I love and hate this OVA series. It is chock full of gorgeous art and breathtaking animation, but I can’t bring myself to care for the story or characters.
Maybe this is my western bias talking, but I am not convinced that mecha animation itself can sustain a film. By its nature, this type of animation does not allow much leeway for creativity or impressionism. Machines must be limited to solid, literal drawings and mechanical motion in order to look realistic. It may look cool, but in Gundam Thunderbolt it is ultimately an empty exercise in technique that doesn’t serve the story.
Gundam Thunderbolt is set in the year 0079 (in an alternate timeline), during which there is a war between the Earth Federation and a faction of space colonists called the Principality of Zeon. They battle each other in humanoid vehicles called mobile suits, which for all intents and purposes are giant robots. The scale of destruction is massive, as the floating bits of debris, space cities, and school buses serve to grimly remind us. The whole series takes place in the apocalyptic ruins of these former space colonies, in an area known as the Thunderbolt Sector due to its incessant outbreaks of space lightning. The story follows two ace pilots from each opposing faction, and throughout the series we witness their reactions to the horrors of war. Armed with powerful experimental robots called Gundam, the two men are fated to face each other down in a climactic one-on-one duel for supremacy.
I’ve never really been sold on the idea of super-powered giant robots being vehicles for drama. More specifically, I’m skeptical that the gaudy, iconic Gundam robots could support a serious film. The concept can work with a light, humorous touch, like in Gurren Lagaan, or with a high degree of realism and finesse, such as in Patlabor and Evangelion. In all those shows, the characters played much larger roles in the stories than the actual robots. On the other hand, Gundam Thunderbolt essentially asks us to take its giant space robots seriously in and of themselves. Unfortunately, the series’ dark tone and lavish animation are not enough to overcome the dissonant ideas.
The overall impression I get from Gundam Thunderbolt is that its robots dominate the plot at the expense of all other elements. The breathless pacing and emphasis on action feel at odds with the series’ anti-war message. It seems like the creators are impatient to get past the characters and go straight to the robot battles. This wouldn’t be a problem if they were honest about their intentions. However, they try to shoehorn serious themes into a lightweight story, and the result is a pretentious mess.
“War comes at a terrible human price,” Gundam Thunderbolt tells us. It aims to be a bleak, gritty take on the giant robot genre. It achieves this best in setting and atmosphere, which provide a plausible feel of what space combat might be like. The environment is foreboding and oppressive, with dark colors and cramped metal corridors. Characters and objects float in zero gravity when not strapped or taped down. There are some nice incidental visuals like a smoking room with a vacuum device and a spaceship tomato garden. Outside, the ghostly remains of the shattered space colony set an appropriately ominous mood. The space lightning is kind of cheesy, but it looks really cool and adds a lot to the effect.
The battles are frantic and energetic affairs, often underscored by jazzy tunes that complement the violent action. There are a lot of fast cuts and dynamic camera movements that make good use of the CG debris fields, giving the screen a sense of depth. The mechanical and effects animation is, of course, very good. It is clear that the animators’ interests mostly lie in this area. The robots are meticulously rendered down to the smallest components and bits of shading, and the solid black lines give them a lovely hand-drawn look. Equally impressive are the vivid lasers and explosions, which form cool pieces of abstract art in themselves. These colorful, stylized pyrotechnics are probably the most interesting visuals in the series.
Music plays a major role in Gundam Thunderbolt. The soundtrack is an eclectic mix of jazz and 60’s pop tunes, which uniquely fits the on-screen action. The chaos of the space battles is punctuated by the shrill, discordant sounds of free jazz. Melancholic doo-wop melodies accompany the slower scenes and nostalgic flashbacks, underscoring the tragic loss of bygone innocent times. This offbeat arrangement of musical choices flavors the episodes with a distinctive sound, and contributes much to the series’ identity.
