Thanks to moving countries, dodgy internet connections and Overwatch, I’ve fallen behind on a bunch of anime this season. Series have been left half-finished, first episodes watched then never returned to. With the end of the year looming, it was time for me to go through a mega catch-up period so I can still be relevant when Anime of the Year discussions come. It would be pretty awkward to reach the end of the year without having completed Erased or Mob Psycho 100 for example. So over the next 2 months I’ll be writing a bunch of posts as I finish each of these anime up, starting with the very cheerful little OVA Gundam Thunderbolt.
Gundam Thunderbolt follows in the grand Gundam story theme tradition of “war is bad”, or in this case more specifically, “war breaks you”. Everyone in this story starts by bearing the scars of war already. This can be the more obvious physical conditions like the entire troop of soldiers missing arms and legs, or more mental scars as people break down in the face of the orders they have to give. These scars only deepen as the show progresses as everyone goes from breaking point to completely broken. Whether that be your body as people simply just die off, or your mind breaks. Beliefs and morals you upheld before the war are destroyed, leaving you a shell of a human who can no longer function and left a shivering, weeping mess. Fun times all around.
It’s either you break, or you become so enthralled with war you leave your humanity behind. In one character’s case this becomes more literal. He gradually loses his limbs to war, removing his humanity as his dreams and memories no longer become relevant to him in his current state. He only starts to feel again once he fully embraces war and becomes one with the weapon, removing his remaining limbs to become more weapon than human. It’s a general trend of the series that you can’t escape with your mind intact. The one captain who desperately tries to keep her mind and morals to saving people in this hopeless war only becomes more depressed as the series goes on, turning to drugs and shivering in her room until eventually someone turns on her because they’re more ready to murder.
It’s pretty unrelenting throughout that only gets more harrowing as the show progresses. It’s tough watching, I’ll say that much, which is a bit of a knock against it. There’s no levity to anything whatsoever. If I compare it to my own personal high watermark for Gundam with War in the Pocket, you at least in War in the Pocket get the sense that these people could have lived happy lives without the pointlessness of war. We see them act human, laugh and love. In Thunderbolt there are occasional flashbacks to such scenes and little pieces of memorabilia such as the old-timey radio one pilot has in their cockpit. However they’re all a bit trite and sometimes unintentionally silly, such as watching the guy run across a beach laughing and smiling as the sun sparkles on the water. It’s such a cliche scene it feels so silly next to everything else.
For as much as we don’t see people act with any levity though, that doesn’t mean they’re not well-rounded characters. Unlike Zeta Gundam, they are actually generally likable people. Or at least we get the sense that they were likable people at one point. They act rationally and have human emotions that one can follow and understand. It’s very solidly written without extraneous dialogue or pointless scenes. Sure it’s a miserable viewing experience, but a miserable viewing experience you will greatly appreciate the incredible craft gone into it.
Speaking of the craft gone into this, a word on the production values as they’re quite fantastic. This is the nature of OVAs where they have all the time in the world to polish the product to perfection. All the hard lines, graphic violence and big hairdos make it feel like something that came out of the 90’s with a suitably grim tone to match. There are some particularly excellent first-person camera perspectives coming from the giant robots themselves. Sometimes the battles get a bit laser-beam spammy and hard to follow, which is an issue I’ve had with basically every Gundam series that’s not the original, but it’s a minor offence in the grand scheme of things.
A special note has to go to the musical score too, if only to mention how different it is from everything else out there. It’s a combination of freeform jazz, operatic scores and 1950s lounge singers (imagine a woman in a long red dress on a dimly lit stage singing a melancholy tune to a bar full of depressed single men wearing trilbys as they nestle glasses of whisky and you’ll get the idea of the kind of music they’re going for). It works fantastically well at setting the mood for the most part, even if I do have an issue with some of the freeform jazz stuff. It can just sound like a bloke randomly smacking a saxophone off a piano for 3 minutes, which I suppose is intentional but doesn’t make for fun listening.
Overall it’s such a tight, well-produced, focused package that delivers on exactly what it sets out to do. While there’s still massive chunks of Gundam I have yet to watch, it’s the closest I’ve seen something reaching War in the Pocket-level perfection I’ve seen from the franchise. It’s miserable which means it certainly won’t be for everyone, and even I wish it wasn’t so constantly horrible and mean to everyone all the time, but damn is it good at what it does. Plus once you chop out ending credits from each episode, the whole thing is barely more than an hour long so it will fly by in no time. You don’t really need prior Gundam knowledge to watch it (you won’t know about why the two sides are fighting, but that’s honestly irrelevant in the story considering its message) so I’d certainly recommend giving it a shot.