No Utopias: Gerard O’Neill, Gundam, and the Illusion of Space Colonization

Yoshiyuki Tomino dressed simply for the occasion. Known for his ostentatious fashion choices—seriously, the guy’s like a walking Jackson Pollock painting—the famed director decided to keep it low-key, opting for a nondescript blazer and his trademark baseball cap. Amid the crowds of besuited salarymen that frequent the Roppongi Hills Mori Tower, the frumpy Tomino must have stood out as an elevator propelled him up the fifty-four floor skyrise.

Born into the crucible of World War II, Tomino came of age in the rubble of postwar Japan. Growing up in the 1960s, he and his generation had to contend with the legacies of imperial aggression, national defeat, and nuclear apocalypse, traumas that lingered in the popular imagination for decades.1 It’s no surprise then that his body of work resists the urge to intentionally glamorize war, beginning with 1977’s Invincible Super Man Zambot 3, a deceptively simple “super robot” show that forces viewers to confront the tragedies of armed conflict.2

However, it wasn’t until the cancellation and then fortuitous resurrection of Mobile Suit Gundam, which premiered in 1979 but failed to find an audience until the success of the compilation films a couple years later, that these themes began to take root. To its credit, Zambot does an exceptional job deconstructing genre tropes. However, there’s dissonance between its more grounded critique and the elevated zaniness of its aesthetic, compounded by notoriously slipshod animation. And while Gundam features its fair share of genre staples, including some epic toyetic transformation sequences, it shifts the focus from the “pilot-hero to a wider view,” as Trish Ledoux points out.3 Gundam takes into account the power structures that instigate these battles, which makes for a more well-rounded and compelling show.

The original Gundam series envisions a future in which humans have surpassed terrestrial limitations and begun to colonize space. Diplomatic tensions soon erupt between the Earth Federation and the Principality of Zeon, a group of militant Spacenoids. Fully mobilized, the two sides deploy mobile suits—giant mechs—as the conflict expands at an ever-increasing and horrifically tragic rate.

Ding. The elevator door opened. Tomino proceeded to the stage he was to share with Harutoshi Fukui, the writer of Gundam Unicorn, and Jun Fukue, an astronomy professor. The purpose of this talk, which was called an “Introduction to Gundam Astronomy,”4 was to discuss the possibility of space colonization as portrayed in the Gundam series.

Unfortunately for the organizers of this event, who probably wanted the evening to be more ceremonial than not—i.e. lots of socializing, stargazing, and drink-swilling—things didn’t go quite as planned. When asked a question about the potential for space colonization, Tomino curtly replied, “the world of Gundam is unrealistic.”

Silence filled the room. Fukui, clearly bothered by Tomino’s brusque answer, probed further: “Then, you don’t like the world of Gundam?”

“It’s just an anime.”

His comments instigated a minor firestorm in enthusiast circles back in 2010. Fans took to message boards and social media to condemn the 68-year Tomino for lambasting the “brand” and diminishing his—or really, their—life’s work. But the online vitriol couldn’t be further from the truth. Tomino’s skepticism of space colonization remains an integral part of Gundam, a major concern of the series since the beginning.

Perhaps no Gundam series better embodies this argument than Mobile Suit Gundam 0080: War in the Pocket, a six-episode OVA timed to celebrate the series’ tenth anniversary. But rather than taking a victory lap, War in the Pocket double downs on Tomino’s original critique. By highlighting the cycles of violence that would need to exist to support and build these massive space installations, War in the Pocket shows the colonial dream for what it is: a destructive illusion.

Inside an O’Neill cylinder colony.

The High Frontier

Despite Tomino’s hard-edged personality, he’s always been open about his creative process. “The space colony concept and Star Wars were very much an influence on me,” he remarked in a 1993 interview. “In fact, you could say they’re the basis for the whole Gundam drama.”5 Whether purposeful or not, those two namedrops are significant; in a way, they define an era. Star Wars came out at the perfect time. In the aftermath of the Vietnam War cultural trends were shifting dramatically, which could readily be seen in Hollywood. Filmgoing audiences were no longer interested in morally ambiguous anti-heroes and cynical stories of revenge, the likes of which dominated theaters for decades. “Star Wars lifted us out of our depression of the ‘70s,” Walter Cronkite recalled, “and into an awareness and focus on space and its possible future.” As diplomatic tensions began to ease between the United States and the Soviet Union, there was renewed interest in space and the potential for a more prosperous tomorrow.

