“For now, at least, let’s just forget about the war…”
Gundam has always been about war. It’s concerned itself with the minutiae, the battlefield tactics, and above all else, the people who find themselves mired in war. 08th MS Team takes its focus on these issues and narrows it to a laser point, following a small team on the front lines of the Federation’s conflict on Earth against Zeon.
There are a number of ways in which 08th sets itself apart from other Universal Century entries in the Gundam series. First and foremost, it treats the mobile suits as battlefield hardware. You see the human-sized shells expelled from colossal barrels, close-ups on the internal wiring. Every scuff, every scratch. You see them swap filters on air compressors, clear out build-ups of sand in a mobile suit’s foot, and one character has a giant pseudo cotton swab to clear out the gunpowder built up in the barrel of a gun. Something I like to see pointed out about the original Mobile Suit Gundam is an episode in which the White Base crew runs low on salt. For dietary purposes and general quality of life, they need to resupply. Their cook warns that health and morale can plummet if they’re not properly nourished. It’s a nice point to bring up and does show how Gundam strove for realism from the start. On the other hand, the original Gundam itself had a number of super robot traits that repeatedly showed through, most notably the energy hammer and the fact that the White Devil itself transformed in mid-air with a combining jet. Later entries, like 0080: War In the Pocket, definitely upped the fidelity on the presentation of mobile suits as real machines and not super robots, but none quite match up to what 08th manages to pull off in both its story construction and the quality of its art.
No detail goes overlooked in 08th. Everything that moves has a tremendous sense of weight. Roads crack beneath every footstep of a mobile suit. Beam rifle shots turn dirt and sand to glass from heat. You can see metal pit and deform as the shields block every bullet. The mobile suits have UI design for functions beyond targeting, which is something I always enjoy in good detail-oriented sci-fi. It’s Real Robot with a sense of realism that had been there before, but never quite like this.
But these sorts of detailed visuals aren’t unheard of in Gundam. The opening sequence of Gundam 0080 attempts this with its Hygoggs, in a an incredibly well-directed bit of animation. They move a bit like super robots, but you can see parts move and shift, mechanisms at work. It’s a wonderful bit of animation that serves as a punchy introduction to set the conflict. It’s a great sequence, but it doesn’t feel completely at home given the tone of the rest of 0080. There, the mobile suits are treated as larger than life, with the detail in the art design functioning as window dressing. The central arc of 0080 is confronting idealized views of war. The mobile suits are heavily detailed, but this is in service of glamorizing their initial impression. It’s not “realism” so much as it is copious detail to impart that feeling of “cool.” The show treats war as an inscrutable, monolithic machine that grinds people up; 08th cracks open that machine to show you the gears.
Ensign Shiro Amada, our commander and de facto protagonist, begins as a bright-eyed, enthusiastic soldier. At the start, however, he doesn’t quite see the human toll on the other side. “I’ll take out as many Zeon soldiers as I can” is one of the first lines he speaks, with a kind of shonen protagonist cheer. The conflict is real, but he sees the enemy as a monolithic force and not as a collection of individuals. It’s natural to him that they are the enemy because they, of course, are Zeon. And Zeon as a collective has committed atrocities. A flashback later in the series indicates that Shiro might have been present when a colony was gassed by Zeon, our Ensign witnessing the horrific aftermath firsthand. He has already formed an image in his mind of what Zeon is. That image begins to shift when he meets Aina.
I will confess, I rewatched 08th in preparation for writing this and this romantic sub-plot was not something I looked forward to. Aina and Shiro’s romance is often described as something akin to Romeo and Juliet: star-crossed lovers on opposing sides of a conflict they cannot control. In that way, I can see the comparison. Upon rewatching the show, I actually found myself incredibly fond of this part of it. Shiro and Aina meet and the focus of this meeting is not quite romantic tension so much as the fact that neither of them fit their own preconceived notions of what an enemy of the other side should be. Shiro knows Zeon from their atrocities and likely has never been able to put a face to any of them, except perhaps Gihren or another Zabi covered heavily by the media. Aina outright says that she did not imagine a Feddie soldier to be anything like Shiro. He’s immediately willing to put aside the fight in favor of mutual survival and cooperation. It’s easy to interpret this meeting as the beginning of a forced romance, but I actually quite like it. They’re not immediately head over heels and neither of them assume the other saw their time together as some sort of whirlwind romance. It’s not until they both become further mired in the conflict that they feel willing to address it as such.
