[CN for PTSD and associated traumas, attempted suicide. Abundant spoilers for an anime from 1995.]
Rewatching old favorites is always a fraught endeavor. Often, what one enjoyed in one’s youth is riddled with bigotry one didn’t yet have the tools or sensibilities to recognize, and rewatching replaces the nostalgic glow of the past with foul reality. This is what I braced for when rewatching Mobile Suit Gundam Wing, one of the shows that first introduced me to Japanese animation. Instead, I received a curiously philosophical examination of war, peace, extremism, and what all of these things can do to young people trapped in the middle.
In the world of Gundam Wing, space colonies have orbited Earth for 195 years, light-based weapons that behave much like modern bullet-firing weapons are common, and the standard armored vehicles used in warfare are giant humanoid conveyances known as “mobile suits.” Approximately 20 years in the show’s past, a military organization called the United Earth Sphere Alliance, which already controlled all inhabited regions of the Earth, seized control of the then-independent space colonies, beginning with the assassination of a pacifist colony politician named Heero Yuy. A critical component of the Alliance’s power is the “Organization of the Zodiac,” usually abbreviated OZ, the company that manufactures mobile suits. OZ also maintains military cadres of its own, hired out to the Alliance but answering only to itself.
The action of Gundam Wing focuses on five teenage boys sent to Earth from the colonies: Heero Yuy (a codename after the dead politician, Japanese), Duo Maxwell (American), Trowa Barton (an assumed name, ethnic background unclear), Quatre Raberba Winner (Arab), and Chang Wufei (Chinese). Each boy is assigned an extremely powerful mobile suit, called a “Gundam,” with a design based on its creator’s specialties and its pilot’s ethnic origin. While these teenagers spend plenty of time demolishing Alliance targets, their primary objects of ire are OZ facilities and forces. The five boys are sent to Earth at the same time but without knowledge of one another, and act on instructions from their own specific handlers until they meet. However, the Gundam pilots are, at no point in Mobile Suit Gundam Wing, the primary movers and shakers of their world. Even leaving aside that they do not act on their own discretion until much later in the series, the actual shaper of world events is Treize Khushrenada, the leader of OZ. Treize’s true goals emerge slowly as the series progresses through its 49 episodes. As in many properties in Japanese animation, part of the fun of Gundam Wing is watching the true state of affairs become clearer and clearer over time, in between ongoing meditations on the nature of war and peace.
Treize’s machinations run deep, and begin with engineering a war between OZ and the Earth Sphere Alliance. First, he arranges for the OZ military units embedded within the Alliance forces to turn on the Alliance, seizing control of much of Earth and space for OZ in a matter of days and polarizing young Relena Peacecraft, heir to the Alliance-defeated pacifist Sanc Kingdom, whose father is among the dead. Later, as OZ develops “mobile doll” technology—unmanned mobile suits following programmed orders—he engineers a split within OZ, spawning a “Treize Faction” opposed to the use of mobile dolls and then removing himself from public life. Without Treize as a leader, OZ’s primary financial backer, the mysterious Romefeller Foundation, assumes control of OZ proper, bringing it out of the shadows. When Relena Peacecraft reappears as the sovereign of a renewed and defiantly independent and pacifist Sanc Kingdom, the Romefeller Foundation attacks it, overrunning the kingdom and cajoling Relena into serving as its representative and de facto Queen of the World. Relena determinedly advances her anti-war agenda even from within Romefeller, encouraging disarmament and uniting the rest of the world into a single political entity, but Treize soon reappears to take her post from her (and bring the Treize faction back into the fold), telling her that she’ll be needed later, after “the final battle.”
As Treize predicted, a new organization forms in space, calling itself “White Fang.” Claiming to fight for the independence of the colonies from Earth, just as the Gundams did, it captures major OZ supply depots and acquires the latest mobile doll models from them and proceeds to aggressively remove OZ/Romefeller from space. Former celebrated OZ soldier Zechs Merquise accepts a position as commander of the White Fang’s forces. White Fang approaches several Gundam pilots, hoping for their allegiance, but the pilots refuse to cooperate. In one last battle between White Fang and Romefeller, the Gundams primarily fight the tactically and technologically superior White Fang forces, particularly once they learn that the White Fang’s plan is to eliminate life on Earth to secure the space colonies’ peace. Defeating the White Fang taxes the Gundam pilots to their limits, but ends the war well enough that the Romefeller Foundation formally disarms. Relena returns to politics, as a vice foreign minister.
Of course, peace is not final until one year later, when the White Fang’s antecedent, the Barton Foundation, attempts to overrun the newly disarmed Earth, and is defeated by a combined force of the Gundam pilots, Zechs Merquise, and their allies. Only with these events is Relena’s perspective as a peace-minded leader solidified enough for her to lead without another war threatening to erupt, and the remaining weapons are all destroyed.
