Tuesday, 5 January 2016

Star Wars vs Gundam: An unprofessional comparison

You probably haven't noticed since it hasn't really been mentioned in the news or on social media, but Star Wars: The Force Awakens recently hit theatres. Plenty have been showing Star Wars and only Star Wars for several weeks running. They are going to make a lot of money. Meanwhile, I, a longtime Gundam fan, am currently watching the original Mobile Suit Gundam for the first time. For its age, it's an incredible show; the quality of the animation is astounding, and the story is pretty timeless. Still, I can't help but notice that it came out in 1979. Know what else came out just two years earlier? The original Star Wars.

Creating the “space” genre, or merely repackaging it?

A lot of the Star Wars pre-game analyses I saw in the weeks leading up to the new film's release claim that Star Wars launched the space genre. Before Star Wars, commercially viable, intellectually accessible science fiction simply did not exist.

Bullshit.

I'm not just saying that because of Gundam. Gundam launched after, not before. I just explained that like two paragraphs ago. Jesus, please try to pay attention. No, I'm alluding to something interesting I read in a recent Cracked article:

George Lucas, hot off the enormously successful American Graffititried to buy the rights to Flash Gordon to turn it into a big-budget film franchise. They couldn't come to terms on a deal, so Lucas just decided to just write his own version. That's all it was. ... The rough draft of Star Wars was an incoherent rambling mess, borrowing entire scenes from other movies, mostly Akira Kurosawa samurai films (then again, Kurosawa had borrowed his from American Westerns). ... For the space dogfight that would mark the climactic battle at the end of the film, Lucas literally stitched together footage from war movies and documentaries, then just re-filmed them with spaceship models, shot for shot. In other words, Santa Claus isn't real."

Space Captain Harlock
Flash Gordon, "Buck Rodgers, Kurosawa, Westerns (Tattooine!), old WW2 footage. Sounds like Lucas had a lot of good material to draw on. But don't think that Japan was devoid of material at this point, either! It had its own “swashbuckling space adventure,” the 1970s anime Space Captain Harlock. It was popular enough to merit a revival a couple of years ago. And there's plenty more where that came from. 2001: A Space Odyssey, both book and movie. Or how about The War of the Worlds, an HG Wells story from fucking 1897. The decade preceding Star Wars even saw the rise of another space-themed series of TV shows and movies, an obscure property called “Star Trek.”


Metal Gear REX
Everything new steals from everything old. Harry Potter draws on centuries of mythology. Divergent mashes up Harry Potter and The Hunger Games, which in turn probably took ideas from Battle Royale. Metal Gear is a mixture of old movies, whatever is currently on Kojima's mind, and, inevitably, Gundam, because you can't tell me the series that launched the mecha subgenre did not in some way influence the eponymous war machines. Hell, even Gundam itself mercilessly cannibalizes its own plotlines to new purpose. Gundam Seed is just a repackaged Mobile Suit Gundam; 00 is just Wing for a post-9/11 audience.

Neither franchise “created” the space adventure. That door had already been slowly dilating open for decades. What they did was put an interesting spin on established conventions and make their own contributions to the cultural landscape. Which, given the flood of boring, derivative fluff we're inundated with every day of every year, is a huge accomplishment anyway.

Legacy

A steam-powered Oobu machine from Sakura Taisen. This one
in particular is piloted by the character Sakura.
Supposedly, less than 1% of people (English speakers?) have never seen any of the Star Wars movies. I was actually surprised it was that high! That's the power that these movies have. And besides Dragonball Z and Pokemon (in that order), I can't think of any other cultural treasure that has had a stronger or more enduring impact on the modern Japanese popular consciousness than Gundam. Final Fantasy? In Japan, Dragon Quest is bigger. Dragon Quest? Nice try, you sarcastic twit, because Dragon Quest is kind of only for nerds, while the other three are widely known by everyone. Sakura Taisen? You know what, now you're just annoying me.

I've heard that when making Sonic 2, Naka Yuuji wanted to pay tribute to the most popular things in America and Japan at the time, which he determined were Star Wars and Dragonball Z, respectively. Hence why Sonic collects seven Chaos Emeralds to transform into a golden, super-powered state, and why Eggman/Robotnik's latest creation is the planet-like Death Egg. I'm not completely sure if that's a true story, but it sounds credible.

