My experience with Gundam hasn’t been filled with joy, to put it lightly. The first I saw was 00, which I enjoyed until the last batch of episodes in season 2 where it didn’t so much shoot itself in the foot as drop a nuclear missile on its toe. Then I saw the first episode of Unicorn, which I couldn’t follow for the life of me. I figured that I should probably learn more about the UC universe so I could follow Unicorn, so I jumped right back to the original. I thought that was decent so long as Char was on screen, but I got bored around the stage they went on that stupid hunt for salt and never picked it back up. Next was Seed, which I probably would have enjoyed if any of the characters had any personality whatsoever, somehow making it through a solid 20 episodes of that. The last was Age, which caused me to hurl my hands up in the air in frustration yelling “IT’S ALL THE SAME SHIT”, vowing never to touch Gundam again.
But then my Secret Santa gave me War in the Pocket so I didn’t really have a choice.
First impressions were bad, primarily because it set up exactly the same way every single other friggen Gundam series seems to do. We’re on a space colony and here’s this kid who loves giant robots but ohsnap robots attack! The kid finds a giant robot with no pilot in it. It’s around about there that this show differentiates itself because the kid in question is about 8 years old. Even when the pilot of the downed robot picks himself up and points a gun at him, the kid is still jumping about with unbridled enthusiasm, wanting to have a look at the Zeon gun and asking to have a go in the cockpit.
The primary theme of War in the Pocket is…well, it’s Gundam so it’s WAR IS BAD. But being a bit more specific, it’s about the childish wonder and dreams of war and the military versus the grim reality of what it actually entails. It’s not just about war being full of death and destruction and all that, but also how the glamour isn’t really there and the frailty of what appears like magnificent war machines being exposed. The story is primarily about Bernie, a rookie pilot from Zeon, and his relationship with Al, the enthusiastic kid I mentioned earlier. It’s a familiar story about the failure of an adult lying to a child to gain his respect and be hero worshipped, but when forced to face by the reality of the situation he draws strength from the belief of the kid who believes in him and becomes the hero he pretended he was.
Calling Bernie a failure isn’t really correct. It’s more that he’s hopelessly out of his depth. He boasts to Alfred that he’s an ace pilot who has shot down loads of Federation mechas, but in reality he’s some nobody whose only battle experience is being instantly shot down. Yet he’s placed on a veteran commando team who give him tasks simply to keep him out of their way. If anything looks like its going wrong in the plan, it’s always his fault. I don’t mean that ironically either, the show is very deliberate about how it will be little things that he says or does that causes their plans to go wrong.
That’s something in general that impressed me about War in the Pocket. It’s very deliberately put together. There’s nothing there that doesn’t need to be there, and all the scriptwriting is incredibly tight. Something I wanted to throw myself down on the floor in praise in was how it allowed character’s personalities to play out without ever having to point them out. The commando crew are all men of habit. Things like how their captain would put cigarettes in his mouth but never light one, or how one of them would make a habit of filling up his hip flask and hanging it up in his robot. It’s a sign at how long they’ve been doing this, while in comparison poor old Bernie has no traditions like that. It’s a small thing, but these traits build up.
Bernie is the king of this, and easily the best character of the show. His growth from bragging but inexperienced rookie to role model for Alfred is fantastic, particularly again in the way the show never feels to point all this out to us. His relationship with the female Federation pilot Chris was pretty great in how it was clear they had feelings, but both seemed to know that they were ultimately on two different sides of this war and would never be together. The hopeless romantic in me clung to the belief that this would be power of love overcoming their opposing sides of this conflict.
Which is what makes that ending the biggest kick in the gut.The BIGGEST kick in the gut, to the point that I was gripping the side of my face going “oh god no don’t do this noo”. Let me make this clear that I mean this in a good way. The painful fragility on this war machine Bernie and Alfred had poured their soul into rebuilding. The way it wraps back into the pointlessness of the conflict, particularly with who was piloting the Gundam, gives the show a much better narrative arc to something like Grave of the Fireflies, where the depression just feels relentless and done deliberately to hit you. In War in the Pocket, it’s ultimately the only direction that would have given the show the proper conclusion to what it was building up.
It’s there that you also realise how deliberately the whole thing is put together. It’s not that it ‘gets better’ or anything. War in the Pocket is always good, but the further you get into it, the more you realise how everything ties together. It’s the mark of fine storytelling. I will say though that I do think it missed a trick by not playing Bernie’s video as the very last thing. I get why they wanted to have the shot of the kids saying “don’t mind, there will be another war soon” as the last thing because of how it ties into Alfred’s loss of innocence. I guess this is a selfish desire, but the doomed relationship between Bernie and Chris felt like the perfect symbol of the pointlessness of the conflict. With Bernie’s final words in that video asking Al to hi to Chris for him, it fucking hit me like a sledgehammer.
War in the Pocket is without doubt the best Gundam I’ve seen by a considerable distance, and with the possible exception of FLCL, the best short OVA series I’ve ever seen. Thank you Secret Santa (although I’m pretty certain I know who you are because you kinda let it slip to me when you were drunk), I enjoyed that a hell of a lot more than I was anticipating.