was meant to kickstart a new story arc taking place decades after the original. While the movie is respected by fans, it certainly isn’t the U.C. series’ high point. It was popular enough to have Tomino move forward with the new story arc, though Western viewers never got to see this sequel series. Since it’s less than two hours long, takes place in the U.C. timeline, and marks Tomino’s return, I recommend watching it.
The second U.C. Gundam to never receive an official English translation is Victory Gundam, which takes place in U.C. 153, and is a sequel to F91. Since it never was translated, we’ll skip to our final entry, Mobile Suit Gundam: The 08th MS Team.
08th MS Team is an OVA that takes place in U.C. 0079 and follows a group of Earth-based Federation soldiers during the One Year War.
08th MS Team consists of 12 episodes and one film, Miller’s Report. It was not written or directed by Tomino. To be honest, I haven’t been able to find this one for an affordable price, so I haven’t seen it yet. However, since it’s the final Gundam series based in the U.C. timeline before the series took some questionable turns, I’d recommend viewing it if possible.
And that’s our guide for essential Gundam viewing. You’ve got a lot of anime bingeing to do. Get on that and let us know what you think of Gundam. If you like it, consider exploring non-U.C. timelines. I don’t recommend them, but that doesn’t mean you won’t like them.