Book Review: Mobile Suit Gundam Awakening
One of the fun things about modern fandom is the names various fan groups assign themselves. There’s your Trekkies, your Browncoats, your Bronies, your Whovians (sounds like something from a Dr. Seuss novel) and so on.
This said, I have no idea what you call someone who likes Gundam.
Gundam, for those of you who might not know, is a huge Japanese franchise that has been rebooted a bajillion times over the years. I’ve heard it best described as the Japanese equivalent to Dr. Who, only instead of a crazy man in a box, Gundam is usually about some teenage guy with emotional issues flying around in a giant robot. Gundam is a pop culture juggernaut, to the point where a 1:1 scale replica of the titular giant robot was built in Tokyo, because Japan is kind of awesome.
Now, while I love me some giant robots, I’m not hugely ‘into’ Gundam, having only seen bits and pieces of various incarnations of the franchise, back when Toonami was still a thing. Furthermore, my favorite Gundam series is G Gundam, because it’s KUNG FU FIGHTING GIANT ROBOTS. Seriously, G Gundam is wonderfully over the top ridiculous (there’s a horse gundam, piloted by an actual horse!), which makes it a little unpopular with the more “purist” Gundam fans.
See, the original Mobile Suit Gundam is widely credited with pioneering the “real robot” genre of mecha shows, in that things have a more mil sci-fi slant. The people operating the Gundams aren’t Power Ranger style superheroes, but rather military officers akin to fighter pilots.
Which brings us to today’s book review: Mobile Suit Gundam, Volume 1: Awakening, by Yoshiyuki Tomino (and translated by Frederik L. Shoot). When I found this book at the used bookstore, I figured I’d give it a quick read so as to get a little bit better idea of the ‘roots’ of the Gundam franchise, or something.
The first thing I noticed about this novelization was the fact the English translation was published in 1990- which is a good decade before the Gundam Wing anime was shown on Cartoon Network. This is even a good while before the big anime boom of the late 90’s, so I find it fairly interesting that Del Rey chose to translate the novels, as I can’t imagine there was a huge demand for them.
Since the novel was released before the Gundam zeitgeist could really take hold, there’s a few little quirks in translation here and there. For example, in the foreward, Schodt mentions how he’ll refer to the book’s main antagonist as the more grammatically correct “Sha” instead of “Char,” which became the official spelling later because it sounds kind of badass. Another quirk of translation is on the bad guy robots. In the current translations, they’re known as “Zakus,” but in the book, they’re called “Zaks.”
So the novel centers around Amuro Rey, a pilot cadet who’s forced to pilot the titular Gundam robot in an emergency to fight off Sha and his Zaks (or Char and his Zakus, whatever). There’s some vague military-esque talk of strategy and tactics between space battles, but for the most part, both sides seem kind of incompetent. There’s also ongoing talk about how Rey and a couple of other characters might be “New Types,” people born with psychic precognition powers. Said powers are quite useful in a cockpit, as one could imagine.
I don’t know if it’s a matter of something being lost in translation, but a lot of passages in the book come off as ridiculously expository- not to mention they’re often redundant. There’s a lot of telling about the intricate background, as opposed to just showing us the way things work in a more natural manner.
These chunks of exposition are structured badly, throw off the sense of pacing in the novel. As soon as we meet any major character (and there’s a lot of them) we get a couple of paragraphs on their background and their goals. Take Sha/Char, for example- within a few pages of him showing up, we’re told that he wears a mask to conceal his identity so he can take revenge on the ruling family of bad-guy-land for them killing his father. It pains me a bit to see that kind of character potential wasted- rather than a big “aha!” reveal, it’s laid out to us right off the bat, like the author thinks we’d be too dumb to notice on our own.
In another example, there’s a chapter where Rey and the other mecha-pilots are getting debriefed by some important general. Fair enough…except Tomino goes on to give us a lengthy narration on general-guy’s background, mentioning a rousing speech he’s well known for. We then get the whole text of the speech in flashback, followed by another flashback of the bad guys reacting to the speech…and by the time it got back to the general guy talking to the cadets I half-forgot what the hell they were trying to accomplish in the first place. Yeah.
I get the feeling that Tomino tried cramming entirely too much into too short of a novel. Or maybe, with the way chapters re-iterate background knowledge that was laid out a chapter or two before, he originally intended for the chapters to be released serially? I dunno.
The story’s compression is most apparent in the final few chapters. Mid-way through the novel, we meet a character named Lala Sun. She’s a New Type who the bad guys are basically using as a test pilot. She’s described as of vaguely Indian descent, so I start looking forward to the book being kind of progressive, having a kick-ass woman of color as one of the main characters.
…that is, until she meets Rey. As soon as the two of them lay eyes on each other (through a plexiglass space-window, I might add), they have some kind of New Type psychic connection and Lala starts confessing her love for Rey. But then she’s sad because she has to get into her prototype robot-fighter and fight him because…uh, reasons? Maybe it’s a Japanese “sense of duty,” thing, but it’s never really clear why she fights him instead of, say, running away. Rey winds up killing Lala in the robot battle at the end of the book, and angsts over it, and then we get the promise of two more volumes. Um. Yay?
The funny thing is, I read this book so I could get an idea of what the Mobile Suit Gundam anime was like (without having to watch the whole series), but a cursory look at Wikipedia shows me that the book deviates a lot from the show- or at least it cuts big chunks of stuff out. So I guess I have about the same level of Gundam knowledge that I did when I started?
Not that it matters, as I’m not inclined to track down the next two volumes anyway. I think I’ll just re-watch G Gundam again instead.