In the Pocket: Finding the Right Groove in Gundam Thunderbolt's December Sky Movie

A look (and listen) at the music choices used in Gundam Thunderbolt: December Sky. Written in tandem with the review @Kerberos made for the film.
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  1. In the Pocket: Finding the Right Groove in Gundam Thunderbolt's December Sky Movie
    Watch out for the hyperlinked captions to help set the mood.

    In jazz, to play in the pocket means to be in the zone, or in that one sweet spot, where everyone in the band is jiving in perfect harmony. No matter how fast or how hard the beat gets, there’s a point in every gig where all the band members become magically and completely in sync with each other.

    That’s the way it is for the music used in Gundam Thunderbolt: December Sky. Not only is the music used as background fodder to keep the audience from getting bored – it’s used to help tell the story too. More than the sweet dialogue, the slick animation, and the violent imagery, it’s clear that the December Sky film also gets a huge assist from its stellar soundtrack too.

    Let's get lost.

    Io Fleming: Flirting with the Devil
    “I don't know about you, but I will keep on fighting 'till the brink of Hell itself.”

    A brief picture of the Earth Federation’s Io Fleming: your typical cocksure ace, who’s nearly never seen without a feral smile across his face. From throwaway lines muttered by those not really in the thick of the gunfire, we find out he’s born into money. His dad was somebody influential, while his girl is the commander calling the shots out on the field. To anyone else, Fleming’s a guy who’s got it made, and the guy who has his whole life set up for him.

    Therefore, it's quite understandable that he’s attracted the ire of the people he’s supposed to be calling comrades. Throughout the film, we see Fleming interact with only two other people – his childhood friend and his girlfriend – and even then, his relationship with his girl is flimsy at best. He’s an ace, as far as aces go. He’s got the looks to be the most popular guy this side of the galaxy, but he’s also very antisocial. He’s the best pilot in the fleet, but beyond that, nobody else seems very interested in getting to know more about the man.

    Io Fleming’s also a fan of jazz, and he makes no big secret of it. It’s a personality trait he flaunts about with no real amount of shame; even going so far as to give the audience a dramatic spiel about it as soon as the movie starts.

    First known as protest music, jazz was used by the slaves as a way to express themselves during times of great strife. Outsiders who didn't understand the origins of this complicated sound were quick to denounce the resulting noise as the devil’s music. Jazz was frenetic and wild – and because the musicians had no formal training behind them, the music was rarely structured. But by carrying the weight of its suffering people, jazz proved to have the lasting power to continue thriving and surviving, even today.

    These days, jazz has become much more refined and polished, even if it retains much of the disorganized roots that made it so unique in its day. A large part of its appeal lies in how controlled its chaos is, and in the way it encourages individualism and improvisation, while still maintaining cohesion. When jazz musicians get together and jam, they’re each given a moment to shine with their instruments – after this, they fall back into the main melody of the piece.

    Like his music of choice, Fleming is wild, unpredictable and carefree. Even as his comrades get shot all around him, and nearby meteorites are getting blown to smithereens, he finds that the chaotic environment is one he can really jive in. Io Fleming was born to be in a battlefield, and he absolutely revels in this fact.

    Like jazz, Fleming lives in the moment, lives for the moment, and lives in spite of the moment.

    Not your average Bebop.

    Fleming’s a flashy guy and much like his music, he enjoys making a spectacle out of his suffering. He takes his trials and makes light of them constantly, and as we get to know more regarding this side of his, we also begin to see why he is so alienated among his peers.

    Like jazz and the way it likes to live in the present, Fleming has adapted to his problems by resolving to not make a real solution to address them. Instead, he grabs a hold of reality and dances with it, fully determined to finish the number, even if it may cause him death.

    Io Fleming’s a war junkie, even if he can’t put this realization to words just yet. Like jazz, he’s highly volatile, yet fully capable of adapting to the situation at any given moment. He’s uncontrollable and thrives on this doomsday mindset every time he enters the cockpit.

    Unfortunately, it’s a self-destructive kind of energy as well. Even if he may not mind going down with his ship in a fiery blaze, there’s no telling if he knows the consequences his actions will have on those around him.

    Daryl Lorenz: Singing the Blues Away
    "I'm sure that miracles still exist."

    Consider now the opposite of Io Fleming: Daryl Lorenz from the Principality of Zeon. Unlike Fleming, Daryl is a lot more melancholic, brooding and is often seen in deep thought inside his cockpit. This is already a given, since his position as sniper demands that he stay and wait in one spot for long periods of time.

