Screen & Page: Inside Operation Meteor With ‘Gundam Wing’ [Sci-Fi Week]
Most anime is adapted from manga, often produced by the manga publisher to raise awareness and sell it overseas. But what about the anime shows or films that go the other way, adapted from the screen to the page? How do those works hold up, and what changes or stays the same? That’s what Screen & Page aims to explore.
It's Sci-Fi Week here on ComicsAlliance, and while there are eleventy-billion things I could have written about, today I'm tackling a childhood favorite of mine, and the show that brought the world's oldest "Real Robot" franchise to the West: Mobile Suit Gundam Wing!
The sixth entry in the Gundam franchise --- which began with 1979's Mobile Suit Gundam --- Gundam Wing originally aired from 1995-1996 in Japan. While it found modest success in Japan, Wing exploded in the United States when it was broadcast on Toonami daily for several months in 2000 and was responsible for bringing wider Western attention to Japan's premier sci-fi franchise.
It's easy to see why Wing --- written by Katsuyuki Sumizawa, directed by Masashi Ikeda & Shinji Takamatsu, and animated by Sunrise --- took off. Over its 49 episodes and direct-to-video sequel, Endless Waltz, the show is both high melodrama and a sincere anti-war meditation that examines all sides.
Taking place in the year After Colony 195 --- that is, 195 years after habitable space colonies were first established --- the show opens with Earth and the colonies in a tense state. The nations of the world have united under the banner of the United Earth Sphere Alliance which, with its oppressive military might and armada of Mobile Suit mechas, rules the colonies with an iron fist.
In an effort to strike back against the Alliance and the secret paramilitary organization OZ (Organization of the Zodiac), five rogue scientists recruit teenage soldiers and, independently of each other, send them down to Earth disguised as shooting stars and in charge of highly advanced Mobile Suits called Gundams in Operation Meteor.
The five pilots --- the amoral, taciturn Herro Yuy, the jokey Duo Maxwell, the stoic Trowa Barton, the sweet baby angel and dedicated leader Quatre Winner, and the aloof, misogynistic Chang Wufei --- each undertake several missions to cripple both OZ and the Alliance. Meanwhile, OZ's leader, Col. Treize Khushrenada, his scarily devoted aide, Lady Une, and his top soldier, the masked, dashing Zechs Merquise, carry out their own plans to overthrow the Alliance and promote total peace through waging war.
With a varied cast, a knack for balancing action and drama, and a dedication to making sure all its characters viewpoints are fleshed out, Wing is a triumph of "real robot" storytelling. If you've never heard that phrase, basically it's the opposite of "super robot": none of the Gundams are sentient or have any role outside of being war machines. That said, Ikeda, Takamatsu and Sunrise's animation team do a stellar job at making the Gundams' actions in battle mirror the personalities of their pilots.
The series is, of course, dated in some respects. Kow Otani's music, with its memorable themes and stirring melodies, gets a bit repetitive, and it's hard not to laugh when you see characters intently downloading important files onto floppy discs. But the biggest offender is how the show's central female character, Relena Darlian --- inexplicably presented as Heero's love interest, despite him threatening to kill her when they first meet. She's pretty much useless for the first half of the series, although she does become crucial to things later on.
Still though, Wing is an addictive, entertaining show, and this rewatch convinced me that it really is one of the five shows that heralded in the anime boom of the '90s-'00s (it and Digimon were the cult favorites, while Dragon Ball Z, Pokemon and Sailor Moon were the blockbusters). Newly available on DVD after a decade out of print, the show is very much worth your time, not only if you're a Gundam fan, but also if you like good sci-fi storytelling that spans cultures.
Like all Gundam shows, Wing had manga adaptations of its episodes as well as Endless Waltz. Illustrated by Koichi Tokita, the Wing manga was actually published in American comic book form by Tokyopop back in the day; it was actually among the first comics I ever bought.
Tokyopop also published Tokita and writer Katsuhiko Chiba's Battlefield of Pacifists, a story bridging the gap between Wing and Endless Waltz involving the five pilots reuniting to take down a threat disguised as a pacifist organization. Tokita does a good job and the story moves fast, but the art is a bit stiff.
Viz --- still going by Viz Comics rather than Viz Media --- published two other Wing manga that take place between the series and Waltz, with only Pacifists said to be the definitive one: Blind Target by Akemi Omode and Sakura Asagi, which detailed the Gundam pilots reuniting to prevent a coup d'etat against the new government formed at the end of the series, and Ground Zero by Reku Fuyunaga, which sees the Gundam pilots head to a deserted colony after learning by email that all their Gundams have been stolen.
Viz also published Episode Zero, written by Sumizawa and drawn by Akira Kanbe, a prequel that explored the backstories and circumstances of each of the pilots before Operation Meteor, as well as showing Treize and Zechs beginning to carry out their plans. While the other manga aren't necessarily considered in continuity, being written by the series writer puts Zero in a more canon-worthy position. The collected edition also includes "Preventer 5," a story set post-Waltz involving Relena being taken hostage that ends on a tense cliffhanger.
Of all of these, Zero is easily the best reading experience in and of itself. It perfectly apes the aesthetic of the show, and is true to the characters, but is well constructed in its own right. It also drives home just how damaged each of these pilots really is, particularly Heero, who's done some horrible things, and Quatre, who has severe self-confidence issues stemming from the fact that he was a test tube baby.
Available pretty cheaply, Zero is well worth seeking out if you're a fan. The other stories are all enjoyable in their own way, and they each help flesh out the world of an already compelling, enjoyable show.
Gundam Wing is available on DVD & Blu-Ray from Right Stuf Anime. The various mangas are available digitally and in print from a variety of retailers and from your local library.
Learn About Another Great Giant Robot Series, Voltron!