The point is that both series have had such a – what? Oh, you think Gundam's not that important because Dragonball Z beat it out for a reference in Sonic 2? Go plan a day trip to Odaiba, tell me if you see anything interesting.


Close to 40 years later, both Gundam and Star Wars are huge, at least in their own countries. In case you forgot, The Force Awakens has just dropped. 2015 saw the beginning of a new Gundam continuity, the Iron-Blooded Orphans, which I haven't watched yet but is most likely far less silly than the English title makes it sound. Both have been the mother of sprawling franchises encompassing everything from physical toys, books, comic books, video games, all kinds of shit.

Merchandising

 “Lucas,” notes the Cracked article, “knew that he was, in part, making a series of toy commercials.” Once you see it, you can't unsee it. Why are there so many variations of Stormtrooper? Because then you can make a separate action figure for each of them. Ayla Secura gets an action figure. Lando's co-pilot gets an action figure. You can buy a goddamn Lego Death Star. The Expanded Universe is/was so successful because it explores intersting, in-depth stories within a compelling universe, but also because it allows for a nearly limitless number of concurrently developed products, with a huge install base, across every creative medium known to man. They had these novels about Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan pre-Phantom Menace, I thought they were just about the pinnacle of literature when I was a little kid. RIP Expanded Universe.

GAT-X131 Calamity Gundam
Now Gundam is an interesting case, it wasn't designed with the possibility of merchandise in mind, rather the プラモデル plastic models were designed first, and then Tomino was called in to create the anime in order to market the toys. When I first found out that Calamity from Seed was originally supposed to be 1.5 times the size of a regular Gundam, but this was changed because it would mean the scale model would have to be bigger and thus more expensive, it absolutely blew my mind that something so seemingly trivial could actually affect, no, constrict the creator's vision. Of course, back then I also didn't know that a lot of the best moments in movies were born from blind chance, that the stories and settings of video games are crafted in response to the gameplay mechanics and not the other way around, etc. Well, I was a child.

Which, while I'm on the topic, is why it always amuses/frustrates me when people complain that in making the prequels, George Lucas took Star Wars and “made it for children.” Uh, have you fucking seen the first three movies? THEY ARE FOR CHILDREN. Look at Luke – he is a hero made for children. His robot buddies are hand-made for children. And I'm sorry for treading well-trodden ground, but come the fuck on:


Star Wars is for children and always has been. And actually, so is Gundam. It's sophisticated enough that you can see it for the first time as an adult and still appreciate it, but let's be realistic, here, we're talking about giant robots fighting each other. It's only that Japan is a little less moralistic about its entertainment and coddles its youth a little less. (Broad strokes. Obviously.)

Themes

Char Aznable, fan favourite and one of the key characters of
Gundam's "Universal Century" continunity
 Psych! The two couldn't be farther apart. Gundam tells a nuanced anti-war tale in which there are no clear good guys and bad guys; the antagonists in the first series, the Principality of Zeon, want nothing more than independence from the oppressive Earth Federation (and I spent much of the series trying to figure out why the Federation didn't just give it to them). Later series continue the story from their perspective. As things develop, Mobile Suit Gundam scratches topics such as ecology (decades before An Inconvenient Truth) and transhumanism. Star Wars, meanwhile, is about how war is awesome, violence solves every problem, the good guys not only always win but always survive, and your enemies are all irredeemably evil.

Hero's Journey?

You could say that both Luke Skywalker and Amuro Rei follow a fairly typical Hero's Journey, one of the recognized plot structures in literature. Luke has humble beginnings (a moisture farm), gradually comes into his abilities, and finally destroys the Death Star in the climactic action sequence. It works even better on a trilogy-wide scale, with blind luck leading the way to victory in A New Hope, Luke screwing up and battling his inner demons in The Empire Strikes Back, and emerging in Return of the Jedi as a confident, skilled combatant.

Source.

Similarly, civilian teenager Amuro Rei is thrust into a combat role by circumstances, and initially depends heavily on the capabilities of his machine to achieve victory. Understandably, he develops (a fairly believable depiction of) PTSD after a few battles, stops eating and sleeping properly, and lashes out at the people trying to help him, including his closest friend. At one point he even deserts his ship, White Base, and absconds with the Gundam, which is military property in the first place. Eventually he comes to terms with his fear, achieves his potential, and becomes a truly skilled pilot bent on protecting White Base and its inhabitants.