Gerard O’Neill was at the forefront of this movement. A devout futurist and tenured Princeton professor, O’Neill believed that space colonization was the key to solving the many social and environmental issues that threaten life on Earth. Energy consumption, ecological degradation, overpopulation, such theoretical bugbears could be combatted and conquered by building space settlements, or so O’Neill argued. He made his case in The High Frontier: Human Colonies in Space, his landmark first book, which was published in 1976. It garnered enormous attention both at home and abroad.

But these developments weren’t relegated to the halls of academia, where idealistic physicists debated the abstractions of extraterrestrial living—no. In fact, tangible gains were being made in the late ‘70s and ‘80s that were to have more lasting and global implications.

The Apollo 17 crew returned to Earth on December 19, 1972, which marked the last time a human stepped foot on the Moon. That same year, despite increased pressure from the Nixon administration to cut the federal budget, NASA embarked on their next endeavor: the Space Shuttle. While its inaugural flight wouldn’t happen until nearly a decade later, it generated enormous international excitement, which in turn helped jumpstart Japan’s fledgling space program.

O’Neill cylinder colonies as envisioned in The High Frontier.

Japan was still recovering from World War II during the ‘60s and early ‘70s. “In those days,” Hirotaka Watanabe, a space policy specialist at Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, notes, “Japan lacked a long-term, comprehensive vision for its space activities”6. Its economic and diplomatic position wasn’t secure or robust enough to build the infrastructure necessary for manned space flight. However, this all changed when NASA invited Japan to participate in the Space Shuttle program. Charged with a sense of purpose, the Space Activities Commission (SAC) got to work “formulating its long-range space policy,” which emphasized both national autonomy and international cooperation.

By the 1980s, buoyed by an ascendent economy, Japan embarked on a two-prong approach to space development. Not only did it want “to acquire its independent access to space, but also to participate in the U.S. Space Station program to promote international space cooperation”. Years of preparation eventually bore fruit. Mohri Mamoru, Japan’s first astronaut, broke through Earth’s gravity on September 12, 1992, as a crewmember of the 50th Space Shuttle mission.7 Two years later the H-II, Japan’s first domestic rocket, launched into space, proving that the island nation was no longer earthbound.

Meanwhile, these astronautical leaps were making cultural impressions.8 The possibilities of space colonization captured the imagination of artists, whose enthusiasm matched the public’s. Two years after the release of The High Frontier, Taku Mayumura’s Shometsu no Korin, “a revealing socio-politico-economic description of a space colony,” hit bookshelves. It was an immediate success, winning the coveted Kyoka-Award in 1979. At the same time chapters of local science fiction clubs were proliferating across Japan. Yasuhiro Takeda, one of the founding members of the animation studio Gainax, remembers the fervor in the fandom surrounding those first space flights. Writing about his time as a convention organizer, Takeda recalled that he used “the rocket liftoff scene from the Apollo 11 documentary film” to kick off the opening ceremonies. Truly, all eyes were pointed skyward.

And of course, there was Gundam

An O’Neill cylinder colony from War in the Pocket.

Islands in Space

Japan’s aerospace sector wasn’t the only industry to prosper during the ‘80s; the home video market was booming in conjunction with the healthy economy. Sunrise, the stewards of the Gundam franchise, wanted to leverage their intellectual properties to tap into this budding market. Thus, they commissioned the series’ first OVA to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the original Mobile Suit Gundam.

Mobile Suit Gundam 0080: War in the Pocket was the first Gundam animated side story to take place during the One Year War. Notably, it was directed by Fumihiko Takayama, not Yoshiyuki Tomino (even though he gave the team his blessing). The straight-to-video market skewed to an older, more adult demographic, which was probably the best thing for the project. The increased budget allowed the team to lovingly recreate and update the aesthetics of the original show without compromise. Along with its deliberate pacing and more mature writing, War in the Pocket arguably remains the most accessible vision of Tomino’s concept.

