Mobile Fighter G-Gundam
Mike Toole rates it:
Mobile Fighter G-Gundam is very unusual, especially for a Gundam series. It can be criticized for a number of reasons: it's unrealistic. Its characters come off as shallow and goofy. The story is silly and exaggerated. Certain elements, like the types of mobile suit and the way they relate to the countries they represent, are ludicrous and borderline offensive. All of these are valid criticisms-- but to apply them to a show like G-Gundam would be missing the point of the series completely.
It's easy to explain why G-Gundam is so misunderstood by some fans. It was the first "alternate timeline" Gundam series, predating both the grittier (and sillier) Gundam Wing and the as-yet unreleased Gundam X. (Some also consider Turn A Gundam to be an alternate-timeline series, but that's open to interpretation.) Prior to G-Gundam, fans knew what to expect from the franchise-- richly characterized, morally complex heroes and villians, somewhat realistic space mecha combat, and the terrible realities of mechanized warfare, all told in a science fiction setting. G-Gundam has almost none of that. In fact, the series (which clocks in at an impressive 49 episodes, longer even than the original Gundam TV series) has a lot more in common with Chinese wuxia adventure stories than it does with Japanese sci-fi mecha shows.
What is wuxia? I don't want to sum it up in this review-- frankly, it'd take too long-- but this article is a good place to start. In a nutshell, wuxia stories are tales of martial-arts adventure. The characters who populate these stories tend to be skilled fighters who are noble, honest to a fault, and possessive of wildly powerful fighting skills. Hong Kong cinema and comics are rich with this sort of stuff-- if you've seen The Swordsman or read The Storm Riders, you already know what wuxia is.
But how did series director Yasuhiro Imagawa, having previously directed cult favorite Mr. Ajikko (a series worthy of its own release in the US), fuse the sci-fi of Gundam with the superheroic martial arts of wuxia? Simple-- he cast the martial artists as pilots of the robots. In G-Gundam's universe, mankind has still emigrated to space-- but their colonies are as unrealistic as most of the show's elements, appearing as giant floating islands in space rather than the original series' smart, streamlined cylinders. Of course, there's still unrest among the various countries and factions, and to head off the prospect of a terrible war, the colonies hold a tournament every four years-- a great fighting competition in which each participating nation sends its best fighter, piloting their best Gundam, to try and achieve victory. The prize is considerable-- total control over the spaceways for the next four years.
Domon Kasshu isn't really concerned with that, however. He may be Neo-Japan's greatest martial artist and their official entrant in the Gundam Fight (using his Shining Gundam, which includes many powerful, ludicrously-named attack techniques in its arsenal), but he's really come to earth-- site of the Gundam competition-- to look for someone. That someone is his brother Kyoji, who had previously stolen the Devil Gundam-- a new, powerful, and extremely dangerous mobile fighter-- from Neo-Japan, an act which resulted in the death of Domon's mother and the imprisonment of his father. Since Kyoji stole a mobile fighter, Domon figures that the best way to find his brother is to enter the Gundam Fight and start asking other fighters if they'd seen him. Not surprisingly, this means plenty of battles, as even friendly competitiors are eager to test their skills against the man reputed to be the best martial artist in all of the colonies.
As usual, director Imagawa relies more on the towering personalities of his characters than he does on moving the story forward quickly. For a long series like G-Gundam, that isn't a problem, and it also helps that Domon is a great character. He's strong-willed and stubborn, honorable and courageous, inexperienced and flawed, and even occasionally jovial and a little romantic. He's a fun protagonist because he behaves exactly how the viewer hopes he'll behave, and the same can be said of the supporting cast. He's backed up by Rain, his mechanic and would-be girlfriend, who seems to have trouble getting Domon to take her seriously. (I'm fond of pointing out that Domon likes Rain, he just has no social skills-- just like much of G-Gundam's target audience!)
