Anime Review: Mobile Suit Gundam Thunderbolt

A review of the 2016 anime directed by Kou Matsuou, animated by studio Sunrise and based on the manga by Yasuo Ohtagaki: MOBILE SUIT GUNDAM...
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  1. ANIME REVIEW: MOBILE SUIT GUNDAM THUNDERBOLT
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    Genre: military science fiction, seinen

    Original year of release: 2016

    Studio: Sunrise

    Director: Kou Matsuo

    Writer: Yasuo Ohtagaki (manga) Kou Matsuo (adaptation)

    Number of episodes: 4

    Runtime per episode: 18 mins

    STORY
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    In 1974, Joe Haldeman released a highly controversial and shocking novel entitled The Forever War, which shook the literary community to its foundations and set the standard for sci-fi authors for years to come. The novel was, at its core, a grueling war drama under the guise of a space adventure. Based on his own experiences in Vietnam, Haldeman succeeded in accurately describing the madness and senselessness of war. Vividly depicting the brutality, blatant disregard for human life and the nightmarish insanity that follows soldiers around like a looming specter everywhere. Something that is true for any war, be it Vietnam or some futuristic space war. No matter how hard politicians try to sell you on the concept of a justified war, war itself is something that can never be truly justified and its impact remains long after it has ended. It’s a powerful and deeply unsettling novel that I highly recommend picking up, especially now in these deeply uncertain and violent times.

    Thirty-eight years later Yasuo Ohtagaki, author of the critically acclaimed manga Moonlight Mile, started his adaptation of the novel. But rather than making it a straight adaptation, he picked certain elements from the story and thematic ideas and used that to spin his own tale. In an even more daring move, he decided to set it in an already established universe that has become almost synonymous with Japanese media: Gundam’s Universal Century timeline.

    A few years later, up and coming director Kou Matsuo started work on a pet project of his; an anime adaptation of Ohtagaki’s manga. The name of the project: Mobile Suit Gundam Thunderbolt.

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    The story of Thunderbolt is set in UC 0079, the same year as the original Gundam series, during the eponymous One Year War. A war that was fought between the Earth Federation and the principality of Zeon, a collective of colonies that tried to get out from under the iron yoke of Earth. The show focusses specifically on a single battle surrounding the Zeon occupied Thunderbolt sector. Why this sector is so important to both parties is anyone’s guess as it’s nothing more than a ruined colony where no one lives anymore. Yet the soldiers of Zeon have been given orders to defend it at all cost, even if it costs them their lives. While on the other hand, the Earth Federation seems willing to go to any lengths to take it back from Zeon. We follow this battle from the perspective of two mobile suit pilots. First: Io Fleming, a cocky jazz enthusiast who seems perfectly disaffected by the massacre going on around him. And second: Daryll Lorenz, a soldier who’s lost both his legs earlier in the war and has since been assigned to the “living dead division”, a special unit of amputee soldiers whose prosthetics have been outfitted specifically to pilot mobile suits.

    Despite it’s very brief runtime, Matsuo’s anime is a very faithful adaptation of Ohtagaki’s manga. Of course, certain scenes had to be cut but Matsuo managed to retain all the key elements that make the manga what it is, while adding little touches that wouldn’t have worked in the manga format.

    He seems to be a writer/director with a very clear idea about the strengths and shortcomings of the animation format and crafts his script keeping a close eye on those strengths and weaknesses. Creating an adaptation that plays to the strengths of the medium while also showcasing how to do an adaptation that works on a tonal and thematic level. I hadn’t really heard of him before, but this series clearly proves his merit as an anime writer/director and I can’t wait to see what he’ll do next.

    ART AND ANIMATION
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    Visually, Thunderbolt is majorly impressive. The animation isn’t quite as smooth as you usually see in modern movies and ONAs, but it’s still nevertheless miles ahead of TV-animation. Though what really makes this show so visually impressive is the artwork. Eschewing the more outlandish and sometimes downright cartoony designs of earlier Gundams, Thunderbolt presents us with a version of the UC timeline that looks believable and very much grounded in reality. The spaceships and mech suits all have a very realistic design to them that makes them look much less like toys and more like actual war machines. The character designs are very lifelike and highly detailed, a far cry from the “big eyes and pointy chins” style you see in most anime.

