The Universal Century’s fight between the forces of the Earth Federation and the space-dwelling Zeon is both the foundation of Gundam and also, at times, the albatross around its neck. After 1988’s Char’s Counterattack closed the book on the central rivalry between Amuro Ray and Char Aznable, future Gundam anime would for decades do everything but provide a direct sequel. Gundam F91 and Victory Gundam set their stories decades after the events of Char’s Counterattack, other works like 0080: War in the Pocket and Gundam: 08th MS Team are side stories adjacent to Amuro’s story, and G Gundam launched the concept of alternative-universe Gundam—titles that take the name and basic aesthetics but are worlds unto themselves. This all changed with 2010’s Gundam Unicorn, also known as Gundam UC.
As a sequel to Char’s Counterattack, can get pretty deep into the weeds. For example, to understand the power of the Unicorn Gundam and its heavy incorporation of Psycho Frames and its NT-D system (short for Newtype Destroyer) is to be invested in the lore of the Universal Century timeline. Newtypes are people who have gained extrasensory abilities in response to humankind’s expansion into space, and their subsequent weaponization of leads to the development of both aforementioned technologies; the former is a way to fully utilize their mental and emotional power (and which was once the key to saving the Earth), while the latter is a counter to such abilities. However, while these world-building elements can get complicated, they also provide a rich backdrop for Banagher and Audrey’s stories of confronting the crimes of their forefathers.
SPOILERS BEGIN HERE
Much like the later Mobile Suit Gundam: Hathaway, Gundam Unicorn is based on a novel, but it’s also the first franchise novel to be adapted into a part of the main canon. Taking place shortly after the Earth narrowly avoided having the Luna II asteroid base dropped on it, Gundam Unicorn tells the story of Banagher Links, a student living in a space colony who gets wrapped up in a strange conspiracy after encountering a girl calling herself Audrey Burne. The head of Banagher’s school and head of the Vist Foundation, Cardeas Vist, is the most powerful man in Banagher’s colony, and his immense influence over the Federation has to do with the latter’s fear of something known as “Laplace’s Box.” When a mobile suit battle breaks out in the colony, Banagher’s psychic desire to protect Audrey leads him directly to Vist and the mysterious Unicorn Gundam, a weapon that serves as the “key” to Laplace’s Box. Why the box has such a hold on the Federation and how characters reconcile with their family histories and ties to the history of the founding of the Universal Century are central to the story of Gundam Unicorn.
By the end of the first episode, Banagher discovers that he’s actually the estranged son of Cardeas Vist, and shortly after sees his dad die before Vist gives him exclusive access to the Unicorn Gundam—and with it, a bridge to a secret that terrifies the Federation top brass. In the next episode, Audrey reveals her true identity: She is Mineva Lao Zabi, the last surviving member of Zeon’s original royal family whose leaders steered a fight for independence into a militaristic fascist regime. These central characters, both with deep roots in the two respective warring sides, are continuously challenged to look long and hard at the privileges they’ve received on the backs of the fallen. Their situations are contrasted with another character, Riddhe Marcenas (the son of a Federation politician), who desperately tries to maintain the status quo in order to avoid disrupting the familiar world he’s known.
Banagher is the protagonist, but Mineva is the stand-out character in so many ways. For those already familiar with the history, Mineva is familiar as the innocent baby daughter of Dozle Zabi, who perished fighting the original Gundam in the first anime. The monstrous-looking Dozle was ironically the most righteous and pure-hearted of the Zabis (albeit while still being guilty by association of Zeon’s atrocities), and his selflessness and loyalty are what allowed Mineva to escape with her mother. As the last Zabi, she is revered by the remnant Zeon forces, and she has a regal bearing that speaks to her status. Now on the verge of adulthood, however, Mineva sees her mission as atoning for the sins of the Zabis.
The ultimate direction taken by Banagher, Mineva, and eventually even Riddhe is what I would summarize as “Do good with the advantages you have.” None of the power they possess, whether physical or political, is bloodless, but they decide to reveal the truth that lies behind Laplace’s Box despite the fact that its contents could potentially flip everything upside down. Laplace’s Box turns out to be a monument containing the very first Universal Century charter, previously thought to be lost in a terrorist attack. While something so ceremonial should not be so revelatory, it turns out that this original charter contains a clause surreptitiously removed in later versions:
“In the future, should the emergence of a new space-adapted human race be confirmed, the Earth Federation shall give priority to involving them in the administration of the government.”
In other words, the Federation government was supposed to have enshrined the equal treatment and political representation of the space-born, but purposely revoked it in secret in order to rule over the Spacenoids. This action is revealed by Mineva to all as a successful move to consolidate power, its obfuscation of the truth arguably being the first catalyst that would lead to the One Year War and the continued bloodshed between Federation and Zeon. I have to wonder if this is also meant to be the catalyst that leads to the decline of the Federation that we see in later sequels like F91 and Victory.
The series does not absolve Zeon of their crimes through this, and Mineva outright states that her family is guilty of much tragedy, but that this is about spreading the real history of what transpired and to open the path for a better future. I can’t help but think of the current situation in the US and the attempts to ban the teaching of its racist past and present in an attempt to indoctrinate children into a blind patriotism. I understand that both the novel and anime predate this current unfortunate phenomenon, but nevertheless it feels more relevant than ever. Perhaps it ties into Japan’s own ongoing struggle with rewriting its history books to hide the things its wartime government inflated on its own people and those throughout Asia.
There’s a lot of meat I didn’t even touch upon, and all of it has a lot to say about war, peace, society, and justice. While Gundam Unicorn is really dedicated to trying to fit neatly in the canon of Gundam, it’s also a solid and compelling science fiction anime in its own right. Somehow, its lessons feel more relevant than ever.