The best thing about being a Gundam fan is the part where you get to actively hate on between two-thirds to three-quarters of the franchise at any given time.
This seems a fitting way to preface a discussion of Gundam 00’s first season, which I actually did not hate. Contrary to prevailing discourse on the show, though, I did think it was fairly bad, largely due to it having intellectual aspirations it couldn’t quite manage, and, of relation to that, the fact that it was frequently ragingly stupid.
Gundam 00 follows the adventures of a group which calls itself Celestial Being. Celestial Being wants to end war, and announces to the world that they will do so by enacting “interventions” in which they’ll pop into wars and conflicts and just shoot all combatants in the face. It turns out that a lot of people don’t quite like this idea, and political wrangling ensues, while the pilots of the titular mechs continue to fight, with breaks for mulling over their own problems.
Gundam Wing is often brought up when Gundam 00 is discussed, and the two do have some superficial similarities, as the Gundams completely outclass any other mobile suit at the start and the pilots are “pretty” and conflicted teenagers. They also both have a fairly large political element. However, the central conceit in 00 is fundamentally idiotic where Wing’s isn’t. The pilots in Wing are teen soldiers deployed by various space colonies for the purpose of prying independence from Earth-bound government. Whatever else there is to say about Wing, and regardless of whether such an approach should possess any efficacy, this isn’t inherently stupid. 00, on the other hand, gives us a group of people on high who plan to stop war and violence by, uh, being more powerful and violent than anyone else, which is. I originally wrote this post without saying why this idea strikes me as foolish, but I think I do need to address it. So! Here’s why – because it rests completely on the character and morals of the people who hold that power. There’s no external check on it. But we’ve also got a lot of counter evidence, too, that pursuing world peace by punching everyone in the face doesn’t really work. World War I was called “The War to End All Wars”. I was going to tell you how many we’ve had since, but I gave up after counting to fifty and only having gotten up to 1934.*
Now, one can quibble that maybe 00 is concerned with critiquing this facile idea… but there isn’t much evidence to support this, at least not in this first season. In fact, the first season ends with protagonists having floated the idea that the world’s unification against their program might actually be what the true goal of their would-be demigod Aeolia Schenberg all along. It’s one of the final stabs at depth which the show makes, and it’s just as facetious ultimately as all the other attempts at complexity and greater meaning that have preceded it.
In connection with this, there’s also an implicit argument made that what determines the ethicality of actions is whether the people acting are themselves good or bad, not so much what the concrete, immediate outcome of those actions are. Roughly two-thirds into the show another set of Gundam pilots (“Meisters” in 00’s telling) is introduced, Team Trinity. They save the collective rear ends of our protagonists, but we’re quickly taught to dislike them, as they display an arrogant attitude toward our original cast, and one of them sexually assaults one of the original Meisters. From there, they proceed into further villainy, first by blowing up munitions factories (Gasp!, says the show – civilians work there! But if soldiers sleeping in bunks are fair game in the pursuit of world peace, why are civilians voluntarily working in the defense industry considered sacred and separate?), then by attacking a wedding solely because the guests are having fun while these very bad Meisters are working.
Initially, Trinity claims the same goal as Celestial Being does, before inevitably it becomes clear that, no, they probably don’t. However, they did claim the mantle of peace at one point, and it brings us to another idea – that people who are bad will have goals that are likewise bad, and that the same is true of good people and good ideas. On first blush, this seems like a no shit sort of moment. Except that matters to do with humans are very rarely that straightforward, and, if anything, we run into the biggest issues not from those who think that they are bad and that their goals are probably bad, but rather from those who think that they’re a good person and that their goals are also good, especially when they think that their goals are good for humanity. Colonialism was fueled by people who were convinced that what they were doing was good and beneficial. Japan’s imperial actions in Asia in the lead-up to and during World War II had similar ideology backing it (i.e. we are smarter and more civilized, and we have a duty to our backwards brethren to make their lives better with our smarts and civilization). And, not to get all Godwin in here, but Hitler also thought his actions were morally right (which, by the way, is why he essentially stopped supporting his military in the face of Operation Barbarossa and part of why he committed suicide – because if his Aryan-stocked military was failing in the face of barbaric Slavs, it meant that his racial ideology was wrong, and if his racial ideology was wrong, then the Aryan race deserved destruction so they couldn’t pollute the world).
