Turn A Gundam

To say Yoshiyuki Tomino's career has peaks and valleys is putting it lightly. This is the man responsible for co-creating Gundam, one of the most classic and ubiquitous franchises in anime, but he's also the director of complete excrement like Garzy's Wing. In 1999, Tomino returned to the helm of the Gundam franchise for its 20th anniversary with a special project. This promised to be a top-notch product that was unlike anything Gundam had never been before with the mecha in a world more inspired by Jules Verne than Star Wars. However, considering he was just coming off Brain Powered, a series that is best enjoyed by listening to the Yoko Kanno score and imagining a show in your mind to accompany it, it was questionable as to whether it would truly be a Gundam for the ages or another title to throw in Tomino's garbage pile that just happened to be a smidge more ambitious.

After 15 years, the audience response is seemingly polarizing to an almost G Gundam level. On one side, it's considered a sturdy action-adventure with a huge cast of characters, Yoko Kanno with yet another another fantastic score, and a fresh perspective on the franchise. The other side prefers the space operas, finds a few of the characters abrasive, and can't get past the outright weird choices made throughout the 50-episode run. Unlike the past 15 years, it hasn't been available legally in the United States until Right Stuf licensed and released the series in two modestly-priced DVD sets that are light on features. So how does it shake out after all this time? If you've already seen a previous article of mine, you know my thoughts, but play along anyway.

Putting this upfront, Turn A Gundam is a strange creature in many ways. Seemingly set in early 20th century America, it instead takes place thousands of years in the future to even tens of thousands of years depending on your source, making it the final Gundam series chronologically. Humanity has survived what is called the Black History where most of civilization was burned to the ground and those with technological understanding fled to the Moon. When Earth survives enough to build themselves back to another industrial revolution, the Moon decides to send scouts to see if home world is habitable again. One of them includes our main character Loran Cehack, a brightly optimistic boy with feminine features and dark skin. 

Loran's first moments on Earth involve trying to bathe in a river and then getting swept up in a current that leads him to Kihel Heim, daughter of a mining magnate. Despite ruining her purification ritual for her coming of age ceremony, he somehow becomes the Heim family chauffeur, getting in their good graces enough to be youngest daughter Sochie's partner for her coming of age ceremony (Not the sexual awakening you might think. While they do get naked, it's to put leeches on themselves as part of the ceremony. More on the series' nudity later). Their innocence in shattered when the Moon makes a surprise attack, setting the very city Loran lives in ablaze with their mobile suits during the ceremony. While this may seem like a hopeless endeavor for the people of Earth since their best technological advances are on the level of bi-planes and airships, the statue Sochie and others worshipped as a god turns out to be hiding a protagonist Gundam and Loran equipped with enough Moon technology knowledge to pilot it, fending off the invaders.

This incites a war between the Moon and the Earth where the Moon demands America's Sunbelt region for settlement (Called Ameria here. Most of the names are recognizable with a few misplaced letters, which is strange considering they HAVE maps with the correct spellings) and the people of Earth refuse to give up the land they've spent millennia rebuilding. Preserved in the mountains are working mobile suits from the old days, giving the planet a fighting chance along with the help of Moon immigrants who feel force is not the proper answer to settling Earth. The conflict causes a split in the Heim family after Kihel and Sochie's father dies in the fighting. Kihel is the secretary to head Earth negotiator Guin Rhineford and prefers a more peaceful solution while Sochie signs up for the Militia soon after the attack to get revenge. It also creates a wedge between Loran and Sochie after she finds out he's Moonrace and a pacifist using the most advanced mobile suit in the war to keep the peace instead of destroying the enemy.

Turn A Gundam is a plate of many different flavors and textures mixed together into one distinct meal that may not be for everyone's palate. It is designed to be as much of a classical action adventure series as such things can be. There's a sprawling cast of broad characters that are developed enough to be distinct and enjoyable (Loran is similar most young heroes, but you would not mistake him for anyone else). The episodes are clean and very easy to follow save one that takes place in a confusing maze of caverns. While it's not the breeziest of pacing, it never lingers on one part of the story too long. The key to how one takes the pacing is how much you want to explore this world.

So... the strangeness. Sometimes it's just eccentric and sometimes it can get uncomfortable. The obvious example of the latter is the random nudity spattered about the project. This has nothing to do with fan service. People just get naked sometimes and the series is like a family member that walks into the bathroom without knocking. They even have naked Loran in the closing credits for alost 40 episodes. This isn't sexy unless you really like the bare behind of an underaged boy mostly used as a symbol of his rebirth, and if that does turn you on, please stay away from me.  It's a weird way of getting acquainted with the world (People bathe in public here because they can't really bathe elsewhere) or being used as symbolism. Thankfully, it tapers off greatly after the first few episodes.

