Mobile Suit Gundam SEED

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Ever since I watched Mobile Suit Gundam 00, I’ve been slowly making my way through each Gundam series. I’ve already seen Wing (enjoyed it, although it becomes increasingly convoluted as it goes along), 08th MS Team (like that it’s basically a war movie dressed up in Gundam colors) and Zeta Gundam (like it, although my god are there a ton of really annoying, frustrating characters). Recently I watched Gundam SEED, which, like Wing, has a distinctly mixed reputation, to say the least. And although I do like the series once it gets going, that reputation really is deserved.

SEED starts out similarly to many Gundam series — there is a war between the Earth Federation (which represents “natural” human beings) and ZAFT (which represents Coordinators, human beings whose genes were altered before birth). Kira Yamato is a Coordinator living in the neutral space colony Heliopolis, which soon falls into an attack by ZAFT, which wishes to steal the mobile suits that are secretly being developed in the colony. One of the ZAFT soldiers is Kira’s childhood friend, Athrun Zala. Through various contrivances, Kira ends up piloting a Gundam and is set up against Athrun, and their rivalry and relationship, set against the backdrop of the war, dictates much of SEED‘s story.

The biggest problem with SEED is that it takes forever to really get going. There are interesting ideas introduced in the early goings: For one, I do like that the show takes the effort to blur the lines between the heroes and the supposed villains. ZAFT has legitimate reasons for wanting to fight the Earth Federation, and there is about an equal number of good people and despicable assholes within the organization. Same with the Earth Federation. And although it is sort of clumsy much of the time, I can appreciate that the series tries to tackle the problem of racism with the Naturals vs. Coordinators. It is a potentially interesting question — should Kira fall in line with ZAFT simply because he is a Coordinator? Is he a traitor to his people because he wants to protect the friends he made on Heliopolis?

But, man, is it ever a slog getting to the point where the answers to those questions actually matter. I’ll be real with you: The first half of SEED is garbage. Total garbage. The plot spins its wheels for such a long time (it basically takes until ep29 for anything of real significance to happen), and it can basically summarized thusly: ZAFT tries its hardest to capture the ship carrying Kira Yamato, the Archangel, while it tries to make it to Earth. That is essentially the point of every episode. There is plenty of action, and other things that test the resolve of Kira and the Archangel crew; however, it is really difficult to get emotionally attached to any of it because it comes off as plot-stalling material (the fact that there is so much recap in SEED in general does not help that perception), and because the characterization is pretty sloppy all throughout the first half of the series.

Gundams

Kira and Athrun’s rivalry is pretty basic. They don’t want to want to kill each other, because they were such good friends in their youth, but they also do not want to betray their friends/organization. Problem is, there is no real sense of urgency despite this for a very long time. Gundam‘s MO has always been to portray the harshness of war on all sides, “good” and “bad”. There are consequences for every action, and even in victory, the pain of loss is felt down to the bone. But there is none of that fire or passion to Kira and Athrun’s rivalry. I get that their interactions toward each other are tentative, and they really do not want to fight, but even that can be really interesting if written well enough. But it isn’t in this case. Mainly it’s because both Kira and Athrun are completely uninteresting in the first half of the series. Kira is the textbook Reluctant Soldier (either that or he acts annoying and stupid), and Athrun just follows orders unhesitatingly. There is absolutely nothing to this relationship early on.

I also really hate one particular character, Flay Allster. She represents someone who is emotionally damaged by war to an almost unrepairable degree. That is fine — I can roll with that. But the way she acts out is so frustratingly idiotic and completely over the top. Don’t want to throw out too many spoilers, so I’ll just stop at saying she morphs into a selfish, conniving, horrible person whose manipulations amount to jack diddly shit. I can sympathize with the pain Flay feels, but I absolutely cannot sympathize with the girl herself, because she is already a pretty spoiled person before her huge shift in character. It’s even tougher to watch her when everyone else is dealing with the pain of war in a more tactful, dignified way — even another character who goes through a tragedy similar to Flay’s, and who becomes admittedly unhinged for a moment, ends up stronger because she is able to come to terms with her pain. I suppose that is part of the point — that people react to the realities of war in vastly different ways — but with Flay it is taken to an extreme that is more irritating than tragic.