So, given that Trinity’s actions more largely are in accordance with the same ideology which Celestial Being espouses, one can only conclude that the difference between the two isn’t so much that one turns out to have been lying as that, well, Trinity is bad, but Celestial Being is good. Therefore, Celestial Being’s actions are good. Because if Celestial Being thinks that the best path to world peace is by being more violent than anyone else, then Trinity’s destruction of defense industry-related things like munitions factories and scientific labs for the development of weaponry makes perfect sense. It likewise means that the disgusted reaction of Celestial Being’s personnel to these actions is just vapid posturing on their part to convince themselves that, no, they’re totally different than all those other groups and people who’ve either tried to or argued that the secret to peace is letting one entity have all the means of violence at their disposal. If, again, they prescribe to the idea that bombing the shit out of the world will make everyone stop fighting, dithering about civilians involved with the production of violence is counterproductive and morally bankrupt. If a war continues to grind onward and destroy and kill, does it matter whether this is because there are more willing military volunteers, or if it’s since there are still bombs being made? No, because the result is the same – the war continues!
So, I’ll repeat and somewhat re-phrase myself – 00 is a bad show because it springs from a well of stupidity.
While the primary embodiment of that stupidity is the idiotic premise of Celestial Being, though, it is hardly the only way in which it manifests. I could surely gasbag for a while here, but there’s only really one item which I want to harp on as far as this is concerned, and that’s the squandering of the setting, or, rather, the potential of the setting. We’re told that in the world of 00, there were huge wars fought over energy, and that a big underlying source of tension continues to be energy (and this, by the way, strikes me as a much more intriguing story than one about people trying to force the world to play nice by blasting them repeatedly with mechs). But the fact is that very little of this is ever demonstrated; it’s primarily confined the characters informing us of this via fairly dull info-dump sessions involving characters who are difficult to get worked up about. Strip it out, and it wouldn’t alter the arc of the show, although it would likely render Marina Ismail’s presence in it even more difficult to figure out.
Underpinning this is that the world-building writ large is lazy and uninspired. Stories about the future will often draw on contemporary events and realities, but when they do so successfully, it’s not because they did a copy and paste job. 00 is content to do just that; the Troubles have lasted roughly three hundred years, as has the Sri Lankan Civil War (tough break for 00 here, as that conflict in fact wrapped up before the second season managed to). The Middle East is still entirely dependent on oil revenue. The overall world balance of power is what it was in 2007/8. I’ll give them a little bit of credit in that, unlike a lot of other Sunrise mech shows, neither the wet-dream of a dominant Japan or the self-righteous fantasy of a Japan struggling gloriously against colonial domination is in evidence here, but that, too, is in keeping with Japan’s relative world position of 2007/8. Because of the sheer level of laziness involved, this is all quite frankly irritating – the writers really want us to think they’re telling a cerebral story, but are totally uninterested in exercising their imagination in presenting a future world to us (this extends to technology, by the way, as outside of the mechs, there are only cosmetic differences versus what we already have).
Despite all my negativity, I did say that I didn’t hate the show, and it is true that I didn’t hate it. I just think it’s poorly-written, pretentious crap that very occasionally manages to cough up a decent character and even more occasionally manages to deliver an effective scene (the one involving Louise Halevy in the hospital toward the end was truly shockingly well-done, all the more so since the characters in the scenes were ones I didn’t actually care about). Any time Haro was involved, things improved immensely, as Haro here generally remains in the realm of “actual asshole”; I’ve always loved it when Haro crosses over from being mildly pesky to being a jerk, and 00 didn’t disappoint there. The show is also quite funny at points, although not nearly as much as it should be – a character named Allelujah who has an evil alternate personality name Hallelujah is bound to inspire some snickers, but so much of the runtime is eaten up with incredibly boring pseudo-intellectual conversations. My eyes glazed over so frequently that I could’ve been mistaken for a ceramic mug.
Anyway, I set out to write this as a review, but ended up more sticking to an evisceration of the show’s ideological core (and thus changed the title). Maybe the second season redeems it; based on the fact that anyone who commented on this piece of the franchise claimed that the first season is good while the second goes off the rails, I’m quite doubtful.
* This, by the way, isn’t to assert that peacekeeping missions don’t necessarily work, as these, too, are generally predicated on an outside organization coming into a conflict zone and enforcing the peace. However, this isn’t analogous to how Celestial Being works, as it doesn’t really rely on “everyone gets punched in the face” in a militaristic sense. Instead, peacekeepers are more about providing monitoring, so that if one faction breaks a ceasefire, then administrative/economic punishments follow. But! It’s also fair to point out that there have been a lot of situations where peacekeeping forces haven’t been helpful – for a particularly egregious example, see Srebrenica.