Spoiler Warning for the complete series and movies for Mobile Suit Gundam, Zeta, & Space Runaway Ideon
“Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam,” the 1985 sequel series to “Mobile Suit Gundam,” is notoriously bleak. The series strikes a much darker tone than the original, removing a lot of the ancillary comedic elements in favor of a more serious war series. The protagonist Kamille Bidan is a good encapsulation of Zeta’s change; he’s headstrong and way more aggressive than Amuro Ray. Zeta opens with him running away from school and immediately getting into a fight with army officers (including all time great shithead and Kamille’s series rival, Jerid Mesa). Kamille has a cantankerous relationship with his parents, specifically his engineer dad who we come to find is not only a leading Earth Federation worker but also a misogynistic adulterer. In the span of 5 episodes, Kamille steals the Gundam Mark II mobile suit from the Titan’s (the even more fascistic wing of the Earth Federation that essentially abuses power without repercussions) and runs away to the resistance group AEUG, only to have his mother killed in front of him (“accidentally” by Jerid) and later his dad (fleeing the AEUG to try to get back to his mistress, truly an all time bad dad). It’s a lot to take in and that’s even before the series starts to reckon with the political ramifications of the original series and the various failings of its two main leads. Zeta also has no compunction of killing its characters and its treatment of women is frequently awful. That’s not to say this isn’t a truly great series that earns a lot of its tragedy but Zeta does come with a lot of warning flags and a bit of whiplash immediately following Mobile Suit Gundam.
Unsurprisingly, Zeta ends on a big down note. The series factions come to a head over two dark episodes, where just about all of the characters meet an untimely end. It stands in dark contrast to Mobile Suit Gundam’s “the characters are all Newtypes now” ending, eschewing shared humanity for a darker exploration of sacrifice. I’m not opposed to a challenging ending but I found it less engaging than one of Tomino’s other works; “Space Runaway Ideon”. Ideon, the series Tomino followed up the original Gundam with, is a show that can be similarly dark telling a story of a group of people stuck in an endless battle trying to keep large institutional powers from acquiring a devastating weapon (one of my all time favorite shows now and I wrote about it last year). Ideon’s main series ends semi abruptly (it was canceled) with humanity being wiped out except for two babies. The 1982 movie follow up, “Be Invoked,” greatly expands upon the ending fleshing out the final battle between the Buff Clan and Solo Ship. Both Ideon and Zeta’s endings cover similar ground, but I find Ideon much more resonant and thematically consistent than its Gundam counterpart. It’s the way Ideon explores death that really sets it apart.
The last two episodes of Zeta culminate in all three factions battling it out; our heroes in the AEUG, the ailing Titans and the ascending Axis (formed from the remnants of Zeon). The large-scale fight results in the aforementioned body count including the majority of the main cast. Zeta has a number of “doomed women” and the show’s rough gender dynamics culminate in back to back vignettes. Reccoa finally meets her doom on the other side of Emma’s gun punishment for defecting because she was entranced by Scirocco. Emma is then hit while piloting the Super Gundam which leads to her sustaining mortal wounds. After being pulled out of her suit, she speaks to Kamille about the power of the Zeta Gundam and passes on her life force. It’s a disappointing end for both women, who started out the show as strong individuals. To see them offered up as fodder for the special boy removes some of that core individuality. But the most shocking of death all isn’t a woman; Katz is unceremoniously destroyed when he accidentally crashes directly into an asteroid. All of these deaths plus the previous passing of Four and Sarah become significant, as the souls of these characters join Kamille to defeat Scirocco. The women and Katz allow Kamille to become the ultimate psychic gun to defeat the Titans. It’s a hollow victory as Kamille is left catatonic and his mind seems to be wiped clean. He’s calm and childlike as the Zeta cockpit transforms for him into a white liminal space.
Gundam themes are often summarized as “war as hell” but are really much deeper. Zeta asks us to reckon with how political structures change in the aftermath of war and how passivity enables new, more fascistic regimes to subsume the old ones. Zeta also interrogates the cost of individual inaction; characters like Amuro stood aside and let the fascists take his place. Other people like Char failed to take a leadership role to fill the Zeon vacuum in the space colonies. What does this all lead to? The fascistic Titan regime on earth and the new Axis of Zeon repeating and creating new steps that harm people in their quests for power. Zeta stresses the need to continue fighting and that acquiescing to political structures leads to the same tragedies. And it all leads to others getting hurt, especially the women serving alongside. Zeta seems to say that these casualties are part of the machine to create the perfect weapon, in this case Kamille. The series highlights the roles these individuals play by showing how insignificant they actually are. What matters is Kamille and the Zeta Gundam and they were fodder for the psychic gun. In many ways the conflict is inevitable and the best we can hope for is a cause to rally behind.
