09 Nov 2016
I've been watching anime and reading manga for over a decade, but in all that time I've not seen a single bit of Gundam. Be it the Universal Century or the Correct Calendar, be it sowing SEED or taking Wing, I've never unscrewed a bottle of polystyrene cement to assemble a sprue of gunpla in my entire life. This might make me seem unqualified to review 2014's Gundam: Reconguista in G as I've not been primed on decades of releases, merchandise, sequels and retellings from no less than thirteen different continuities that form this sprawling jungle of a franchise, but I would counter that in contrast this makes me more suitable to take on this assignment as the experimental control. Gundam: Reconguista in G (commonly shortened to G-Reco) was released to celebrate the 35th anniversary of the Gundam franchise and heralded the eagerly-anticipated return of Mobile Suit Gundam's original writer-director Yoshiyuki Tomino, who hadn't written a Gundam series for fifteen years since 1999's Turn A Gundam (although in the meantime he had directed the 2005-6 "New Translation" re-edit of 1985's Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam, and the short Ring of Gundam in 2009). However, the excitement at Reconguista in G's debut faded quickly and the show suffered from a lot of criticism during its initial broadcast and streaming run - had Tomino's edge been blunted over the years? Yet was the adverse reaction to Gundam: Reconguista in G because it was genuinely poor or were perspectives just warped by unfair expectations coached into viewers over the preceding 35 years? My uncoloured outside perspective should provide a definitive answer.
Gundam: Reconguista in G is set in the "Regild Century", which is not directly connected to any other story in Gundam but is set a millennium after the events of the Universal Century which the original Mobile Suit Gundam took place in. Knowledge of the Universal Century has faded into myth but it is remembered as a time of terrible calamity and destruction (which to be fair isn't all that far off the mark), and so to avoid the mistakes of the past from being repeated control is rigidly exercised by the Captial Territory, which possesses Earth's only space elevator. Other countries still exist but they are reliant on the indulgence of the Capital for Photonic Batteries, charged in space and delivered down the elevator, that are essential to powering modern civilisation; the Capital also strictly restricts permissible technological development to ensure that science doesn't start cascading into another global meltdown. Over the centuries the Capital's policy to protect mankind from itself has crystallised into dogma and its mission has become an actual religion, the faith of "SU-Cordism" whose priests hallow the very Stairway To Heaven.
The Capital believes that it's doing what's necessary to curb humanity's worst excesses but there are those who resent its power as dictatorially holding the world back and counter-productively provoking greater conflict amongst other countries who fight over the limited energy the Capital rations, and the elevator is regularly raided by space pirates who seek to seize shipments of Photonic Batteries for themselves and their own jealous wealth. Bellri is a young cadet in the Capital Guard that protects the elevator from pirate attacks; but he gets a baptism of fire when a trip up the elevator for his first practise session piloting the Guard's mecha ends up becoming a live-fire exercise when his pod is attacked by pirates, including a mecha with a striking resemblance to the designs of the Universal Century. Despite having no beam swords or rockets and only an industrial welder for an improvised weapon Bellri capably defeats the attacker and captures its pilot, a beautiful girl named Aida.
That's not the end of the matter, though. Aida's fellow pirates want to rescue their comrade, and the strange mecha that Aida calls the "G-Self" presents its own bundle of mysteries and worries to many different parties, including the Research Division of the aggressive new faction the Capital Army, which is muscling out the old Capital Guard and threatens the world with greater belligerence. In the cockpit of the G-Self Bellri unexpectedly finds himself perched on an unsteady pedestal being rocked back and forth by the waves of a new war - where will he fall?
The synopsis leads me to defend Gundam: Reconguista in G against one particular item of bad press it suffered fromduring its initial broadcast. A lot of viewers complained that the story was confusing and impossible to follow: I have to strongly reject this. Poor storytelling isn't a problem for this anime - what it doesn't do is patronise you by starting with laborious essays of introduction before you actually get to watch the show or killing the pace stone dead with long expository monologues, instead trusting that you'll be able to pick things up as you go along. Even if you're going into G-Reco completely blind you can quickly understand the role of Minovsky Particles without needing a lecture on Gundam pseudo-science. The only problem with the storytelling and worldbuilding then is that maybe G-Reco expected too much from lazy audiences accustomed to having everything spelled out explicitly and who are incapable of inference. G-Reco's laudable show-not-tell narrative starts to flag as the show goes on, lapsing into a few "as I'm sure you already know..." speeches in the second half, and the dialogue can get very repetitive (yes, we know the Amerians have occupied Sankt Porto, you told us ten times already), but I wrote the synopsis above just three episodes into a two-cour show so accusations that the show is opaque and incomprehensible are just wrong.
