Mobile Suit Gundam (1981) | Sci-Fi Saturdays

by Jovial Jay

This anime film is so much better than Mobile Suit Gungan.

The epic anime Mobile Suit Gundam is the focus this week, as Sci-Fi Saturdays looks at the power of the animated film in early 80s sci-fi cinema and the lasting impressions left by a relatively new form of sci-fi: the mecha.

First Impressions

Obviously this is an animated film from Japan, based on subtle clues in the trailer. An invading alien army that uses giant robots is attacking Earth, and it’s up to one hero to use his Gundam to defend them. Looking forward to going back to an original anime to see what helped start it all.

Presented below is the trailer for the film.

Sci-Fi Saturdays

Mobile Suit Gundam

Mobile Suit Gundam title card.

The Fiction of The Film

In the Universal Century year 0079, mankind has moved into space cylinders called Sides. Side 3, which has named itself the Principality of Zeon, has decided that it wants to go its own way, and launches attacks on the Earth Federation, with each losing half their population. Now, after an 8 month stalemate, the forces of Zeon once again move to attack. On Side 7, the top secret battleship White Base has arrived to take three new giant attack robots, called Mobile Suits, away before Zeon spies can infiltrate.

A young boy, Amuro (Tôru Furuya), survives an initial attack by a rogue Zeon Mobile Suit, called a Zaku. He finds the Gundam, a Federation Mobile Suit unlike any in use by the Zeon forces, and is able to control it enough to defend the Side. Unfortunately all the scientists and soldiers at the base have been killed so the White Base must launch with mostly junior and civilian crewmembers, taking whatever other survivors they can carry. Amuro, in the Gundam, defends the ship against Char, the Red Comet (Shûichi Ikeda), leader of the Zeon forces who manages to fight to a draw.

The White Base heads towards the asteroid called Luna II to get resupplied. After getting supplies, the Federation feels that the crew is doing alright and sends them back to Earth without adding any new crew. Upon re-entry, the refugees are once again attacked by Char and his Zaku. He manages to force the White Base into Zeon territory rather than the Jaburo area they were aiming for. Amuro experiences depression and won’t fight, but Lt. Bright (Hirotaka Suzuoki) manages to knock some sense into him, literally.

Mobile Suit Gundam

An example of the scale and beautiful imagery (however frightening) that Japanese anime delivers.

Two other mechas are completed and deployed the next time that Char tries to attack, having now teamed-up with Captain Garma (Katsuji Mori). The Guntank, driven by Hayato (Kiyonobu Suzuki), and the Guncannon, piloted by Kai (Toshio Furukawa), look like they’re about to be defeated when Amuro and the Gundam come blazing out of the sky, with its shield and laser sword. Driven further back into the city, Lt. Bright hides the White Base in a partially demolished sports dome. Char realizes the deceit by the heroes, and sets up Garma to get attacked. Garma is blindsided by a Federation attack. He is later mourned by his family, the Zabi, the main leaders of the Zeon forces.

In a brief respite after the battle in the city, the White Base lands near a refugee camp where Amuro’s mother works. He flies in to see her, but draws the attention of several Zeon soldiers who show up looking for a pilot. He kills one of the soldiers before they can shoot him, and follows the other back to his base, shooting up the entire encampment by himself. Amuro is ordered back to the ship as they get refueled and now, thanks to him, need to move.

The White Base relocates to Europe where Amuro begins to have more panic attacks. He is caught off guard when the ship is attacked by Ramba Ral (Tadashi Hirose), who deploys three new models of Mobile Suits that are much tougher than the Zaku. Ral breaks off fighting suddenly and retreats, leaving the Federation in disarray. Meanwhile the networks carry a televised announcement by Gihren Zabi, who publicly mourns his brother’s death and vows to conquer the Federation. “Never forget we, the citizens of Zeon, are the chosen,” he spews as the assembled forces cheer on their new leader.

Never forget we, the citizens of Zeon, are the chosen! We, the superior race, shall save mankind!” – Gihren Zabi

Mobile Suit Gundam

Char, in his Zaku Mobile Suit, races into the first battle with the Gundam.

