The central plot conceit of much of Turn-A Gundam is that two central characters – the victim of war Kihel Heim and the leader of the invading Moonrace Dianna Soriel – switch places, taking advantage of their similarity of appearance to experience life from another perspective. The lonely queen of the moon initially sees this as a joke stemming from an emerging friendship with a confidante of the leader of earth forces, but as the events of the war develop – and Moonrace and Earth Militia forces both escalate the conflict ignorant of attempts at peace – the switch becomes a much more significant thing as Kihel, a civilian, ends up having to do more than look like her counterpart but also fulfil Dianna’s role as a military leader.
Yet this plot device epitomises a central theme throughout Turn-A’s opening section; that it is a conflict based around people blindly obeying and disobeying orders. What matters in any of the conflicts within the first 11 episodes more than anything – more than giving consideration to the consequences of actions – is the authority or perceived authority of the person giving the orders. Kihel-as-Dianna is powerless not because she is an imposter but because Dianna is powerless herself. Loran, the protagonist, becomes authoritative because he has expertise in piloting the Mobile Suits that the conflict hinges around yet he is not always listened to because he is an outsider and lower-class at that. As a result of this continued reliance on deference to authority, and peoples’ authority not necessarily coming from the appropriate skills for the job but from some other basis (usually social class or force of will), the conflict is not the expected steamrolling of a technologically backward human society by advanced invaders but a chaotic affair in which those who can grab some power try to make the best of it. It is a frequent criticism of Yoshiyuki Tomino’s animé that this kind of anarchic war – of everyone ignoring orders and acting selfishly – grates, and becomes ridiculous. It features heavily in series like Heavy Metal L-Gaim, Zeta Gundam and Brain Powerd, which all have major plot points reliant on the fallibility of people with power and the times when self-interest trumps common sense.
This is claimed to fail in much of Tomino’s animé because it is generally set in a clearly-defined futuristic society, within a concrete military framework which is then undermined with convenient inefficiences. Zeta Gundam has the AEUG, its heroes’ organisation, be simultaneously a comedic group of buffoons in space, bumbling about the Argama and getting into pointless fights with each other, and also a great threat to the enemy fleet led by heroes of the settings’ past wars like Char Aznable. On the enemy side, the Titans are a complex knot of backstabbing, selfish officers (epitomised by their eventual leader Scirocco) with an edge for cruelty. The result of this is that Zeta Gundam feels like anything but a piece of military science-fiction for most of it; it is melodramatic, compelling and often ridiculous because of this jarring tone inconsistency.
In Turn-A, however, the setting is one where disobeying orders because they come from the “wrong” person makes sense; it is an Edwardian-era society loosely based on the American South. There are established master-servant hierachies, rich idiots in command of private armies and implications of societal racism (Loran, being poor, an outsider, and coloured, ends up becoming a chauffeur and manservant at first until he proves himself useful elsewhere – while his comrades from the Moonrace end up as a journalist and a baker respectively). Rather than an organised, well-armed force as the AEUG or even a more ad hoc group like Brain Powerd‘s Novis Noah being the main source of armed resistance to the enemy, it is a group of locals unsuitably armed, frequently drunk and overconfident in the face of a vastly superior foe. On the opposite side, the Moonrace are an organised force who over time lose trust in their leader, Dianna; she wants a peaceful solution to the land dispute the Moonrace have identified, while the soldiers on the ground are more interested in putting down the militia by force and flexing their muscle. The implication in this opening arc is increasingly – made clearer when Kihel-as-Dianna is on board the Moonrace flagship – that a planned peaceful settlement is being actively undermined by agitators back on the moon. By sending incompetents and warmongers like the supposed Moonrace aces Corin Nander and Phil Ackman, and leaving the peace talks in closed rooms, situations that Dianna and her bodyguard Harry Ord try to defuse spiral out of control, fuelling further attacks from the Militia.
The Militia themselves actively want a war despite standing no chance of winning, since their leaders are not the reasoned figures like Loran or the shrewd negotiators like Guin Lineford – instead they defer to the aggression of figureheads like Sochie Heim and fight incoherently. A telling moment of how this initial arc is setting up inevitable escalation comes when two scenes are juxtaposed of both sides talking about what they would do if there was peace. Sochie and the Militia say that even if the war ended they would still need more Mobile Suits for security, while the Moonrace feel peace can only come if they increase their military presence. This is entirely framed by the Kihel-as-Dianna plot – as each side encounters the difficulties faced by their “enemy” (firstly Dianna seeing the effects of a war she cannot stop, and secondly Kihel seeing how powerless the Queen of the Moon actually is) the reasons behind the utter chaos being seen become ever-clearer.
Turn-A Gundam thus begins not with a simple, easily-understood war; it begins with a territorial dispute which neither side wants to actually resolve despite the efforts of rational leaders. Loran has influence within the Militia because he knows how Moonrace technology works – but he is nevertheless one of the “enemy”, and too soft on them to be properly listened to over the revenge-hungry Sochie. Dianna is the de facto leader of her people but consistently undermined by soldiers with personal vendettas and what seems to be the beginning of a wider conspiracy. That this is all set within a world where often good ideas are secondary to the uniform or status of the person giving bad ones makes the usual self-destructive anarchy of a Tomino war story seem all too credible, rather than the melodramatic black comedy of something like Zeta Gundam.