Taking place during the all-conquering ‘One Year War’ depicted in the original Mobile Suit Gundam, Thunderbolt eschews the wider conflict to tell a darker, more personal tale of two pilots on opposite sides of the battle, whose intense, hate-fuelled rivalry threatens to consume everything around them.
Set in a strategically important sector of space filled with the debris of a destroyed colony, the story finds a battalion of Earth Federation mech pilots struggling to break through entrenched sniper positions set up by the off-world Principality of Zeon. After one of their snipers is killed in a sneak attack, the Zeons’ best sharpshooter, Daryl Lorenz, promises the dead man’s lover that he will get revenge on the one responsible – Io Fleming, a Federation pilot who plays loud jazz music across his radio and boasts that anyone who hears it is about to die.
Adapting the 2012 manga of the same name, Thunderbolt boasts the kind of lean, focused narrative not often found in the Gundam franchise; it’s brief, intense and requires virtually no prior knowledge of the show. Originally released as a four-part series on internet streaming services, December Sky is a compilation film of all four episodes with a few additional scenes, but still clocks in at just 70 minutes. While some of the more subtle points of the story did go over my head initially, for someone like me, often put off by the length of Gundam series and the need to absorb vast amounts of lore before they can be appreciated, it’s a win-win situation.
A glossy production of obvious quality, Thunderbolt boasts all the spectacular space combat you would expect from the Gundam brand, but to my surprise, it’s the characterisation that is the most outstanding thing here. Despite the short running time, the film makes all its main players seem believable and human with remarkable efficiency, but arguably, we are asked to empathise most with the quiet, meditative Daryl. A young soldier who has already lost both his legs to the war, yet continues to fight with the use of prosthetics, his increasingly harrowing circumstances are in marked contrast with the vivid flashbacks and fantasies he imagines himself in as the film wears on, perhaps even echoing cult anti-war drama Johnny Got His Gun. His nemesis Io comes across as cruel and callous, yet the film treats the two men very even-handedly, showing Io to be likeable and charismatic in a way that the increasingly withdrawn Daryl is not, and with the possibility of redemption in his love for put-upon commanding officer Claudia.
The artwork is interesting to look at, preserving the distinctive look of Yasuo Ohtagaki’s manga down to the letter. Appropriately for a film set in a vision of the future coined nearly 40 years ago, there’s a sort of non-specifically retro look to the character designs, perhaps pulling a little influence from Kouta Hirano’s work on Hellsing. It may not be to everyone’s taste, but I definitely appreciated a break from the identikit heroes of many other space dramas.
Unfortunately, as the film approached its climax, I did begin to feel Thunderbolt might be pushing its grimdark credentials a little too far. As we get into the final act, it seems as though all the remaining cast have done such awful things to survive that there is no-one left to really root for, and little hope for the future. It’s also difficult to know what the narrative wants us to take away from all this. The message may be that everything these people have sacrificed will ultimately amount to very little – a footnote in a war that will drag on for much longer – but the film seems to peter out towards the end, with little fanfare or satisfaction by the time the credits roll.
December Sky is an exciting and occasionally powerful film whose grittier take on the Gundam universe is sure to please fans in search of more mature storytelling, or casual viewers looking for a quick hit without any long term commitments. Yet, its journey into darker territory may alienate fans of the franchise’s typically more adventurous spirit, and its anticlimactic ending does detract from the experience as a whole, leaving this film just short of true greatness.
The only releases of December Sky currently available are the heftily priced Japanese DVD and BDs, but both include English subtitles and (a very good) English-language dub track. At the time of writing, the most ready way of purchasing the discs is through either amazon.co.jp or ebay, but beware of bootlegs if you choose the latter option.