The side story OVAs to the main Universal Century timeline of Gundam are, perhaps by virtue of a shorter running time, more focused in their approach to using the setting; each tells a single story seated within the world created that tries to be different in some way to other stories in the same world. The 08th MS Team makes aesthetic efforts at a kind of military-SF realism by attention to mechanical detail and at the same time is basically a love story about soldiers from opposing factions. War in the Pocket is even more personal and anti-action in its close focus on Al and Bernie, a soldier and the civilian who helps him try and carry out his mission against all odds – and its child’s viewpoint is specifically used to play with expectations of what this kind of story entails.
The unifying factor across these, and the other examples, can be argued to be a kind of exaggeration of themes to fully impress them upon the viewer – Gundam has always been about the way young people react to war, but War in the Pocket is even more crushing in its handling of it. Similarly 08th MS Team takes what would be one subplot of many in the doomed love affair and makes it the main plot. Even the dry and directionless MS IGLOO can be seen as taking the episodic superweapon super-robot roots of the franchise to an extreme. In comparison to these, however, Stardust Memory stands out as being very unlike a Gundam story at all. It is a pure action film made of macho cliches and archetypes that feel very Hollywood in their deployment, which is really quite opposite what Gundam usually offers.
Everything about Stardust Memory is ultra-masculine and “adult” in the immature way action films are. It is a world where grizzled men shout militaristic aphorisms about duty and patriotism at each other, a world of Everyman grunt troopers making good against all the odds and where women are femme fatale leather and whips villainesses and Amazons or pencil-skirted screaming sidekicks. Even its plot, of fanatical terrorists of a faded evil empire stealing nuclear weapons to carry out acts of slaughter, is clear-cut and angry in a way that much Universal Century media is not. The Universal Century – from 0079 through to Unicorn and Victory – is about understanding and evolution – Newtypes will save the human race (a problematic philosophy about ceding control to an evolutionarily superior übermensch but nevertheless one interested in greater compassion and concern). Stardust stands apart from this in its love of fighting and being a “real man.” There is an obvious crew of villains in Gato, Cima and Delaz who lurk around in stylish luxury and plot nuclear annihilation to restore the evil Zeon empire. They are troubled in ways villains are allowed to be troubled – Cima killed civilians and feels guilt but also hatred, Gato is a model soldier who sees past defeats as a source of shame and so on across their disposable henchmen. They are stylish but ultimately evil – and I would say that because of these overbearing “evil” signifiers Stardust Memory actually stands out as being less Zeon-friendly than other UC works. This is because the motivations for villainy – the humanising aspect – are all petty and (from the likely political standpoint of a modern audience) tyrannical. Bad loser-ish insistence on restoring past glory and seeking vengeance in blood – is a simple motivation that is easily called terrorism and thus coded as negative.
Zeon the politically fleshed out entity of something like Gundam the Origin is replaced with something far less ambiguous. Of course, this only works because of the audience’s preconceptions of terrorism; when Gato claims he is fighting for “spacenoid independence” and “the ideals of Zeon” as he fires a nuclear missile at the good guys’ base, he is a villain because mass murder in the name of “freedom” is generally considered in this kind of fiction a bad thing. Yet what this obvious antagonism does is let the villains be competent and driven; there is no understanding or sympathy to be found as the story rushes forward for most of its run time. Even the humanising of Cima is shown to have driven her into compensatory ruthlessness and decadence. Because of this – because the enemy are would- be genociders and patriots – they can be dangerous. Gato soundly defeats Kou at almost every turn. Cima destroys her enemies easily. Even Kelly, the sympathetic henchman, is a competent soldier. Competency is linked on both sides to determination and by extension machismo – Cima the token woman villain is feminine in a fetishised sexual sense, an aggressive, dominatrix-esque, almost masculine behaving figure. Kelly hardens his heart to his sister who is the voice of conscience because he wants to fight. On the Federation side the strongest characters are the most ideally-manly or masculine ones; Mora is akin to Cima in being an unfeminine woman while Burning and Synapse are the reliable, noble, manly soldiers. The protagonist’s journey is about fitting in with the Men (even the opening themes are macho – called as they are The Winner and Men of Destiny) with as much antagonism coming from the ungentlemanly Monsha as anything else. While the fact that Monsha is comic relief and crucially inept seems to go against the fetishisation of machismo it just as much reinforces it – he is not a noble manly man but a rogue, and rogues have no place in this world of manly ideals.
This is all quite un-Gundam. There is no overbearing anti-authority theme, no distrust of adults and the military and Kou’s personal journey is set up as being about finding a beautiful girlfriend (who in Nina is sexy in her intelligence and professionalism but equally vulnerable and in need of protection) and becoming a good soldier who has the confidence to fight and fit in in the rough world of the army. It is fair to say he meets little resistance – playing up the action-film neatness of it all. Gundam in its longer-form stories relishes drama and complication and understanding. Stardust Memory shows that the same stories can be solved (in an audience- friendly fashion) by shooting guns and chasing women. The obstacles and failures are very clearly contrivances of the genre to add tension – Burning dies at the worst time because the plot needs it, Kou meets Kelly because it is needed for his development. Arguably it feels a very “constructed” story – things happen for the benefit of the audience because the genre expects them. Talking of a work of fiction as self-consciously constructed sounds absurd – after all, all fiction is designed and planned – but Stardust Memory feels more than most like its plot needs to hit certain events so something cool can happen.
It is, to be frank, not a groundbreaking story. It is formulaic to the extreme – even going so far to meet expectations as to be ridiculous – but it is also competent enough in doing this that its familiarity is entertaining and its distance from what one expects from Gundam is interesting. Perhaps most interestingly, its reductive cast – in being reductive in different ways to other series – are memorable. Cima as a woman villain is much “better” for being a stereotypical femme fatale than the utter messes of characterisation that are Katejina Loos, Fuala Griffon or anyone from Zeta Gundam. Gundam is rarely macho but frequently cynical of women, after all. Zeon as ridiculous terrorists are less easily likeable than other series’ efforts at making genocidal fascists cool. Kou might be a simplistic Everyman but the terms of his development are clear and familiar. On top of all this, a neat good versus evil storyline does not equivocate about whether or not you can like the action in Gundam with a clear conscience – even the characters are all about the robot fighting. Thus for all its reductive, silly machismo and stilted, cliche writing, Stardust Memory stands out as an OVA that turns one’s expectations of Gundam upside down, replacing them with the filter of the Hollywood action movie – for all the good and bad that entails.