You can, however, take more issue with the themes of the story. The conflict of the first half of the series really amounts to little more than a jurisdictional squabble between the old Capital Guard and the new Capital Army, and it's really feels about as riveting and with as much consequence as Claire from HR and Sadie from Payroll bickering over who gets to use the nice big mug in the break room. G-Reco may have had more significance for Japanese audiences though if you understand it as an allegory for the continued political controversy in Japan over Article 9, the country's constitutional commitment to pacifism, with the Guard representing the Self-Defence Forces and the Army representing the hawkish government that want to remilitarise Japan. This is still a highly fractious and sensitive issue in Japan and 2014, the year G-Reco had its first television broadcast, was also the year the government revised Article 9 to give the military more power. That may make G-Reco relevant there, but for us it's hard to shake the feeling that we're watching a war for nothing other than bureaucratic office space. Even if you're aware of the subtext the allegory still becomes very strained and tenuous in the second half of the series, when the warring factions of Earth unite together to resist an invading enemy force from the Moon - are the Moon People supposed to be China in this situation? What are the Venusians in the third act then, Korea as the dastardly mastermind between the two? After spending so much time demeaning the aggressive army, is Tomino then just doing a complete volte-face and saying that the hawks were right all along, that Japan should remilitarise as the Capital Army is doing and maintain its alliance with "Ameria"? I mean, if that is his message then fair enough, but it really just doesn't sound at all like Tomino's usual beat! Multiple declarations from the characters that the old should give way to the young definitely are right in Tomino's wheelhouse though.
Characters are also a decidedly confused bag too. The hero Bellri is rather difficult to like - he's so floatingly untroubled and easy-going that he forgets what side he's on and not only does he actively collaborate with his captors he even fights for them, contributing to the deaths of several of his own Capital Guard squad-mates and even directly killing his own instructor. After he's realised what he's done Bellri has a bit of a maundering mope for a scene, but as much as the anime is insisting that I should be feeling sad I really don't see why I should be sympathising with a descendant of Colonel flippin' Nicholson. He so readily throws his lot in with the pirates and fights the Capital Army (who are still on his side, even if they are a different organisation) because the Army are breaking the anti-technology taboos by designing new mecha - that Bellri is piloting a taboo-breaking mecha himself aboard a taboo-breaking spaceship doesn't seem to trouble the gormless berk too much. He keeps flip-flopping like this - one episode he'll be destroying enemy mecha without even blinking, the next he'll be promising them that he'll do his hardest not to kill them as he limits himself to sniping off mecha arms and legs instead (although none of his targets can hear him through the Minovsky fog, so maybe he's just reassuring his own guilty conscience). By about two-thirds in Bellri does settle down into being a good-natured gregarious kid of vitality who wants to explore infinity but it's a long hard struggle to acclimatise.
The Capital Army unit fighting the pirates and our heroes for much of the series are crewed by Kuntala, an ethnic minority that suffers from discrimination. By winning a victory against the Space Pirates they're hoping to win respect for their race and help end the prejudice they suffer from. These guys aren't baddies, they're the Tuskegee Airmen, and when they keep getting knocked down and blown up by Bellri and his new pirate friends I wasn't celebrating overbearing military thugs getting taken down a peg by youthful free spirits, rather I felt sorry for the poor guys - but as much as you sympathise with them, the flamboyant attitude of their leader Captain Mask can't distract from that fact that he's a pretty pathetic serial loser and so you simultaneously feel embarrassed for supporting his mob of jobbers.
