Mobile Suit Gundam Unicorn Re:0096 – Review
Mobile Suit Gundam Unicorn Re:0096:
Original Air Dates: April 2nd, 2016 – September 11th, 2016
Reviewed By: Tom
Synopsis: Three years after the end of Char’s Rebellion, Banagher Links, a young man living on the manufacturing colony of Industrial 7 happens upon a mysterious girl in need of saving. She calls herself Audrey Burne and claims she’s trying to stop a war. She says the Vist Foundation for whom Banagher’s father works for, is planning to hand over the Laplace’s Box to the Neo Zeon remnants, known as the Sleeves. This act would bring about another war, and seeking only peace, Banagher decides to help her. But in their efforts, the colony becomes a battlefield between the Sleeves and Earth Federation forces. Can Banagher prevent the war and escape Industrial 7 with his life?
Review (Warning: Some Spoilers to Follow):
Gundam Unicorn acts as a swan song to the Federation vs. Zeon storyline that is the focus for so many of the U.C. Era Gundam series. While it’s animation is solid, and hearkens back to the look that many of the other Feddy vs. Zeon series share, rarely looking poor, flowing well, and blending CGI animation with its excellent 2D offerings to depict every mobile suit in all its glory, the series is a difficult one to experience for less familiar viewers. In fact, I’d say Gundam Unicorn loses much of its punch when viewed as a stand alone, without any prior knowledge of the Gundam Franchise as a whole.
Even those only familiar with the original series/films would be missing out, as Unicorn pulls from near every main Federation vs. Zeon plot line. Call backs are made to the original series and films, Zeta Gundam, Char’s Counterattack. The only U.C. Era Gundams that go unreferenced are the less important entries like 0080, 0083, 8th MS Team, or the much derided Double Zeta Gundam (although at least one character comes from that series.) But without extensive knowledge of the franchise much of what Gundam Unicorn tries to do will go right over the audience’s head as the very ideas Unicorn juggles are tied to the efforts of near every main series before it.
Take for example Banagher Links. At the surface level his character is much like any other Gundam series. He’s a bright eyed young kid, untainted and unfamiliar with the harsh realities of war. But where as Amuro or Kamille were forced to confront that reality, and gradually caved to its oppressive nature, giving up on their ideals, Banagher remains firm in his beliefs. Banagher refuses to kill and, once that choice is made, never goes back on it. Indeed he’s the only Main Gundam character to refuse this reality with such a steadfast, unfaltering adherence that it seems fitting his story brings about an end to the Federation vs. Zeon conflict. It’s a powerful message, one strangely apt for the present day political climate in America, and perhaps other parts of the world, where people have become so divided, so ingrained in their beliefs that there is no compromise, there is no will to reunify and work together toward a common, peaceful future. But that message is not nearly as powerful without the understanding and experience of having seen Amuro’s and Kamille’s failed journeys, where their ideals lost out.
Outside of Banagher however, the rest of the cast doesn’t nearly get so much character development, or indeed enough screen time to really explore each of them. For example, while we come to understand Minerva as a strong woman, and familiarize ourselves with her ideals, she remains steadfast in her beliefs, barely changing from the woman we met at the start of the series to its conclusion. It’s not exactly because her ideals are challenged, and we see some kind of inner turmoil. By the end of Unicorn I don’t feel like I really know what’s been going on in her head at all. Other characters perhaps change allegiances, come to understand a new scale of right and wrong, or perhaps fall into deep puddles of despair, gradually becoming enemies for Banagher to fight or convert to his cause. But by the end of Unicorn’s twenty-two episodes I don’t know that I understand nearly anyone on that deep a level outside of Banagher.
Even Suberoa Zinnerman, who’s character journey is a powerful one, still feels at arms length to me, his suffering and development more surface level than something truly explored. I’d even argue his character acts more as a foil, a reflection for Banagher to learn from and grow. No, at the heart of Gundam Unicorn, beneath all its impregnable fanservice, the series is really about Banagher and the strength of his beliefs. But this adherence to the character is so strong it often seems to come at the expense of others.
