Another Gundam marred by the franchise’s poor approach to women and to female characters.
I want to begin by saying that, on the whole, I have liked the Gundam: The Origin OAVs so far. They’re decent storytelling, and they make a wise move by showing off some particular fan favorites like the indefatigable duo of Ramba Ral and Hamon Crowley. I also really like their aesthetic, which has echoes of last year’s Reconguista in G in that it, too, marries a more “dated” visual approach to smooth modern animation. (Which, for Origin, is itself a reflection of the manga’s dedication to presenting an updated look of the older Gundam aesthetic.) And I’d be remiss if I didn’t comment on how genuinely moving the storyline regarding the declining fortunes and eventual separation of the Deikun family after the death of Zeon Zum Deikun in episode one. But… and, there it is! “But…”
Gundam is a franchise that it has not always been easy to be a female fan of. Victory Gundam, a fifty-episode misogynistic screed about why women shouldn’t be allowed to have any political power, is the absolute nadir in this regard, but veiled and open hostility toward women as a group is hardly uncommon in the various other anime that have spanned the thirty-six year history of Gundam. A tendency to shunt female characters into limited roles that are circumscribed by gender stereotyping compounds the issue. At the same time, it isn’t all bad news; Turn A not only gives prominent roles to female characters, but allows them to have a good breadth of variety, as does Wing. And while Zeta and the original Mobile Suit Gundam sometimes blatantly vomit forth breathtakingly sexist garbage, they do allow for some room for maneuver for their female characters beyond “traditional”* roles.
(*As I’ve said before in other posts – the issue isn’t that there is something inherently bad or negative in having a female character in a “traditional” role, such as the one that Fraw played in Mobile Suit Gundam. The issue is when these sorts of roles are the only ones permitted for female characters, and when these are set up as the only good roles for women and girls. Having a couple of female characters who get to be soldiers or surgeons but who are portrayed as being failures for not quitting their jobs to raise children isn’t the answer.)
I bring this up since my chief issue with Gundam: The Origin is its failure of imagination regarding women and their place in society in the future. From the utterly archaic family background for Char and Sayla, to the very fact that distance shots of governmental halls of power show absolutely no women, Origin repeatedly demonstrates that it’s still firmly stuck in a bygone era. For the UC material of old (MSG, Z, ZZ), there is the (inadequate) defense that it is reflective of ideas of its day – this doesn’t truly address the real issue, since one of the things about sci-fi is that it is supposed to be able to be visionary, but it is true that attitudes change over time. However, it’s 2015 – Japan may not be on the bleeding edge of gender equality, but even it has women politicians, as well as businesswomen, women journalists, women soldiers, women police officers… It’s astonishing to think that someone could gaze upon society in Japan in 2015 and conclude that in the latter half of the 21st century women will be wholly absent from civic society. And, yes, Origin is adapting an older manga… that ran from the dark ages of 2000 to 2011; never mind that changes can be made in adapting material, and that even the insertion of a few unnamed female politicians would’ve helped to address this issue.
But what about Kycilia? Indeed, what about Kycilia! While I like that Kycilia takes an active role, and one that is partly public as well, Kycilia is set up in clear contrast to the saintly Astraia. While one could surmise that this was the case even before the two women meet, the subtle-as-an-anvil conversation between them that takes place when Astraia and her children are being smuggled to the Ral residence makes explicit what was implicit. When Astraia comments that Kycilia has “cut a dashing figure”, Kycilia smirks, “’For a woman’ you mean? Laugh if you wish. It is the Zabi family’s way.” It is a short conversation that takes place as Astraia is carefully cossetted in an armored car, escorted by a force of men, while Kycilia has just stepped down from the saddle, having lead soldiers into action against rioters. Astraia is the delicate mother who is unable to help herself and requires the protection of male guardians; Kycilia is martial, forceful, and interested in pursuing her own agenda. Even their character designs underline this, especially so as Kycilia’s design is much butchier than she is in 0079.
It’s also worth noting, when considering these two women, that when Kycilia goes to speak with the Deikuns, she demands an audience with Casval. Casval is twelve; his mother is thirtysomething. But no one truly questions the set-up on the grounds that an adult is better positioned by maturity and experience to handle such a potentially dangerous meeting. In clamoring to emphasize Casval’s importance, the show manages to put down two women – one as not being capable of handling a fraught conversation and potentially difficult decisions, the other as being unable at points to outwit a child.
I do like Kycilia, as it turns out, even if her placement in the story is irritating in some respects. That she is so fully live by the sword, die by the sword is something that I appreciate. Astraia, however…
It isn’t that I dislike Astraia, exactly. It’s more that I can’t stand her story arc, which is nauseatingly archaic. Life is just SO tough for Zeon Zum Deikun! And his wife can’t even have babies, and she seems like a complete shrew! He might have a lot of money, but, sigh, life is very, very hard, and he needs someone to understand him so much! Oh, here we have it, a younger, prettier woman named Astraia. Astraia isn’t like that mean wife of his; she listens to him and also understands that he has a very tough life! And she gets pregnant by him twice. Honestly, it’s probably since she’s soo much nice than that nasty Roselucia that she can have kids. She also totally gets that Deikun can’t just up and file for a divorce, you know? He can give her a nice home for herself and their children, but divorce is so completely out of the question! She understands. She is satisfied.
