I like Gundam a lot. Mobile Suit Gundam: Char’s Counterattack (1988) is my favourite movie of all time. I have plenty of Gundam models (aka “Gunpla”) already, so I try to buy ones to which I have a big emotional connection because of the Mobile Suit’s role in the story or the character who pilots it. I told myself I wasn’t going to buy the model 1/144 Xi Gundam, piloted by Hathaway, the titular character from the new Gundam movie of the same name. Would Mobile Suit Gundam: Hathaway hit me hard enough to change my mind?
I should back up for a moment. It’s hard to fully explain in text (or without an hour to bend your ear) the place and prestige of Gundam in Japanese pop culture. The series has been often regarded as impenetrable in the West and not without good reason; the series has been ongoing since 1979, and for decades the best portions of it were locked to Japan by language and rights issues.
To put it simply: Gundam is Japan’s Star Wars. Superficially, they’re both 1970s franchises with laser swords, extrasensory powers and massive toy lines. The true comparison is their impact on popular culture. Even laypeople are accustomed to their basic tenets and most famous characters. Those in America who haven’t seen Star Wars recognize Yoda, and it’s not unlikely you meet someone in Japan who hasn’t seen Gundam but recognizes Char. Like Star Wars, Gundam lives on through the mighty IP empire that exploits familiarity. Like Star Wars, Gundam stories still manage to be rich, complex and multi-generational.
One of the things that initially set Gundam apart from other anime of its type is that it pioneered the Real Robot genre. This is in contrast to the Super Robot anime. The difference is that Gundams are piloted by people rather than living on their own as sentient robots. Real Robot stories deal with the horrors of war, shifting morality and squishy human characters without much plot armour to protect them. Collateral damage is high. Gundam is, basically, a series about good people committing war crimes in giant mech suits.
The Gundam franchise is broadly divided into two streams: Universal Century (UC), a timeline that started in 1979 and has told an ongoing story across Mobile Suit Gundam, Zeta Gundam, Gundam ZZ, Origin, Unicorn and now the Hathaway trilogy. There are other series within the UC label. Unfortunately, the only material easily available for streaming in Western markets are the three compilation movies that sum up the events of the original Mobile Suit Gundam and Char’s Counterattack (on Netflix) and Origin on Hulu. These are good primers for Hathaway, but you’ll have to go elsewhere for Zeta Gundam, which is the best of the series; avoid those compilation movies, though.
The other side of Gundam is the one with which a lot of American audiences are more familiar. The Alternative Universe (AU) series are self-contained stand-alone stories. This includes Gundam Wing. Hathaway belongs to UC, so it’s not worth diving into AU here. If you were wondering “How does this connect to all that Gundam Wing I watched on Toonami circa 2002,” though, there’s your answer: It doesn’t.
The UC timeline is regarded as the prestigious timeline, and brand owner Sunrise has gently added more content over the last two decades to this timeline so that each new addition is an event. Harkening back to the Star Wars comparison, each addition to the UC is like another trilogy — replete with fans who complain about whether it ruins everything that came before.
Mobile Suit Gundam: Hathaway is based on a trilogy of novels written by Gundam series creator Yoshiyuki Tomino. It was long thought unadaptable due to its dark, bleak tone and massive Mobile Suits battles thought too complex to animate. UC fans have been waiting for literal decades to see if Hathaway is adaptable. Given how difficult it remains to find the main Gundam story outside of Japan, it’s a Pretty Big Deal that Hathaway is premiering on Netflix. (A quick note: Netflix is only streaming the film; it didn’t produce it.)
Non-Japanese fans often were resigned to waiting maybe a year, at least, to get an official English copy released in a few markets and then another wait for a decent DVD copy or import, so I’m ecstatic that what once felt like a niche interest in the is finally getting the global attention it deserves.
