Nothin’ But Hamburger: Gundam 0080

While I have no trouble calling myself a Gundam fan, I pale in comparison to those who obsessively watch each and every entry into the franchise multiple times, pick apart the technical details of the mecha, and try to reconcile continuity errors between the varying series. Truth be told, for the most part, I’ve watched no Gundam series more than once in its entirety. Twice for some, as I would watch them once on the Cartoon Network, then a second time on DVD. Sometimes this gap between catching the series on TV (back when Bandai tried to push Gundam as a viable property over here) and watching the DVD release can be wide. I first caught 0083 when Cartoon Network first aired it in 2002, but never got around to re-watching it (and actually catching the ending) until my senior year of high school in 2006, and I still haven’t given G-Gundam another look since middle school, which is something I hope to rectify at some point.

I first watched Gundam 0080: War in the Pocket when it aired on Toonami’s Midnight Run in 2001. Back then, anime was still relatively new to me, so I took in anything I could without being super critical about it. Fast forward to now: Despite owning the DVDs for something on the order of two years, I only managed to watch the series again over the past couple of weeks–nearly 10 years after watching it for the first time. Aside from simply wanting to see it again, part of what motivated me to give 0080 another look was praise I’d hear lavished upon it over the years since my first viewing. Lots of Gundam shows get very divisive reactions, yet reviews for 0080 were unanimously positive. I am aware that my opinion does at times run contrary to the majority, so I went into the show with no expectations. But at the same time, I was curious to see if the show could move me in the same way it moved others. Needless to say, it was like watching the show fresh all over again. In 2001 I was about two years deep into my burgeoning anime fandom, but in this brave new world of 2011, I have twelve years experience under my belt.

Just as a warning: This review is written for people who are already familiar with the show. There are no explicit spoilers, but I do a pretty poor job at beating around the bush, so read at your own caution if you haven’t seen it. Jump to Wikipedia to get up to speed.

As the Gundam story meant to focus on the lives of the UC-era common folk, 0080 takes on a starkly different tone from most other Gundam series. Rather than having the camera constantly fixed on the changing tides of war, we hear the story second-hand by way of ordinary people, along with their feelings on the war and how it affects them. In a rather hilarious example, the token fat kid remarks that food supplies to their neutral colony are being affected by the fighting, all the while helping himself to his friends’ leftovers during their lunch period. Gundam has always been about painting the human face of war, but the picture 0080 paints is slightly different: It’s more relatable. While the crew of the White Base have truly dramatic and emotionally stirring ordeals to contend with, unless you’ve been through war, their struggle will always feel somewhat distant. And if you’ve been through war, you’d probably just find Gundam to be silly cartoony fluff, but I’m getting off track. The point is, 0080’s focus strikes at a more intimate part of the viewer to convey Gundam’s staunchly anti-war message. This alone sets 0080 apart from the rest in a positive way, and makes it at least worth a look.

However, this focus on the common folk also works against 0080, but this is more an issue with myself than the show.  To be frank, a good portion of this show just isn’t super interesting. While I do appreciate the focus on ordinary people, that only carries the show so far. My original criticism was going to claim that the characters are too caricatured to be interesting, but while skimming through the show again for the sake of this review, I found this criticism to be somewhat misplaced. In fact, 0080’s opening episode paints a rather realistic picture of Al as a kid bored with his normal routine, along with some family issues on top. It’s not exactly the mostly exciting television, but it sets a good baseline and paints a sobering portrait of everyday life… that is, until Al comes to eye-to-eye with a Zaku–and this is where 0080 breaks down somewhat.

When Al comes to eventually meet Bernie, the more realistic Al from episode one gives way to an Al that feels slightly caricatured–one filled with a generic child-like wonder and excitement. But perhaps that’s unfair–any kid would be excited to meet a real-deal piece of the war they only hear about on TV and romanticize about with their friends–but it’s the predictability of this reaction that sets my cynicism receptors off. I realize this dynamic can’t work in any other way for the sake of the show, and I can’t tell if my beef with it is simply an issue with the writing or the presentation. Simply put, Al and Bernie’s early interactions just strike me as somewhat corny. They do have some nice heart-to-hearts, but there’s a thin veneer of corn around everything else they do.

It’s probably the music. As far as incidental music goes, 0080 is rife with the poor taste of the 1980s. Nearly every moment is backed by inappropriate and poorly done synth that really just sounds awful. I made peace with it fairly early on, but it still frames otherwise good scenes rather poorly. Rather than just letting the inherent emotional content of a scene do its work, the music comes in to shake you and make sure you’re feeling something. Thankful, they do know when to artfully leave it out, making for some of Al and Bernie’s better moments.

That being said, it’s irresponsible to place all the blame on the music. While I appreciate the thematic value behind the civilian focus, their lives just aren’t interesting enough to hold my attention for an entire episode. Perhaps that would be different if they were all high school girls who ate cake and drank tea all day. Thankfully, the writers usually realize this, and know when to cut in the scenes of military scheming and robot action. In fact, while 0080 is indeed about fleshing out the civilian side of war, the show’s more “traditional” Gundam moments (i.e., scenes with soldiers and robots) are just as important. I can’t say if the ratio of civilian focus to military focus is 50/50, but it’s pretty close.