So, life goes on. Astraia is such a wonderfully obedient woman that she can’t even do more than raise a token opposition to Deikun bursting into his children’s room in the middle of the night after raving like a maniac in their living room. Then Deikun dies! And that suuuper meanie Roselucia has Astraia locked up in a tower! And, uguu, very sad. Astraia is helpless; other people must step in and save her children. But she can’t go with them, nope. No, Astraia must remain that faithful little woman and waste away prettily in a tower. It’s only proper!
Astraia is a male fantasy of the perfect woman – always accepting, always pretty (even when she’s dying!), delicate, fragile, and wholly incapable of doing anything without the help of a man or men. Truly, she stays in the damn tower instead of fleeing with her cute children because its soooooo saaaad. Look at adorable little Artesia, spattering the page of a letter with tears because she misses her mother. Look at Casval developing anger issues because his family life was ripped apart. And look at just what a wonderful, good woman Astraia is! Quietly accepting her fate. Her man is gone, folks – what other possible use could she have now than to smile bravely from time to time as she inevitably declines toward her death? Think of the children! How can they have such tragic lives if their mother had gone with them into exile?
Yeah, I hate this part of this story a lot. I think it’s a ball of ass-backwards plotting, and that a sad background for Casval and Artesia could’ve been achieved without plucking plots from the 19th century for a story that takes place in the second half of the 21st century. Want a sad backstory? Zeikun married a lower-class woman his family didn’t approve of; his kids and wife were repeatedly snubbed by their own relatives. After he died, his widow tried mightily to exert her own power, only to be swept up in the machinations of her in-laws, who strove to separate her from her children both to punish her and also to try to “improve” the children. She then worked secretly with Ramba Ral and Hamon Crowley to get her children smuggled to safety. She was then mortally wounded during the escape and died, but she was able to see her children being carried off to safety. The truth was concealed from her children until they were told about it a few years later by Ramba Ral’s semi-demented father. A sense of betrayal for everyone!
It isn’t perfect, and one could quibble about the relative lack of agency Astraia still has in this scenario, but one does have to work with the desired effect of it all. Unfortunately, there really isn’t a version in which Astraia can live for Origin to fully be the Point A to Point B of how we get the Red Comet at all.
I used the phrase “failure of imagination” before since Astraia’s arc and the invisibility of women in the civic life depicted indicates an inability of anyone working on this to imagine that women might be involved with it. As I said before, though, it, too, means a blindness about the presence of Japanese women in the political process of present-day Japan. The world in Origin implies that not only have women not made any progress, they have indeed experienced a regress. That’s depressing, and it’s also disheartening to have one of the latest entries in a franchise I love be crafted by showrunners who think that there is no space for women other than as auxiliaries to men, and wholly outside the political process. I like Kycilia, and I like Hamon, A LOT, and both of them get to operate in ways that don’t adhere strictly to the wife/mother ideal. However, they’re both involved in the story due to the men in their lives – Ramba for Hamon, and Daddy Zabi for Kycilia.
I mentioned the idea that sci-fi is supposed to be visionary. For all I know, maybe Origin will prove to be visionary in regards to women! What an incredibly dismaying thought! But, even if that becomes true, from the vantage of the current day, Origin is gazing very firmly backwards. It reminds me a bit of the myth of the 1950’s American housewife, to be honest. We do get a very brief glimpse at what happens when it doesn’t work like the beautiful myth when Roselucia sobs over being infertile, but this itself is sandwiched into a construction of Roselucia as wholly unsympathetic, and it isn’t explored past that glimpse. Otherwise, even with the requisite drama and melodrama, the ideal represented by Astraia isn’t questioned.
Again, I do, on the whole, like Origin so far. Despite my sneering at Astraia’s arc, the agony of the break-up of her remaining family (i.e. her kids) is heart-rending. This portion is truly the strongest part of Origin in these two episodes. Even knowing that Astraia’s instruction that Artesia should count the waxing and waning of moons to know when she’ll get to next see her mother is delaying the inevitable, it hurts when Artesia’s hopes are crushed. The warping of Casval’s character by anger and hatred is emphasized in a way that is both surprising and good, as it’s less a matter of “Oh, Char, that charming bastard.” and more of “Casval has some pretty big issues and he is only getting worse.”. The pacing does get a little poor toward the end of the second episode, but otherwise Sunrise is handling the compression of a lot of material (the original manga ran to twenty-three volumes, and this adaptation is planned for four episodes… although it’s Sunrise, so that probably means five episodes) fairly smoothly. And the little nods to fans, while occasionally a bit silly, are nice touches – witnessing Amuro’s attempts to control his Haro after he prematurely opens it before getting home is amusing (although his voice actor’s struggle to sound like a small child are pretty painful). Finally, it’s interesting how although this is positioned as the story of how Char got to be Char, the focus hasn’t been on him but on those around him so far.
(And, of course, I snickered when a twist was introduced that was lifted from Gundam Wing: Endless Waltz. How could I not after years of UC fans trashing Wing?)
I’m looking forward to the next episode, although there is as yet no streetdate for it. This has also piqued my curiosity in the manga again; I’ve been curious about it before but the sheer physicality of the release keeps having me back off. Vertical’s done a beautiful job with the English language release, but a dozen hard-backs is a dozen hard-backs, and that demands an investment of effort on the back-end when I have to move again (and I know that physical transience will likely define my life for at least the next several years). It really is too bad there’s no chance of the manga getting a digital release.