Of course, I'm not sure this actually says anything substantial about these two series. It probably just indicates that the Hero's Journey is a good fit for a space opera. Which I guess is interesting in itself, actually.

Accidental retro-futurism

This is a common pitfall of science fiction: By the time the real world has caught up chronologically with the one you've created, it may have actually surpassed the technology you were envisioning, or gone off in a completely different direction. Early cyberpunk had conceived of the Internet before the Internet was the Internet, but it didn't occur to people back in the 80's that we would eventually be able to access it wirelessly.

"These days its design seems completely inadequate." Source.
 Again, even today I find Mobile Suit Gundam relevant and immensely enjoyable, but one does notice the occasioanl hiccough in technological progress. I think this is most noticeable in the viewscreens used by crewmen on White Base and in their mobile suit cockpits, which is to say they look like an old TV your father has stored in his basement because he hasn't bothered to throw it away yet, not like modern monitors and certainly not like anything we'll have by the time we're living on the moon.

Meanwhile, control panels on the shiny, just-finished Death Star look as though they're best suited for operating a Magnavox Intellivision.

Cutting-edge computer technology in the world of Fallout.
This can injure suspension of disbelief, but I actually really dig this. It's kind of like a fingerprint left on a work by the era in which it was created. You can always think of it as an alternate timeline, like in Fallout, where humanity pursued nuclear technology instead of computer technology, so that even computers manufactured circa 2077 intentionally look like they came out of 1950.

Destruction!

The Death Star destroying Alderaan is the cayalyst for sections of plot in A New Hope. Mobile Suit Gundam kicks off with the destruction of the protagonist's home, the space colony Side 7. Huh.

Laser swords

Lightsabre – beam sabre. Even the names are similar.



If there's one thing East and West could agree on in the 1970s, it was that laser swords are just plain cool. Or “totally radical,” I guess.

But all of this pales in comparison to...

Amateur mechanics

As a young boy, Anakin Skywalker built C-3PO...



...and as a budding scientific prodigy, Amuro Rei created the purely decorative robot Haro.

Anakin, of course, becomes Darth Vader. And in some Gundam series, Amuro occupies the role of villain.


Coincidence?

The crossover section of Fanfiction.com thinks not.

4 comments:

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  3. I might add, Gundam also borrows from the 1959 Robert Heinlein novel, Starship Troopers. In the book, a young Asian man goes off to fight in a war in a robotic suit of armor, on behalf of the Federation against an enemy space nation.

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  4. They have a Space Nazi enemy faction, lightsabers, a fascist dictator with a massive space laser that he tries to use to wipe out the enemy, and a space psychic component that the good guys insist should be a tool of understanding and knowledge and the bad guys want to use for warfare, not to mention a bad guy with a domed helmet who is trying to usurp his masters and has an agenda of his own. It's so Star Wars that they might as well tell Amuro to "Use the Force", especially considering that his idea that Newtypes should be used for knowledge and understanding, not for war, is the same shit Yoda says about how the Force should be used for knowledge and defense, never to attack.

    Lightsabers clashing, psychics being important assets in war, superweapons that are big lasers used by military fascists as their trump cards in a space war, Space Nazi enemies that evoke Nazi Germany, a bad guy with a domed helmet being the constant enemy of the heroes, and a story of the hero becoming stronger with his psychic powers making him a lynch-pin in a larger war. Even the philosophies regarding psychics has the same good-vs-evil dichotomy: Amuro and Yoda stress that such powers should be used for knowledge and defense, for understanding and wisdom, never as a blunt instrument to attack. Char and Vader, on the other hand, believe that such powers are meant to be weapons of war and both want to use powerful psychics as recruits for their plans-Vader wants to recruit Luke and use his great power to destroy the Emperor, Char brought Lalah in and made her a member of the Zeon forces to help him win the war against the Federation. It's such a close likeness that it's surprising Lucas didn't sue. The guy was just generous, I suppose. Gundam is practically Star Wars with giant mecha, and the subsequent series like Zeta and ZZ only drive the similarities home even further-the Titans follow the Space Nazi route like the Empire and the Zabis did, powerful psychic enemies like Haman and Scirocco are treated with the same dread as Darth Vader was, and the heroes are once again young kids roped into a war they originally weren't a part of, a la Luke Skywalker. The differences are only minor permutations. So deny it if you like, Star Wars is a big part of Gundam's inspirations, perhaps the biggest and most enduring part of it.

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