See, what sets 0080’s militaristic focus apart from other Gundam series is its scale. No Gundam series (that I’ve seen, granted)–even 08th MS Team that would come later–focuses around a force as small as the one portrayed in 0080. While 0080’s small band of Zeon soldiers have an MS-per-man in the opening scene, for most of the show they just have one suit. Furthermore, their mission is written off as non-essential by the higher-ups, and they’re provided nothing in the way of back-up. This bare-bones squad of Zeon soldiers is one of the more convincing portrayals of the military in the Gundam franchise (at least to my untrained eyes; military otaku, please feel free to chime in), complimenting the show’s down-to-earth civilian focus well. It’s a pretty bleak setup, adding another dimension of reality to UC Gundam’s arguably “realistic” portrayal of warfare.

But much like the scenes focusing on civilian life in the early episodes, even the military segments don’t quite max out my entertainment levels. Unlike the more slice-of-life scenes–which are hurt by bad music an Al acting too much like a kid–the Zeon soldiers just aren’t terribly interesting people. This isn’t too much of an issue, as their presence is simply meant to contrast against the scenes of daily life with their sinister conspiracy happening underneath, and to move the plot forward. While this is all well and good, it’d help if the Zeon soldiers weren’t all stereotypes of some sort. They are lovable stereotypes, granted, but they can only carry things so far. The Zeons outside of the main squad aren’t done many favors either, as they all come off as cartoon villains right down to their designs, but they hardly appear on screen, so this isn’t too much of an issue. The Feddies come out the nicest, unsurprisingly, but they’re more nonthreatening than anything else. Speaking of the Feddies, Chris hardly gets any development. She’s a fairly important character, but she doesn’t get much time to shine–seems like a pretty bad oversight.

What compounds these issues is the overall slow pace of the early episodes. I don’t mind slow pacing (I am a fan of Shinkai Makoto, after all) but when your show’s slowly pushing things along with these sorts of issues, it comes off as slightly low-impact.

0080 picks up at the half-way mark, but not before the show’s awful soundtrack ruins an otherwise great and pivotal scene in the fourth episode. Convincingly frightening images of urban destruction are immediately cheapened when paired against cheap 80s synth and a screeching saxophone. Following that, in a later episode, a chilling scene of a child’s bloodied body being pulled from rubble is nearly ruined by the background music once again trying too hard to make you care. Thankfully, poor musical direction aside, 0080’s final two episodes demonstrate genuine emotional depth, and deliver down to earth drama smoothly.

When pushed to the edge, Bernie tries to reconcile the cognitive dissonance between the facade he’s put on for Al, and things as they exist in the real world. This soul-searching makes for some genuinely intimate and effective character development on Bernie’s part, fully rounding him out as a Real Person. Similarly, under the rather desperate conditions, Al and Bernie’s interactions take on actual importance: Their squabbles don’t feel petty, and their happier moments are given more gravity. Other details in these later episodes lay down the “war is hell” message quite well, between the simple running off of casualty numbers by the authorities, and the aforementioned depictions of civilians who were caught in the crossfire (despite cheesy musical backing.)

The show’s strongest moment is saved right for the very end. Despite seeing the horrors of war firsthand, throughout most of 0080 war is still something of a game for Al. It isn’t until the final moments of the show’s sixth episode that Al comes to realize how serious war is by unwittingly orchestrating a tragedy due to his childish desire to see two robots fight each other. It’s a chilling scene that drives 0080’s message home strongly; that message being, “War’s no Joke.”

0080 is served well by its OVA production values. The character animation is of a high standard, and renders Mikimoto’s designs immaculately. There are a few troubled spots: The animation director for the first episode didn’t seem to have a good handle on the designs, resulting in characters looking Under The Influence in more than a few shots, and there are some cuts of animation that didn’t seem to make it through QC, but overall the animation is quite good. One thing to note about 0080’s animation is its grisly portrayal of violence: Soldiers will twist and turn like rag dolls as their bodies are pumped full of lead, blood splattering every which way. A destroyed mobile suit cockpit will be caked in the blood of its pilot. These examples may sound over-the-top, but I assure you the violence in 0080 is starkly realistic, grim, and not exploitative in the least. This reluctance to shy away from scenes of brutal violence, and the aftermath of brutal violence, heightens the contrast between 0080’s lighthearted moments and its serious ones, effectively illustrating how things can turn into chaos very quickly in a war zone.

As one should expect from anime of this era, 0080’s animation shines the brightest when the screen is filled with nothing but machines. All the hardware (Zeon, in particular) are portrayed with an uncompromising attention to detail. Machines move solidly, and get shot up realistically–much like the aforementioned flesh-and-blood soldiers. Battle choreography isn’t consistently interesting, but all the battles are exciting and well animated.

Is 0080 as good as people say it is? Yes, I think that certainly is the case. However, as far as my personal tastes go, the show makes some egregious stylistic and directorial choices. While a lot of these can be attributed to the era the show was made in, the best entertainment is typically timeless, and 0080 certainly is dated. But it all depends on which dated poison you prefer, as I actually enjoy the original Gundam’s unabashedly ’70s soundtrack.


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