Ideon takes a different tact in relating individuals to weapons of war. It’s viewpoint on destruction is also more spiritual; while Gundam often includes spirituality it doesn’t fully explore it in the way that Be Invoked does. Newtypes having a sixth sense and communing with the dead is one thing, but the “power of Ide” and our direct vision of the afterlife is much more overt. As I mentioned earlier, Be Invoked and Space Runaway Ideon as a whole can be pretty bleak. The story pertains to a group of space colonists from earth who accidentally stumble upon an ancient technological power; an interstellar spaceship (Solo Ship) and three vehicles that can form together to create a giant robot, the Ideon. They are forced to board these vehicles after aliens from the planet Buff attack them, the Buff believing that the colonists attacked one of their princesses, Karala (who incidentally is just fine and with the earthers). Before too long the colonists push back the Buff Clan and escape into space, finding that they are constantly pursued by the Buff army. The Buff soon starts to consider that these vehicles represent the mythologized “Ide”, an unlimited source of energy. The Ideon proves time and again just how powerful it is and over time begins to develop even more destructive powers.
The series is essentially about how these colonists stay alive and keep the most destructive power in the universe out of the wrong hands. They’re constantly on the run as the show depicts how large ideological organizations misuse power and how their militaristic goals make them inherently untrustworthy. But the show is also concerned with how these same ideologies trap people into performing violent actions. There’s a strong feeling of “if they could only talk this out they wouldn’t fight!” running through this show but the Buff Clan’s warlike culture prevents them from ever having a productive or humanist conversation. The Buff Clan’s has a militaristic (also referenced as “samurai”) social hierarchy which rewards people based on military accomplishments. The Solo Ship acquiescing to them would mean handing a nuke over to an imperialistic force and the Buff would never back down from the perceived threat that the colonists possessed. And the colonists’ own home planet can’t be trusted; who knew the cultures between Buff and Earth would be so alike?
All of this fighting comes to a head in the final episode and movie where the power of Ide is invoked and all human life is extinguished from the universe, save for Lou Piper (baby on the Solo ship) and the unborn baby of Karala. Be Invoked expands the ending by depicting a larger final confrontation stretched out over 90 minutes. Be Invoked is often compared to End of Evangelion, which is fair for multiple reasons. First, it essentially replaces the original tv series ending. Second, both movies have a huge bloodbath as we watch as all of our main characters meet untimely ends. Both films culminate in an unknowable power being invoked but the two couldn’t be more different in their thematic intention. Both are hopeful, but Be Invoked finds hope in shared humanity where Eva finds hurt worth shouldering through.
Be Invoked immediately jumps into the final battle between the Buff Clan and Solo Ship. The movie starts with the Buff Clan finally getting the Solo Ship on the ropes with their vastly larger space force. As the circumstances become more dire, the Ideon’s destructive power starts to increase. Both sides receive word that meteors have struck all their planets and colonies completely destroying their corresponding civilizations. The Buff Clan doubles down on the attack, sending an infiltration group including Kirala’s sister Harulu to board the Solo Ship. Harulu kills Kirala and her unborn child Messiah before being taken down herself. The Buff Clans boarding party opens the floodgates and waves of soldiers swarm the ship. One by one, our protagonists are struck down. The leader of the Buff, Doba, continues to order the attack even in the face of unspeakable destruction. The Buff Clan soldiers eventually execute him to stop the attack but it’s too late as the Ideon wipes them out. The power of Ide is invoked as all life is extinguished.
Instead of ending there the final moments of Be Invoked are spent in the afterlife. We see both Buff Clan and Solo Ship characters awaken and rejoice finding themselves free of the weight they carried in the living world. No more are they forced to fight, forced into situations designated by their civilization. Sisters Karala and Harulu no longer have to fight; the former being the deserter and the latter being the military leader hunting her down. There’s none of the baggage carried over and their spirits can once again connect on an unencumbered level. Ideon knows that these conflicts don’t take place in a vacuum; there’s important structures that force them into existence. When they lived, the Buff Clan could never let a powerful weapon be obtained by a different faction as it would threaten their vast empire. In death this no longer matters. The souls eventually fly off together to a new planet hoping to try again.
I much prefer the Ideon’s depiction of relating human lives to destructive weaponry. The Ideon is uncontrollable even though humans try their best to. It’s mutually assured destruction and it eventually led to the end of all civilization. The show Ideon understands the ways in which ideology and society traps people and forces their actions. But it’s in its depiction of the afterlife we get the bittersweet message, how we’re not so different and how we’re all connected. We’re trapped now but on a metaphysical level we’re the same. Zeta’s more cynical ending doesn’t quite land the same for me. The psychic gun instead stands in for the destruction of war, the bodies piled up in the conflict. The protagonist wins, but at an immense cost to our crew. These characters are too trapped by their roles but Zeta’s more cynical worldview highlights the sacrifices over metaphysical exploration. It’s narrower focus is concerned with the immense cost of conflict. Ideon takes that one step further, interrogating the root causes of war amid the obvious connective tissue between people. Both understand why different cultures don’t understand one another and the polarization that power brings, but Ideon digs into the connections that are missed in conflict. Maybe it’s that Zeta was already part of a burgeoning series; ZZ Gundam began airing immediately after and continues the story (I’m currently watching, but still in the early goings). Ideon, with its definitive finale, grasps stronger thematic concepts that elude its Gundam successor.