Towards a Historiography of Gundam’s One Year War

“A spectre is haunting the Earth Sphere – the spectre of Contolism.”

Gundam may very well be one of the most chaotically managed major media franchises in the world (ranked 15th by revenue according to Wikipedia). Unlike Marvel Comics, which operate independently from Marvel Studios movies, which are different from Marvel video games, all Gundam works across all media reference and interact with each other. The story of the Universal Century is told through anime, manga, novels, audio dramas, video games, and unique supplemental materials. Yet where Marvel happily utilizes the fan obsession with canon to its advantage (calling back to old plot hooks, resolving contradictions through retcons, and including easter eggs to reward close reading), Gundam has no such interest. In fact, Gundam could be considered reader-hostile, considering the lengths it makes fans go to in order to reach its stories.

Take the case of Cima Garahau, a character first introduced in Mobile Suit Gundam 0083: Stardust Memory. Cima has a detailed backstory that fills in a major gap in Universal Century history (the gassing of Side 5 by Zeon in the early days of the One Year War), yet her background is only hinted at in Stardust Memory. To get the full story, a Cima fan can either listen to the radio drama Mayfly of Space, or watch the anime adaptations (one from 1993 from the DVD extras or the sequel animation from 2016 from the BluRay extras). They can also choose to play the 2003 PlayStation 2 game Encounters in Space which features her history as an “Ace Pilot Episode.”

Being a fan of Gundam is not very distinct from being a historian. Both occupations require the exhaustive hunt for sources, which may not be easily available online. They may have never been translated into English (I’m still waiting for someone to get around to Char Aznable Biography: Locus of a Red Comet) or compiled into easily purchasable volumes. If you have a question about the Universal Century, your answer is just as likely to lie in one of the mainline anime series as it is in the Anaheim Journal, a one-time physical magazine produced to resemble a trade journal put out by Anaheim Electronics. For western fans looking back on just over 40 years of content, all of Gundam accumulates into a catastrophic mass, as if Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History were replaced by the Wing Gundam Zero Endless Waltz ver.

Children play on a destroyed MS-06FZ Zaku II. From M.S. ERA 0099.

Benjamin warned against historical materialism’s tendency to narrativize, to order history into a straight line of progress, inevitably terminating in revolution. Gundam fans often seek to replicate this progress, ending not in Communist utopia but instead in a single, monolithic canon, where all of Gundam falls into line behind a coherent, unimpeachable narrative. This endeavor always fails, as no one can quite agree what Gundam canon is supposed to look like – Sunrise has no interest in clarifying the situation even around such basic issues as when the Universal Century begins. As a result, Gundam fan discourse devolves into endless arguing over which series are canon, and which are non-canon and therefore “alternate universes.” At its worst, this arguing means telling new Gundam fans not to watch Thunderbolt because it’s “not actually part of the Universal Century” (more on this later).

For fans of major Western media franchises, this response is perfectly natural. The construction of elaborate timelines and canons to support the enjoyment of your favorite series is a time-honored tradition. Fans of X-Men comics can find multiple meticulous reading lists, breaking down the order of comics to read down to every single issue so that you can properly enjoy the story.1 Western media companies tend to pay more attention to questions of canon (in Western superhero comics, a carefully applied retcon has become something of an art). When Disney acquired Star Wars and began to create new movies (and later books, games, and shows), they officially declared all the old Expanded Universe content non-canon, so as to allow themselves a clean slate. Fans in Japan do not have the same fixation on story logic, and Sunrise simply does not care about creating a definitive canon. As a result, Western fans are left attempting to apply their typical methodology (which usually is directly supported by series creators) to a series built without a concept of canon (whose creators couldn’t care less).

A more productive way to approach the mess of Gundam continuity would be as a historian. Think of each Gundam product (be it book, movie, anime, manga, and so on) as another primary source, telling the history of the Universal Century. And one of the most important things to remember about primary sources is that they are often wrong, and occasionally completely nonsensical. There are lots of reasons that you can’t take a historical document as fact. Sometimes, the author simply didn’t know something, or they reported a rumor as fact, or they’re lying to make themselves look better, or they have a crippling internal bias, or actually you’ve been reading something never meant to be taken as reality (this mistake happens way, way more often than you might think).

