For my last column, I finally made some inroads into the vast Mobile Suit Gundam anime franchise by watching the very solid war yarn, Stardust Memory. On the back of that, I thought I’d try to strike while the iron was hot and follow it up with another Gundam series I’d been recommended; 1989’s six parter, War in the Pocket. What I got was certainly not what I had expected.
Set during the same time period as the very first tv run, Gundam 0080: War in the Pocket takes place in the closing days of war between Earth and the off-world colonists of Zeon. Victory for the Earth Federation seems virtually assured, leading Zeon to ever more desperate measures. On the neutral Side-6 space colony however, war is largely something happening to other people, until the conflict suddenly erupts into the heart of their main city. The arrival of battle mechs is a dream come true to the town’s bored, war obsessed schoolboys, but for boastful amateur photographer Alfred, a rude awakening is just around the corner.
Being the first Gundam series produced without original creator, Yoshiyuki Tomino, what struck me most about War in the Pocket is how much it differs from the usual Gundam formula. Stardust Memory is the closest I’ve yet seen to what I would want from the franchise’s typical, politic-heavy action serial format, but War in the Pocket succeeds by offering something completely different.
As the children of World War Two reached middle age, a definite trend emerged in anime of the late 1980s for exploring a child’s view of conflict. Action-dramas Venus Wars and Akira dealt with the teenagers just old enough to be co-opted into fighting, while the melancholic likes of Barefoot Gen and notorious weepie Grave of the Fireflies followed the children displaced by a conflict they had no say in.
War in the Pocket sits somewhere between the two camps, starting out like a Boy’s Own adventure story, as Alfred amuses himself by trying to spy on the adults, taking pictures of a downed mobile suit and eventually latching on to the group of Zeon guerillas charged with destroying Earth’s new model Gundam mech being secretly trialed on the colony. As the story escalates, however, the spirit of adventure is abruptly crushed. The Zeons’ bungle their attempt to steal the Gundam and a bloody battle leaves most of their men dead or dying while Alfred looks on from the sidelines.
One of the typical complaints I have about Gundam in general is its casts of uninteresting or obnoxious characters, but I honestly think this series was more successful in making me care about its players in six episodes, than many others have been in dozens. Indeed, this is an intensely personal series, concentrating less on the wider events than on the loss of innocence for those caught up in the war. Not only Alfred, but also his new-found friend Bernard, a rookie Zeon pilot dragged into the sabotage mission, and Alfred’s neighbour Christina, a Federation soldier. As Alfred becomes increasingly distant from his separated parents, he finds surrogate older siblings in Bernie and Chris, but with them on opposing sides of the conflict, a catastrophic outcome seems inevitable.
Visually, I feel the series has not aged as well as Stardust Memory, despite predating it by only a couple of years. In part, this is probably down to my dislike of Haruhiko Mikimoto’s hyper delicate, doe-eyed character designs, which I think don’t often transfer well to animation, but even the pale, watery colour palette feels strangely tired (maybe it’s just a bad transfer). This aside, the animation itself is reliably smooth and well directed, boasting some very impressive action scenes and a memorably eerie sequence in which Alfred has a nightmare about a nuclear explosion in the colony. The music is also a bit on the treacly side, although this actually does add to the weirdly dreamlike atmosphere present throughout.
Despite being released as part of a tenth anniversary celebration of the franchise, War in the Pocket is such a departure from the norm that it’s difficult to say who exactly it was aimed at. With a few careful changes, it could easily exist entirely outwith the Gundam universe. For that reason, I would hesitate to recommend it as introduction to the wider series, yet, taken in isolation, I think it’s undoubtedly a hidden gem in the Gundam crown. It may not have the raw emotional punch seen in Grave of the Fireflies, but it’s a clever and quietly affecting piece of storytelling that deserves a far broader audience than it seems to get
The series was never released in the UK, but somehow made it to tv in the US (complete with a rather excellent English dub) and is available on R1 DVD. Unfortunately, Amazon sellers are now in full-on price gouge mode for the discs, so be prepared to hunt around for a better deal.
(Originally posted to the BGCP Facebook page 20/7/14)