Mobile Suit Gundam: The 08th MS Team

Few anime, if any, are as important and ubiquitous as the Mobile Suit Gundam franchise. It's basically seen as the father of the mecha genre, has dozens of iterations, tons of merchandise, and a huge fan base. It's such a big deal that a life size replica of a Gundam was built in Japan. Yet at the same time, it seems to me that few series in anime are also so difficult to approach. Where does one start when delving into Gundam, what with all its alternate timelines, reboots and spin-offs? That's a question I've asked on more than a few occasions. There's the original series, the film remakes of the original series, Gundam Wing, Gundam SEED, Gundam Unicorn, Gundam 00 (the only Gundam series I'd seen), Gundam The Origin, so on and so forth. Usually when I brought up this question to Gundam fans, there was a nearly unanimous answer when it came to "Gundam series even non-Gundam fans can watch", The 08th MS Team. A Gundam OVA that, instead of focusing on the larger war or conflicts that are usually the center of mecha series, focuses on a small team of soldiers, and a Romeo and Juliet-like romance. So I gave it a try to see if it was really worth seeing, even without extended knowledge of Gundam franchise and lore.

The story of The 08th MS Team begins in Universal Century 0079, as a war wages on earth between The Earth Federation and The Principality of Zeon. Shiro Amada was on his way to Earth to join the fight as an Earth Federation commander when he becomes sidetracked with rescuing a fellow soldier in the wreckage of a battle. During the rescue, he's forced to work together with a female Zeon soldier named Aina. The two spend time together and form a bond that ends up bringing them together multiple times throughout the rest of the war, even after Shiro goes on to command his own Mobile Suit Team against the Zeon, and Aina assists her older brother, a Zeon leader building a super-weapon to try to turn the tide of the war in Zeon's favor.

As I mentioned before, The 08th MS Team is less about the war going on in the background. That stuff is still there, with the implication of an atom bomb-esque weapon in the works by the Zeon, and (really cool) fights between mecha, but not the focus. This is still a war story, but the focus is more on the characters and relationships rather than the battles and war strategies. The part where this aspect really shines is with Shiro and his team. The members of the 08th MS Team are all unique and not just one note. Even younger characters like Michel and Kiki, who at first seem like obnoxious comedy relief characters, end up being a lot more interesting and sympathetic as the series goes on. The rest of the characters are memorable as well, such as Sanders, a mech pilot who has an interesting story involving people believing him to be cursed, after his past few Mobile Suit teams being wiped out. Stuff like that is great, and helps to flesh out the characters really well. And the team really does feel like a team, the way they communicate and interact feels realistic and is a lot of fun to watch, to the point that when the show came to an end I wished I could see more of them, going on missions and facing different challenges. They're all likable, and feel distinctly human, which is important in telling a story where the characters are the focus.

Another aspect of the characters in The 08th MS Team is the romance. At the center of everything going on is a love blooming between Earth Federation Commander Shiro and Zeon noble Aina. An easy comparison, with it's love at first sight and "star crossed lovers" vibe, is Romeo and Juliet (I promise I don't mean that in a spoiler-y way). I've  always been on the side against the "love at first sight" routine, simply because it's silly, not to mention a lazy shortcut to build a romantic relationship, but the concept can still be executed well. The relationship just needs to form and evolve naturally and believably after that initial first sight (see: Eureka Seven). But this is not the case in The 08th MS Team. The romance between Shiro and Aina feels incredibly clunky and forced, the chemistry between them just isn't there, despite their constant insistence that they're in love. They only get, like, two scenes spending time together not counting the big climax, and in those scenes they just sort of start acting in love, despite not actually connecting in any way on an emotional level. In addition, the two's sudden aversion to war after their relationship forms feels rushed and poorly done as well. The switch to Shiro being unable to kill Zeon soldiers and Aina no longer wanting to help her brother's wishes felt like it should have had more purpose and time put behind it. Maybe if it had been more than just a 12 episode OVA, they could have had more time to develop the relationship and it's effects, but the way it turned out was really sloppy.

Even if the focus is more on the characters and relationships, the mecha battles are still there, and they are great. In comparison to a lot of mecha anime I've seen, the fights in this are much more grounded in reality. No flying around at high speeds, and no super powerful attacks, just mobile suits on a battlefield trading bullets and bombs, but they still manage to make the fights exciting and intense. A big part of this is due to the show's great production values. The show's animation, while occasionally showing some age, is constant, focused and holds up very well. In addition, the show's battles are also very much helped by the show's soundtrack, which features some terrific good old fashioned orchestral tracks that really assist in giving the battles a feeling of scale and tension.

The 08th MS Team is really accessible to people with little to no experience with the extended Gundam franchise. The story really is it's own, separate thing, isolated away from most of Gundam's lore extended universe as a whole. I went in with no knowledge of this Gundam timeline, or the war between The Earth Federation and Zeon, but I never really got confused or left in the dark. I was able to fill in all the blanks on everything it didn't explicitly explain, and everything it needed to explain it did. Sure, you won't know exactly what the two sides are fighting about, but if anything that supports the Romeo & Juliet-esque theme that the fighting is senseless anyway. And really, as I mentioned earlier, it's not really a story about the war at large anyway, it's about a small team of soldiers in that war, fighting to survive for their own personal reasons, with the war waging in the background of it all.

The romance between the two leads isn't quite as well executed or convincing as I would have hoped, but what is very well done is the realistic interactions and likable characters when it comes to the 08th MS Team Shiro commands. With every new battle I found myself rooting for them as a team and really hoping that they all made it through alive, and that's a clear sign that the characters are endearing and well written. And if that wasn't enough, the show also has some great animation, music, and battles between mecha as well. Mobile Suit Gundam: The 08th MS Team is a good story that's worth checking out if you get the chance, whether you're a Gundam fan or not.


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