"Mobile Suit Gundam" is a Japanese animated (anime) franchise that has been around since 1979, making it older than other popular series like "Pokemon" and "Dragon Ball Z." It has spawned several other anime series, manga (Japanese comics), films, games, and more, with the latest being a movie called "Mobile Suit Gundam: Cucuruz Doan's Island."
When most Americans think about giant fighting robots, their minds probably go to the Transformers franchise, but "Mobile Suit Gundam" was around five years earlier in Japan. The basic concept of each iteration of the show is that in the distant future, mankind builds city-size satellite communities known as colonies that people have migrated to by the thousands.
Along with those dwellings, mankind also invented large mechanical weapons for warfare that are piloted by people. They're called mobile suits, with the most powerful being called gundams. Common themes in the Mobile Suit Gundam shows include pacifism, war, Earth vs. Colony conflicts, and the negative effects of active battles on teenagers who get swept up into the conflict.
"Mobile Suit Gundam: Cucuruz Doan's Island" fits squarely in the middle of the original "MSG" series that first aired in 1979. In fact, the original premise for this film was included in an episode of the TV series, but when the show came to America, the Cucuruz Doan's Island episode wasn't included. Fast forward to today, and the material is now expanded into a film western audiences will get their chance to see in theaters, courtesy of Crunchyroll.
The story of "MSG:CDI" follows a group of mostly civilians from a destroyed space colony who find themselves on a prototype ship called White Base. The narrative's primary conflict lies between the Earth Federation and the Principality of Zeon, which declares its independence from the federation and is mostly made up of people who live in the space colonies.
Zeon operatives discover White Base visiting a space colony called Side 7, where a powerful new mobile suit, the RX-78 Gundam, is being loaded onto the ship. Those operatives destroy the colony, killing most of the civilians and military members. In desperation, a teenage boy named Amuro Ray pilots the gundam to protect the few remaining civilians who end up on White Base, fleeing the destroyed colony, their lives now entangled in a bitter war.
"MSG:CDI" is set on a small island off the coast of Europe. White Base has landed on Earth and is ordered to investigate why mobile suits from the Earth Federation that travel to the island never return. Amuro Ray (Toru Furuya) is dispatched with a few others to land on the island and see what's happening. As he explores the island, Amuro is attacked by a mysterious mobile suit and defeated, his gundam falling off a cliff toward the sea. As a giant storm breaks out over the island, his companions flee to regroup, leaving him behind.
Amuro wakes up in a bed, his injuries bandaged, and discovers a group of children live on the island with a woman named Cara (Fu Hirohara) and a Zeon deserter named Doan (Shunsuke Takeuchi), who uses his mobile suit to attack intruders and defend the island from all sides, be they Zeon or Earth Federation.
"MSG:CDI" is a classic example of humanizing the enemy and showing the main character there are good people on both sides of the Zeon/Earth Federation conflict. Up until this point in the story, Amuro went from battle to battle, being chased by Zeon forces, watching them destroy his home and hurt his friends. And yet, here, he finds a former Zeon soldier who not only spared his life, fed him, and bandaged his wounds, but also takes care of a dozen or so seemingly orphaned children.
For a day or two, Amuro gets to be a normal teenager again, doing chores around the island, watching the kids do ordinary things like washing dishes, gardening, milking a goat and more. He repairs their water system and gets electricity flowing again in the lighthouse they live in. The film has a nice mix of action and slower moments where the characters and story can breathe.
The complex ethics of war and what it means to be a soldier, as well as being forced to fight to defend your loved ones are all right at home in the narrative of "MSG:CDI." Fans of the original show should be pleased with the film, which raises a certain level of nostalgia for "Mobile Suit Gundam."
Perhaps what's most impressive about the movie is its animation. The familiar characters look like they were lifted right out of the 1979 TV series, and that's a refreshing choice, as opposed to giving them updated designs or a new art style. Keeping true to the original 2D animated art style demonstrates loyalty to the show that started it all.
Meanwhile the mobile suits themselves are upgraded, and are beautifully rendered in 3DCG and blended with 2D backgrounds in a wonderful mix of old meets new. The explosions and fire from each battle look spectacular, and the mobile suits move with intense flare that'll excite any gundam fan.
"MSG:CDI" is not a film made for newcomers to the series. Since the central story is pulled straight from an episode of the original TV series (albeit with welcome expansion), viewers who haven't seen the original show (or at least the first third of it) will be quite lost and unfamiliar with the hero Amuro.
"MSG:CDI" will be in theaters Tuesday and Wednesday so those who want to see it on the big screen will have a limited window to do so.
‘Mobile Suit Gundam: Cucuruz Doan’s Island’
86 Cast: Satomi Arai, Misato Fukuen, Toshio Furukawa, Toru Furuya, Megumi Han
Director: Yoshikazu Yasuhiko
Running time: 1 hour, 49 minutes