The similarities between War in the Pocket and The New Frontier are startling—clearly, it was a source of inspiration. War in the Pocket takes place predominantly on Side 6, a neutral space colony that refuses to open diplomatic relations with either the Federation or Zeon. In designing Side 6 the animators followed O’Neill’s conceptual framework of a “rotating cylinder in space” to the letter. The titanium-plated habitat is “at least as large as twelve miles in diameter, with a land area of several hundred square miles” and, based on the bustling urban environments on display, can provide living space for tens of thousands of people.

Inside of Side 6 from War in the Pocket.

Such a large population would necessitate massive energy reserves and ample food stocks, concerns that both O’Neill and the team at Sunrise address. The former proposes that colonies would have to be equipped with paraboloidal mirrors to “collect sunlight” as a nearly limitless source of artificial energy. Astute viewers might remember a similar arrangement of “lightweight, inexpensive mirrors” that surround the colony. Once harnessed, this energy would make sure that “fresh vegetables and fruit are in season all the time.” Without the threat of devastating climate change, crops would presumably flourish. True, characters do grumble about supply ships being delayed. But no one’s starving. Even in wartime, Side 6 is largely self-sufficient.

Furthermore, O’Neill imagines an environment dominated by greenery. He argues that these colonies “should have grass, trees, and flowers,” all of which appear in abundance in Side 6. The pollutants that routinely contaminate the Earth, such as CO2 emissions and toxic waste, wouldn’t have a reason to exist in these space habitats. Sunlight would provide “all the energy that industry would ever need,” eliminating the need for fossil fuel. O’Neill boldly asserts that there “will be no cars and no smog: travel will be on foot or on bicycles.” And while War in the Pocket doesn’t go as so far to abolish automobiles, it does provide a logical fix: electric cars. Clearly, the animators did their homework.

In comparison, War in the Pocket applies more analytic pressure and scrutinizes the potential of space colonization far more than did its most public promoter.

There are no Utopias

At multiple points in The High Frontier O’Neill admits that he “offer[s] no Utopias,” arguing that his ideal society is both attainable and realistic. If work were undertaken immediately, O’Neill predicts, the first colony—which he calls “Island One”—could be operational within “fifteen to twenty years.” But the Princeton physicist, blinded by the sheer potential of his vision, failed to realize the gross inequities that such a project would require and perpetuate. That interrogatory labor would fall on artists like Tomino and Takayama, who took inspiration from O’Neill but questioned the validity of his dream.

“Tomino took O’Neill’s concept of a near-future society one step further,” writes Renato Rivera Rusca, a Tokyo-based university lecturer, “by acknowledging that conflict would arise.”9 As Rusca points out, Tomino’s team was hampered by market forces and the expectations of corporate sponsors, who pushed the show in a more toyetic direction. It wouldn’t be until nearly a decade later when the franchise was in a secure enough position, both critically and commercially, that Sunrise greenlit War in the Pocket, an experimental OVA that would sharpen Tomino’s anti-colonial critique.

War in the Pocket follows Alfred Izuruha, an eleven-year-old boy who lives on Side 6. “Al,” as his friends call him, leads a typical adolescent existence: he cares more about his hobbies than school, he enjoys goofing off with his friends, but most importantly, he romanticizes the destructive instruments of war and valorizes combat. Over the course of the six episodes, Al’s naive enthusiasm turns to cynical despair as the horrors of war are made tragically apparent.

Throughout his life, O’Neill remained bullish on the pacifistic potential of space. In The High Frontier, he writes that “space habitats will seem rather unpromising as sites for weapons or military bases.” He believed that entrepreneurial spirit and cross-cultural exchange would eliminate the need for war, which reads today (and honestly, back then, too) as woefully ignorant. War in the Pocket addresses this contradiction directly, using it as an important plot conceit.

Side 6, despite refusing publicly to ally itself with either the colonial separatists or the Earth Federation, has cut a deal with the latter in secret. As Al soon discovers, his government has agreed to house the Federation’s latest prototype, the RX-78NT-1 Gundam, codenamed “Alex.” This subterfuge instigates a battle that devastates the colony. To destroy the prototype, Zeon high command sends a crack team of commandos to infiltrate the colony. And while they fail, they cause an enormous amount of collateral damage.