    This adherence to realism isn’t just a nice bonus. It’s vital! Thunderbolt conveys most of its story visually. There are no characters monologuing about the horrors of war. We get to see it firsthand. And because this show has such a grounded look to it, it makes the ultra-violent atrocities depicted on screen hit like a punch to the gut.

    SOUND
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    Once again, Matsuo reveals himself to be a true master of his craft. Using music not as a way to set the tone, but rather as an integral part of the story itself. While dialogue is very sparse, music is almost always present in this series. But it never plays over the scenes depicted on screen. It’s part of them. When Io listens to jazz, we hear jazz. When Daryll listens to classic pop songs, we hear that. Music is a vital part of Thunderbolt and is used to convey information to us about the characters and how they experience the war that’s unfolding around them. As much as I do appreciate traditional soundtracks, I wish more shows would try to find ways of using music as a storytelling device.

    The concept of dubs is still hotly disputed so doubtlessly I will lose some of you here, but in my opinion, the English dub for Thunderbolt stands head and shoulders above the Japanese one. Needless to say, the Japanese dub isn’t bad either but the English dub is just so much better. Much like Matsuo himself, Michael Sinterniklaas, the ADR director for Thunderbolt really knew what he was doing and wrote a script that emphasizes all the strengths of the original dialogue while making it more accessible for western audiences which only makes the impact of the show that much greater.

    The cast too had a very firm grasp on the kind of show they were working on. Especially Johnny Yong Bosch, who gives an amazingly understated and nuanced performance as the deeply troubled Daryll Lorenz. I know him mostly from shonen series which require very outgoing and excitable performances, almost to the point of overacting. So his performance in this show really blew me away and made me realize just what a talented and versatile actor he is.

    PERSONAL RECOMMENDATION
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    Mobile Suit Gundam: Thunderbolt is a show that gets everything right, from the confidently written and hard hitting script that accurately adapts the manga it’s based on, to the gorgeous art that really emphasizes the show’s sense of realism, to the ingenious use of music, to the phenomenal dub. It’s a show made by people who knew exactly what they were doing and together made a series that showed just how much potential there is still left in the Gundam franchise and how even in an established franchise you can still craft a story that is completely unique and very powerful. The series does end on a cliffhanger though, but with the second season having already aired its first episode as we speak, that’s kind of a moot point. Gundam Thunderbolt is a series destined to become a cult classic. And with good reason, as it is honestly one of the finest anime I’ve ever had the pleasure of watching. Can’t wait to see more of it.

    9.5/10

    KERBEROS RECOMMENDED

    Age recommendation
    : between the insanely violent content, the complex social criticism, the unconventional storytelling style and its literary trappings, this is a show that you really need to be an adult to fully appreciate.

    Gundam Thunderbolt can be streamed legally and for free over on Gundaminfo or their YouTube channel. Though I am told this might be restricted for some regions. However it can only be streamed in sub so that sucks. However a re-edit of Thunderbolt called December Sky was released on Blu-Ray a while back which does contain a dub though. However it very quickly went out of print. So hopefully the second season will put this show more into the spotlight so it'll get a re-release. Because this show deserves to be picked up.

    RECOMMENDATIONS
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    The first recommendation goes to another Gundam series that has a much grittier and socio critical bend to it which is Mobile Suit Gundam - Iron Blooded Orphans. This show is definitely a bit more mainstream being a tv-anime but if you want to see another Gundam that really focusses on the social inequality and demise of human dignity that war inevitable always brings with, this one will be right up your alley.

    Second recommendation is another show with a heavy emphasis on amputees: Texhnolyze. Fair warning though this is easily one of the darkest and most disturbing series I’ve ever laid eyes on. But if you can handle it’s very messed up plot and themes and you like these kinds of unconventional and shall we say more “artistic” series then this is one I highly recommend.

    Special thanks to @Novaire and @Kuze for proofreading and providing useful feedback.

    Until next time…

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