ZZ Gundam is the third part of the trilogy of Gundam television series that form the core of the Universal Century timeline – each follows chronologically on from the next and, through different pervading dramatic tones used in each entry, the trilogy has a strong sense of character progression among those characters which recur. ZZ is sometimes criticised for being too light-hearted and inconsistent with previous works – it marks a significant departure from the often cynical seriousness of Zeta Gundam and at the same time is a very different kind of light-hearted story to the surreal, resolutely 1970s animé, Mobile Suit Gundam. It is at first far more reliant on simple physical humour – clumsiness, visual jokes and general slapstick scenes – than most Gundam animé, far more visually a cartoon in its use of the animation medium to go from exaggerated visuals to detailed sci-fi stills.
Note: The subsequent article will contain some plot details for Zeta Gundam
ZZ begins immediately after Zeta ends, with the damaged battleship Argama finding shelter in a nearby space colony after the defeat of the Titans. Kamille, the hero of Zeta, is in a coma resulting from injuries sustained during the battle, and the situation appears grave for characters – Bright, Fa, Torres and others – who the viewer may be familiar with over the course of up to two complete series. Yet from the start, the colony at the centre of affairs – Shangri-La – is shown to be quite different to the usual depiction of life in space that Gundam uses. Life in the colonies has been shown to be extravagant, science-fiction stuff – immense cities and the visual trappings of technological utopianism that space colonisation evokes. Yet Shangri-La is a colony that has fallen through the gaps – the protagonist, Judau, is a young man reduced to scavenging on scrapyards and debris fields to get enough to feed his family. The circumstances of his introduction are quite different to those of Kamille and Amuro, his predecessors in the chronology (notably, the opening credits use a visual of man evolving from an ape first into Amuro, then Kamille, and finally Judau). Kamille was shown to be precocious and from a well-off but unloving home – his first actions are picking a fight with a policeman who mocked his name – while Amuro was bookish and isolated, looked after by his kindly neighbours. Judau has a community of his peers to live with – the fellow rogues Iino, Beecha and Mondo. This immediately restates the recurring theme of Gundam – that to a child, adult authority figures are not to be trusted – in a straightforward, relatable way. In a war-torn country, children have to fend for themselves because there are no adults around. This is played comically – the protagonists are much more the Artful Dodger type than any grim depiction of war orphans – but definitely shows ZZ to be a Gundam show at its heart.
Throughout the first eight or nine episodes – the time the series spends on Shangri-La – the focus is on Judau’s introduction to authority figures (in the form of first Yazan, a recurring villain from Zeta fallen on hard times, and then Bright) and his friends apparent realisation that they will be better off growing up. It is arguably the same pattern as featured in the past two series – rebellious or naïve youths brought into line by military discipline – but this time there is a knowingness to it in line with ZZ‘s generally more light-hearted tone. Bright sees Judau trying to steal the Z Gundam – much as Kamille stole a Gundam Mk2 at the start of Zeta – and realises that the past two times this has happened the boy in question has saved the world, thus letting him carry on. This begins a truly absurd series of episodes – Bright keeps letting Judau and his friends do as they will assuming they will fall into line as his past two charges did, while Judau keeps trying to not fall for what he sees as an obvious trick. Yet by the time they reach space, concluding this first arc, the amusing selfishness of Judau and his friends has become insufferable; when, in episodes 10 and 11, Beecha and Mondo attempt to get themselves – and the Argama‘s crew – captured by Axis forces because they think they will be better off, what began as comedy of exasperation now becomes something less palatable. Every man for himself is funny when it is roguish children getting one over corrupt junk dealers, or turncoat colony officials meeting poetic justice, but when the same logic is used to rationalise betraying a warship’s crew and luring them into a trap ZZ is willing to present this negatively.
On the opposing side of this absurd war, ZZ presents a similarly resigned summation of all that has gone before. If Judau’s interactions with Bright represent a kind of self-aware acceptance of genre cliches (punctuated by flashbacks to past series), then the actions of the enemies are an equally self-aware gesture by the series. The main antagonist of the early episode of ZZ is Mashmyre Cello, a foppish, inefficient and tactless fool who rationalises every bad decision he makes through delusions of pleasing his superior officer and object of “love” Haman Karn (a major villain in the end section of Zeta and presented as a very credible threat). In some ways he is presented as a mixture of Garma Zabi and Char Aznable – the ace pilot, noble and image-obssessed villain – but then this is completely undermined by his utter lack of credibility in any way. His efforts to fight a bloodless war, avoiding civilian deaths, invariably end up getting civilians – mostly Judau and his friends – involved, he has nowhere near the piloting skill of an actual ace and finally his idolisation of Haman passes beyond respect into an unhealthy obsession. It is this relationship that is the most interesting aspect of his character – he, quite bluntly, objectifies her. His entire memory of her is encapsulated in possibly exaggerated memories and a rose she gave him that he has encased in resin so that it will never fade. He wants her to be an unattainable, intangible thing because then he can worship his image of her – and as his flashbacks to their meetings become ever more fanciful, the truth of it emerges. One of the last in the first arc has him in a meeting to discuss the expansion of Axis’ power, and while he imagines himself to have been the attentive soldier in fact he is shown to have been looking down her top all along. What is initially presented for a short time as noble piety to an ideological cause gradually breaks down through hero-worship (depicted amusingly through his inane ramblings about Haman) to sexual frustration and lust.
Once the action leaves Shangri-La, Mashmyre is joined by a second villain – the ace pilot Chara Soon, sent by Haman to aid him and monitor him. If Mashmyre represents the idealistic villain archetype, she is the Newtype ace analogue – the equivalent to someone like Four Murasame or Rosamia Badam. This is made most clear when she fights for the first time, quoting nonsensical phrases about her soul and how battle affects her mind that evoke the trauma of those tragic Newtypes of Zeta but at the same time are completely banal and meaningless, and accompanied by ridiculous actions and childish flailing rather than brutality. Thus in battle she is the comic relief villain, an incompetant among many – but outside of battle, she is a comic foil to Mashmyre and this aspect of her character is far more interesting. While Mashmyre postures about accountability and humanitarian aims, she takes an active role – tracking his wastes of life and materiel that result from his inept plans, reporting back to Haman on his failures and holding him to his empty words. That ZZ presents one of the most arguably right-thinking villains in much of the Universal Century as the comic foil to a buffoon is one of its strengths – Chara on her own would be a strong Gundam character without any changes. Even her histrionics in the cockpit are not so far removed from Rosamia’s at the end of Zeta, but they only appear empty because there has not been the buildup of a tragic backstory or narrative context that came when Rosamia or Four fought and died. As a conscientous villain she is reminiscent of the character of Cima from a much later Gundam series. Yet a serious-minded character in a setting of idiots – Mashmyre, the hapless Gottn and the rest of the Axis detachment – works as an excellent comic counterpoint.
Ultimately, what makes ZZ work very well as a comedy is that it can be serious or amusing without needing to change its depiction of its characters. When Mondo and Beecha are sabotaging the Argama they are not acting out of character for the sake of drama – instead, the limitations of their attitudes are being shown to remind the viewer that there is a time and place for them. What is more, it is a series that is no great departure from the Gundam formula – instead it simply compresses all the elements that a viewer would expect together into larger-than-life characters. Slapstick comedy works in a series that begins with inexperienced pilots fighting each other – so much of the action is defined by midair collisions, the inability of pilots to gauge clearance of gaps and running out of ammunition. It is a war story that can be serious if needed, but one that accepts that wars are fought by fallible and deluded humans for reasons that probably are not glamorous or noble.