Hirotoshi Takaya provided the character designs. His characters are highly detailed, with tons of extra lines and realistic proportions. In effect, they are aesthetically similar to the robots they pilot. Unfortunately, this type of design doesn’t work so well for living characters. The more details and shapes there are to keep track of, the more exponentially difficult it is for an animator to draw characters properly, let alone bring them to life. Gundam Thunderbolt’s characters move smoothly and stay on-model, but distinct expressions and gestures are practically nonexistent. They are well-drawn and look nice in stills, but it is difficult to emotionally connect with them. Their cluttered, angular designs resist charm or appeal. They also spend much of their time in rigid spacesuits, which further limits their capacity for expression. This is problematic for a series that attempts to portray the human costs of war.
Exceptionally good writing and direction can circumvent weak character animation. However, Gundam Thunderbolt does not have the time or inclination to develop its characters beyond basic archetypes. All we really know about Io Fleming is that he is a cynical thrill-seeker who likes jazz. Daryl Lorenz doesn’t fare much better. We get a few brief flashbacks of a young Daryl happily running on a beach, but we do not see much that establishes him as a distinct personality. It shows things that happened to him, but it doesn’t show anything he actually did. The female protagonists have a bit more depth; both are shown to be deeply affected by the death and violence surrounding them (one of them overdoses on antidepressants). On the whole, however, none of the characters ever act beyond their predetermined formulas.
Director Kou Matsuo tries his best to make us care about the characters with dramatic closeups and shots of floating tears, but he may as well try to endear us to inanimate mannequins. The characters have no life or immediacy, and the story does very little to make them sympathetic or interesting. For example, the first episode has an entire squad of pilots get wiped out by Daryl’s laser gun. They die in a succession of beautiful explosions, but there is minimal effort to establish them as individual human beings, so their deaths have no narrative context or weight. Another sequence shows a group of nameless young pilots being used as cannon fodder. This would be difficult to pull off even with careful and sensitive handling. Gundam Thunderbolt certainly isn’t up to the challenge. Why would the Federation send kids into battle? Up to this point, there had been no indication that the organization was so cruel or desperate. The characters look and act like kids only in the most superficial sense. There’s some obligatory exposition and floating tears, but only as much as is necessary to determine that these are, indeed, kids. The children are quickly forgotten after they are apparently all blown to bits, as if they existed only for shock value. There’s not enough logical or emotional setup, and so it comes across as disingenuous.
Characters aside, I don’t really get who the Federation or the Zeon were, or why they were fighting. Without an emotional basis or point of reference, the attempts at drama and artistic flair seem overbearing and heavy-handed. Maybe viewers familiar with the Gundam franchise don’t have this problem, or maybe the writers felt that leaving out motivation and context would better show the senselessness of war. In any case, the series would have benefited from a more fleshed out story. A bit of perspective could have given the narrative some satire or dramatic import, or at least it could have made the characters a little more believable. As it is, the series feels less like a denouncement of war and more like an excuse for the animators to draw a bunch of giant robots.
I’ve heard that hand-drawn mecha animators are becoming scarce. It is presumably less labor-intensive to render mecha in CGI, and it also seems likely that character animation is more alluring in terms of flexibility and potential for self-expression. Perhaps Gundam Thunderbolt is making a statement by putting its mecha at the visual and narrative forefront. It’s heartwarming to see such devotion to the craft, and I certainly wouldn’t want to see it die. However, I don’t think fixating on robots to the exclusion of story and characters is the best solution. The tradition would better be served if, like most things, it were utilized with moderation and intelligence.
I hate to bash an anime that clearly puts so much love and effort put into its animation. Part of me can enjoy the series on a purely visceral level, as the action is often truly exciting and intense. However, the grittiness and realism squashes out any potential for fun. I personally think giant fighting robots are a goofy concept, but the series portrays them as deadly, humorless war machines. There is too much focus on the overwrought robot battles, while the characters and story are left underdeveloped. It is too serious to be amusing, and too over-the-top to be taken seriously.