Mobile Suit Gundam Thunderbolt: December Sky Review

War is dirty. War is a sickness. War is pain for all, with scars that will never truly heal. This one of the central themes of the original Mobile Suit Gundam (MSG) that first graced television screens in 1979 with its bleak, sometimes horrifying rendition of what war might look like when mankind finally breaks free of Earth’s atmosphere to colonise the depths of space. That was a timeless story, where forces on two opposing sides, the earthbound Federation and the spacefaring Principality of Zeon, both suffered and committed unspeakable atrocities to one another, along with every innocent caught in the crossfire. Studio Sunrise now revisits this idea in Mobile Suit Gundam Thunderbolt, an adaptation of a manga that originally aired as a 4 episode web series before being compiled into a full-length film called December Sky.

Poster

Running in parallel to the original Mobile Suit Gundam series and taking place during the final days of the One Year War, Thunderbolt presents the battle for the ‘Thunderbolt Sector’, a shoal zone filled with the remains of a destroyed space colony and plagued by electrical storms. Federation forces are attempting to retake the area surrounding the colony, but their advance is halted by Zeon’s ‘Living Dead Division’, a unit of snipers filled with amputees. In the midst of battle, an encounter between two opposing ace pilots begins a deadly obsession that torments them both to a psychotic degree. Their fight is only further escalated by the introduction of a new type of mobile suit, whose name is now infamous on both sides: Gundam.

Before going any further, if any of the things mentioned in the previous two paragraphs meant nothing to you, Thunderbolt is likely not for you, yet. Existing knowledge of the major conflicts presented in the original Mobile Suit Gundam are not absolutely required, but knowing clearly what is happening in the background of this film definitely makes the viewing experience a lot smoother. Though its visuals are extremely dated, I recommend watching the original 1979 TV series first (or at least its three compilation films) before coming back to Thunderbolt. The original series remains to this day, one of the greatest science-fiction visions of warfare ever put on film and Thunderbolt, though sometimes floundering in rushed character arcs, overall serves as a worthy and engrossing supplement to the original story.

This is the third time that other areas of conflict in the One Year War have been explored outside of the original Gundam series. 1980’s War in the Pocket viewed the effects from a civilian standpoint while 1996’s The 8th MS Team took place from the perspective of ground forces fighting across the Earth. Both had varying tones, yet still many a time still tried to maintain a hopeful outlook that at least some manner of peace could come from all the fighting. Thunderbolt takes the polar opposite approach, offering the full spectrum of wartime horrors to the viewers on a gritty, blood-soaked plate.

Darly

The outlook is refreshingly mature from the start, the opening minutes featuring snippets like Federation pilots kissing their partners goodbye before heading out on what is seemingly a suicide mission to attempt to breach the Zeon sniper net. Right from these opening moments, director Kou Matsuo shows a keen attention to detail with these small touches that help to immerse the viewer in Thunderbolt’s gritty and death-laden setting, assisted by sharp, expressive character designs and an equally sharp script that, for the most part, manages to clearly present the effects that war has military and civilian populations, without the messages ever seeming ham-fisted. Considering the number of themes on display here and the admiral showcase of each, Thunderbolt does a pretty decent job of balancing its thematic significance with a fast paced mecha war story.

The compiled film clocks in at only 69 minutes, moving briskly from loud, jazz fuelled action set pieces to solemn and almost disturbingly quiet personal moments, yet still manages to cram in mostly satisfying, if limited, character arcs into the short running time.  The two leads, Federation hotshot Io Fleming and Zeon ace Daryl Lenz form a fairly competent, if predictable, dichotomy, yet it’s the supporting cast of both sides that really make up the bulk of the interesting and relatable personalities, specifically Claudia Peer, the captain of the Federation division, and Karla Pitchum, a Zeon scientist using the Living Dead division as research subjects for advancing the mobile suit arms race. Both these characters get a little too caught up in their positions and it’s both simultaneously gratifying and tragic to see how the battle for the Thunderbolt sector pushes them over the edge.

Fleming

As par the course with Gundam projects, the voice cast does a stellar job, with both English and Japanese dub turning out memorable performances. I’d personally recommend watching Thunderbolt in both languages, mainly just to see the, at times, wildly different interpretations of Io Fleming the voice actors have.

As much as I want to commend Thunderbolt for its engaging thematic exploration of the effects of war, the real highlight of the film is easily the animation and music. In a time when many Japanese animation studios are looking towards 3D CGI for use in their films and TV series (Sunrise themselves are even extensively using it in the Mobile Suit Gundam: The Origin film series) it’s incredibly uplifting to see a mecha anime where everything is gorgeously rendered in sharp, crisp and colourful 2D glory. Thunderbolt’s battle scenes are some of the most fluid and well-crafted I’ve seen in a long time, with mobile suits that swiftly zip between chunks of debris to avoid oncoming fire, only to whizz around for the kill moments later. Matsuo triumphs here again with memorable images, such as nearly minute long POV shot that plays out a pilot’s last moments before his suit is destroyed. Character animation is equally as impressive, an early scene featuring Fleming drumming away in the cockpit of his mobile suit being a prime showcase.

Speaking of drumming, not only does Thunderbolt get a perfect score in the sound design department thanks to it including a massive plethora of authentic sounding mechanical effects, but music plays a much greater role in this film than perhaps in any other Gundam project. Both the main characters listen to very different genres of music, Fleming dabbling extensively in jazz, while Daryl listens to pop. These genres make up almost the entirety of Thunderbolt’s score and not only are the individual songs well produced, they’re effectively utilised both typically and atypically throughout the film, as the makers play with the placement of specific tracks in thematically relevant ways.

Sniperfire

Thunderbolt may not be a clear entry point into the Gundam franchise, and its breakneck pacing and somewhat underwhelming main characters may not work for all viewers, but for everyone else, the film showcases the highest possibilities of what can be achieved with a dedicated creative team using traditional 2D animation. Its technical merits bolster an already strong narrative foundation to make Thunderbolt a worthy addition to the Universal Century timeline. This is the best Gundam has been since the debut of Unicorn in 2010 and I certainly will be keenly looking forward to many more projects both from this creative team and this franchise (nudge, an adaptation of Crossbone Gundam please Sunrise). Thunderbolt is a stylish triumph, absolutely worth the little time it asks of its viewers.

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