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Sunday, Dec. 5, 2004

THE ASIAN BOOKSHELF

Way of the corporate giant robot


MOBILE SUIT GUNDAM, by Yoshiyuki Tomino, translated by Frederik L. Schodt with an introduction by Mark Simmons. Stone Bridge Press, 2004, $14.95 (paper).

Yoshiyuki "Kill 'em All" Tomino is the mega-prolific creator of the Mobile Suit Gundam phenomenon, known, perhaps a little patronizingly, as the "Star Wars of Japan." He is really more of a C.S. Lewis of SF anime -- the inventor of an absurdly huge and detailed fictional world as coherent, obsessive and confidently executed as Narnia or even J.R. Tolkien's Middle Earth.

He is also the frustrated and impassioned artiste at the center of a multimillion-dollar global military-industrial complex of anime and toys.

Stone Bridge Press has re-released his original "Mobile Suit Gundam" trilogy of novels -- "Awakening," "Escalation" and "Confrontation" (first published in the United States in 1990) -- as a three-volume set, translated by manga/anime authority Frederik L. Schodt and introduced by super-otaku Gundam expert Mark Simmons, to sync with the steady rise in fame of the Gundam franchise in America.

According to the apocrypha, Tomino got started at Osamu Tezuka's Mushi Productions where, in 1964, he worked as a writer-director on episodes of the seminal "Mighty Atom" TV series (also known as "Astro Boy," a feature film of which is scheduled for release in 2005).

His 1975 giant robot directorial debut was a huge success. More and similar story lines were demanded of him, and Tomino was forced to write to formula -- one determined by future toy releases. The story goes that 1979's "Mobile Suit Gundam" series was a middle finger to corporate stipulations, the later novels even more so.

Beyond the spectacle of giant robots, "Mobile Suit Gundam" is essentially the story of a colonial rebellion against the mother empire. Earth is overpopulated, and colonies are formed in space stations orbiting what are known as LaGrange points. Some of the colonies grow angry at what they perceive as ill-informed Earthly influence over their business, and a bloody war begins between the principality of Zeon and the Earth Federation.

The initial stages of the war are characterized by stupendous bloodletting. Federation space colonies are injected with poisonous gas, turned into guided missiles and then rammed into New York in -- given the context -- grotesque prescience. Tomino tells us, deadpan, "It took only fifteen minutes to inject ten tons of the gas and, in five hours, kill nearly twenty-five million people."

The novels are as dense with deeply imagined military and political detail as Paul Verhoeven's cinematic treatment of Robert A. Heinlein's "Starship Troopers," but they lack completely the comedy and the satire. The going also tends to get embarrassingly gauche and adolescent whenever the shift is made from politics or beam rifles to sex or female beauty. A prime example: a character's "chestnut-brown hair" "fluffs" in the weightless environment, "framing her face." Not too bad, maybe. But she soon leaves the briefing room area, and alarmingly, there are her "long, attractive legs flowing after her."

A character remarks, "Not a bad girl, eh?"

"She'll be useful in battle,' " gruffly replies Char Aznable, who a few chapters earlier is heard to "affably" utter the immortal words, "By the way, I've got a hyper bazooka with my Zaku, right?"

But the prose is workmanlike for a reason: It is more concerned with explaining every crucial detail of this ferociously imagined world than being merely beautiful.

Somehow, though, occasional moments of (perhaps inadvertent) alliterative and lucid cool do occur: "The day was over, and darkness was slowly falling on the entire colony in accordance with its design."

There's even some lovely odd techno-pathos, all the more powerful for (in isolated examples) a kind of Ballardian deliberation: "He wished he could wipe the tears from his own eyes, but in order to do so he would have had to enter an airlock and take off his helmet."

Anime fanaticism is fascinatingly ambient, obsessive, possessive and passionate. Mark Simmons, for example, feels it vital to clarify in his introduction how this novel transposes the name and class of a battleship familiar to watchers of the anime series. "This curious inversion has been faithfully retained from the Japanese novels," he reports.

The translator makes clear how high the stakes are for some. He reports an e-mail from a clearly articulate and irate correspondent who attacks him for his transliterations of characters' katakana names. The e-mail implied that inverting, unnoted, a fictional spaceship's class is enough to cause an uproar, chaos, loss of standing in the community.

But really, there is more at stake than otaku dignity. Schodt reports that "in recognition of the fact that they control a now-huge, global entertainment property, the rights-holders in Japan have finally created a unified list of English spellings of the characters and mecha, for all animation and merchandise sold overseas."

"Mobile Suit Gundam" is a huge global business, and it is impressive that Tomino has remained at the center of this storm, so faithful to his vision that given the opportunity to be free of corporate influence he will darken the lights, brighten the blood, up the body count and invert those names if he pleases.



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