Gundam and War:
Gundam and war go hand in hand. It’s hard not to talk about the franchise without the obvious anti-war messages that are prevalent across its many titles (or at least all of the ones I’ve watched). I’m sure many would claim that Gundam shows the horrors of war and the effects it has on those who are shoved front and center. Yet, there is also an argument to be made that while the messages are anti-war, the flashy visuals, collectible mobile suits, and epic actions sequences all go against that message and romanticize war rather than condemn it.
I can see how opinions may vary – from Gundam being too overt in its anti-war themes to those who believe it doesn’t go far enough. Personally, I think the degree and strength of the message varies depending on the source and the people behind each new iteration of this beloved franchise. If every Gundam show was conceived and produced with Tomino Yoshiyuki at the helm, I suspect there would be a consistent tone, much more than what we actually get. Depending on what universe you’re talking about, the director, the writer, whether it is part of the U.C timeline, or a story of its own – there’s many factors here that add a level of unpredictability to any new Gundam series; where fans are not only expecting a good show to watch or manga to read, but something that feels like Gundam.
So where does Thunderbolt stand? First and foremost, I think you have to remember that this is a short 4-episode adaptation of an spin-off manga from the original U.C Timeline, right in the middle of the action that was established over 37 years ago. Even though it takes place at such an important time, some fans hardly consider it canon. It’s very easy to think that a spin-off purely about fighting on the front line would abandon one of the core themes of the franchise in favor of spectacle, and to some degree that may be the case with Thunderbolt. Or at least that’s how it appeared. However, from its first episode to the last, no matter how beautiful the fight sequences were and the love for action the characters possessed, it never seemed to me that Thunderbolt had forgotten its roots. Like previous spin-offs during the One Year War, we got to see two sides to this battle, and focused more on a select group of troubled individuals who have found themselves at one side of this war. And like those other series – which are, so far, my favourite of the Gundam franchise – there’s humanity to these characters; we’re able to care for them even when one side is clearly more evil than the other, and we see them at their absolute lowest, reminding the audience that no matter how much they may revel the moment where they are fighting for their lives, the effects of war, both physically and mentally, are heavy and damaging. And for me, these final two episodes cemented that more than ever.
One Last Battle and All Its Devastations:
Themes aside, how were these two episodes? I would confidently say that the third was the weakest of the series. While exciting things did happen, the events of this episode didn’t feel as pivotal to the overall conflict, instead setting up for the big finale. Though I did appreciate the focus on innocent child soldiers (as Gundam likes to do – Tekketsu no Orphans is all about that!), showing them at their happiest before they are sent onto the battlefield and quickly experience the devastation that awaits them. However, my main problem with the episode was the production hiccup. Every other episode has looked stunning, perhaps better than any other Gundam series I’ve seen, and that third episode still looked very good. But very good compared to gorgeous sticks out like a sore thumb, and so while watching I noticed that the dip in quality was affecting my enjoyment.
Thankfully, we ended on a high note with the fourth episode. By the end everything felt vital – the battle was coming to a close and nearly every character still alive had a part to play. Whether it was soldiers losing all their limbs in order to achieve victory or leaders resorting to drugs to take away the pain of losing comrades one after the other (okay, that was in the third episode, but it was probably my favourite scene from it), Thunderbolt conveyed the struggles of these characters well, right up until that final, epic battle. And to top it all off, the ‘bad guys’ won. Yet I don’t hate them for it, because we’ve spent so much time humanizing them and showing these individuals don’t necessarily represent or hold the same beliefs as the higher-ups of Zeon, even if that’s the side they fight for; who, for the record, end up the losing side in the long run.
Overview – Final Impressions:
And so Thunderbolt ends. Or does it? It’s no mystery that this would be a short anime, but the manga is still ongoing and it feels to me that this adaptation has taken the main beats of the story rather than translating it panel-by-panel. If anyone who has read the manga could confirm that, I’d appreciate that. And if that is the case, I don’t know if we necessarily need to see more of Thunderbolt, even though it feels like the conflict between Io and Daryl is only just beginning. Though… their scenes together are too good not to have more of them, especially since they’ve now met in person and their positions have switched. I don’t know if Thunderbolt is going to cover right up until the conclusion of the One Year War, but if it does then surely Io Fleming must find himself in a better situation than we see him here.
Thunderbolt is up there as one of my top Gundam series. Part of me still wishes it were a full-cour long and not 4 ONA episodes, but I have liked this format. As I say, it feels like we’ve covered the meatiest parts of the source material, accompanied by some seriously gorgeous visuals and a stellar jazzy soundtrack. This is a strong side-story that I’m glad exists. I’m of the opinion that there can never be enough Gundam series returning to the U.C timeline. Unless, of course, you count Reconguista. Thankfully, Thunderbolt is infinitely better than that unfortunate title. Not only does Thunderbolt actually make sense, but it delivers plenty of powerful moments that always managed to affect me, and I wouldn’t mind experiencing that again sometime soon.