The trouble is, there are a lot of supporting characters. Another feature of G-Gundam is its goofy, wildly international nature-- since the Gundam Fight involves warriors from all nations meeting and doing battle, Imagawa sees fit to pepper his characters with entertaining and ridiculous stereotypes. American Chibodee Crocket is loud, obnoxious, and boisterous-- he's a boxer who surrounds himself with beautiful women, he fights in a mobile suit that looks like it's wearing football pads, and his rags-to-riches past is an obvious embodiment of the American Dream. Frenchman George de Sand is a well-mannered gentleman who fights in a Napoleonesque mobile suit, using a giant rapier as its weapon. The Chinese Sai Saici is the precocious (he's only 16) upholder of the tradition of the Shaolin Temple, who fights in a Gundam that has Chinese dragons for arms and wears a queue on the back of its head. Imagawa is even more gleefully ridiculous with secondary characters-- the Egyptian mobile fighter is a Gundam wrapped in a mummy's bandages, piloted by an actual mummy; the Mexican "Tequila Gundam" wears a sombrero; and the Turkish Minaret Gundam fights with a giant scimitar. As icing on the cake, each episode is framed by a red tuxedo-clad ring announcer, who eloquently explains details of the plot and then kicks off the start of the story with a gleeful cry of "Ready, go!!"
These elements-- the wuxia influence, the still-recognizable Gundam charm, the goofball stereotypes, and the larger-than-life characters-- combine to form a fabulously enjoyable series, if you're in the right mood for it. A lot of G-Gundam's appeal depends on the attitude of the viewer-- if you're looking for a fantastic, richly plotted martial arts adventure that just happens to include bizarre depictions of international symbols and giant, battling super robots, you'll be in heaven. But if you want a strictly traditional kung-fu epic or a classic mecha series, you'll be rather disappointed. Please, try not to take G-Gundam too seriously-- director Imagawa certainly doesn't!
Before I wrap up this dissertation, I should comment on aspects of the DVDs. As promised by Bandai, they're completely unedited, and contain both English and Japanese audio tracks and subtitles based on the Japanese dialogue. The dub, provided by up-and-comers Blue Water of Calgary, comes off as unusually stiff and wooden, but it does have its high points-- after a very shaky start, I really enjoyed the voice of Stalker, the show's "ring announcer." Unfortunately, Sunrise saw fit to rename certain mobile suits for the dub, ostensibly to keep from irritating certain special interest groups-- these changes are noted on a variety of Gundam-related sites, so I don't feel the need to discuss them. The Japanese dub is fabulous, featuring talents like Tomokazu Seki as Domon and Yoshitada Ohtsuka as Chibodee hamming it up for all they're worth. The subtitles are generally decent, though it looks like that great pains were taken to keep the words "kill" and "death" out of even the subtitle script. (Fortunately, fighter names like "Devil Gundam" and "Lumber Gundam" are still intact in the subtitles.) The discs are scant on extras, but the one included extra is absolutely excellent-- it's text interviews with director Imagawa, who candidly (and hilariously) explains influences for each episode. Would you believe one of the show's influences was the 70s Woody Allen flick Sleeper?
Another nice aspect of these discs are their prices-- each individual disc retails for $19.98, which means deep discounts if you shop carefully. Bandai's also seen fit to release each set of 3 discs in a handsome box set for $49.98. Considering that there's at least four episodes on every disc, that's a great value. This makes for a very nice recovery from Bandai's original Gundam TV DVDs, which were both more expensive and lacking the all-important Japanese audio track.
If this first segment of G-Gundam has a flaw, is that it's mostly comprised of introductory episodes, real "battle of the week" fare. There's a solid story beneath that facade, but it takes awhile to kick into gear-- episode 12, the final episode in the set, is the show's first truly great episode, introducing some great character development and a character who is, in my opinion, one of the most fun to watch in all anime. Master Asia (whose real name translates to "Undefeated Man of the East") makes for both a great hero and a great villain (he plays both roles through the course of the show), and he's a good indicator of whether or not G-Gundam is right for you. If you like Master Asia, you'll like G-Gundam. If you find his ridiculous powers and corny speeches ("Only those with the courage to fight, join me!" he barks at one memorable point) irritating, the mood of the series probably isn't right for you.
I have to recommend G-Gundam, because, quite simply, it's great entertainment. It tells a good story well, with interesting characters and excellent battles. It's also fun to watch for small details-- Imagawa is a huge movie fiend, and astute viewers will pick up references to The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Manhattan, the films of kung-fu director King Wu-- he even introduces a character who's a hilariously obvious caricature of Hong Kong acting legend Chow Yun-fat at one point. G-Gundam is big, bold, and a lot of fun-- if you've seen it on the Cartoon Network, you know this already. If you haven't, these DVDs are even better than tuning in.
Added: Thursday, October 16, 2003
Related Link: Bandai Entertainment