Even flawed sources have great value to historians. They can tell us about the culture and attitudes of a biased author, point us in the direction of more places to look, and corroborate stories and facts from other sources. The pamphlets distributed by judges in witch trials in England, such as the one written by Brian Darcy in St. Osyth following his trials in 1582 (ironically titled A True and Juste Recorde), provide an excellent example. Darcy’s document provides no information on “actual” witchcraft, that is, the practice of folk magic (a vanishingly rare occurrence in England to begin with). Its accusations rely on unsubstantiated gossip, confessions secured under torture, and the surely reliable testimony of an 8-year old. What Darcy’s pamphlet does tell us is a shocking amount about small village politics in 16th century England, and the ways outbreaks of witchcraft could elevate the career of a minor justice.

This same examinatory method can be applied to Mobile Suit Gundam Thunderbolt, by Yasuo Ohtagaki. Thunderbolt attracts perhaps the most attention in the canon discussion of the Universal Century because of its popularity (in both manga and anime forms) and the more obvious ways it flaunts established norms of mobile suit design. In Thunderbolt, the Federation and Zeon do battle with mobile suits far beyond the ken of their 0079-contemporaries that appear in the original Mobile Suit Gundam. This, for a large number of people, provides sufficient evidence of the entire series non-canonicity (and thus, proves it can be easily discarded on the whole).2 Even for mobile suit design hardliners, throwing the Thunderbolt out with the bathwater is excessive. Thunderbolt also reveals details of the conflict around Side 4 in the One Year War, and the activities of Zeon Remnants on Earth prior to Stardust Memory, two notable gaps in the franchise. Though elements of the series are contradictory to other parts of the franchise, it provides a wider context for the Universal Century – imagine that the author of Thunderbolt was an expert on Side 4, but exaggerated the capabilities of the Psycho Zaku for the purposes of pro-Zeon aggrandization.

Yasuo Ohtagaki’s Gundam Thunderbolt

Such an approach may seem useless since Gundam is a work of fiction and not a historical source, but the series itself supports such a reading. Gundam media often titles itself after historical themes, like Record of MS Wars, Anaheim Laboratory Log, and the aforementioned Char Aznable Biography. Even titles like Char’s Deleted Affair imply a secret history of a famous figure, like the 13th-century work The Secret History of the Mongols. Beyond aesthetic similarities, the Universal Century is constructed around the developing history of a major dialectic conflict: contolism. Zeon Zum Deikun’s theory of contolism, the right of spacenoids to self-determination, and the simultaneously mythical yet despised status it attributes to Earth underpins all major conflicts in the Universal Century.3 The evolution of contolism, expressed specifically in the emergence and re-emergence of Zeon throughout the Universal Century, has guided the direction of the franchise. Gundam does not lack for recurring characters, or character-driven stories, but the linking element in the Universal Century has always been the presence of contolism. Though the focus of individual pieces of media is rarely on the philosophical implications of Deikun’s ideas, it forms the basis for the progression of the series.

Gundam’s self-direction towards historical trends is most obvious in Mobile Suit Gundam: The Origin. Yoshikazu Yasuhiko positions his own work not just as a retelling of the original Gundam, but as a work of historical revisionism. As a phrase, “historical revisionism” tends to provoke a not underserved amount of panic. Historical revisionism is, however, the basic work of the historian, and so broad a term it encompasses everything from the aforementioned secret histories to history reconsidered in a new cultural or evidential light. Without historical revisionism, we would be stuck thinking of the mid-millennia as the Dark Ages, or calling the rise of Islam the product of barbarian hordes, or even considering the Holocaust a minor feature of World War II (as awareness and study of the field took several decades to gain major headway).4 We can be certain that The Origin is a work of fictional-historical revisionism because of Yasuhiko’s own statements on the matter and his priorities in telling his story.

