The climactic battle of Mobile Suit Gundam 0080: War in the Pocket deserves detailed attention.
I’m a little ambivalent about doing this, however. On the one hand, I love 0080 and I’m aware that not everyone who reads this will have seen it – so it’s a chance for me to recommend it. On the other hand, I’m going to write a commentary on the final battle of the series, and so by its very nature, it will be spoileriffic.
I really wish I was able to write good reviews, because then I could encourage you to watch this without giving away the ending. But I can’t. All I can do is say ‘This is great, and I can’t tell you why without ruining some of it for you’. It’s your choice whether to read on or not.
The action in this OVA really is brilliant, though in a different way to the superb Balsa vs. Jin confrontation which I have covered like this previously. What 0080 is laced with is a sense of futility and desperation; it’s the closing weeks of the One Year War, and the Principality of Zeon know they’ve lost. Because of this, and because it’s set in a (supposedly) neutral colony, there’s a constant sense that the soldiers, Mobile Suits and their associated paraphernalia are out of place, a continuous hint of what I can only call wrongness. Put a Mobile Suit on the White Base and nothing seems out-of-place. Crash one into suburbia, on the other hand, and things will begin to go wrong. It’s all about this kind of juxtaposition.
This all comes to a head in the final confrontation, which is entirely unnecessary . . . but enough about the plot, let’s take a closer look at the actual battle.
As far as I’m concerned, the fight begins with these shots of the Zaku’s mono-eye swivelling round to pick out the NT-1 as it lands. So far, so normal: since 1979, Zakus have always swivelled their eyes around menacingly, and Gundams have always landed on the scene looking cool.
What we might want to take notice of, however, is the NT-1’s condition. It’s unarmed apart from the weapons built into its body and close observation reveals that the left arm of the head’s V-fin has been blown off. Christina’s sortie is a rather desperate attempt as the NT-1 hasn’t been repaired or rearmed since its last battle (and in more normal Gundam series, it’s rare for any MS to go unrepaired between battles). The V-fin is a key part of the archetypal Gundam ‘look’, and the lack of one fin makes the NT-1’s head look unbalanced – another subtle contribution to the sense that something is wrong.
The NT-1 opens fire on Bernie with one of its arm-mounted guns (the only one which has ammunition). Now, most Gundam weapons are both badass and glamourous (beam sabres, massive rifles et cetera), but this one is merely badass. Izubuchi‘s mechanical design work on these guns is great – and they produce a deliciously guttural rattle when fired – but in glamour terms standing there and blasting away at your enemy doesn’t cut it [pun most definitely intended] compared to charging in, beam sabre buzzing.
Bernie lures the NT-1 into the forest where he and Al have prepared their traps. The subs give me Bernie’s comment as ‘Okay. Good boy.’ I’d love to know whether the Japanese word really is ‘boy’, as, if it is, it’s a blunt reminder that Bernie doesn’t know who he’s fighting; the NT-1’s pilot is no ‘boy’ but rather Chris, his – how shall I say – proto-girlfriend? Meanwhile Al arrives on the scene with the news that Bernie’s battle is unnecessary. Not that he’s able to get his message across – or even be noticed by the two combatants.
The pink smoke cloud which Bernie has set up to prevent the NT-1 just blowing him away lends everything a bloody hue, which is a clever touch.
Bernie tricks Christina into wasting her amunition shooting at decoys. This isn’t especially significant beyond what the decoys are: giant inflatable Christmas balloons, one Father Christmas and one snowman. Juxtaposition is probably one of 0080‘s most-used devices: this episode is set at Christmastime, we’ve Mobile Suits completely out-of-place in a neutral urban environment and Al’s image of war being set alongside the Zeon special forces’ attitude. This is another instance.
It’s decidedly surreal seeing a battle involving a giant Santa, but then I think one of the things 0080 does so well is that it makes war itself seem irrational and surreal. Also, both balloons and Santa are closely connected with childhood innocence (consider the opening lines of the second episode of Haruhi). I’m sure I don’t need to produce a suitable interpretion for the sight of a giant balloon Santa being destroyed by a Mobile Suit: you’ve already thought of it.
Bernie and Chris wound each other. Logically, it’s unlikely that two pilots would exchange wounds in quite this equal manner. But 0080 doesn’t really attempt to have internal logic or attention to likelihood. It’s a different mode of storytelling to the kind employed in your standard saga-structure Gundam series; I’m tempted, in fact, to call 0080 a tragic melodrama, or perhaps a tragic mechodrama.
Anyway, they wound each other. And Bernie’s wound especially looks awful. It’s always fun when we see humans being hit by Mobile Suit-sized weapons: it’s a reminder of the scale difference. [Nicol in SEED 29, anyone?]
Bernie bodily tackles the NT-1 with his Zaku, and they slide down the hill. At this point there’s a wail of what I think is a saxophone (music is not my forte), which is rather appropriate. Saxophones bring jazz to mind, and what we’re seeing here is a kind of desperate improvisation by both sides.
In the final confrontation the NT-1 is decapitated and the Zaku more-or-less explodes. Mecha fans obviously devote considerable affection to the mecha in series which they like, and so a common tactic to ramp up the emotional desperation of a final battle is to seriously damage the ‘title’ mecha.
Casting around for something analogous outside of anime, I think of the treatment of the Serenity in Serenity, and (moving further afield) the fate of H.M.S. Sutherland in A Ship of the Line. Using something inanimate as something like a character brings certain advantages. [Have you ever found yourself trying to figure out what the RX-78-2's expression is? I know I have.]
Tableau. Absolute silence and a still image are hardly imaginative choices to convey the fatal moment, but if it isn’t broken then one should feel no imperative to fix it, as it were.
Then we have the clean-up. The whole battle is layered with tragic irony, playing on two gaps in knowledge: Al knows, unlike Bernie, that the fight is unnecessary (though he can’t get the message to Bernie in time); and the viewers know, unlike Al or Bernie, that Chris is piloting the NT-1. The clean-up contains the brutal moment of revelation, as the unconscious Chris is lifted out of the body of the NT-1 in front of Al’s eyes. The script puts the boot in: we’re informed by the soldiers’ comments in the background that the likeable Bernie has been burnt to a crisp, and then they ask Al if he’s ‘okay’.
Who the hell would be okay after seeing that?
I’ve recently argued that one of the techniques used in Kaiji is to implicate the viewer in the action: Kaiji forces us to consider how we treat Kaiji’s suffering as entertainment. It strikes me that something similar may be going on in War in the Pocket. We’re Gundam fans, after all. We like to see a Gundam fight; in this respect we’re not unlike Al in his childish desire to see real Mobile Suits in action at the beginning of the series. And then we do see a Gundam fight, and – while it’s exciting and dramatic – it’s also awful, futile and desperate.
Bernie’s afterword steers close to preaching at the viewer, but it’s saved by his youth – this isn’t an authority figure talking to us – and by his instruction to ‘say hi to Chris for me’. Far too raw to be reduced to a trite soundbite. Rather we’re left to BAWWW our hearts out and wonder why we’re so devoted to this OVA.
Yes, it’s that sad
And then we plan to watch it next Christmas too.
The internet is not exactly awash with coverage of 0080, but That’s Not Kanon contains an interesting article about character death which deals in part with the show.