A few of the character choices are also kind of odd. There is a curious connection between Kihel Heim and the leader of the Moon forces, Dianna Soriel. Despite being two heavenly spheres apart, they look exactly alike, and one of the largest character arcs for both is when they switch places as a joke before sudden plot developments cause them to assume each other's identity for real. There's some weighty drama here, such as when Dianna has to visit the grave of Kihel's father, but most of the audience will be waiting for the other shoe to drop on just WHY they look exactly alike. There's never an explanation. They just do. You either accept it and move on or let it drive you insane. Also, there's a surprising plot thread that gets way out of hand when negotiator Guin calls Loran "Laura" because of his effeminate looks so many times, the other side actually assumes he's female. Even though it doesn't keep any particular secret or serves any tactical advantage in the long-term storyline, this actually leads to a Earth/Moon ball where Loran assumes the identity of Laura to keep up appearances. He even seems fairly comfortable in his ball gown.

The rest is mostly the setting, really. It's a series where the main Gundam is used to herd cattle. Battles take place in the wilderness, farmland, and developing cities covered in brick and coal smoke. Incidental 1920's-style love songs from the radio levitate into the night air in the middle of conversation. It's here where I find the base of what I truly enjoy about this series. Turn A Gundam is a fun ride through science fiction past, present, and future that somehow finds a workable and lovable mesh of H.G. Wells, George Lucas, and Blade Runner "visual futurist" Syd Mead (Who was actually on staff to do the mechanical designs).

The narrative is very a basic and easy-to-follow action-adventure, clearly laid out with plenty of transitional wipes borrowed from Star Wars which borrowed those from old movie serials. The style also uses the original Mobile Suit Gundam style where faces of the pilots pop into wide shots during conversations (sans late 1970's character designs, of course), but 1999 technology improved the use of it to have these little character windows dart about the screen with the action or simply take over the entire frame for a particularly dramatic moment. It's simple and clean, which is good for a storyline that barrels through the actions of dozens, two of whom look exactly alike. 

This was the last Gundam series to be cel animated and it features both the drawbacks and the charm of hand-drawn animation done on a television budget with hard and fast deadlines. There are dirt imperfections on certain frames, the extremely wide shots with characters do occasionally look like tiny paint smudges resembling people, and there are action shots where it's obvious 2-D drawings are being moved towards the camera with special effects poorly trying to cover it up. Yet there are plenty of smalls pleasures in hand-drawn anime when it gets things just right. How the fingers move as someone gently caresses a loved one, how the face scrunches up when tears are about to be shed, and capturing a perfect point-of-view shift when a person runs around a corner. Even with its imperfections, it's still a professional job that has more than enough visual flair to carry the series.

Yoko Kanno brings a joyous charge into Turn A with a boisterous score that's one of the last of her pre-Cowboy Bebop stylings. It doesn't compare so much to her anime work as it does when she was doing video game music (Well, except for maybe Vision of Esclaflowne). When she worked with Koei on the Nobunaga's Ambition and Uncharted Waters Super Nintendo titles, she would release arranged albums with the music fully orchestrated. They would be completely disciplined, wonderful classical pieces, but they would have a hint of the playfulness Yoko Kanno would later fully incorporate into her work. Such orchestral pieces make up the bulk of the soundtrack, filled out with whimsical tracks that seem like lost takes from her score to the Japan-only PlayStation oddity Napple Tale and the occasional gymnastic genre bending. It's all wonderful, perfectly encapsulating the emotions of the individual scenes while simultaneously featuring melodies that will be resistant to escape your mind (I whistle the next episode music every time).

If I may get to my genuine, unfiltered opinion, I love this series. I can completely acknowledge that its oddities are strange curiosities indeed, but one rarely comes along such a pure, balanced, and well developed action-adventure. The world is perfectly envisioned. It's particularly detailed to get a real sense of place without romanticizing it, including moments like the heroic militia dumping pounds of medical waste in rivers many use for drinking and bathing. The character designs are what you'd expect from America's melting pot, with ethnic and multi-ethnic characters dotting the landscape as few other anime do. The perfect amount of information is doled out without disrupting the flow, so it never feels like wasting time even when the Militia takes to protecting one farm with a particularly stubborn tenant.

The characters are mostly individual twists on archetypes and they usually serve the series well. As noted earlier, Loran has his fair share of teenage hero stuff, but he does have to face the reality of the situation that he must fight to defend what he cares about and he's forced to make difficult decisions since everything he cares about falls on all sides of the battlefield,. It's a good amount of complexity in a relatively simple leading role. Even if the "twin" blondes of Kihel and Dianna don't get an explanation, their role switching provides very satisfying moments for both. Kihel finds that she is far more intelligent and powerful than she imagined she could be as a simple secretary, and Dianna rips down the wall royalty built between her and the people, realizing the full extent of her actions. Many of the supporting characters have similar moments of depth, even if they aren't as dramatic or profound.

