ENTERTAINMENT: Top Five Gundam Series.
With almost 40 animated iterations and across 37 years, the Gundam series has quite literally redefined the giant mecha genre of Japanese animation. The series is a chicken pot pie stuffed full of chunks of space opera, wartime drama, coming-of-age tales, and philosophical commentary on humanity itself--quite a war-weary people, and still ever-adjusting to demographics that are unlike the majority. When American audiences were introduced to Gundam Wing on Cartoon Network in 2000, children and adults alike quickly realized the show, in contrast to its contemporaries, was too intelligent for its own good. For the uninitiated, Gundam (pronounced gun-dum) is an anime franchise in a future time when wars are waged primarily with mobile suits, giant humanoid robots piloted by humans--not dissimilarly to a tank or a jet. Most (but not all) of these shows focus on a young man or woman, and his or her commitment as the pilot of a unique mobile suit called a Gundam during a time of war.
Aggressively successful giant-robot animes such as 1984's Super Dimensional Fortress Macross (as well as its American adaptation Robotech) and 1996's Neon Genesis Evangelion contain core elements originated in 1979's Mobile Suit Gundam. No anime has meant as much to me as Gundam, nor has consistently challenged my taste in anime soundtracks, offered more classic animation (more hand-drawn animation, less cel-shading and CGI), or struck a cord in nostalgia. The anime debuted on April 7th, 1979, and has gone on to spawn numerous sequels within its in-house timeline--the Universal Century calendar--as well as numerous other alternative universe stories, theatrical films, manga, and a frighteningly successful model kit business. As mentioned previously, there are around 40 Gundam series out there, and the timeline(s) can get a little confusing. So, as it's the franchise's birthday month, I'm here to tell you what my TOP FIVE Gundam shows are, why, and if you should get into them! Let's do this:
5) Gundam SEED (2002)
WHAT IT'S ABOUT: This series follows a time in the future when the triviality of genetic enhancement has polarized the philosophies, politics, and living conditions of two groups of humans: genetically enhanced space colony-born citizens (and the soldiers of their lofty military ZAFT) known as "Coordinators", and Earth-born humans (and the soldiers of the shaky Earth Alliance) known as "Naturals". 16-year old Coordinator Kira Yamato lives a regular peaceful life in his neutral space colony--socializing with friends, attending high school, engaging in hobbies--until he discovers that his colony has been the hiding place for the development of five state-of-the-art Earth Alliance mobile suits known as G-Weapons. As ZAFT forces enter the colony to discover the secret G-Weapons and steal them to gain the upper hand in their war against the Earth Alliance, young Kira gets swept up into the chaos of their war, discovers that his childhood best friend Athrun is one of the young ZAFT soldiers involved in the theft, and eventually becomes the pilot and protector of the sole G-Weapon not to be stolen--given the name the Strike Gundam--and ends up fighting for and alongside the very Naturals of the Earth Alliance who often fear and persecute Coordinators.
WHY IT ROCKS: At 50 episodes, Mobile Suit Gundam SEED intentionally parallels its story with that of the original Gundam series, effectively (and respectably) modernizing the original 1979 series for a younger crowd, while maintaining its own sense of morality, mystery, and social commentary. Kira and his cohorts are presented as normal teenagers who have dissimilar attitudes about the war around them, but share the belief that they'd never get caught up in the war and are forced to mature as a result of their forced involvement, while their ZAFT enemies, led by the show's key antagonist (who is equal parts charismatic and equal parts mysterious) have been trained from a very young age to accept, contribute to, and engage in war. The electronic J-pop theme songs drive the anticipation of each episode and, unlike the shows before it, the SEED series showcases lightning-fast mobile suit battles. A beautiful color palette of neon blues and pinks--not unlike a pack of Wild Berry Skittles--light up the context of each environment. Social commentary ranges from everything to prejudice, sex, and the curse of family legacy. SEED is a fantastic show that raises some very important questions to its real-world audience, while maintaining the action-oriented entertainment value of a fast-paced giant robot anime.
SHOULD YOU WATCH IT? Having seen the original Gundam series SEED so heavily draws inspiration from, it was easy to catch the references and even easier to assume where the story was going, only to be surprised by its own changes of pace. Looking from the outside in, even if you have not seen the original, and never watch another Gundam series subsequently, I highly recommend this alternate universe tale. It opens up strong, and ends even stronger in one the franchise's darkest yet fulfilling final battles.
