Gundam SEED was first aired in 2002, written by Morosawa Chiaki and directed by her husband Fukuda Mitsuo. Depending on what and how one counts, SEED is the ninth TV-series released and the first to be set in the Cosmic Era timeline. Consistent to the original series, it also examines the nature of war.
As an anime fan, I re-watched this recently and I’ve come to appreciate its complexities more so than the first viewing. It’s also relevant to our times with ongoing localized wars and well-armed states threatening hot-shooting wars, albeit not with giant robots and in space. Yet. That and it’s decent storytelling.
Premise and Setting
The setting is Earth and its surrounding space. The humans who are naturally conceived, referred to as “Naturals”, mostly live on Earth. The genetically enhanced humans, known as “Coordinators”, mostly live in their idyllic space colonies, the PLANT.
Although there is an Earth Alliance comprised of various states, there are also neutral states. The Coordinators, on the other hand, seem much more genuinely united under the banner of PLANT with their military arm ZAFT. Not surprisingly, there is envy and distrust between Naturals and Coordinators, resulting in a war between the Earth Alliance and ZAFT, now in its eleventh month. This is obviously a thinly veiled parallel to our racial, political and cultural divisions.
The protagonist is Kira Yamato (Hoshi Soichiro), a university-aged Coordinator on Heliopolis, a space city belonging to a neutral state called Orb, where Naturals and Coordinators live and work together in relative peace. As in real-life, the individual case varies and does not always reflect the political situation, and this is something SEED conveys well.
To Kira and his friends, the war still feels far away… that is, until a ZAFT infiltration unit arrives and it is revealed there are five advanced-prototype mobile suits in Heliopolis being prepped for delivery to the Earth forces. It is the objective of ZAFT to capture these latest weapons.
Despite being a neutral state, these advanced units are developed in Orb territory for the Earth Alliance. A plot convenience? Perhaps, but this is not entirely unrealistic as so-called neutral states have made worse decisions.
Soon, there is a fight between the ZAFT team and the Earth forces defending what is supposed to be their cargo and Kira is caught in the middle. He comes face to face with a young ZAFT soldier and pilot: Athrun Zala (Ishida Akira). Athrun and Kira are childhood friends so Athrun hesitates and Kira ends up in one of the mobile suits and mayhem ensues…
Characterizations and Conflict
The premise follows the standard template for Gundam: at least one advanced mobile suit, a hostile act by the military, and the protagonist who is the “somehow ends up in the nearest mech cockpit” trope. But this is where the apparent simplicity ends.
The initial primary conflict is between Kira and Athrun, childhood friends who find themselves on opposite sides of the war with the former being mostly the viewpoint character.
Kira is a student, friendly and pacifistic in nature. Athrun is more overtly serious but reserved—somber is too strong a word—and an all-round good soldier boy. But he’s no bloodthirsty patsy. He is kind-hearted and honorable with a strong sense of justice. So, there are two main characters who are likable guys and one cannot help but to be drawn to both of them.
In addition, the writers cleverly play with the audience’s emotions with a little background exposition that conflicts with what they initially see. Although the first military operation shown is initiated by ZAFT and they therefore come across as “the aggressive bad guys”, it is soon revealed that the Earth Alliance did something excessive when the war first started. One therefore begins to sympathize with Athrun’s and ZAFT’s position.
In any case, there is a general sense that neither the Earth Alliance nor the ZAFT as a collective is particularly good or bad. Both are relatable and both contribute to the cycle of violence.
Intellectually, one is then left to judge the situation based on the individuals’ differing perspectives and actions. Kira fights for the Earth Alliance not because he agrees with their policies but rather in defense of himself and his friends. Given the warm-hearted nature of his commander, who assumes command of their ship Archangel in the mess, Kira is also fighting for the crew. In other words, Kira’s motivation is immediate and personal.
Athrun, who understandably resents the Earth Alliance, does not understand his friend’s actions. He does not wish to label Kira as the enemy. Nonetheless, he is being shot at by the guy and he does his share of shooting too. And it is this awkward situation which challenges Athrun’s perception of who the real enemy is in war. He’s a good soldier boy and he probably wishes that the issue is simply settled by one’s uniform and flag but he is also way too good for that.
I think storytellers can learn a lot from these two characters and their conflict. These two aren’t bastards who happen to be half-likable. They’re actually good people but they do act questionably in difficult circumstances in such a way that emotionally and intellectually resonates. Their pathos is packaged nicely and their internal conflict strongly comes through. You like them both but you don’t want either one to kill the other, and neither do they.
If neither kills (nor be killed), then the obvious resolution is for one to defect. Of course, this option is lame unless the move is morally justified and emotionally satisfying given the circumstances. As mentioned before, neither party is particularly good and, thankfully, we don’t see Kira or Athrun cheaply jump into the other’s boat because “they wanna be on the same team”.
War and the Enemy
Unlike some anti-war stories, SEED does not merely prop up the “war is always wrong” message. Of course, like many Gundam series, it does highlight the horrors of war. There is no shortage of powerful weapons and onscreen deaths; and it is obvious much of the shooting is done out of spite and/or a killed-or-be-killed mentality and/or “just because we’re ordered to”.
