In a thread about Japanese film and television composers, we covered two major names, Joe Hisaishi and Michiru Oshima, in previous articles. This month’s announcement from Netflix that it will screen (at least parts of) Japan’s famous Gundam saga spurred me to write this short overview of the animated series and its incredibly rich collection of musical works. This is classic music that you will want to play over and over again!
The animé series Mobile Suits Gundam (1979-1980), written and produced by animator Yoshiyuki Tomino, began in 1979 and has evolved into a major franchise. It was no doubt inspired by the slew of popular science fiction movies from the 1970s, including Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica as the obvious triggers, though the Gundam universe probably shares more in common with hard core science fiction movies. Films like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Silent Running come to mind, if you added space battles to the mix. A more intriguing source of influence could easily be attributed to Gerry Anderson’s tech-inspired action series, like Thunderbirds, Space 1999 and others. These children’s adventures were major hits in Japan and animated versions were also made there. Gundam was the forerunner for other giant robot concepts like Neon Genesis Evangelion, Transformers and Pacific Rim.
Gundam – what does it mean?
The Gundam saga spans a broad tapestry of storytelling, based around the fates of a number of unwilling youths, who are thrust into uncomfortable situations, where they are forced to fight in order to save innocent bystanders against warring political factions. A strong anti-war ethos is common to all the storylines.
We find ourselves in future Earth orbit, surrounded by space cylinders, hanging at the Lagrange points between Earth and Moon. Humanity has largely fled the Earth due to pollution and overpopulation, to live on these space colonies, as well as in cities buried under the Lunar surface. Classic political ambition, bigotry, eugenics, and the fate of planet Earth keep the colonies at war with each other and with a polluted Earth.
Due to the invention of `Minovsky’ particles and neutron jammers, radar and nuclear weapons are ineffective, so close-quarters combat is the only way to fight – hence the invention of giant robot suits guided by human pilots, known as `mobile suits’. The secret commissioning of an unparalleled new suit called the “Gundam”, by resistance forces, finally tips the balance of power. Gundam becomes a symbol for resistance and justice. The meaning of the word Gundam is a mystery never fully revealed, for enthusiasts to uncover with the help of their favourite search engine!
As in the best family adventures, the heroes of Gundam are mainly kids, innocent in their motives, fighting to protect their friends and families from incomprehensible adult concerns, struggling with ethical questions and the burdens of responsibility. The stories span every Earth continent and culture – adding an educational appeal. As they are forced to fight in space, free of Earth’s gravity, the Mobile Suit pilots begin to develop strange psychic abilities – they become `New Types’, a kind of next level human. The writing, even in the earliest series, is remarkably strong and believable (far more so than Star Wars’ cardboard characters and clumsy lines) and improves greatly with the sequels. And although the series have been dubbed by American actors over the years, I strongly advise everyone to watch them in the original Japanese, with subtitles for an authentic experience.
A very interesting aspect of the Gundam series is the strong feminist themes casually incorporated throughout the series, without faux cliches – this especially coming from a country where mainstream male chauvensim is still dominant. The 70s and 80s were a time of pondering big questions. The character ensembles are filled with both smart and air-brained, strong and weak characters of both genders – all intensely human and ultimately likeable. Use of female names for male characters is another interesting touch. There’s an always adorable quality to Japanese animation. These character-based stories compete strongly with the understandable fascination for cool robots and space battles and the engineering and science are quite accurate in small details – appealing to the geeks and gamers, male and female.
The popularity of Gundam is huge, but little-known in the West, except amongst gaming console owners, where some of the series have been available. The fast paced stories are gripping, in spite of their short episode length. Asian audiences have grown up with these, as we have with Thunderbirds. It’s also not hard to bump into plaza statues of the Gundam robotic mobile suits around Asia. Lifesize Gundam models in Shanghai and Tokyo are springing up to delight fans.
For a Western audience, the impact of this series could only be compared with Star Wars. Like Star Wars, the Gundam is rich in its musical range and coverage. But unlike Star Wars, it spans a much wider range of styles and composers, keeping little common thematic material, but remaining within the action animé style range. Just as you could live inside the music of the Star Wars universe for a long time, so the Gundam universe offers a rich world of music that spans a much greater range of style.
As Chinese fans put it, Gundam has always inspired “godlike music”, lining up an impressive array of Japan’s greatest cinematic composers, and the usual catalogue of songs performed by major Japanese artists. An exceptional array of talent and a pantheon of great songs liberally borrows from Western pop hits to engineer instant popularity. Hints in both the writing and animated scenes, especially in the earlier series, point to sources of inspiration like Thunderbirds, Space 1999 and Battlestar Galactica – and in later series a more symphonic sensibility creeps in, tipping its hat perhaps to the Star Wars rival legacy. Musically, the scoring of the early series was close in its philosophy to the Gerry Anderson action series scored by Barry Gray. This is a time of high adventure!
Mobile Suit Gundam by Takeo Watanabe – the original series music from 1979 – begins with a 70s disco flavour, as did Battlestar Galactica, combining orchestral instruments with an electric band and slap bass and synthesizer effects. The recording sounds dated now, as the slim budget didn’t allow for a modern recording standard. Nonetheless, the music is imaginative and action filled. Fanfares and riffs introduce scene changes, while action scenes are even reminiscent of Derek Wadsworth’s writing for Space 1999. The Gundam song has an almost hilarious military disco style, later turned into a softer style in the Gundam symphony. The brass arrangements give an oddly Mexican flavour to the music.