Runner up: G Gundam (1994)
4) Gundam Unicorn (2012)
WHAT IT'S ABOUT: Taking place within the canon of the original series' Universal Century (UC) calendar in the year 0096, 16-year-old Banagher Links and his friends attend school and live normal, semi-consistent lives in the confides of their space colony. Banagher, who has ties to the powerful Vist family and to an even-more powerful device known as Laplace Box, falls into adventure when he rescues a striking young girl of his age, who goes by the alias of Audrey Burne. As Audrey seeks out Cardeas Vist to find Laplace's Box and war continues to break out between the mobile suits of the Earth Federation's taskforce Londo Bell and Neo-Zeon's remnants known as The Sleeves over the Box, Banagher realizes all but too late his true connection with Vist, who entrusts to him the hidden and extremely powerful mobile suit, the Unicorn Gundam, to trailblaze his own destiny, protect Laplace's Box, and end the war once and for all.
WHY IT ROCKS: Next to Gundam Thunderbolt, which also takes place on the same timeline, there is no Gundam series that boasts animation as clean, fluid, and perfected as Gundam Unicorn. I could watch the entire series on mute and stand in awe of its detail and fluidity, especially during mobile suit combat. The soundtrack is painfully epic and highlights the majesty of the race for the mysterious Laplace's Box, and if you've seen other Universal Century Gundam titles, then you know just from watching the first episode that the Unicorn Gundam might possibly be the most powerful Gundam in UC history. Both the younger and older characters are well-written and all understand the concept of maturation, betrayal, revenge, and regret. Banagher, as a Gundam protagonist, is at times very relatable in his hesitancy to murder his enemies or understand why anyone, let alone everyone, depends on him and his Gundam, while the show's masked villain and ace pilot Full Frontal (no kidding, that's the ONLY name used for him in the show) is a highly intelligent, respectable man with some of the show's best lines of dialog, but stands as Banagher's deadliest adversary.
SHOULD YOU WATCH IT? As much as I want to recommend it, it's very difficult to understand the context if you haven't seen some of the UC Gundam series before it and understand its overall narrative. In both audio and visual, Unicorn heavily pays homage to the original Gundam, Zeta Gundam, Gundam ZZ, and the theatrical film Char's Counterattack, only taking place three years after the events of that film. Without some knowledge of prior events seen only in previous related canon, Unicorn is slightly confusing. I would wait and catch up on the old stuff before engaging with this beast.
Runner up: Gundam Thunderbolt (2015)
3) Gundam (1979, 1981)
WHAT IT'S ABOUT: Ah, the one that started it all! In the year Universal Century 0079, wars are now fought with manned humanoid giant robots known as mobile suits. Birthed from a cluster of space colonies fed up with government rule, the Duchy of Zeon wage a war of independence against the Earth Federation and greatly have the upper hand with their legion of mass-produced mobile suits led on the battlefield by their most fierce ace pilot, a young masked man known as Char Aznable. However, with rumors spreading about the Earth Federation's "Project V"--a clandestine initiative for the Federation to develop three of their own mobile suit prototypes, known as the Guntank, Guncannon, and Gundam--Zeon sends a mobile suit recon team to discover the truth in the colony where Project V lays hidden, as well as a giant mobile suit carrier, a special battleship known as White Base. Upon discovery, Zeon begins to attack the facility and most of the White Base crew are killed. Lonely but intelligent 15-year-old Amuro Ray, a colony citizen who is often left alone, gets caught up in the massacre, but between the chaos of Zeon's attack and the Federation attempting to withdraw with their precious cargo of top-secret mobile suits, he finds himself in the cockpit of Project V's close-quarters combat mobile suit, the Gundam, and quickly masters its advanced mechanics. Forced to join the Federation, the crew of the White Base, and assigned as Gundam's pilot, the young man is forced to fight for his own survival, engaging with a war he doesn't quite understand or believe in, but learns of its realities with each clash with Zeon, and his newfound rival Char.
