As the story of Gundam 00 begins, in a post-fossil fuels future, the world is divided into three superpowers--basically the United States, Asia, and the European Union--each controlling one of three solar power collectors orbiting the earth. While wealthy nations live in relative peace and luxury, smaller countries, struggling on without the benefits of the solar energy, descend into poverty and incessant warfare over resources. Emerging out of nowhere to break up the three-way zero-sum game that the major powers have set up, a mysterious independent organization called "Celestial Being" declares its intent to end all war through armed interventions into the military activities and developments of others, backing its outrageous convictions with the overwhelming technological superiority of its unique and near-invincible "Gundam" mobile suits.
As expected of a Gundam show, it's an often paradoxical blend of semi-realistic giant robot warfare, antiwar themes, and exhilarating mecha carnage. And as with all of the later shows, dating back at least to Gundam Wing, without the ego of a Yoshiyuki Tomino at the helm to balance the vision of a sober war story against the more mercenary interests of Bandai to peddle licensed merchandise, the political and philosophical messages are hopelessly at odds with and undercut by an overenthusiasm for the giant robots as the true stars. As happened with Gundam Wing and Gundam Seed, Gundam 00's insistence on making the Gundams as badass as possible even robs the action of much tension, since the fights are so regularly one-sided as a result. It's never satisfactorily explained how Celestial Being was able to develop the incomparably advanced Gundams without anybody else noticing. Not only do the Gundams start out dominating the enemy's best, but every time their foes make breakthroughs to try and bridge the gulf, the Gundams too miraculously unlock some hidden special ability that again renders them untouchable. Also, for all the emphasis on the mecha component, the Gundam designs, still clinging very much to the familiar forms of the original series, are bulky and garishly colored compared to the sleeker suits of Eureka Seven and Code Geass.
Past series had inured me to those complaints, but what really turned me off about Gundam 00 at first was its cast of the most simultaneously unbelievable and unlikable characters in any Gundam series I'd seen. The main protagonist is the taciturn teenage Gundam pilot, Setsuna F. Seiei, a less psychotic version of Heero Yuy from Gundam Wing. As some wish-fulfillment fantasy embodiment of "cool," he's not heroic nor at all believable as a soldier, but he's still one of the less irritating of the main characters. More annoying is fellow Gundam pilot Tieria Erde, an arrogant and androgynous machine man, who is constantly criticizing everyone else's actions. But there's one guy that tops them all, and that's mild-mannered wuss Allelujah Haptism, who happens to also have a sadistic alter ego called Hallelujah (yes, Gundam is still the master of ridiculous names) that typically takes over, against Allelujah's objections, once the fighting gets too intense for the weaker half to handle. The freakish interplay between these two that follows usually consists of Hallelujah jeering his other self's softness before brutally skewering some enemy soldier, while, inside, Allelujah screams in impotent protest and then afterward weeps to himself. Setsuna is already a stretch, but how in the world does a headcase like this get selected as one of Celestial Being's agents of antiwar? I suppose the obvious answer is that you would have to be at least a little insane to be out there riding a giant robot onto a space battlefield. Or if you weren't to start with, the fighting would make you so. But there are degrees of madness. There's Batman insane and Joker insane, and then there's Maxie Zeus crazy. Maybe Allelujah/Hallelujah isn't quite that bad, but the dude is crazy. I mean, he just is. Does nobody else see that?
More interesting are the soldiers fighting against Celestial Being. Graham Aker fills the Char Aznable (or Zechs Marquise) role as the rival ace pilot whose skill and experience allow him to fight on a level with the Gundams despite an enormous gap in mobile suit technology. But whereas Char was nearly a co-protagonist in the original Gundam, Gundam 00 never seems terribly concerned with Graham's backstory and motivations. He pretty clearly exists just to be a rival, and it quickly grows tiresome how the show constantly hypes up his abilities and teases confrontations with the Gundams, only to end up utilizing him every time as a jobber to enhance the cred of the Gundam pilots. The one character I truly like, Patrick Colasour, the European ace, is even more ineffectual, though I'll admit that his unflagging overconfidence despite being hopelessly outclassed is probably the very reason I like him.
So, yeah, with all these complaints, I was pretty down on Gundam 00 early on, but the first season surprisingly gets a lot better in the second half, as real bad guys show up, the action scenes become more frequent and elaborate, and people start dying left and right, albeit the series has as many fake deaths as real ones, and that does tend to diminish one's alarm each time somebody's mobile suit explodes with them still in it. The raised level of quality continues through the entirety of the second season, which is neither a needless sequel nor merely "the rest of the story" held back to build anticipation. It takes things to the logical next level, acknowledging that the events of the first season would have had to have changed the world, while bravely recognizing that, beyond simply enacting that change, the characters must also continue to live through the fallout.