In light of all this I think that a legitimate criticism of G-Reco is that it wants to have its cake and eat it. Through the original 1979 Mobile Suit Gundam Tomino is popularly credited with creating the 'Real Robot' subgenre of mecha shows with an emphasis on gritty human drama and realistic sociopolitical issues before the battle-bots. In G-Reco though Tomino clearly wants to ease off and wind down in his old age take a more light-hearted, fantastic approach more familiar to the old-school 'Super Robot' shows. The ending sequence features smiling characters skipping and prancing over the clouds; when militaries prepare to deploy they're sent off with cheerleaders shaking pom-poms more like they're a football team emerging from the dugout; the heroes enter an enemy facility not through stealthy infiltration and deftly subduing guards but because everyone's bunked off for the weekend; and everyone seems to like to wear their spacesuits completely unzipped, very casual. That's absolutely fine, I'd never want a show to get stodgy with too much worthiness, but when Tomino still wants to make a public message too it struggles to put enough weight behind it to make an impression. We're told that the Kuntalans are discriminated against but other than a couple of tiny and entirely inconsequential snarky remarks we never see them suffering from it - if anything they're privileged as Captain Mask's team get to use all the fancy new mecha. Bellri and other characters take their SU-Cordism religion seriously (good grief, couldn't they have thought up a less clunky name? 'Stellism' as they bring light down from the stars, maybe?), warning about curses for profaning the sanctity of the elevator with all apparent sincerity, but when they actually get there they don't even shrug about it - the spiritual aspect is really underused throughout. Amerians have been fighting wars on Earth for a full decade but we never see the consequences of such prolonged fighting. Bellri swaps sides so casually because whether you're in the Guard, the Army, the pirates, or the Amerians, it's no more significant than whether you're skins or bibs when playing soccer in the park... but unlike the old song "Games Without Frontiers" identites in the real world are a bit more fraught.
This attitude might compromise the underlying themes of G-Reco but it does make for a glorious sight on the face of it. The difference in style between traditional Gundam and G-Reco is as vivid as the epochal gap between Gunbuster and Diebuster. G-Reco enjoys some gorgeous environments with keen fashionable style that are absolutely resplendent on Blu-Ray, from the cosmic arc of the Earth in the opening scene and luscious jungles thriving with wildlife, to the august friezes of the SU-Cordism cathedrals and the glistering golden rings of the Cyrano-5 colony, it's all phenomenally beautiful and a delight to watch. Considerable detail is lavished on the mechanics of the mecha too, from ingenious little features like the inflating and deflating shock-absorbing airbags to even how pilots use the heads - and yeah, all these accessories and modules getting clamped to the G-Self are probably to advertise gunpla sets but the boyish tinkerer's touch to the fixtures and fittings does give it a lot of charm. Reconguista in G is as much about 'G' for musical key as for Gundam, with a fine orchestral score backing the adventure as well which is especially vivid during the little dancing mid-episode eyecatches.
The presentation in Anime Limited's release does have some ancillary niggles. There are absolutely no subtitles provided for the opening or ending sequences; I should be angrier about this cheapskate dodge but really the themes are so forgettable and the sequences so dull (the openings are just clips from the show) that I ended up skipping them all the time anyway, so it was kind of a moot point. The menus are also a bit hard to navigate as they're all identical - even if Anime Limited didn't want to simply copy-paste in a new publicity still for each screen background, couldn't they have taken thirty seconds to type 'Disc 1/2/3' for each menu? It's also a real shame this show doesn't have a dub - this show feels like it could have wide all-ages appeal and the subtitles will sadly shut out a lot of the family, even if UK companies don't really commission dubs anymore Anime Limited really ought to have stretched for it.
Getting in to the show does reward you with good action as much as good backgrounds though. Episode one opens with an exhilarating descent to the Earth via high-altitude squirrel-suit, and these sequences are sustained throughout - even if they're a bit more low-impact than "Kill 'em All Tomino" was known for in the past there's a lot of fun in the combat, from Captain Mask's dancing and pirouetting en-pointe robots to having crew helplessly sliding off and around moving arms and open portholes. Seeing one Gundam suplex another definitely surprised me - mecha wrestling is quite a sight! When the setting moves into space it settles down into beam-rifle light shows but they still conjure up different effects for a diverse fireworks display.
Overall, Gundam: Reconguista in G didn't deserve the short shrift it endured on first broadcast and I do feel that it was unfairly maligned in many respects. I had an entertaining time watching and I don't consider my first foray into the Gundam franchise to have been a waste to put me off exploring it further - Gundam: Reconguista in G does fumble its message but it recovers to serve you a pretty vista of colourful mecha action that can be enjoyed by anyone.