The second composer to score for the series is Shigeaki Saegusa, including Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam (1985-1986), Mobile Suit Gundam ZZ (1986-1987), and the side story feature Char’s Counterattack (1988). These scores depart from the disco and 1970s vibe to bring a welcome stringy serenity to the beautiful vistas in the visuals. Made in the mid 80s, the pop songs resist the temptation to go fully New Wave. This is great writing – ambient and airy with a more sophisticated blend of styles. These pieces feel like a stepping stone from old to new.
Next, a series of three albums for Victory Gundam (1993-1994) by Akira Senju is a high energy romp through a more Earth-based story. The storytelling takes on a higher level of sophistication in this series – no longer a loosely connected stream of space battles, but deeper storylines on several levels for different characters. The music contains darker elements too--seemingly imitating Barry Gray in one moment, then diving into a Star Wars romp in the next.
The somewhat isolated Mobile Suit Gundam F91 (1991) by Satoshi Kadokura is perhaps the first score to follow a modern, fully symphonic approach to scoring in the Star Wars tradition. Short, but beautifully crafted with a modern military flavour – a standalone album with strong themes and rich orchestrations. A hat tip to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring in the Battle Sequence gives a sense of the level of orchestral ambition.
The James Bond story of the Gundam pantheon is surely Mobile Suit Gundam Wing (1995-1996) scored by Kow Otani – another high energy rock plus orchestra arrangement filled with blistering guitar solos, reminiscent of Steve Vai’s solo material. Otani tips his hat to James Bond themes in the action scenes. The musical sophistication is growing now, in another step that echoes the deeper script writing and broader story arcs. By this point, the show has been around for twenty years and is fully aimed at both kids and an adult audience, as fans have grown up with a thirst for more.
A major change in the musical legacy happened with the 30th anniversary of the original series, with the arrival of composer Toshihiko Sahashi. Before Sahashi, the Gundam composers did little to create common themes or re-use earlier material. Sahashi is clearly a fan of the series and studied every score in depth to write for the series Mobile Suit Gundam Seed (2002-2003) and Mobile Suit Gundam Seed Destiny (2004-2005). These series revitalized the franchise for a new audience, and brought the writing of script and music to new levels – filled with references to earlier series and to the literature and music of conflict (often reflected in the naming of vessels from Lohengrin to Gormenghast).
More importantly, perhaps, to celebrate the franchise he composed, releasing a series of three symphonic compositions performed with the London Symphony Orchestra, recorded at the famous Abbey Road studios – surely a hat tip and a signal that Gundam wanted the same legitimacy as the Star Wars saga, and other cinematic classics. The Gundam 30th Anniversary Symphony (with the LSO), for instance, immediately reworks the original disco theme from 1979 into a surprisingly well-adjusted symphonic form. The performance and sound of these albums is superb as one would expect of the LSO. Now we are deep into John Williams territory! Prepare to do battle!
The oddball curiosity amongst the Gundam ranks is surely Turn A Gundam (1999-2000, also referred to as SYSTEM ∀-99 ∀ Gundam), with music by animé giant Yoko Kanno, famed for Cowboy Bepop and The Ghost in the Shell, who become known for her tear-jerking arrangement of the closing song in Hisaishi’s Porco Rosso. Although this series is something of a side story in the saga, it’s a beautifully crafted post-apocalypse tale with strong characterizations and many references to cinema in the scenes and the music.
Turn A Gundam shows a big jump in the sophistication of story development, with a powerful long arc storyline, set in a far future America in which the surviving peoples – reinventing themselves in the image of 19th century Europe – are visited by a delegation from the Moon, who are hoping for the right to return to Earth.
The music developed by Kanno is highly varied in styles, and is some of the most imaginative of the set, borrowing from all kinds of references like Gershwin, Indiana Jones, Bernard Herrmann, several Russian classical favourites, as well as highly original writing of her own. Like Michiru Oshima, Kanno is a highly accomplished orchestrator. A live performance of the popular pieces was also released as an album and there is a video.
Into the 21st century, Gundam continues to develop musically and for a new generation of viewers. Mobile Suit Gundam Thunderbolt (2015-2017) by Naruyoshi Kikuchi is a complete break with the style of other series – throwing us into the deep end of free jazz and avant garde electronica. It has some great jazz songs too, but the effect of the jazz is unexpected and jarring. Mobile Suit Gundam Twilight AXIS (2016-2017) by Takashi Ohmama is a fully modern 21st century sound. The songs too are beginning to borrow from the 21st century pained lyrical style of current Western pop artists rather than the cleaner singing voice of tradition – something I personally dislike but will no doubt appeal to younger viewers. Finally, we have to mention the rising star Mobile Suit Gundam Unicorn (2010-2014) by Hiroyuki Sawano, one of Japan’s most popular modern composers, from Attack on Titan – known for his big rock’n’roll Hans Zimmer style, as well as (more comically) his laziness in naming cues (fans claim he rolls his face over the keyboard to name tracks like «Part1-4th:7-b@$» and “«AoTs3-3spens/21»).
The Gundam series is a global treasure. Its well written and beautifully animated stories seem more human, more compelling than Star Wars and its funny creatures and cardboard lines. The superb animation standard that grows with each series, as the technology improves, helps to pull you into the universe and to love the characters. Unlike the sterile CGI figures that we’ve ended up with from the US animation houses in recent years, Japanese animé has never sacrificed its traditional artistic qualities. If anything, the scenography becomes only more detailed and poignant. As one friend told me – as kids we were filled with excitement and thrills in every episode. As adults watching again, we’re filled with nostalgic tears of sadness and joy.