Riddhe Marcenas, a well-bred ace pilot of the Federation, has a rather abrupt character arc. After his introduction Riddhe becomes more and more emotionally unstable and because of his focus on Minerva as a potential, yet unwilling love interest, his shift in allegiances makes him seem like more a big baby than a young man conflicted within the greater conflict. Even his switch back seems oddly unserviced. By the end I felt little for his character, one way or the other, and it leads me to believe with more screen time and a little more development, perhaps he could’ve felt more interesting and satisfying.
Even Full Frontal, our ‘main villain’ of the piece (There are a lot of bad guys in this series) feels oddly underused at a times. In fact the entire conclusion to his story is surprisingly sudden, abrupt and maybe even unsatisfying as Unicorn dives down the rabbit hole that is the Newtype concept interconnecting every main series Gundam. In fact, it could even be argued that his threat is wrapped up by a rather convenient interference from three deus ex machina that just happen to become involved at the right moment. It makes for good fanservice though.
Banagher’s own story concludes with an abrupt shift into the Newtype concept that makes the ending feel, perhaps even hokey upon reflection. It’s saved however by how forefront the Newtype discussion has been throughout this series, even more of a key than the preceding entries into the franchise. But it means if you’re a viewer who’s always felt a little, dissatisfied with the more fantastical aspects of Gundam, the Newtype shenanigans here may finally just be too much.
All that said, there’s still a lot to love, as many of the characters are thoroughly enjoyable. From newcomers like Zinnerman, or to callbacks like Marida, or Bright Noa, Unicorn has a large enough cast that you’ll easily find a few people to latch onto, especially if you’re well versed in U.C. Era lore. The series even takes a delight in offering up brief cameos for characters like Kai and Sayla, teasing fans with the involvement of some much beloved heroes. (will we ever learn why Sayla just drops off the face of the Earth even after her brother and his successor attempt to destroy civilization as we know it? You’d think that would seem important to her.)
But even with likable characters, newer viewers will find Unicorn’s story so complex, brimming with players, twists and turns, steeped in U.C. Era lore that without the lengthy recaps at the start of each episode Unicorn is basically unapproachable. And while the message within Unicorn is a good one, it’s power is lost on those unfamiliar with the rest of the series, only making it an even greater shame that the rest of the U.C. Era Gundam isn’t easily available for new fans to dive into.
That’s why Gundam Unicorn exists best as a Swan Song, a final chapter to the Federation vs. Zeon conflict that ushered in the entire franchise (assuming you don’t count the mediocre F91 or abysmal Victory.) It provides a conclusion that builds off of Char’s Counterattack’s melancholic, mildly hopeful ending and provides one that’s squarely centered on hope and the future. Although Unicorn also makes sure to acknowledge that conflict could, and perhaps will begin again no matter what these characters do, almost feeling like an out in the event someone comes up with another post Unicorn entry to the franchise.
But, in the end we’re talking about Re:0096, the TV presentation of Unicorn and that comes with some big issues, that easily dwarf whatever problems do or don’t exist within Unicorn’s narrative. The Presentation. The lengthy recaps, while helpful for newer viewers, often outstay their welcome, recapping too much too often and becoming obvious padding and a greater nuisance for viewers, experienced or otherwise. You’re free to fast forward through them, obviously, but it’s just an added hindrance to your enjoyment of the story.
Perhaps even more pressing are the abrupt cuts at the end of every episode. Rather than reworking events from the OVA to better sit within the twenty-three minute run time of an episodic format, the show often just cuts in the middle of proceedings, even if that means damaging the building drama on screen. It can leave you feeling unsatisfied, perhaps even cheated when an episode just ends in the middle of a battle or greater conflict. Again, now that the series has finished airing, it’s nothing a little fast forwarding and queuing up the next episode won’t cure, but is still another hindrance to one’s enjoyment.
Being free, or at most low cost with a subscription to either Crunchyroll or Daisuki.Net, It’s still the cheapest and easiest option for viewing Unicorn, unless you’re willing to shell out for the DVDs. But if you do have the money, and a love for Gundam, the original OVAs are still the best way to enjoy this final entry in U.C. Era Gundam. Overall what’s great about Unicorn is still there, just muddied by this rather cheap and haphazard adaptation. That doesn’t stop me from recommending it however, as what’s beneath the presentation is still just as wonderful and fitting as ever for a swan song to my favorite Era of Gundam.