WHY IT ROCKS: Gundam rewrote the handbook on giant robot anime. While most 70's robots boasted cartoonish designs, and plots where giant robots fought monstrous or alien enemies in each episode with predictable outcomes and campy elements were commonplace, Gundam was a war drama that saw giant robots as military weapons--and where each mobile suit destroyed was a human life lost--and not invincible, superheroic battle armors. Both the Earth Federation and Zeon had its own heroes and villains, both likable and unlikable, and the line between good and evil was realistically blurred. The narrative was risky, and as such, the first time around it didn't stick with audiences. The 1979 series was cancelled and shorted from 51 episodes to 43, only to be reassembled in 1981 as a compilation movie trilogy, helping garner a revival of immense popularity among Japanese audiences. Though Amuro is not the most characteristically alluring protagonist, Char Aznable comes off as the coolest, most multilayered villain I've ever experienced, who's mask and clunky helmet trailblazed the staple for most Gundam series to feature a similarly-masked antagonist. The Gundam mobile suit itself is powerful but not invincible, and its young pilot Amuro risks his life with each battle, whether overconfident or scared out of his mind. And ultimately, it is such a pleasure watching the evolution of Amuro and the other young heroes of White Base as they grow from scared teenagers to hardened, soon-to-be-legendary soldiers. And knowing that there is a franchise built around the frame of this series incentivizes the audience to care about its characters--future sequels see the evolutions of Amuro and Char grow from young men to influential leaders, while Audrey Burne, a future character of importance in Gundam Unicorn, is just born during this series.
SHOULD I WATCH IT? YES. You legitimately need to experience what Cartoon Network's Toonami block once boasted as the "greatest anime saga of all time". It set the standard for popular anime like Evangelion, Big O, and Robotech. Adults and children can both appreciate the sense of realism about war and the dangers of the battlefield, where nobody is invincible or immortal, ideals are completely fragile, and hunger for power becomes one's greatest demise. Even viewing Gundam as solely a giant-robot anime, it fits the bill with its exciting action and innovative militaristic depictions of otherwise silly or fantastical weapons like beam-energy javelins, maces, and frightening super-weapons that can wipe out entire fleets. The television series retains its dated animation from 1979, and having experienced the Gundam movie trilogy before the TV series (remember, they both tell the same story), I would highly recommend the movie trilogy first. The animation gets better with each film, and by Gundam III, a good 75% of the film is brand new animation never-before-seen from the television series.
Runner up: Gundam 00 (2007)
2) Zeta Gundam (1985)
WHAT IT'S ABOUT: The first sequel to the original Gundam, this show takes place seven years later in UC 0087. Having defeated the Zeon menace, the Earth Federation has since grown fearful and all but corrupt, enforcing their iron will upon helpless colony citizens and ruthlessly eliminating any threats that oppose their ideology and methods. To further their grip of power, the Federation creates an elite taskforce known as the Titans, whose primary purpose is to eliminate any remnants, or civilian supporters, of Zeon. The only force with the resource to stand against the Federation and their Titans is the Anti-Earth Union Group, or AEUG, a private military whose members consist of civilians, former Federation soldiers, and former Zeon soldiers, all disgusted with the current state of the Earth Federation and the Titans, who have just developed a series of new Gundams to further enforce their will and enhance their state of power. Hapless but strong-willed 17-year-old Kamille Bidan finds himself under the fold of the AEUG in their fight against the Titans, under the wing of top AEUG pilot (and former Zeon ace) Char Aznable, and piloting--and helping to develop--the latest mobile suit built to aid AEUG in their war against the Titans: the Zeta Gundam.
WHY IT ROCKS: Gundam creator Yoshiyuki Tomino suffered through depression while directing Zeta Gundam. From that unfortunate depression, however, came some of the highest quality of storytelling ever seen in Gundam's history. As one of the darkest and most psychological Gundam series, the Universal Century of 0087 is basically a dark mirror of what it once was seven years ago, as former villains like Char are now heroes and the Federation's new Gundams are no longer symbols of hope and persistence, but of the power of the state and punishment of obstructing law. The series also flaunts onslaughts of sleek transformable mobile suits--the UC's current trend of technological advancement--including the AEUG's highly-advanced Zeta Gundam, which boasts a radical redesign from its traditional predecessors and can transform from mobile suit mode to a jet-like "Waverider" mode. Noting the growth of characters, not only does former-Gundam pilot Amuro Ray play a small but vital role in the series, but we also see the return of Audrey Burne, here an eleven-year-old girl realizing her supposed role in the universe. The social commentary on women in society and on the battlefield is highly intelligible and thought-provoking; even the main hero, Kamille, is aware of his gender-ambiguous name and hates it.