Although SEED criticizes the seemingly futile aspect of war, it avoids the cliché of this being the sole message. It admits that one may not realistically have any other choice. And it does not presume to offer a solution. Even though we may not entirely agree with the moves made by the Earth and ZAFT forces, it’s difficult to entirely disagree with them either.
If there is to be no truce (ever), then the war will escalate which can lead to two possible conclusions: total annihilation of one party by the other or mutual annihilation. And that is the direction of the series.
That being true, SEED is more complex than that. It also explores the position of neutrality. The Orb nation officially takes such a position but policy is not the same as its application and there is always the question of degree. Does neutrality mean shutting the borders to everyone in all circumstances (absolute isolationist)? Or does it mean anything goes as long as one doesn’t fire a shot on another’s behalf?
It is not entirely clear why Orb makes those five advanced mobile suits and a battleship for the Earth forces. Despite the Earth Alliance’s atrocities, perhaps Orb assesses ZAFT’s actions to be also unjust. They even provide Archangel safe harbor in her time of need, obviously on the condition that she stays quiet. The lack of a substantial explanation for this action is one of the weaknesses of this series.
Orb is not entirely naïve. There is none of this “power is bad” nonsense. Their leadership does not spurn power. It is objectively neither good nor bad in itself. It’s no surprise Orb has the best technology, partly because they realize that neutrality means nothing if you can’t defend it. After all, to ally with one party gains one enemy but to ally with none invites both to shoot at you after the “you’re either for us or against us” speech.
Both Orb’s and Athrun’s struggles tie into the theme of “Who is the enemy?” Despite the main characters generally being decent people, there are more overtly villainous characters in the supporting cast and these appear on all sides. For example, Yzak Joule is pilot in Athrun’s unit. The guy is an antagonistic hothead who shoots down a civilian transport out of spite. That and you hate his haircut. Athrun’s father, Patrick Zala, is a member of the ZAFT leadership and he’s a hawk whilst the Earth Alliance has its hardliner elements as well.
So who is the enemy? Anyone who wears a different insignia? Your own who disobey your orders? What about commanders who don’t care about their own men? What about your girlfriend who questions your conduct as a soldier?
One can then easily conclude that either no one is the enemy or everyone who seems to willfully propagate the war is the enemy, regardless of their flag. In either case, you’ll be shot at so one cannot ignore taking care of yourself and those few who agree with you. But that is another version of neutrality (in relation to the recognized belligerents) and that only works if you have the means to defend that position.
Such a means would have to be technologically superior to the belligerent parties given you and your ragtag team will be severely outnumbered. But to have such power also means having the corresponding responsibility and our main characters aren’t selfish pricks.
The only way to stop a shooting war if the belligerents are unwilling to lay down their arms is to disable them in such a way that doesn’t get them or yourself killed. This is a Gundam series so it’s not difficult to see how advanced mobile suits fit into the story and the themes but it is an interesting ride.
Series Strengths and Weaknesses
SEED was produced at the time when there was still enough funding to do a 50-episode series and when people presumably still had vestiges of an attention span.
The obvious benefit is that there is plenty of time for the audience to be immersed in the world and to connect with all the characters. The story is gripping and, given the nature of the subject matter, can be very grim at times.
The visual tone is not particularly dark but emotionally, it can be. Anime can be very emotionally charged and any push towards “dark” will make it too melodramatic and SEED mostly avoids that or dishes it out in measured doses.
The primary weakness with such a long series is that pacing becomes tricky. There are awesome episodes with some crazy action but there are one or two which serve as the recapping-the-series-so-far episode. It’s unnecessary, particularly when the final seven or eight episodes are slightly rushed in terms of pacing.
The other weakness is that a long series typically do not have the production quality of a shorter series or a film. There is awesome mecha action (at least for its time) but some of it may seem conveniently fast. There are also instances of fragments being reused, obviously to save the budget. This is also typical and one doesn’t expect film-quality production but, whilst it’s good, it could have been better. Having said that, the mecha designs in SEED are excellent. The machines are all true to the franchise whilst being sufficiently unique.
If one is interested in slower, more organic mecha dogfights where the moves are like well-written dialogue, then Gundam Unicorn (2010) is the one to watch. Alternatively, Macross Plus (1994) and Macross Frontier (2008) are also worth viewing although their style is different and the Macross franchise is a different genre.
The voice acting is generally excellent, particularly Ishida Akira who voices Athrun Zala. It is convincing and there’s not much else I can add. He was awarded for his performance in the direct-sequel series, Gundam SEED Destiny.
One other weakness of the series is the lack of specifics in the conclusion. This is typical to anime, especially when it is intended to continue. Thankfully, SEED does not end on a cliffhanger but you want a little bit more of an epilogue. Gundam SEED Destiny is the direct sequel, first aired in 2004. Unfortunately, that series is frustratingly weak compared to SEED but that is another discussion. Despite that, SEED is still worth watching.
It was reported in 2008 that series lead writer, Morosawa Chiaki, had finished planning a sequel film but illness had hampered her efforts. Sadly, she passed away 19 February 2016, aged 56 years.
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