Does Mobile Suit Gundam Hathaway live up to the hype? Well, thanks to Tomino’s steady hand guiding the franchise, it’s pretty great. It’s a direct sequel to Char’s Counterattack, in which Hathaway also had a small role. Hathaway follows the titular character, son of famous Gundam character Bright Noa and now the leader of the terrorist organisation Mafty. His group seeks to fight against the destruction and privatisation of Earth. Hathaway is hiding in plain sight amongst the Earth Federation. He finds himself in the company of Captain Kenneth Sleg and the enigmatic woman Gigi. Their burgeoning and tragic relationships set the stage for what’s to come.
Oh, uh, I guess it’s worth noting quickly that the main story of Gundam involves political intrigue between the government of Earth and its colonies, which, after several generations, argue for their independence from the oft-fascist ruling class of humanity’s home planet. Each culture has differing views on Earth and what it means to humankind. There are strong naturalist themes. In keeping with the complexities of Gundam’s approach to war, which side is good and which is bad in this conflict shifts from faction to faction across the various stories, with our long-running protagonists finding themselves consistently unmoored by challenging allegiances. So when I say Hathaway is a terrorist, well … it’s complicated.
Mobile Suit Gundam: Hathaway could not have arrived at a more uncomfortably appropriate time. In the story, Earth is on the brink of environmental disaster and the Earth Federation refuses to acknowledge it. Coincidentally, this will premiere in the U.S. right after the deadly heat bubble that broke records in the Pacific Northwest, and that’s sure to be only one in a long line of catastrophic climate events in the real world this year. The original Hathaway novel was written 30 years ago. It wasn’t a hard prediction to make back then, and it’s a shame the movie is finally released in a world where preventable disasters depicted in a Gundam novel aren’t far from reality.
Hathaway finds a world where the privileged class are letting the earth die and privatising it, just as the planet most needs sensible and smart management. Thus it’s up to Hathaway and his compatriots to take up arms to save their world. Or is it? In classic Gundam form, Hathaway doesn’t endorse violence and revolution. Rather, it lays out a broad moral tableau and lets viewer judge for themselves whether the protagonist is in the right. Watching the film, you may see your own reflection here, and it may be uncomfortable.
Through the course of the film, Hathaway is forced to reckon with those for whom he fights. The characters are complex and thoughtful. About 80% of the movie consists of dialogue and not Mobile Suit action, which is a hallmark of Gundam — especially the pieces coming from the pen of Tomino; these are rich and complicated characters whose interpersonal conflicts result in massive robot battles.
Is it Accessible to Newcomers?
Although part of a multi-decade story, Hathaway can be watched with zero prior Gundam exposure. The film goes to lengths to remind the audience of the important facts. But if you’re a Gundam fan who has done their homework, you’ll reap the benefits. Still, if this is your first, the recognizable political and planetary stakes, coupled with instantly interesting characters and good delivery of exposition, make this a good place to jump in on the franchise.
Technically, the film is astounding, with director Shūkō Murase delivering jaw-dropping sequences. His framing of the giant suits fighting, and the feeling of civilians from a ground view, is riveting and horrifying — showing them for true massive machines of war. The Xi Gundam and its sparring partner, Penelope Gundam, are colossal and have such weight and heft that they feel truly scary. Panicked civilians are crushed beneath them. Although Gundam has always understood scale, Hathaway ups the ante considerably.
The score, penned by the inimitable Hiroyuki Sawano (seriously, look at his résumé) is as good as his Gundam Unicorn work, with some truly emotional compositions mixed in with some real bangers; I’ve been revisiting it on Spotify over the past weeks. The voice actors do an excellent job, too, particularly the lead trio. If you can, please watch the subtitled Japanese voice acting, as not only does Gundam have a long history of using voice cameos, but the actors are just better. Hathaway really is the whole Gundam package in one place.
It is also the first installment of a trilogy, a story that is only going to get darker and more desperate as it progresses. Despite the original novels being written 30 years ago, the UC Gundam storyline still feels as relevant as ever as our own planet seems ever-tilting towards darkness. Gundam has remained a cultural touchstone for a reason. Maybe humanity will change itself in time to make the changes we need in the real world and look beyond our own greed and privilege. Gundam makes no promises.
Oh: My 1/144 scale Xi Gundam arrived today.
I hope the future we deserve arrives tomorrow.
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