SHOULD I WATCH IT? The only problem with Zeta Gundam is its confusing plot. Even with having watched and loved the original Mobile Suit Gundam, this direct sequel had to be watched a time or two just to understand everything that transpired. Here, heroes are using the mono-eyed mobile suits that tangibly distinguished Zeon mobile suits of the previous series from Earth Federation suits. Their mechanics and technology is also adapted by the Federation now, and they've also created a series of black-armored Gundams. It does reinforce giving the most attention to the characters on the screen and not the suits they pilot, and seeing Char fighting alongside former enemy Amuro Ray and White Base captain Bright Noa is a spectacular sight to see...but it could throw people for a loop. The show almost demands an understanding of the original series before engaging. But if you're in a hurry to watch the best Gundam series there is out there, I won't stop you. That being said, "best" doesn't necessarily mean "favorite"...
Runner up: Gundam The 08th MS Team (1996)
1) Gundam Wing (1995)
WHAT IT'S ABOUT: Although Mobile Suit Gundam started the franchise and Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam proved just how dark the series could go, it was Mobile Suit Gundam Wing that started the entire craze for me and for most American audiences, as its popularity was nearly unrivaled during its American run on Cartoon Network in 2000. An alternate universe tale (like SEED), Wing takes place in the future of the After Colony (AC) calendar. In the year AC 175, space colonies are oppressed by the United Earth Sphere Alliance, the current governing body of Earth. The Organization of the Zodiac (OZ), a sect of the Alliance military, successfully assassinates the leader of the space colonies, a idealistic pacifist named Heero Yuy, which prompts five highly intelligent scientists to defect from OZ and plot to avenge Heero Yuy. Twenty years later, in the year AC 195, the five scientists--isolated in different space colonies--finally launch their personal war against OZ and the Alliance with "Operation Meteor", in which the they secretly create nearly-indestructable mobile suits called Gundams and send them down to Earth, with extremely devoted and dangerous pilots, to destroy OZ. Japanese pilot of the Wing Gundam, a 15-year old boy who only goes by the provocative codename "Heero Yuy" to represent the vengeance of the actual murdered Heero and as a audible threat to OZ, runs across a young girl named Relena, who quickly discovers his secret as a Gundam pilot and "weapon" for Operation Meteor, and Zechs Merquise, a charismatic young soldier of OZ who wears a mask to conceal his true identity, who believes in what the Gundams are doing but furthermore desires to find his place as a "true soldier" as the Gundams' adversary. This leads Heero and the other four Gundam pilots on a spiral towards their destiny as young soldiers in their fight against OZ.
WHY IT ROCKS: This mature show features an incredible orchestric rock-jazz soundtrack, enticing the emotions of its audiences; five young protagonists wise beyond their years, war-hardened and all slightly and heartbreakingly suicidal; and an original story featuring Gundam mobile suits not as tools for the military, or merely symbols of hope or oppression, but as a symbol of revolution...and a mark for death. Anyone who sees a Gundam "must" be killed, which complicates the relationship between Gundam pilot Heero and pacifist Relena, and leaves OZ soldiers absent of hope and full of fear upon stumbling onto one of the five impressively battle-ready Gundams. Though the color palette of outer space is quite bland, the action sequences and contrasting personalities of the Gundam pilots, their allies, and their enemies--young and quite emotional--make this 49 episode series worth while many times over.
SHOULD I WATCH IT? The greatest part about Gundam Wing is that it requires absolutely no knowledge of any prior Gundam series, not being a sequel to anything before it. Most alternate universe stories boast this attribute, though it may be hard to fully grasp some of the shows like Gundam SEED or Turn A Gundam without understanding the Universal Century tales of the 70's and 80's. This series, as well as SEED, are both currently on Hulu so if you have time to spare and haven't watched the series yet, you can discover for yourself why it's my favorite anime of all time.
Runner up: Gundam 0080 (1988)
So, there you have it. Hopefully that wasn't too complicated. I'm going to go now. And watch some Gundam.