Goats From a Small Island – Some Thoughts on Cucuruz Doan’s Island (that aren’t about its production history)
There is not much to say about the peculiar production history of Cucuruz Doan’s Island – the “missing episode” of Mobile Suit Gundam – that has not already been discussed, or made apparent in interviews. Nevertheless, the recent film made retelling the episode’s story is very interesting in how it is, I think, one of the truest Gundam sidestories in terms of thematic and tonal similarity to that original TV anime. This is actually very notable as a lot of Universal Century sidestories, I feel, take the ideas of the original series and reinvent them in different genres – Stardust Memory is very big and bold, aspiring to be grown-up action film stuff. Unicorn is a fairly dense and almost spiritual story with political conspiracies and ideas of philosophy. The fact is they represent attempts, I think, to appeal to audiences who want something different from Gundam than just the original TV series.
The closest thematic neighbour to Doan’s Island is War in the Pocket. That is an OVA I like a lot, because its aspect of Gundam it brings to the forefront is the disconnect between the exciting action for children to enjoy and the human cost of all that, through a story that is simple, sad and generally well told. Similarly, Doan’s Island focuses on the human cost of the big battles and what happens when someone is done with all that and tries to live their own life. It is a film quite free of incident for a lot of it; Doan lives with the orphans he saved, defends his farm from both sides of the war, and rejects all calls to return to conflict outside of self-defence. Amuro enters this scene and adapts to it, himself learning arguably both what he fights for but also the human cost of fighting. It isn’t a remarkably complicated film and it is by no means a subtle one. But that simplicity and explicit storytelling – combined with its decidedly happy ending – is what makes it feel truer to what TV Gundam was like.
War in the Pocket is an inevitable slide to tragedy where the situation is so bad, so unsalvageable, that conflict and death of a sympathetic soldier figure is inevitable. Bernie is presented perhaps not as completely innocent, but an innocent, a soldier whose loyalties are called into question by his sudden new perspective on the conflict. The OVA is quite quiet, quite menacing and tragic, and builds to heights of action that are horrifying in their narrative implications. And the ending coda – of children excited for the “next war” even as one of them has just learned the cost of the previous one – sets the whole message down plainly. It’s a kind of storytelling critical of war and patriotism that isn’t uncommon across media and genres, told well and depicted in detail. Now to turn back to Doan’s Island where there are exciting adventures like “climbing down a well”, “milking a goat” and “the White Base team sortie to rescue Amuro, get wrecked and then get destroyed by a goat.” The very fact a goat is an important character in a story where the kind-of-Chekov’s Gun is a nuclear missile says a lot about what to expect (and I cannot help but observe the parallel between the incoming nuclear strike in War in the Pocket and the missile silo Doan is ordered to defend). And the story ends with the missile dealt with, Zeon given a bloody nose and the island left alone so Doan and his found family can continue to farm and fish and avoid the war.
Does a story about the human cost of war having a happy and inspiring ending diminish its power compared to one where likeable people die for pointless reasons? That is the question Doan’s Island asks. Perhaps in a sense it’s naive; Doan is the Good Zeon Guy who left the army after seeing the horrors he had to inflict, and tries to make amends for it. Amuro is the outsider who learns that sometimes the enemy have a human side and want to genuinely do better. The actual villains are a bunch of extremely obviously evil soldiers who think Doan is a traitor because he is too nice. It all plays out in a very straightforward way, and comes to a nice conclusion.
At this point remember that Mobile Suit Gundam was for children. It was an ambitious children’s show, it was one that aspired to say something and make a point, sometimes well, sometimes clumsily. But it was a children’s cartoon and Doan’s Island the movie hits that note more truly than a lot of other ancillary Gundam material. There’s references to the less childish bits of Gundam throughout the film – Zeon being brutal in their control of Earth, the Federation’s corruption, Sleggar Law being a womanising buffoon – but these are tempered a lot by the real family film feel of a lot of it – the enemies being so very exaggerated in their depictions and movement, the comic timing of Sleggar being shut down in his antics, the children of White Base trying to start a revolt to save Amuro, all of this undercuts the idea that this could be a self-serious science-fiction film. Yet this comedy is offset further by the very understated (yet unsubtle) scenes of Amuro on the island, where a lot is done with body language, tone of voice, and little unspoken cues that amplify the feeling of being an outsider. Someone who is outside this peaceful world of jokes, and making do and mending, and milking goats. And then when the film needs to be dramatic and serious it can be – there is some top action to be found, some scenes that really nail from both sides the almost horror-like tension of a mech fight. Brutal pilots using underhanded tactics to prevail, Doan fighting for his life at the end of the film, and the effect on morale the Gundam arriving to save the day causes.
Finding this balance between understated, emotional scenes with simplistic yet powerful messages, absolute comedy and grotesque villains and actual tension and action nails the tone – as disjointed as it can sometimes feel – of watching Mobile Suit Gundam. And the whole story – a small, pointless battle in the grand scheme of things but one that sends a message to both sides and teaches a lesson to Amuro – is the perfect expansion of a one-episode plot into a film with just enough context to stand alone. It feels strange to congratulate a film for being a simple moral story of “sometimes there are good people on both sides of a war who stand up for what’s right over their nation” when so much of what’s considered “good” in things wants nuance and complexity nowadays, but Doan’s Island is an interesting time capsule of what serialised children’s anime of the 1970s offered, expanding and developed to the point where it stands up now.