So I finished Yoshiyuki Tomino’s Turn-A Gundam a few days ago. Spoilers follow!
Others have said it, but I’ll say it again: Turn-A Gundam is a mess. Not only is the premise completely ridiculous (Earth people with steam engines and biplanes versus giant robots from the moon!) and the cast of characters enormous to the point of being impossible to keep track of, but the pacing is all over the map, alternating between almost too fast and ponderously slow. The leader of the moon people on Earth and the daughter of a miner switch places and no-one is the wiser. The main character is forced to cross-dress in order to confuse the moon people. Key players involve a tribe of moon hippies who emigrated to the Earth years ago, a strongman wearing a silly outfit with a penchant for screaming “GUNDAM!” (he loses his memory, becomes a monk and vanishes for much of the series) and a pod of whales that saves the protagonists at a key moment. The giant robot has a mustache. It also does laundry. Etcetera.
And yet. Turn-A Gundam is one of the best anime I’ve seen, not just despite but because of these things. Plenty of space opera is completely po-faced, its characters giving Shakespearean monologues against a backdrop of incomprehensibly huge interstellar war. The Gundam series in particular is famed for lengthy, gritty sagas pitting multiple factions against each other, preaching the message that “war is hell” while lavishing animation talent on depicting giant mechanical soldiers smashing into each other. Turn-A Gundam, on the other hand, does have a sense of humor. It is not afraid to be silly, to give entire episodes over to characters having misadventures in the midst of wartime. As large as the cast may be, almost every character grows at least a bit from the beginning of the show to the end, and you come to like just about everything. Finally, rather than a story about a war Turn-A is a story about preventing a war. The series ends with the cast struggling to prevent the legendary “Dark History” from happening again, and with it the horrors of past Gundam series (and perhaps, considering the antagonist’s weapon of choice, Japan’s own militaristic past.)
What it comes down to is as idiosyncratic as parts of Turn-A Gundam can be, Tomino has mastered the secret to anime success: the perfect execution of the series-defining, individual moment. You’ve seen these before. Unit-01 eating Zeruel and howling at the moon. Hikaru reaching out and catching Minmay in mid-air. Renton doing the same with Eureka in his own series. Turn-A Gundam is packed full of these moments, and has an almost prescient ability to emphasize through visuals, music or dialogue the exact importance of each scene. It’s the equivalent of a Hail Mary pass every four or five episodes (or fewer!)
If I had time (and a better knowledge of the series, and of previous Gundam shows) I could go back and point out exactly which parts of the series succeed at that particular trick. Instead, I’ll just mention the ending montage, which might be one of the most emotionally affecting scenes I’ve seen animated. In just a handful of minutes, the series manages to wrap up dozens of plot threads, many of which might not even have been obvious until that moment. Multiple characters are granted much-needed closure and emotional catharsis by the narrative. Many have claimed that Turn-A is the happiest of Gundam endings (and considering Tomino’s reputation, I wouldn’t be surprised) but Turn-A‘s montage has its sadness as well. Not every character recieves a happy ending, and the conclusion for protagonist Loran, his friends Sochie and Kihel and Dianna of the moon is melancholy but remarkably in character for all four of them.
Perhaps the credit should really go to Yoko Kanno, whose piece “Moon’s Cocoon” plays over the montage. Kanno is one of the best-loved anime composers of all time, and “Moon’s Cocoon” (which also serves as the ED for the last few episodes) might be one of my favorite songs from her, which considering her other work is saying a lot. There’s a kind of resonance in how the story of Turn-A comes to center around the legendary “Moonlight Butterfly,” and that the lyrics of “Moon’s Cocoon” serve to wrap up the myth at the show’s end. Tomino’s influence as a creator and director is pretty well-known at this point, but I think it was a brilliant choice on his part that he chose to let Kanno’s music carry the final part of the story. It turns what could have been a rushed mess into something that seems entirely purposeful and, at times, devastating.
Other anime have attempted “life goes on” endings after the final battle. Gankutsuou devoted an entire episode to its cast recovering from the fallout of the penultimate episode, years after the event. Honestly, though, I feel like Tomino and Kanno do a better job. Turn-A might be crazy at times, but through careful writing it remains grounded in human emotion and purpose even as the action reaches a fever pitch. If you’ve enjoyed modern, character-driven mecha series like Eureka Seven, you could definitely do worse than check out Turn-A Gundam (though having Gundam background knowledge to appreciate the various references and callbacks helps.) At times it shows its age, but at its very best little can equal its emotional heft.