Time to briefly descend into one of the most fiendishly complicated – and commercially successful – anime franchises in history. Mobile Suit Gundam was a television series that premiered in Japan in 1979, and while it was initially perceived as a failure the tie-in sales of giant robot model kits gave it a second chance with audiences. It effectively launched the mecha genre in Japan, combining the pre-existing giant robot series with elements of space and soap opera. Japanese pop culture is littered with derivative works, including Super Dimension Fortress Macross and Neon Genesis Evangelion; the entire phenomenon kicked off right here.
Two sequel series premiered in 1985 and 1986, along with a feature sequel to the original series and an assortment of direct-to-video productions. By the late 1980s creator Yoshiyuko Tomino was keen to re-team with original character designer Yoshikazu Yasuhiko and mecha designer Kunio Okawara to kick-start an all-new Gundam saga. Staff disputes and production issues led to the series stalling with only 13 out of 52 episodes written and only a handful of those animated. In order to save what had been completed to date, a decision was made to re-purpose the extant animation into a feature film – which was released in March 1991 as Mobile Suit Gundam F91.
In the year UC 0123, the Frontier IV colony comes under attack by the totalitarian forces of Cosmo Babylonia. While mechanics student Seabook Arno (Kouji Tsujitani) escapes to join the budding resistance, his best friend Cecily Fairchild (Yumi Touma) is kidnapped by the invading army – and discovers she is the unwilling heir to Babylonia.
It must be said that this is all a terrible way to produce an animated feature. F91 runs at a breakneck pace, without room for character development or detail. There are occasional jumps in the narrative which give the film a disorienting effect. A variety of websites and wikis will advise that everything is much clearer if one reads the spin-off novels, but that is hardly an easy option if one is not Japanese.
That is all a shame, because F91 is otherwise a genuinely decent work. The giant robots – referred to in-universe as ‘mobile suits’ – are beautifully realised via a string of action scenes, with a cutaway technique ably keeping the human element alive and relevant. The characters are well developed and interesting. There is even strong thematic relevance throughout: this ‘new generation’ work is dominated by the idea of young people overtaking the old, and finding their own direction.
It builds in a powerful manner as well. Early scenes are dominated by sudden attacks on civilians, showcasing a brutal side to the warfare. Over two hours the lead cast are transitioned from victims to refugees, refugees to volunteers, and volunteers into active combatants. It is messy as all hell, but given a little patience – or a pre-existing love for all things Gundam – it becomes quite rewarding.
Depending on your exposure to Gundam in general, this is either a confusing mess or a fascinating look at an alternative direction for the franchise. The original intention was to follow the film up with some kind of a sequel – those plans never came to fruition. Gundam itself has clearly gone from strength to strength. F91 is largely forgotten; although a recent bluray release from British distributor All the Anime is giving it a second chance.