History in the Making

Mobile Suit Gundam finds itself as an example of the fusion of advancements in animation techniques, more mature themes for animated films, and the popularity of science fiction. Most Americans in the 70s and early 80s probably knew two kinds of animation: low budget Saturday morning television, and Walt Disney feature films. Disney’s output at this time was some of its lesser acclaimed films, such as Robin Hood, The Rescuers, and The Fox and the Hound. But there was a growing movement of using animated film for more mature purposes. Films like the sci-fi infused French film Fantastic Planet (1973), or Ralph Bakshi’s 1977 fantasy epic Wizards. There were also literary adaptations that attempted to elevate the story and quality of animated films which include both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings (encompassing most of the first two books in that trilogy), as well as Watership Down. But Japan was by far the leader in animated content, both in theaters and on television. Its successful anime series’ set it apart in the 70s.

Anime dates back to the early 20th Century shortly after the birth of film and can be of any genre, but has a distinct style. Originally anime was only considered a Japanese export, but with its distinctive style, other animators have adapted what is usually called “anime” as well. Some of the more successful anime, especially seen by Americans, is science-fiction based. There are four distinctive anime series that paved the way for a series like Mobile Suit Gundam, which include Mighty Atom (1963), MachGoGo (1967), Science Ninja Team Gatchaman (1972), and Space Battleship Yamato (1974). Of course Western audiences probably know these better as Astro Boy, Speed Racer, Star Blazers, and Battle of the Planets (starring G-Force). The first two were based on successful Japanese manga (longer form Japanese comic books, like graphic novels), while the latter were created entirely for television. All these series were popular enough to receive numerous films based on their plotlines.

Mobile Suit Gundam was “the next big thing” in anime, debuting in 1979 as a 43-part television series. By the 1970s, animated series in Japan tended to be longer form, like their manga, and had one continuous storyline which played out through individual episodes. Quite a difference from American animated shows. Gundam, like Gatchaman and Yamato, had follow-up films which were extensive re-edits of series episodes into a shorter block. This first film which premiered in 1981, was one of three Mobile Suit Gundam films, each about 140 minutes long, reducing the 43 episodes into three epic movie length stories. It spun off a number of successful and popular sequels and continuations of the story, but had a much greater impact outside of anime as the series (and film) that fused popular anime storylines with the also-popular giant-robot, or super robot genre.

Mobile Suit Gundam

For all the technology, “Mobile Suit Gundam” still emphasizes the human elements of the story with Lt. Bright, Frau Bow, Amuro, and Kai.


Robots in any country have always been a popular sci-fi element, and Japan is no different. With early manga and anime such as Astro Boy, and Gigantor (an adaptation of the manga Tetsujin 28-go) paving way for the super robots of the 70s. Meanwhile live action super robots got their start in 1967 with the tokusatsu (live-action show with special effects usually dealing with sci-fi) called Giant Robo (imported to the States as Johnny Sokko and His Flying Robot), and continued in popularity through the kaiju films of Godzilla with the creation of Mechagodzilla in 1974. Many of these giant 1970s robot warriors were introduced to Americans in the Shogun Warriors toy line, which featured classic “giant robots” such as Raiden & Dragun (from Getter Robo G), Great Mazinger (from Mazinger-Z), Dangard Ace (from Planetary Robot Danguard Ace), and Leopardon (from the Marvel Comics inspired Supaidāman). These robots were a mix of tokusatsu and anime and were all just robots, either autonomous or remote controlled. Mobile Suit Gundam changed that concept.

With its release, Gundam introduced the concept of “real robots,” where the giant robots were piloted by humans inside the metal constructs. These mecha, as they came to be called, paved the way for literally dozens of future shows and films. Mobile battle suits of one form or another had been in sci-fi fiction for several decades, such as Robert Heinlein’s “Starship Troopers”, but their popularity in media was not something that was particularly plausible in live action. An early live action mecha can be traced to The Empire Strikes Back as the giant AT-AT walkers of the Empire, which are piloted anthropomorphic beasts, but not quite the fighting robots that many people imagine. After Gundam, the 80s exploded with mecha anime including Macross, Voltron, Transformers and the like. Live action would follow suit with films like Robot Jox and Pacific Rim, plus smaller mecha in popular films like Ripley’s power-suit in Aliens, The Matrix Revolutions APU’s, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Hulkbuster.

Another element that Gundam altered from other sci-fi anime, making for a more powerful thematic message, is changing the villains from aliens to other humans. Many of the shows mentioned above, such as Gatchaman and Yamato, as well as Giant Robo, and even the Power Rangers inspirations Super Sentai and Kamen Rider, had the protagonists fighting evil aliens either in space or protecting Earth. Gundam had a disgruntled part of the Federation, called the  Principality of Zeon, rebel and attack the remainder. By changing the threat from an outside force (xenophobia) to another batch of humans (civil war) the implications of battle become much dicier. It’s not just the good guys shooting weird non-human aliens, but having to kill other humans.

