The opening sequence of Gundam F91 is an assault on a space colony much like many other within the franchise; it could be thematically the attack on Heliopolis from Gundam SEED, the initial mayhem of Mobile Suit Gundam or the carnage wreaked by the Kshatriya in Unicorn. Yet what sets it apart is how uncinematic the action is; the focus visually is on showing people trying to avoid the fighting, chasing one group of civilians who are not a part of the conflict and simply want to avoid it. The conflict is foreshadowed from the title card intro, in which a number of enemy machines begin attacking a shipyard with casual ease, but its first appearance to the main cast is sudden as a destroyed defense unit crashes into a building, crushing those within.
Depictions of high levels of civilian casualties in a mecha animé can seem gratituous; too much collateral damage in a sequence glorifying the pilots’ skill and their machines’ innate aesthetic appeal is a very difficult line to take – and this tension between audiences watching a series for its action and “cool” machines and trying to tell a war story which avoids propagandistic glorification is a constant preoccupation of Gundam. F91 focuses very strongly on the human cost while also keeping it anonymous; people die, in great numbers and awful ways as machines of huge size fight around them, but there is no glory to the fight and none of the gentlemanly elegance that a protagonist would add. The “protagonist” at this stage in F91 is Seabook, a young student running away from the war and trying to escape the beseiged colony – he encounters combat, but in unusual forms, civilians trying to muster some resistance and assist the defending army, or soldiers trying to claw back an advantage against a vastly superior force. He initially has no mobile suit, or means to use one – and without that focal unit to choreograph the action there is much less opportunity to create heroes. Without heroes, the war is less of a vehicle for promoting a single figure or ideology and more of a depiction of a fight for survival. The Federation fleet is being attacked apparently without provocation, and scattered units are fighting a series of duels – with the most dramatic performances coming from enemy pilots outsmarting the defenders. Depicting a defensive battle, and the turnaround of a hopeless defense without the assistance of an ace pilot, in this way – much like the opening act of War in the Pocket – is particularly powerful.
Yet F91‘s opening sequence is only intelligible in terms of “heroes” and “villains” – the ascribing of good and bad sides to the warring forces – if one is familiar with the aesthetic cues of the Gundam setting. The Federation are identifiable as the Federation because they use Jegans (as seen in Char’s Counterattack) and related mobile suits – they are the “good” force for a certain level of goodness because traditionally they have been the protagonist’s side. The Crossbone Vanguard are identifiable as an “enemy” force because of their Germanic mobile suit designs, because traditionally in Gundam the enemy have used these designs. But in this initial fight it is the Crossbone who have the upper hand, and their combat is far more “honourable” and military to begin with. The Federation is prepared to use hostages to protect itself, and fights without apparent care for the colony itself. A memorable scene from this initial battle is a woman killed by spent shell casings from a Federation heavy-weapons unit, while the heroic debut of reinforcements comes as they literally explode onto the scene – this is a war so desperate that the supposed defenders of the colony cannot take due care for the people they are protecting. By contrast, the Crossbone begin with a precise attack on military facilities, destroying strategic targets with well-aimed fire – it is only when they take the fight inside that their supposed organisation and honour vanishes. Thus when the Federation call them “pirates” and “rebels” the audience may as easily recall Zeta‘s AEUG (nominally anti-Federation rebels) as Zeon forces.
The humans, to which the focus continually returns, are in the way at all times in this opening battle. They are killed by being in the wrong place at the wrong time, they are the interrupting reaction scenes which cut short the robot fighting. There is a constant sense of scale throughout the sequence – the humans killed in their control room by a single missile from one of the attacking units set up the machines as huge, but the scale of the colony they are attacking – its mazelike shipyards and hangars, and colossal mirrors – put them back as tiny. In space, the natural theatre of war in Gundam, robots are the infantry and aircraft all in one – graceful, able to decapitate warships with a single shot and avoid anti-aircraft fire. But the introduction of the machines inside the colony is a Jegan off-balance and crashing into a building, each shot from its rifle sending it down into the floors below with the recoil until eventually it is smashed apart by an attacking Crossbone unit. This is followed by a second Jegan trying to take fire on its shield, losing its balance and destroying a park, landing among a crowd of fleeing civilians as its pilot stumbles out of the cockpit. This is hardly a glamourous war – war-robots are either impassive weapons or ungainly giants whose death-throes are destructive. Yet the destruction is not merely the lashing out of wounded machines – interstitial scenes of Jegans and Crossbone units dogfighting have them catching trees and walls with trailing limbs, making the maneuverability and open fields space combat offers seem much more valuable. Pilots seem to have far more to concentrate on than actually protecting the city. The buildings and structures are simply props and cover for the mobile suits – one scene has a damaged Jegan clinging to a bridge and fighting one-handed.
This constant focus on destruction – buildings being smashed by machines fighting above them, Federation pilots bailing out and their units being systematically dismembered and destroyed – is intercut with people panicking and running away to survive. It is this that makes the fight so compelling; when the armies fighting above the refugees are not in control enough to avoid collateral damage, the struggles of those trying to escape are compounded. What this is – as Seabook, Cecily and the other focus characters try to escape falling buildings and mechs bringing down structures around them – is a disaster film. The military response is happening around the characters, a series of faceless machines and pilots dying in turn with each attempt by the Federation to alleviate the situation causing more destruction – the heroic arrival of a whole fresh squadron comes as they blast a hole in the colony wall to get to the front quicker. People are dying – lots of them – but they are not the necessary casualties needed to provide a credible threat for the protagonist to come and defeat, they are the people in the wrong place at the wrong time as soldiers try to do their duty. The Crossbone Vanguard claim that they do not want to harm civilians – and indeed they are always shown placing their shots to hit enemies, while the Federation fire more wildly – but civilians are nevertheless dying in numbers because when huge war machines are fighting with massive-scale weapons in a populated area, there will be destruction and displacement.
There is a sense of gravity and weight to this fight in F91, and perhaps as crucially a sense of fallibility to the pilots. Usually when an unnamed pilot dies in Gundam it is quick and decisive, an explosion or vapourisation – a pilot given the honour of a fighting death is a focal character as the Jegan which fights the Kshatriya in Unicorn becomes. But in this fight in the colony, every pilot is fighting to survive despite damage – the machines are machines that are broken apart, robots cling to cover and try to right themselves and in the process smash buildings and cause chaos for civilians. Although the film as a whole is a weak and disjointed narrative, this opening ten minutes is intense and stands alone as one of the points where Gundam memorably dismisses the mythos of robots as powerful, infallible machines. It is hard to find the Jegans cool as their pilots destroy those they are trying to protect simply because their machines are huge and ungainly.