Over the course of the series, Shiro becomes someone who values the lives of not just his comrades, but his enemies as well. Honestly, my favorite part of his character arc is not his reunion with Aina, confession of love, or the conclusion of mutual affection they come to, but the fact that he is nearly court-martialed for it. The episode after he confesses to her begins with an inquiry into his actions and suspicion that he may be a spy. He’s asked, point-blank, what his thoughts are. “Even though we are divided into ‘enemy’ and ‘ally,’ there are good people on both sides. People who can understand each other! And for me, knowing that, amidst the stupidity of this war, is the one thing that gives me hope.” Aina shares the same conclusion to her brother. Both are laughed at, seen as naive, by the very people who wish to prolong this war. People who see it as a forgone conclusion. Shiro and Aina see it differently. Bloodshed is not the default and should not be the first resort. If lives can be saved, they should be saved. From here on, both of them struggle to avoid needless death. Shiro spares his enemies where he can. Aina pilots another in a long line of Zeon prototypes and draws a line in the sand, asking it not to be crossed in exchange for a cease fire.
Aina had a distaste for combat at the start of the series. It didn’t seem like her encounter with Shiro completely made her rethink how she saw war and conflict, just how she saw the Federation. Shiro, on the other hand, seemed eager for battle. He didn’t think of it as bloodshed, he thought of it as something more noble. It wasn’t until he had a name and a face to put to the enemy that he began to rethink the gravity of killing them. It’s a gradual shift and even then, it’s not as though the show began with Shiro as particularly hawkish. He saw a chance to do good and had been told that the best way to do good was through the act of war, though I’m sure the Federation recruitment posters phrase it more poetically.
That is the core of what makes the show work. But around that core you still need to finish the construction. The deep-in-the-mud combat, showing Federation soldiers eating garbage rations, doing field repairs… all of that little stuff builds up to a cohesive whole. The moment where that whole truly comes together is, for me, perhaps my favorite action sequence in anime. Let me talk about Norris Packard.
Norris is an attendant of Aina’s. He’s a pilot and is generally shown to be a competent, honorable, and caring man when it comes to her. Every scene Norris has is not about him. It’s about Aina. Every scene he shares with Ginias has him expressing concern over Aina, whether over her wishes, or if she can be safely rescued. This is a man who serves not Zeon, but a family that happens to exist within it. Near the end of the show, Aina has managed to convince her brother Ginias to allow a medical evacuation ship to take off from his base. Norris, revealing to Aina that he’s aware of her relationship with Shiro, decides to act in her interest once more. He boards his Custom Gouf with the goal of defending the med-evac, even at the cost of his life.
What follows has a kind of energy to it that just doesn’t come across without seeing it in motion. Norris’s Gouf is the absolute embodiment of what I feel makes a Real Robot kind of fight. It’s more than just the roads cracking or metal dinging as bullets strike it. Every tactical decision made in the fight takes into account the fact that mobile suits are colossal and weighty, that they have mass, and that they obey the laws of physics like any other machine would. Norris targets the Guntanks and sets up makeshift anti-aircraft guns to them down one by one. During a later segment of the fight, Norris disables one of the arms on Shiro’s Ez-8 and it becomes dead weight, throwing Shiro’s movements off balance far more than such an injury to the human body would. The whole fight is visceral. It would be bloody (and still manages to be, in one instance) if these were people. Norris sees a dedicated opponents and says with confidence and glee, “I have found the place where I am to die.”