    Despite his aloof nature, Daryl is considerably more popular and an easier guy to get along with than the arrogant Fleming. Unlike his rival from the Earth Federation, Daryl is often seen in the company of a much larger group. He’s a part of the unit called the Living Dead – known as such, because of their artificial limbs. Due to their unique status, it’s not very surprising that everyone in this unit is treated like family by the others. And compared to Fleming, Daryl can at least take pride in the fact that he’s a lot luckier with the ladies.

    Now consider Daryl’s preferred brand of music: schmaltzy pop ballads, made popular by singers who weep all their ways to the banks. No wonder then, that Fleming scoffs at the music and calls Daryl out for having crappy taste.

    Because both men have personalities so far removed from each other, it’s easy to see why Daryl might be so drawn to the appeal of pop songs, while Fleming might not. Unlike jazz, Daryl’s pop tunes don’t welcome much dancing, but instead invite deep introspection.

    With lyrics that are all about the pain of heartbreak or the blooming of first love, pop songs are nearly all the same. But if done right, these same songs will allow you to wallow in the negative feelings of yesterday, while still giving you hope in the brighter promise of tomorrow. By listening to these songs, the audience is encouraged to search for something. At the same time, they’re also fostered with a constant yearning for joy.

    Daryl’s a soldier who’s seen more than his fair share of war, and has ended up paying the price for it. We first see him as a man who’s lost both legs, but has since been given a new lease on life as a member of the Living Dead. He’ll only continue to suffer more pain from here on out, but because Daryl’s no stranger to the heartache, he’s become numb to it all.

    At the same time, he nurtures hope for a miracle – and why shouldn’t he? After all, he’s been remade as something else, because of the latest advances in war technology. Thanks to his mechanical upgrades, Daryl is able to do more than ever before. While you’d expect him to moan about the fact, it might come as a surprise to see that he doesn’t – at least, not outright, and not so explicitly.

    It’s because, by listening to his sad songs, Daryl can comfortably reminisce about his past, while at the same time keep his gaze fixed towards the future. By listening to his songs, he confronts his sadness and dwells in it, even if it means avoiding to find a solution to his woes right away. He despairs but at the same time, he’s hopeful for a miracle. And yet, his contrasting personality makes him relatable, so it isn’t shocking to see why he’s popular with his comrades.

    However, it’s this same back-and-forth between past and future that ensures he’ll never truly live in the present. In the end, Daryl remains stuck and unmoving, even as his hopeful nature takes him far beyond his current state of affairs.

    It’s breaking my heart, but what can I do without you?

    Intergalactic Variations on a Theme
    "He's the type of person who can only truly feel alive when he pushes himself to the limit. So as a result, he's forced to live in the madness of war."

    The real tricky part to all this comes in outlining the common ground both characters stand on. In spite of their wildly differing tastes in music, there are still some things Io Fleming and Daryl Lorenz share in common. In the end, they’re both soldiers fighting the same war, even if they belong on different sides.

    Take it again from their tastes in music – the one thing Fleming’s jazz and Daryl’s ballads have in common is that they’re music that come in reaction to hurt. While jazz chooses to either rejoice or get angry about the fact, ballads choose to get dramatic about it instead. At their core, however, they’re both nearly the same, if only for the reasons why they came to be.

    Both men obviously hate the war they’re fighting, but they also acknowledge that they can’t be anything without it either. Without war, they would not be the men they are today – in the same vein, without suffering, jazz and ballads would not be able to exist.

    Both characters also feel indebted to the conflict, as they’re both allowed to go beyond their limits because of it. In the same way, as long as life continues to give us trials, music will continue to use these for inspiration. Thus, jazz reacts by making light of the moment, while sad songs react by taking the problems apart and singing about them.

    In the end, while their ways of dealing with war differ, Io Fleming and Daryl Lorenz are still inherently the same. It’s a fact that gets touched on towards the movie’s end, where Fleming throws a smirk to confirm it, while Daryl looks on with a mixture of shock and disgust.

    Fleming can throw the past behind him, while Daryl can choose to carry his with him forever – either way, neither can deny their similarities both on and off the battlefield. Thanks to their choices in music, we’re able to see how they both use their suffering as strength to help them see another day.

    It’s in this way that the soundtrack used in Gundam Thunderbolt’s December Sky compilation film transcends its peers. More than just another vehicle to help move the story forward, the music becomes its own character entirely, and ends up spinning a larger story on its own.

    The movie ends in a hurried cliffhanger, where a brief montage sweeps through the last few events leading up to the next big conflict. Currently, the tally between Fleming and Daryl stands at a one-all tie, and as the new season beckons, it’s safe to assume they’ll both be starting again from scratch. Whether they’ll also adopt a change in mentality – or a change in music choices – remains to be seen.

    Parting Shot: This piece comes in tandem with the review already written by @Kerberos. Shout-out to @Kuze and @Narilka for the helpful feedback and improvements.

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