Some problems, including the preoccupation with invincible Gundams and the lack of truly worthy adversaries, never go away, but the second season moves much faster, motivated more by events than messages. That shift allows it to focus on its true strength, which are the astounding action sequences composed with speed and complexity that exceed anything else ever seen in television animation, such that it doesn't even matter that the results are rarely ever in doubt. The second season plot also introduces some cosmic elements that move the show away from the pretentious Gundam Wing peace-through-terrorism angle and bring things back to the sci-fi grandeur of the original series. The characters even become less obnoxious during the second season. Setsuna turns from a cold preacher to a tranquil philosopher, Tieria mellows out, and Allelujah/Hallelujah is less prominent. And the new villains, while one-note in personality, bring with them the coolest mobile suit designs in the series.
Among recent mecha series, it's not as grand as Gurren Lagann, as fresh as Eureka Seven, or as gripping as Code Geass. But it is still Gundam, backed by the production values afforded by anime's most celebrated franchise, and featuring action sequences that easily outclass anything else out there.
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The Tower of Druaga: The Sword of Uruk
Also ending recently was the second season of The Tower of Druaga, Gonzo's anime sequel to the classic Namco video game series. The game has little presence outside of Japan, but it's apparently significant enough to Namco that it regularly sneaks in references to it in big games like the Tales of and Soulcalibur series. I tried the original arcade game once as part of the Namco Museum DS collection, and while I can still appreciate a round of classic Pac-Man, I really don't understand the appeal of Druaga at all. In other words, I came into the anime with basically no prior attachment to the franchise.
I initially checked it out mainly due to its significance as one of the first shows officially distributed via streaming on Crunchyroll.com. In the very short time since, Crunchyroll has entirely transitioned from haven for copyright-infringing material to the future of anime distribution in America. It's still premature to say whether Crunchyroll itself is now the dominant North American provider for anime, as I'm still skeptical as to how truly profitable the model can be, but what is clear is that home video is dying and cable TV has all but had its fill of anime.
As for the show itself, it's a pretty decent swords-and-sorcery fantasy with heavy comedic elements, somewhat in the vein of Slayers, but much shorter. It switches back and forth between parodying its source material and telling an actually fairly serious story of surprisingly uncompromising characters in pursuit of competing dreams. Neither the comedy nor the more serious fantasy elements are exceptional, but that's not because they work against one another, but rather because the show isn't that ambitious to begin with. Still, there are laughs to be had as well as some engaging action and melodrama backed by good production values. The highlight of the series is a first season episode that sees the main character trapped essentially in the actual original arcade game, while his allies outside have to get him out by playing and winning the game. The players perform much as I did during my brief attempt at it, failing repeatedly at the ruthlessly difficult game before growing bored and giving up, to the panic and dismay of their imprisoned friend. Sadly, the second season is comparatively lacking in gags, but by then the viewer might, as I was, be sufficiently invested in the characters to see it through beyond just the jokes.
I was also a little intrigued by the involvement of Hitoshi Sakimoto, one of the most prolific Japanese game music composers, having made a name for himself with Ogre Battle and Final Fantasy Tactics, and having since worked on projects ranging from Gradius V to Final Fantasy XII. His first anime work of note was Romeo x Juliet, which I personally found to be, not only his best work since Final Fantasy Tactics, but also one of the best television anime scores I'd heard since Escaflowne. It alone elevated a mediocre show to time well spent. Sadly, his Druaga stuff is not quite at that level, sounding more like leftover material from his FFXII score, but it has its moments and is at least appropriately strong in dramatic moments.
Michiko and Hatchin
Finally, the last recently-concluded show I want to mention is Michiko and Hatchin. With Shinichiro Watanabe attached as music producer, even if he wasn't directing this time, this was still definitely the next show that fans of his Cowboy Bebop and Samurai Champloo had been waiting for. Clearly following in the tradition of his works in its sharp storytelling, its fresh fusion of Eastern and Western pop culture, and its heavy emphasis on music, Michiko and Hatchin is the story of Michiko Malandro, an escaped convict, who seeks out and picks up the miserable orphan, Hana "Hatchin" Morenos, supposedly her daughter, although they bare no resemblance. While the authorities pursue Michiko, she herself drags Hatchin along on a search for Hiroshi, Michiko's former lover and Hatchin's supposed father, a man who has long been presumed dead and subsequently attained near-mythic status through the stories of all who knew him. Their quest may be pointless, and Hatchin, having never met the man, doesn't really care whether he's dead or a deadbeat, which seems the only other possibility. But the chase itself may be the point as it takes them across South America, giving the two loners ample time to slowly develop their relationship through largely episodic stories.
By its nature, favoring style above all else, it shares the same weaknesses as Cowboy Bebop and Samurai Champloo, namely a lack of fleshed-out characters to identify with. Nevertheless, when it finally arrived at its last beautiful shot, I found myself caring a lot more than I expected. It just has that certain je ne sais quoi that I expect will make it one of the rare anime series that will still be remembered years down the line.