Mobile Suit Gundam

Some the of human drama includes quiet moments where Amuro is depressed and does not want to go back into battle, even though he’s the only pilot capable of flying the Gundam.

Societal Commentary

This fundamental change in the narrative was what helps set Mobile Suit Gundam apart from other animated series, and help pave the way for the future of anime, like Macross, the films of Hayao Miyazaki, and maybe the best anime film of the 80s, Akira. The show, and this film, was not just about two factions fighting for technology or territory. The Principality of Zeon was fighting for an ideology which makes them a much more dangerous foe. Creator and director Yoshiyuki Tomino wanted to tell a story about war and killing, and what better for than futuristic space Nazis? About two-thirds of the way through the film, the idea that Zeon might be based on German socialist party starts to play out when Zeon guards dressed in World War II-style outfits hunt for Amuro. By the end of the film when Gihren makes his speech followed by the chorus of “Sieg Zeon” coming from the audience, there is little doubt. Unfortunately there is no resolution to this aspect in the 1981 film.

Gundam also takes its time to show that warfare is not all fun and games like other series depict. Amuro is young and inexperienced at the beginning when he finds the Gundam fighter. He survives against the two Zaku’s based more on the technology and armor of the new machine, rather than any skill on his part. He quickly becomes accustomed to the device and manages to turn into a good pilot and warrior. But that’s not the end of his story. There are at least two instances where fear and depression grip him to such an extent that he curls up in a ball in his quarters. It takes Lt. Bright screaming and hitting him to jar him out of his downward spiral. When others marvel at his energy to keep going, Amuro yells at them about how he is afraid all the time. An extremely mature and thoughtful statement from what looks like a kids cartoon, but is so much more.

Mobile Suit Gundam

The Guntank looks like it could have inspired many other designs, including possibly Micronauts!

The Science in The Fiction

For fans of sci-fi tech, it’s no surprise that Mobile Suit Gundam became such a hit. The show has all sorts of cool, future-tech. The main showcase is the Mobile Suit mechas which house a pilot inside them like a fighter jet. This pilot can then control the robot as if they were wearing armor. The robots are huge kaiju-sized constructions, of uncertain height. In fact there’s very little that provides scale to these machines, other than a moment where Amuro saves a female friend of his by picking her up in the Gundam’s hand, like King Kong did to Fay Wray. The Gundam is a newer version of the technology, created by the Federation and it includes thicker armor, a pair of 60mm vulcan guns mounted on the head, a beam rifle and a pair of beam sabers (which are surprisingly like lightsabers). The Zeon have similar versions in their Zaku, but lack some of the beam weapons and the upgraded armor, making the one Federation Gundam (along with the Guncannon and Guntank) more than a match for squads of Zeon warriors.

The show takes care to make a distinction that these giant robots are not autonomous devices, and require the skills of a pilot. Thus the tales of “The Red Comet,” Char’s red colored Zaku, which is famous from many battles. His skills with the Mobile Suit are legendary and have served him as a warrior elevating his ranks. These suits along with the space ships, such as the White Base, serve as exciting elements in the show, but do not replace important human elements of the story. Many other series and films often lose sight of this and provide awesome looking technology, but with no human component to it. Without the link to humanity the best tech is transitory and cannot tell a story.

Mobile Suit Gundam

That’s not a laser sword, but a beam saber, in the Gundam’s hand.

The Final Frontier

So much of what has come out after Mobile Suit Gundam was inspired by it and its creators. It’s uncertain how quickly Western audiences and filmmakers were to adapt to these new ideas, since the English dubbed version of the series wasn’t released on VHS until 1998, almost two decades later. But it’s safe to say that people did not need to actually see the show to be inspired by it. Die-cast robots, model kits, and manga were available in both the East and the West. And for fans lucky enough to be in a market where there were import shops, such as Los Angeles, these fantastic visions of the future could be yours–for a price.

As the 80s moved on, mature animated films would become more of the norm. Films like the 1981 sci-fi epic Heavy Metal, Fire and Ice (193), and Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984) are just a few examples of the non-standard, genre entertainment coming from animation studios around the globe. Mobile Suit Gundam would spin off into over 22 series, and dozens of films, continuing into the present day and creating new fans of mecha and anime!

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