To add to this, I really do not like the whole look of SEED. Something about it keeps bugging me, and I find myself repelled whenever I look at an episode. Part of it probably is because it looks so much like the space opera parody episode of Excel Saga. After the realization, I found it difficult to take SEED seriously from an art standpoint. Even if there was no Excel Saga to compare it to, though, SEED‘s overall design just screams generic anime to me. I mean, there is nothing at all wrong with the fights or the animation or anything. It just . . . does not look at all distinctive.

However, the main reason I stuck with SEED (aside from the insane desire to complete every major Gundam series) is that there are little rays of light beaming through the clouds of crap. Mu La Flaga, stupid Gundam name aside, is generally a cool character and played well by Takehito Koyasu. Although he is the obvious “OMG I AM SO MYSTERIOUS” character, Rau Le Creuset, the commander of Athrun’s team, is also intriguing, and I enjoy the (not always subtly) implied relationship between him and La Flaga. I really like the interplay between the captain of the Archangel, Murrue Ramius (who is pretty easygoing and driven by emotion), and its tactical analyst, Natarle Badgiruel (who is generally a by-the-book person). Their clashes are interesting, for the most part, because you can really see why each reacts to events in her way. Even when Natarle pushes for a decision that seems incredibly cold and overly logical, it is clear she believes she is doing what is right for the Earth Federation, which is why I cannot totally hate her.

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So, I was happy when I got to ep29, where the plot finally starts moving in a real way. Maybe a bit too much, actually — the pacing is a complete 180 from the first half. It’s not quite Code Geass level, but it comes close sometimes. However, and this might be personal preference, but I would much rather too much happen than too little. At least when a ton of plot is being thrown out there, as shot as the pacing might be, at least there is going to be something there to hold my attention. When the show goes on at the speed of a crippled tortoise, without much to show for it, then what is there to really get into?

In the second half of the series, there are some good (and bad) plot revelations, the characters’ relationships develop in interesting ways (even Kira and Athrun’s rivalry has some fire to it!) and even if I do not care for the overall look of SEED, I would be a fool to say the battles are not pretty damn exciting. The final stretch run ratchets up the tension and suspense to great levels, and I was excited to watch every episode. Pretty much the complete opposite of the first half. It’s not always perfect, of course. A couple of the revelations, and the ways in which they are revealed, are incredibly melodramatic, and in the worst case, not really acted on at all. (In fact, the one I am thinking of seems to me to have been created to make the shipping more straightforward. Most of SEED‘s romantic relationships are pretty bad, really.) This is also the part where Lacus Clyne, a peaceloving Coordinator, takes on a bigger role. She is a pretty dull character, like a poor, poor man’s Euphemia from Code Geass. I don’t particularly hate her, but she is not particularly likable, either. She’s just sort of there. But better for her to be a somewhat strong character than to be the airheaded doofus she is when she is first introduced.

After watching Gundam SEED, I can definitely see why it has a near equal amount of lovers and detractors. Those who love the series and stick with it are rewarded with a pretty damn good final third that delivers a lot of excitement and is quite memorable. But, man, I can really understand why the haters would not get even close to that point. Every time I would finish an episode in the first half, I would remind myself, “It’s going to get good eventually . . . it’s going to get good eventually . . . it’s going to get good eventually . . .” A truly good series should not make you think that way, haha. And since SEED really does not make any points any differently than most Gundam series (although it does a solid job of making its points), nor does it do anything to make it truly unique compared to other Gundams, the worth of the story is mainly what it has to stand on, and that is either its strength or its downfall, depending on whom you ask. For me, I’d say it is a bit of a failure overall because it takes so damn long to do anything.

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