Shiro fights for his life throughout the entire encounter. He’s woefully outclassed by Norris in almost every way, and the only times he manages to make any kind of comeback are through surprise. After Norris shorts out his mobile suit, Shiro’s trapped inside it with no light, scrambling to fix what he can, praying he doesn’t die in the moments in-between. Here, he is tested. He’s opined about his desire to save lives, for no one to have to die, but how childish it all seems in the face of his own impending demise. Shiro faces head-on the darkest moment of combat, where “kill-or-be-killed” cannot be negotiated away. Until the very last moment, Norris has his eyes on the goal. The fight is not about him, it’s about Aina. Shiro manages to repair his Gundam and kill Norris, but with his last bit of life, Aina’s dutiful attendant destroys the last Guntank. His dying words are “I’ve won,” to which Shiro immediately replies “I’ve lost.”
This scene exemplifies what about 08th’s marriage of detail-oriented visual and narrative designs work. Nearly every skirmish depicted in the show up to this point has been meticulous and calculated. Shiro’s tactics with his unit rely heavily on timing and position, rather than expert piloting. Setting up ambushes, getting a sniper into position, the sorts of things you’d expect to see in ground troop tactics. It’s these thought-out encounters that allowed 08th time to show off the day-to-day maintenance and minutiae of mobile suits. For every episode prior to Shiro’s fight against Norris, the attention to mechanical detail accentuated the cast’s interactions. Cleaning the barrel of a gun is not something you do once. It’s something you do constantly and peppering details like that throughout the show allows the viewer to construct an image of what the cast does in the moments we don’t see them. The precision instruments, the necessary maintenance, and everything else paint a picture of a crowded day, even without the combat. Now, apply this to Norris. Compared to the other mobile suit pilots, he makes his Gouf dance. It’s a well-tuned instrument in the hands of a virtuoso, but never does it break the rules of what these machines can do. It’s not some new flight-type or capable of any amazing feats the team has never seen before. Norris merely shows it at the highest possible level of skill and fidelity. It avoids the cliche of a genius pilot who’s just naturally good, because with everything you’ve seen, you know that you can’t just be naturally good. These machines break down, require maintenance, and can be pushed to a breaking point. This fight is Shiro’s breaking point.
The thing about this skirmish between Norris and Shiro is that it’s not a personal fight. Shiro has no idea who Norris is. Norris doesn’t particularly care that he’s facing off against Aina’s paramour. Against Shiro, Norris becomes an insurmountable wall for his ideals. Our commander has had it easy. He was in positions where he could spare his foes; in this case, he’ll be lucky if he lives through the fight. Shiro has to focus all his thoughts and energy on just surviving, so he can’t even think about sparing his opponent. He does manage to squeak through alive, barely, but he’s failed his mission in the process. He’s killed someone for nothing. The fight was desperate and bloody, yet he still couldn’t achieve anything through it.
Shiro declares that he’s leaving the Federation after this fight, going to Aina’s side instead. He deserts in the face of the enemy and in the face of his own inability to stay true to himself during a war. Aina follows, after dealing with her brother and his Apsalus.
Aina and Shiro both share a mutual understanding of how they feel war should be conducted. By its very nature, they view it as senseless but also understand that words cannot solve all problems. Violence is something that may be necessary as a last resort, but it should never be the first conclusion. So, where they can, they practice what they preach. It works, at first, but time and again they are tested and undone by people who want bloodshed, people who see it as the natural conclusion. To them, of course, this is how it must be.
In Gundam as a whole, but specifically in 08th MS Team, those people are the villains. Ginias for Zeon, the architect behind the Apsalus who seeks to annihilate Jaburo in one fell swoop, and Ryer for the Federation, a Commander who readily shoots down the Med-Evac transport in retaliation and responds to a request for a cease-fire with covert snipers. Wars are not fought by monolithic entities; they are made and sustained by people. This is the focus of 08th MS Team, to show war fought on the micro-level. Every bit of the show plays into that, from the close-up of a Zaku’s monoeye lens, to the photographs of people back home, to Shiro’s panicked “I WANT TO LIVE” when it seems so likely that he’s going to die. The broad strokes of a war are simple. The devil is in the details and that is, above all else, what 08th MS Team strives to convey.