Our parents always told us that first impressions count, and while I suspect they were gently trying to explain why scruffy shirts and unwashed hair is not the best ensemble for a job interview, the statement is particularly true of anime, manga, or indeed any serial entertainment that starts out with a pilot, or Episode One. And it makes sense… our time is valuable, and we need to know in a reasonably short span whether this new manga, comic, anime or TV show is worth our commitment. To this end, I’m launching a new semi-regular (i.e. whenever I feel like it) feature that focuses only on the first episode or volume of an anime or manga series. Specifically, I’ll be looking at issues like:
- does it establish the characters, plot, and world in an interesting way, or does it just go for a boring exposition dump?
- does it do a good job of balancing both revelation and mystery, or does it either over-explain everything or leave the audience utterly confused as to what’s going on?
- If I’ve seen the rest of the series: does this actually give an accurate picture of what the rest of the series will be like, or is it one of those, “No, honestly, keep watching, it gets WAY better later!” kinds of series?
- If I have NOT seen the rest of the series: What kind of impression does this give me of the show, and how well does it work as a “standalone” episode?
- Is the episode actually any good? Do I want to watch or read more of this series, and do I recommend it to you guys?
For starters, let’s oppa Gundam style and check out the first episode of one of the more recent iterations of the endless franchise that is Gundam: Gundam Unicorn, a currently ongoing OAV series based in the UC universe. Does the first episode do its job as a good gateway to a brand new series?
Episode summary: This particular Gundam series takes place in the Universal Century timeline,a decade or so after the original Mobile Suit Gundam (and three after Char’s Counterattack). Peace has been established for the most part, but there are still splinter cells of Zeon rebels here and there, and Newtypes are still whispered about with a mix of awe and dread. In one of the space colonies, one of the Neo Zeon groups, the Sleeves, meets with the mysterious Vist Foundation to receive something related to “Laplace’s Box,” an unknown item which can either save the future or destroy it utterly. One of the Sleeves’ members, Audrey Burns, sneaks away in order to convince Vist’s leader NOT to hand it over in fear of causing a war; along the way, she meets our oddly named Boy Pilot of the series, Banagher Links, who becomes almost immediately obsessed with helping her and who soon displays strong Newtype tendencies. Unfortunately, the Federation shows up at an inopportune moment, and before you can say MECHA MECHA HI, everyone is blowing up everyone else with giant robots.
First impressions: Let’s make one thing absolutely, perfectly straight – this is NOT for Gundam newbies. In fact, this series is really only for those fans who already know and enjoy the original UC storyline with Amuro, Char, and so on. Unfortunately, most of my knowledge of Gundam came from late night Gundam VS matches at my university arcade, so I was lost for a large portion of this… and the first episode is in absolutely no way inclined to actually help you out at all. In rapid fire, it dumps factions, squadnames, and mech titles on you one after the other without even the slightest bit of context. Imagine, if you will, a random conversation like this, without any sort of previous explanation before or after of what/who any of it is:
“Has Johnny reported in yet?”
“No. The Londo Bell are moving into position. Neo Zeon won’t be able to respond.”
“Without Full Frontal’s support, the Sleeves won’t be able to find HQ.”
“I know. Also… we’ve had a communication from Vist.”
“What?!” *dramatic musical sting* etc etc
(And yes, before you ask, I did make that conversation up by throwing together terms from the series, but that’s how 50% of the dialogue plays out in this first episode).
Now, my Gundam-loving friends point out that this is all par for the course for Gundam, that the franchise has a habit of namedropping half the universe and throwing out context-less conflicts and information in the first episode before revealing all at a later point. For myself… I’m not so sold on that. My biggest exposure to the Gundam franchise before this episode was Gundam 00, which also had tons of factions, characters, etc in the first episode; the difference is that it actually did a good job of giving the audience enough information to understand, on a basic level, what was happening, who was fighting, and why, all without being too condescending or hand-holding. Don’t get me wrong, mystery is a good thing, and I’m not demanding to have the entire plot explained to me in the first thirty minutes of a series, but there’s a difference between, “I can tell there’s more behind this conflict than meets the eye and it’s more complicated than good guys vs. bad guys,” and “I can’t tell who any of these people are, what they’re doing, or why I should care.” Gundam 00 managed to plant itself firmly in the first camp, while Gundam Unicorn edges a bit too close to the second.
In other respects, this first episode manages to acquit itself decently, if not amazingly. Banagher Links is your standard shonen hero, likable enough, although his sudden obsession with a girl he’s just met is more than a little creepy, even if it’s for semi-supernatural reasons (Newtypes can have sudden, very intense bonds to people). Audrey is an interesting enigma of a character, usually calm and coolly resourceful but with moments of genuine fear and vulnerability. The antagonists, unfortunately, are not quite as striking; the one who stands out the most visually, Marida, isn’t given much in the way of characterization, and we still are left at the end of the episode without much sense of who these people are. Oddly enough, the most interesting character is probably Vist, the mysterious head of the Vist Foundation; while his exact alignment is left as muddied as everything else in this, he at least fits the part of the enigmatic puppetmaster, and his characterization and motives are strongly portrayed in the brief scenes he’s in. The actual character interactions, for the most part, are intriguing, and normally I’d be interested in seeing or knowing more, but after burning out my brain cells on keeping my Londo Bells separate from my Sleeves and my Spacenoids, I don’t have a lot of oomph left for the personal drama.
One other element of note: the action sequences are actually pretty cool, with plenty of speedy mech combat, but like the plot, you’re often left wondering exactly which side is which, partly due to the fact that some of the mechs look rather similar. If you’re a Gundam veteran, this probably won’t be a problem, but newbies may be too distracted figuring out what those blue fighter jet things are and who they’re fighting for to appreciate the combat itself.
Compared to the rest of the series? I haven’t watched the rest of Unicorn yet and thus can’t tell how representative this first episode is of the whole series. However, my friends as mentioned before can certainly confirm that it, in almost every respect, is a “Gundam” kind of first episode, down to the inexperienced but skillful boy pilot who Doesn’t Fit In, the initially incomprehensible politics, and MECHS BLOWING STUFF UP. Likely they’re correct that future episodes will clarify the elaborate factional fighting… but for many people, the incomprehensible but clearly important conversations of this first showing will likely have been forgotten, and the information comes too late to help.
Worth plowing on? Gundam Unicorn is a short series, currently unfinished, so at least plowing onwards with it isn’t a huge timesink. Also, if you are a fan of the UC Gundam universe (or have friends who drag you into watching stuff about it), there’s probably stuff here for you to enjoy. For curious newbies, however, I have to think that this episode has about as many reasons to run screaming from it as it has reasons to stick with it.
Seen Gundam Unicorn? If so, what are your thoughts? Also, what sorts of things do you tend to look for in the first episode or volume of an anime or manga?