What’s The Best Way to Watch The Original Gundam?

A compilation of Gundam films are headed to Netflix but are they the definitive version for the first series in the franchise?

Gundam Best Way to Watch
Photo: Sunrise/Netflix

As we all wait with baited breath for Netflix’s live-action Gundam movie, the streaming service is digging into the franchise’s back catalog! Starting June 18 the original three Gundam films, Mobile Suit Gundam I, Mobile Suit Gundam II: Soldiers of Sorrow, and Mobile Suit Gundam III: Encounters in Space, will all be available on Netflix.

For those not in the know, these three films are compilation movies mostly made up of footage from the original Japanese Gundam series (which also aired on Cartoon Network in America) with some new animation thrown in. They condense the series down from 42 episodes to three fairly lengthy films (each over two hours). With three movies being far less of a commitment, many fans (old and new) may wonder if the films are an easier alternative to experiencing the story of the original Mobile Suit Gundam.

Do the movies cut out the “filler” and get right to the point or do they have enough time to really impart what made Gundam so beloved in the first place? Which is the best way to experience the series? The show or movies?

While the films being on Netflix make them the easiest option, I’d argue that you should seek out the full-animated series, which is currently streaming on Crunchyroll and Funimation. This isn’t a recommendation I give lightly. Many might not think that a series from the ‘70s is worth their time – that it’ll have bad animation, won’t live up to modern expectations, or will have too much filler. 

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Many anime fans hate the concept of “filler,” that each and every second of the story must be important to the overall plot and any side deviations are worthless. However, what the original Gundam series does with that extra time is what makes it such a rich and rewarding watch.

Take for example episode 14 of the series, which is completely skipped in the films. On paper, this is a filler episode. A group of Zeon soldiers hide bombs on the Gundam, and Amuro has to remove them before they go off. It’s never brought up again and nothing major is introduced. However, it’s what the episode does with the characters that make it so special.

At this point in the series, main character Amuro is worn down. He was just a kid who loved working on electronics but he’s now the main weapon of the Earth forces against the Zeon. He’s the only one who can use the Gundam to the height of its ability and is constantly on high alert in order to leap into battle at a moment’s notice. He’s begun to withdraw from everyone around him thanks to this immense pressure.

When Amuro discovers the bombs on the Gundam, he does everything he can to remove them. When he can’t remove the final bomb, his desperation sets in. He digs with all his might to try and get the bomb out. He might die… but in the same breath he worries the Gundam will be destroyed as well. He sees himself worthy of living only if the Gundam survives. His self worth is completely tied to it.

The Gundam is the only way he has to strike back at the universe for everything it’s done to him. He’s been traumatized by all the major events of the series and this “filler” episode is perfectly used to flesh that out. 

In the climax of the episode, though, we get a pulse-pounding yet heartwarming moment when the rest of the main cast rush out to help him remove the final bomb. They know they might die but they don’t care, they have to save him. Despite all the friction that’s gone on between them, despite Amuro trying to push them away, they still care about him. It’s a reminder to Amuro he doesn’t have to deal with this all on his own.

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The episode also features a B plot that lays a lot of groundwork to humanizing the group of Zeon soldiers. After planting the bombs, they watch Amuro try to remove them. With every bomb he deactivates they grow to appreciate his talent. We see their humanity on display when, after Amuro and the others save the Gundam, they drive up to Amuro pretending to be civilians. They congratulate him on a job well done. These soldiers aren’t mustache twirlers or useless cannon fodder, they’re just regular guys caught up in this war like Amuro. 

This B plot that, once again, has no major impact on the wider story of the series still helps to drive home the complex morality Mobile Suit Gundam uses to such great effect. This isn’t just a whiz bang shoot ‘em up show. These soldiers are people and may have tragic backstories just like Amuro and the rest of the lead cast.

There are tons of examples like these that don’t make it into the compilation movies. They aren’t 100% essential but they make the Gundam universe and its characters feel more fleshed out. With room to breathe, the characters get to feel more like people instead of pieces on a chess board being moved around to keep the plot going. With the extra time the themes of the series get to shine brighter. Condensing the show down into three movies gets the Wikipedia level information across but the heart is somewhat missing.

It also doesn’t help that while the Mobile Suit Gundam entries are called movies, they don’t work like regular films. They’re just scenes from the show cut up, so the pacing can be very off at times. If you’re expecting three act structures these movies are not it. They’re an original Gundam “best of,” plain and simple.

Now, if you only have time for the movies, that’s perfectly fine. Better to watch these films then to never see anything of the original Gundam! I suggest watching the first one and see if it catches your interest. If so, give the series a try. If you do, you’ll really see how much watching the full episodes adds to the experience.

I’d also be remiss in saying there’s technically a third way to experience the original Gundam. The series was novelized by series creator Yoshiyuki Tomino but it’s not recommended for new fans since it’s a dramatic re-imagining of the original story with many plot details and characters changed. It’s more if you’ve already seen the show and want even more Gundam.

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Mobile Suit Gundam I, Mobile Suit Gundam II: Soldiers of Sorrow, and Mobile Suit Gundam III: Encounters in Space will all be available on Netflix Friday, June 18. The original 42 episode series is available on Crunchyroll and Funimation.