There are a few annoying characters in the bunch. Most of them belong to the Moon's military. Easily the worst is Corin, a battle-hungry mobile suit pilot with so much testosterone, he has a male symbol on his uniform right around where his brain his. He's tireless and charmless with his overt machismo. Thankfully, he is only a major character in this capacity for one episode out of fifty, and his seemingly obligatory goons actually become a decent part of the fabric for the rest of the series. He does show up again later, but in an entirely different fashion. A more consistent annoyance is Poe, who really loves her commanding officer and would do anything for him, but she constantly fails in her tasks and winds up crying as a result. Even the episode titles mock her as "Crybaby Poe." She's likely meant to be a comedic character, but it all comes off so mean-spirited as to completely miss the mark, making her time on screen rough. Thankfully, she is one of the smaller supporting characters.

The one that surprised me looking through various past and present reactions is Sochie. Not that I don't understand the hate with her being obnoxious and occasionally hurtful to the Loran, but I also understand her. She's the hot-headed redhead who is in love with the hero but deals with it in a love-hate attitude, which is par for the course as far as these things go. After the instigating attack, it gives her reason to have such a mixed interaction with him. Sochie is oddly prescient of after 9/11 when so many young people signed up for the military in response to the tragedy. With her, she actually finds a member of "the enemy" is one of the most important people in her life and most of the series is spent with her on the side trying to figure out how she feels about it. She's a kid who thinks everything is easily parcelled out between good and evil even when something in the back of her head knows that isn't true and thinks doing her duty makes her more than a grownup to make adult decision even when she hasn't grown up in some important respects. There's one particular plot twist I've seen about half-a-dozen people make in real life for better or worse. Despite playing about every loud note a character of her type is expected to hit, she's ironically one of the more nuanced people in this thing. I can't hate that.

The DVDs are very bare-bones, sub-only affairs (The Japanese cast is just about perfect save Hiroya Ishimaru's nasally politician Agrippa Maintainer, if that's any consolation. I can't think of anybody who feels out of place or flubs a performance). I consider it a miracle this thing even made it here after 15 years. The main extra is the interview with mechanical designer Syd Mead on the second set split into three parts. Mead's name was all over the futuristic designs of Hollywood during the 1980s from Aliens to Tron. The interview segments are about 20-30 minutes apiece separated by topic, discussing his personal history, how he got into Hollywood, and his work on anime. If you want the interview related to just anime, skip to the last disc. It's plenty of good information, especially centering on Turn A, talking about subjects such as what goes into reworking an iconic symbol, keeping the medium in mind for what you create (there are intentionally weird angles on Turn A's legs so the animators could play with shadows), and how creating something that can actually be assembled is incredibly important to an industry that makes decent money off model kits. Unfortunately, the interview is somewhat hindered by the two-camera setup jarringly breaking the 180-degree rule (If you've watched Paprika, you should know what that is) and the interview taking place in front of a mural that has a great deal of... distracting future ass. Even when you're not watching the show itself, this thing hits you with the nudity!

Mead's designs are, as expected, a bit of a departure yet incredibly neat. There are FLATS with insect bodies which can absorb energy, gigantic WaDOMs that Mead suggests have a more interesting history than is revealed (They are dramatically different than everything else because they are machines that are "grown," though the series is light on explaining this), and Turn A's rival Turn X which breaks apart to attack its prey from multiple angles. It takes awhile to get the word soup straight, but the series has more than enough time to get everything sorted after the initial confusion to keep the audience situated.  The traditional mobile suits maintain most of the features they're known for, though the main Gundam's helmet arch is moved down to make a mustache, perhaps fitting the industrial revolution clashing with the future.

There's no one driving reason why Turn A Gundam is terrific. I could point to the music, but Tomino's Brain Powered had an equally impressive Yoko Kanno score and it was a dull looking, confusing failure of a wannabe Evangelion killer. Like Syd Mead's design for the Lego-esque Turn X, the individual pieces are fairly effective and smoothly connect to create a formidable whole, even with a couple extra odd parts from the manufacturer. It manages to create a perfect marriage between historic aesthetic and futuristic technology that so many steampunk-styled projects fall flat on. It mostly meets or exceeds the demand of action/adventures in having a large trek through an interesting world with people you want to follow. It works drama  and comedy equally well, and the pacing rarely gets gummed up unless you don't skip the recap episode. It's a wonderful blending of old and new, making something that hasn't been seen before or since. If you don't automatically lay into anything that looks aged, it is more than worth seeing if random, awkward nudity can frighten you away from a truly wonderful addition to a storied franchise. 


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