In addition to satisfying audience expectations, the climax of War in the Pocket does crucial thematic labor. It reveals that despite idealistic visions, colonization entails conflict, coercion, and class stratification. O’Neill doesn’t argue for a radical overhaul of the system—he doesn’t even attempt to imagine a post-scarcity or emancipated future. What he proposes is capitalism in space, with all the structural oppression that entails. He stresses that the only way these colonies could be built is through economic and national self-interest, no different than today.

Most glaringly, O’Neill fails to address the violence and exploitation that such a massive undertaking would require. He argues that the frontier people of the future would generate wealth by mining the natural resources of the moon and supplying the Earth with energy captured from the sun. However, he doesn’t consider the brutal competition that would result from this “exponential growth.” Both national and corporate bodies would use military force to protect their investments and make the workforce more malleable to their demands. Imagining otherwise is folly.

War in the Pocket fills in these gaps with a more critical lens. Side 6 is no paradise, at least not the sort envisioned by O’Neill. Unemployment, material shortages, and wealth disparity still govern life in the colony. The battle that breaks out between Zeon and Federation forces exists both on a literal and figurative level. It suggests that violence is endemic to the colonial project. The superficial beauty of these suburban environments masks the struggles of their creation. By drawing our attention to the immediate consequences of war, War in the Pocket reminds us to think about the bloodshed that preceded it.

Unlike O’Neill, Al comes to some sober conclusions. He loses his fervent fascination with war and mourns the loss of his idyllic youth. Maybe Tomino’s decision to dress so uncharacteristically plain that one March day held a deeper meaning. Perhaps he was signaling that we shouldn’t place our hopes for a better tomorrow in outlandish dreams. Instead of looking to the sky, we should cherish what we have here.

Support us on Patreon!

Contributor articles like this are supported in part by our readers. If you enjoyed this content, please consider supporting Zimmerit on Patreon.


  1. On the 75th Anniversary of V-J Day, Tomino spoke out against the growing aestheticization of WWII by younger generations. He worries that the memory of the war is becoming hyper-commodified and distorted. Many resources analyzing Mobile Suit Gundam and Tomino’s other works in relationship to World War II remain untranslated, such as Doitsu Suzuki’s Gandamu to dainiji sekai taisen [Gundam and World War II], which was published in 2003.
  2. The “Gundam isn’t anti-war” take has been going around social media recently, and it’s an assessment I largely agree with. True, Gundam doesn’t shy away from exposing the horrors of war; however, it still encourages active resistance against oppressive power structures despite potential loss of life. The “war is bad” meme as a blanket statement pertaining to Gundam is reductive. Rather, Mobile Suit Gundam and the rest of the UC timeline generally seeks to challenge the romanticization of war and criticize the rampant militarization that fuels such conflicts. However, I don’t believe an “anti-war” position is necessarily the same as a “pacifistic” one, which is a line that Gundam, especially War in the Pocket, walks.
  3. Anime Interviews: The First Five Years of Animerica, Anime & Manga Monthly
  4. I am indebted to Ngee Khiong, who translated a first-hand account of this event from Walker Plus News on his blog in 2010.
  5. Anime Interviews: The First Five Years of Animerica, Anime & Manga Monthly
  6. “Japan’s Participation in the U.S. Space Shuttle Program: Achievements and Lessons in Space Policy,” Osaka University Law Review
  7. The first astronaut of Japanese descent to enter space was Toyohiro Akiyama, who was trained in the Soviet Union. Mamoru, however, was part of the official Japanese space program and trained in Japan.
  8. Renato Rivera Rusca wrote an excellent paper called “Astrosociology and Japanese Youth,” in which he discusses the ways space flight and space colonization exist in the popular imagination, specifically in relation to Japan’s younger generation. Of note, he highlights a presentation Tomino gave to a group of undergraduates in 2013. His remarks were “very critical of NASA, JAXA and such organizations, casting doubts on the feasibility of ideas for further space exploration, resource mining and other activities.”
  9. Introducing Japanese Popular Culture