Anti-war messages abound in popular entertainment.
But often, these stories fall into a predictable pitfall by focusing too much on delivering excitement and entertainment, accidentally glorifying the very violence they set out to criticize.
However, one classic of Japanese popular culture — often referred to as the country’s answer to Star Wars — rises above the rest to deliver a universe that’s both expansive and complex while retaining its poignant, hard-bitten commentary on the terrible tolls of warfare.
The Mobile Suit Gundam movie trilogy is streaming on Netflix. Here’s why it’s worth checking out, and what you need to know before you watch.
Even after 40 years, Yoshiyuki Tomino's Mobile Suit Gundam remains an exhilarating piece of popular entertainment. Broadly, it focuses on teenage boys who pilot giant mecha that wage war using equally giant lightsabers. But this franchise also marks one of the more elaborate anti-war statements ever delivered in mainstream animation. Comprised of dozens of anime series, films, and video games, Mobile Suit Gundam is now streaming in condensed form, via a compilation film that knits together footage from the original 1979 anime of the same name.
That's right: this is the Mobile Suit Gundam movie trilogy, condensed and re-edited into one lean feature so that audiences can get all the story’s meat and none of its fat. This may be sacrilegious to say, but the original Gundam had some issues in terms of its storytelling, most of which have been excised from this version. Instead, this Gundam cuts straight to the action and philosophy at the heart of a long-lasting, critically acclaimed franchise.
Okay, so: what is Gundam? You may be familiar with the titular giant robot from its appearance in Ready Player One, but the franchise is about so much more than just a very cool weapon. The story takes place in the year 0079 — of the “Universal Century” — during what is called the One Year War, a conflict between the Earth Federation and a group of separatist space colonies known as the Principality of Zeon. As the series opens, a colony is dropped on top of Earth, obliterating Australia. In all this chaos, we meet Amuro Ray, the teenaged son of a scientist, who accidentally becomes the pilot of a super-secret mobile suit codenamed Gundam — essentially a giant robot piloted from the inside. Amuro is involuntarily enlisted as a soldier and forced to fight against Zeon's forces while being relentlessly chased by the mysterious (and utterly charming) Zeon hotshot fighter ace known as Char Aznable.
Mobile Suit Gundam has everything you'd want in a space opera, and it especially delivers a sprawling ensemble of complex characters, filled with memorable personalities and secret backstories. Epic fights between giant robots in space, shooting at each other's metal shields or dueling with lightsabers, make up much of the action.
Star Wars: Visions finally brings the galaxy far, far away to anime for the first time later this year, but Gundam has long since fulfilled anime fans’ dreams of epic dogfights spiraling through the air as commanders issue orders around giant space ships. Did I mention the robots wielding lightsabers? Maybe that's what the Star Wars sequel trilogy was lacking.
After drawing audiences in with the promise of operatic space battles, Mobile Suit Gundam unveils its true intentions as an enthusiastically anti-war story. Despite the gunfights and explosions, Gundam always lays bare the human cost behind the action. Like most anime shows, Mobile Suit Gundam stars a cast of teenagers. But the trilogy actually makes a point to use its young characters to illustrate the desperate situation of its world — and to add gravity to the devastating amount of violence that’s led to an army comprised of children. Gundam also introduces "newtypes," humans who have evolved to handle life in space. These newtypes exhibit heightened senses and can easily understand one another; on a meta-level, they represent creator Yoshiyuki Tomino's belief that humanity will one day evolve beyond the need for war.
Mobile Suit Gundam is the quintessential sci-fi anime franchise, and this movie trilogy is the best encapsulation of why the franchise has endured for so long. It's an epic, action-packed, mythos-heavy story with a rich world, relatable characters, and a fierce anti-war message. Whether you've never seen a mecha series or consider yourself a mecha-veteran looking to go back to where it all began, there's never been a better time to enter the world of Gundam.
Mobile Suit Gundam is now streaming on Netflix.