1979’s Mobile Suit Gundam is usually considered the first in the “real” or military subgenre of mecha animé; it took the still-developing mecha genre into a new direction intended to be more grounded and science-fiction based, rather than its usual superhero roots. The usual themes of exceptional people standing as heroes in the way of non-human enemies (giant monsters, alien empires or mutants, for example) that were seen in series like Mazinger Z, Getter Robo and Combattler V are changed into soldiers fighting against a separatist state that has started a civil war in space. Yet the original series – much more so than perhaps the more “grounded” reimaginings and continuations that followed – is aesthetically and conceptually very founded in the roots of the genre.
The most usual examples pointed to of how Mobile Suit Gundam is grounded in the silliness and surrealness of “super” robots are the absurd enemy designs (especially the bit-part enemy unit from late in the series the Zakrello) and the odd upgrades (including impractical combinations and upgrade parts) that the protagonist gets. These are held against the series’ “seriousness” as a strike, yet the aesthetic redefinition of Gundam – especially the core Universal Century timeline – as a more serious military science-fiction piece is an uneven one as a whole. Even series held up as the most “serious” and “real-robot” such as The 08th MS Team and Gundam Unicorn have a share of designs derived from the more absurd parts of the franchise – indeed, a key feature of one episode of Unicorn is a parade of “classic” strange designs such as the Juagg and Efreet. Even when aspiring to seriousness, Gundam has a very fixed Universal Century aesthetic that has ultimately been refined over time. Thematically it may have aspired to be more serious – and now has a reputation for melodrama – but its roots have always been in the mecha series of the early 1970s. Even the more “serious” writing – which is ultimately the part which has developed the most throughout the franchise – was not entirely unique at the time; 1978 saw Toushou Daimos, the third of Tadao Nagahama’s notable trilogy of mecha series that began with Combattler V. Daimos’ story of human-alien romance writes large the typical sub-plot of the sympathetic or deceived enemy pilot or soldier who falls into doomed love; examples are present in series like Yuusha Raideen and it is such an iconic subplot it is parodied in the Aquamarine segment of Gekiganger III, the 1970s mecha parody central to the plot of Martian Successor Nadesico. In turn, Gundam would run a similar plot in three directions; firstly the relationship between Char and Sayla, secondly that with Ramba Ral meeting Amuro, and finally that between Amuro and Lalah that becomes the focus for many subsequent franchise entries (culminating in Char’s Counterattack in the 1980s).
Effectively, this shows how Gundam developed the genre; by expanding the setting of the super-robot series to more geographically and thematically diverse places (via the introduction of the military plot) and making the enemies human (rather than aliens – for even if Voltes V‘s Boazan aliens and their human and “hornless” slaves form an unsubtle backdrop for a story about uprising against tyranny, there is still a certain pantomime nature to them), there is more scope for melding stock episode plots together and expanding them into arcs. It is worth here considering Gundam‘s “villains” – the Zabi family and Char Aznable – in comparison to past series. A kind of stock villain group has existed in super-robots since the beginning – usually an evil emperor figure (Mazinger Z’s Dr Hell, for example), the rash prince or general (Raideen‘s Sharkin or Combattler‘s Garuda), and accompanying minor villains in engineers (who design the enemies of the week) and a female villain stereotypically more focused on subterfuge and attacking the heroes on a personal level. Variations exist, but this represents a fairly standard setup for the genre; a variety of lieutenants to be challenged, each of which represents a different aspect of the villains’ plan. Gundam has a largely similar setup; Dozle Zabi is the emperor figure, Garma and Gihren the two lieutenants and Kycilia the female villain. Char also represents one of the lieutenant figures, with a personal rivalry with the heroes – and it is the shift from one-off monsters (as many super-robot series employed) to piloted mecha with ace pilots which enables the most memorable fights and characters in the series. Gundam has two “levels” of antagonist in any given episode; the named pilot, for example Ramba Ral, and the machine to be challenged – in this case the Gouf. In comparison, the more monstrous setup of other super-robot series may allow for memorable villains (such as Baron Ashura in Mazinger Z) but they are more distant from their machines. The mecha fights are often less closely linked to the personal rivalries.
On the heroes’ side, Gundam is much more typical and yet again uses the widened design space of its military setting to make the traditional unexpected. Its core group of protagonists is, when considered in light of super-robot series, a very standard spread. The Nagahama robot series – and hero shows like Gatchaman – laid down a stock five-hero team archetype which would be picked up in subsequent series. It generally comprised a leader, sidekick, clumsy or fat comic relief character, a girl on the team and a child prodigy. Gundam, arguably, embodies this. Amuro is the protagonist – and a reluctant lead pilot much like the leader of the Voltes team – Kai the sidekick. Ryu and Kai are the comic relief and child prodigy respectively, while Sayla and Fraw Bow both fill the female lead role. Furthermore, in mechanical terms, the Guncannon and Guntank – the two supporting robots – fill the roles of both Getter-2 and Getter-3 in combat style (providing a stock 3-unit squadron with defined supporting elements) and also sidekick robots like Boss Borot. What Gundam did, though, was use its military setting to justify and expand the potential for supporting robots; rather than being superhero sidekicks, they were defined military units that the protagonist occasionally used and which had a tactical value in fighting the new kinds of enemy; Gundam utilised massed fights much more than most super-robot series and so the sidekicks had a new role – to give the impression of an army-size engagement. Furthermore, and quite clearly shown in how Sayla and Fraw embody two different “sides” of the female character archetype (the love interest and the supporting pilot), Gundam clearly develops the roles beyond one-note ones. All this combines in the central and memorable figure of Bright Noa; he is simultaneously the abrasive robot-base leader (for example Yotsuya in Combattler V) and also the meddling military authority figure (most notably Miwa in Daimos.)
Essentially, then, for all its thematic development of a genre that had established several cliches already, Gundam embraces them at its core; the original series is as much a military-themed super-robot series (with all ensemble casts intact) as a groundbreaking new “real robot” show. What is popularily held as a kind of dichotomy or break from tradition is perhaps more accurately a shift in focus, an attempt to follow an example started by Tadao Nagahama in expanding the design space and potential for what a super-robot series could “do” in narrative terms.