Mobile Suit Gundam 0080: War in the Pocket
If the monolith in the film 2001 had a name, it would likely be Gundam.
For the past twenty-five years, the various Gundam stories have entertained massive audiences in Japan, and recently the West has gotten a big taste through the showings of Gundam Wing on the Cartoon Network. It's one of the largest franchises in all of anime, if not the largest, with several television series spanning hundreds of episodes and a few OVAs and films to its count. Thankfully, there are times when the stories aren't quite so epic, and War in the Pocket is a narrative that is compelling as a sideline to the main events in the Gundam universe. Although it has some bad musical choices and a few "cute" moments, War in the Pocket is an exciting foray into a young boy's naive look on war.
War in the Pocket occurs on Side 6, a space colony that has declared itself neutral in the war between the Earth Federation and the Zion separatists. Al is a boy of perhaps 11 or 12 who's not exactly a troublemaker, but not a model student or role model. His mind is on battles between Gundams and Zaku mecha, and his test results suffer as a result. One day, however, an all-out battle rages through the colony, which has never happened in this neutral territory before. He follows one downed Zaku out to a secluded forest, where he meets its pilot, Bernie. Initially distrustful of Al, since there's so much Federation sentiment in the colony, Bernie attempts to blow him off. Al has dreams of battle, however, and soon he catches up with Bernie and the Zion spy team he's with. With his knowledge of the colony, Al helps them plan an attack on a secret Federation base hidden on Side 6. Eventually, Bernie becomes friends with Al, even meeting and having a crush on Al's next-door neighbor, the beautiful Chris Mackenzie. But this is the world of Gundam, and war is not a pretty place. Soon, Bernie, Al, and Chris will find themselves caught between the allegiances they have made to the Federation and Zion forces and the bonds they have with each other.
One of the initial draws for me in watching War in the Pocket was the character design. Created by Macross illustrator Haruhiko Mikimoto, they are simply beautiful, and in many ways the show stays truer to his drawings than even Macross did. Although it's on an OVA budget, the artwork is crisp and beautiful throughout. Any monetary restraint is seen in character motion, which is occasionally a little jerky and missing an in-betweener's hand. On the whole, though, it's very nice. If there's one production concept I didn't like, it was the music. The score felt like something you'd hear for a children's show, happy and peppy. Though the show revolves around a child, the story is certainly not from any Mr. Rogers' episode I've ever seen, and the soundtrack should have reflected that more. It bugged me and brings my score down slightly, but not significantly.
Where War in the Pocket succeeds is in combining exciting action sequences into a program that is actually a drama. Make no mistake: War in the Pocket is far more about the realities of war and the innocence lost than it is about giant robots whacking on each other. But the two are seamlessly integrated; there's no point where we get tired of the drama over the action or vice versa. Al is a complex character, not a hero and not even a good boy, frankly. Unlike many of his Gundam predecessors, he doesn't hop right into a mech and pilot it; he never once even fires a gun. His are the eyes of innocence. Bernie, the Zion pilot, is barely out of his teens (if that). He's scared of failure and of his desire to run away from a war that has no clear sides. Throughout this show, we're never told whether the Federation or the Zion forces have the moral ground, and that's a clincher. We see war without the tinted glasses of ethical obligation, religious duty, or even economic popularity. We see war as death. The final scene of the show (despite the awful choice of music) is very revealing as Al's friends show themselves oblivious to his new reality; we have a completely changed person. Although certain scenes make Al and Bernie's friendship a little too sweet, it's more often poignant.
Mobile Suit Gundam 0080: War in the Pocket, released in 1989, is a good starting point for those interested in seeing what the Gundam madness is all about. It takes far less effort to get into this side story than into the rest of the sprawling Gundam universe. Anyone who thinks that the whole "fighting robot" genre is nothing more than a marketing ploy designed to make our children more violent ought to look here and see a touching, thoughtful anti-war treatise.
Mobile Suit Gundam 0080: War in the Pocket -- violence, brief language -- A-