The Age Of The Newtypes Begins
Set after the events of Mobile Suit Gundam Unicorn, the Unicorn and Banshee suits have been dismantled and the existence of newtypes is now public knowledge but this hasn’t led to the great shift of power that was initially expected. The mysterious appearance of the third RX0 unit, the Phenex, prompts the Republic of Zeon (led by eccentric pilot Zoltan, voiced by Umehara) to secretly conduct a search to acquire it but Mineva Zabi is politically incapable of intervening. Through flashback we are introduced to three “miracle children” (Jona, Michele and Rita) who precognitively predicted the fallout of Operation British (saving lives in the process) but were then taken to be extensively tested on. By UC0097, Jona Basta [Enoki] is a mobile suit pilot, Michele [Muranaka] is working for her father’s powerful company Luio & Co and it is suspected that Rita Bernal [Matsuura] is piloting the Phenex.
For many Gundam fans, Unicorn is either a specific high point or a gateway into the franchise; short and insanely beautiful, it’s a series standout. Subsequently, any continuation of the Universal Century story was going to have an extremely difficult time living up to its predecessors. On the surface, there are a lot of immense positives to take away from this instalment, from the extremely interesting world-building continuation with the strong focus on newtypes to the questions of identity, evolution and connection. More than that, the outlines of a good Gundam show are here – subterfuge, political machinations, emotionally-charged personal drive, pressure placed upon innocent youth, glorious mech battles – but almost every element is either underdeveloped or rushed over, crammed in to a meagre 88 minute runtime. Disappointingly, this was a recurring thought that cropped up as I was watching the film, how could we fix this choppy narrative? Flesh it out properly in a full series. The powers of the II Neo Zeong feel oddly mapped out (the II Neo Zeong is already overpowered, it doesn’t really benefit from mobile suit puppets)? Just take the time to full explore its potential abilities and the reason for its construction. On top of that, a more evenly paced and generous length would have added impact to the overarching legacy of the piece. Unlike Unicorn, Narrative lacks a certain standalone quality and requires a large amount of Gundam canon knowledge (confirmed by the use of archive footage) which might work in a 12 episode series but doesn’t here.
I should clarify, the “just make it a TV series instead of a film” argument is a bit of a lazy fall-back for critics since the rise of prestige television a decade or so ago. More often than not, I will happily defend the cinematic medium and argue that a reworked or stronger story can resolve a lot of the above issues. But this is not a case of a story written solely for the big screen, nor is it spawned from a series of movies, it is that classically doomed exercise of a film that follows a long-running series and whether it’s The Simpsons, South Park or even The X-Files, the translation from long-form narrative to a single big budget outing can often ring hollow and unsatisfying.
While the story squanders a lot of potential, one of the trades offered up is superior sound and visuals but Narrative stumbles once again. I will admit that the score was mostly subtle and foreboding but in classic anime film fashion, during the pinnacle battle sequences, this gives way to J-Pop/J-Rock tracks that feel out of place and significantly sully the mood. The bigger surprise, however, was the quality of the visuals, which weren’t as good as something like Origin, let alone Unicorn. Oddly animated faces, very uninventive fight sequences and far too many clumsy pop-up screen-within-screens – which were likely a time saving method so as not to detract from the exposition and the combat but felt more like cheap video game cut-scenes. And then the film resurrects classic sound effects from the 70s that felt incredibly dated and jarring rather than jarring than celebratory. I understand the need for homage but without reworking the effect in any way, it stood out rather painfully.
Finally we have the characters – one of the most important elements of any Gundam release. Sure, audiences initially come for the big stompy robots but you stay for the politics and forever remember the characters. Narrative unfortunately comes close to greatness with some heightened character designs, solid vocal performances and decently crafted personalities, only to falter with their execution. The central trio are all quite compelling but so much of their story is revealed through flashback and rather than pushing forward with the UC story, Narrative is more concerned with introducing and resolving these characters; something I would actually praise if it didn’t make the story so unbalanced. Then we have the lead antagonist, Zoltan Akkanen, who is amusingly over-the-top and brings a lot of colour and life to the proceedings. I very much enjoyed Umehara’s performance, there’s a lot of the flamboyancy that is on display in Origin’s hybridisation of old and new but the character’s motivation and background are shockingly unclear and what could be construed as an enticing tease is actually a frustrating glimpse of what could have been. Similarly, revelations like a central character not actually being a newtype and powerful deaths feel far too rushed over and dismissed. Even cameos like the appearances of Banagher and Mineva are mediocre and sterilised, making them ineffective through their inactivity.
Ultimately, there is enough of a release here to pass the time and generate talking points for moving into the next chapter of the Universal Century story. But at this point, Narrative isn’t a lead-in to some pending series, it’s a completely standalone feature that regrettably fails to live up to the legacy that came before it.
The Scene To Look Out For:
While I was largely disappointed with the artwork and direction, the colony fight in the rain between Zoltan and Basta, while trying to procure the II Neo Zeong, was very impressive. There was a nice scope and scale that emphasised the importance and gravitas of the feud and, for lack of better phrasing, felt like a Gundam release.
Rather than highlighting a standout character that I particularly enjoyed, I kept circling individuals that felt weak or a little too embryonic and nebulous. Sometimes this came down to the direction the story was taking but with someone like Michele, I thought a lot of interesting threads were frittered away. But, as stated, this conclusion could very much be applied to the majority of those present.
“Genuinely happy things always come together with painful things or sad things”
In A Few Words:
“With the foundation it had, Narrative squanders what could have been a truly fantastic instalment but it is not completely without merit”