Yoshikazu Yasuhiko’s Gundam: The Origin

Yasuhiko elaborated on his stance towards The Origin in a 2015 interview with Animage, translated at Wave Motion Cannon. Yasuhiko said that “there were various things known about Gundam, and I thought those things were different from what I knew. […] I’m telling it in terms of ‘it was like this, now you get it?’” Yasuhiko further expressed antipathy towards Newtypes as a concept5 Yasuhiko considered Newtypes not to be a theme of the series but included them in The Origin because he could not deny they were a key part of the plot. Yasuhiko configured his retelling of the original Gundam around “telling it how it really happened,” emphasizing parts of the story he found more relevant (like Char’s backstory and interrelational drama) and de-emphasizing what he thought was less important (Newtypes, and the broader “war story”). Even Yasuhiko was thinking of The Origin in terms of setting the record straight and providing a revisionist version that more suited his personal tastes.

There exist fundamental plot disagreements between The Origin and the original animation, that theoretically render either non-canon if you take an absolutist view. Just in the first volume of The Origin, Sayla and Char meet on Luna II instead of on Side 7, as in the 1979 anime. The Origin and the animation present two, irreconcilable versions of the same event, yet both series can fundamentally coexist. They represent two histories of the same event and offer complimentary accounts of some events and contradictory versions of others. They are two sources, authored according to different perspectives, angles, and goals, and so represent events differently, and come to different broader conclusions.

Barring any other supporting information, which version of the Sayla and Char meeting you believe to be true, or canon, comes down to personal preference. Which version do you find more compelling, or more truthful? The broader differences between The Origin and the animation can be handled this way as well. The original animation focuses more on Newtypes and their role as a part of the development of humanity, a theme that guides the direction of the franchise, and reader interpretation of it. Yasuhiko rejects Newtypes as a theme, suggesting that Gundam is driven solely by its characters. Which theory you subscribe to represents a choice of interpretation driven by your analysis of the available works. A choice in historical theory, made among contradictory sources, does not render any opposing works completely invalid – they are simply more evidence, subject to the same judgment by other fans.

Rather than approach Gundam as a perfectly constructed world, where non-compliant works are wholly excised, think of it as a historical endeavor. A project in which new sources, which do not always align with older material, are constantly being discovered and translated. Read all of Gundam critically, but draw your own assumptions about which series accurately represent which parts of the wider universe. This may mean picking and choosing individual elements out of different series, like siding with The Origin’s version of the Sayla and Char meeting while adopting Tomino’s more Newtype-centric outlook. Unlike with actual history, there is no risk of harm in constructing a personal history (a personal canon) out of Gundam. Derive meaning from the series not in establishing an ineffable, ultimate guide to the franchise, but in the elements that bring the most meaning to you.

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  1. I would argue the most continuity-focused media property would actually be DC Comics, which has the unenviable job of organizing over eighty years of stories into a single recognizable timeline. Perhaps more than any other franchise, however, DC constantly addresses the problems in its canon. This has resulted in a series of massive in-universe events (“Crises”) dedicated to reorganizing canon, a number of major reboots and unreboots (recently, New 52 contrer Rebirth), and a constantly updating set of Superman origin stories (what I consider “Schrodinger’s Superboy,” whose existence may change from year to year). Ask not of the Hypertime, and I shall not explain it.
  2. Hyper-advanced mobile suits that don’t fit their time period is a time-honored Gundam tradition, arguably beginning with Mobile Suit Gundam 0080: War in the Pocket but advanced nobly in Stardust Memory, MS iGLOO, and Advance of Zeta. However, no one is willingly talking about iGLOO so it comes up less often.
  3. This complicated emotion was best expressed by Zeon’s son Casval, when he said “From the dawn of history, mankind has played in this cradle called “Earth.” But now, humanity must leave the nursery behind. Our infancy has come to an end.”
  4. It is in the vicinity of the Holocaust, in fact, that most fear of the phrase “historical revisionism” takes shape. Holocaust deniers of all forms, from the most insipid Neo-Nazis to the more insidious David Irving-type pseudo-historians, label themselves “historical revisionists.” They attempt, through gross misrepresentation of evidence and willful idiocy, to position themselves as part of a legitimate historical process. The less said about their version of historical revisionism, the better.
  5. “However, the Gundam 20th anniversary magazine came out. I was featured in the magazine, but when I flipped through it later on, I found it was full of stuff I hated. I had the feeling of “This is how it turned out?”