If this summary provides the impression that the Gundam pilots are almost totally irrelevant to the overall course of Gundam Wing’s politics, that’s accurate. While the Gundams loom large as near-invincible threats for most of the series, Treize Khushrenada very effectively routes around them to enact his own sense of how world politics should proceed. In order to flush out the genocidal Barton Foundation and achieve unified politics across all humanity, he first aids the Earth Sphere Alliance via OZ in conquering both Earth and space. When the Barton Foundation’s original goal of annihilating life on Earth is thwarted from within—resulting in five separate Gundam arrivals rather than dropping selected space colonies onto the planet—he then destroys the Alliance from within (partly by manipulating Heero Yuy into murdering its higher-ups) and extends friendly hands to the colonies on that basis, enraging the Barton Foundation and allowing OZ to amass even greater forces for conquering the rest of Earth. To draw together the necessary elements on Earth, he precipitates the Treize Faction and, from there, brings the Romefeller Foundation out of the background, just in time for two final battles against his apocalyptic foe. All the while, he grooms the two heirs of the dead Sanc Kingdom—Relena Peacecraft and Zechs Merquise—to assume the roles he has selected for them, as a future symbol of peace and a martyr for war, respectively, taking advantage of their status as estranged siblings to make sure they spend most of their time in extreme tension with one another. While appearing to be a power-hungry warlord, he pursues a course he has calculated will lead to war itself being declared obsolete and pointless, by collecting as many conflicting groups as possible under shared banners and driving them against each other until they no longer understand why they are fighting, and finally achieving a peaceful world that Relena’s ideals can inhabit and inspire.
In between, various characters muse out loud to one another about why it is that wars happen, and what it would take to make the current war the last one. Frequent reference is made, particularly by the warmongering Romefeller-turned-White-Fang character Dorothy Catalonia, to the idea that humans are a “fighting animal,” doomed to pointing violence against one another eventually no matter how quiet things become. Even as some of Gundam Wing’s battles have clear goals and causes, even as the Gundam pilots themselves are soldiers in such a war, they and other characters act like war is a force of nature that simply happens, apropos of nothing, as long as it’s at all possible for people to fight. When the Romefeller Foundation conquers Earth, it does so in the name of ending “disputes,” none of which its officials ever describe or resolve, as though authoritarian-parent-style steamrolling over the fighting parties immediately establishes a fair and just equilibrium. Relena’s own pacifist vision seems to rely on parties fighting one another to decide that whatever state their goals are in right then is good enough, and dropping their issues where they lie, without any sense that some of these grievances might be legitimate or merit resolution, or that some sides might be giving up more than others by abandoning the possibility of warfare. While the Gundam pilots are ultimately shown to have been correct to reject the White Fang’s overtures, they initially do so not because they recognize the organization as the continuation of the same plan they rejected at the beginning of the series, but because they seek to battle at all, for any reason, at a level higher than individual soldiers working out their own destinies, and the pilots have decided that this is enough for them to be wrong. At this point, it is not a coincidence that the White Fang’s stated goal evolves into a eugenicist vision of cleansing Earth and thus removing from humankind’s genetic inventory the desire for warfare.
For all that Treize Khushrenada’s vision of humanity seems idyllic, and for all that his own personal actions evoke a charming, gentlemanly ideal right down to the moment that he dies in battle against Wufei, it is a vision that grants his species no agency. It is a vision in which all conflict is illegitimate, even that which Treize himself engineers, and in which no one can be wronged enough that fighting back is justified. This is a vision fostered by legal positivists and those who value stability for its own sake, and one that cannot lead to justice because its only goal is aggressively protecting the status quo. One wonders whether people like Treize would even recognize the regimes of brutality and oppression that black and trans people endure as a “war,” or if it’s only efforts to disrupt the tension-laden “negative peace” he works so hard to build that count as “conflict.”
In this vein, it is difficult to see what the Gundam pilots endure over 49 episodes and one 90-minute sequel as worthwhile. With Treize defining the course of world events until the moment of his death and, to some degree, even thereafter, it is only the actions that the Gundam pilots take at the very end, to finally thwart the White Fang’s and the Barton Foundation’s genocidal ambitions, that are both meaningful and their own. Until then, the Gundam pilots thrust themselves over and over into world affairs that they have only the most limited ability to alter to the world’s benefit, cracking a little every time they hurt someone they wish they didn’t, dreaming of the lives they might live after the war. Duo is brutalized in captivity so often that it’s a wonder he doesn’t panic every time he sees cops. Trowa builds a persona out of talking people down from murderous ledges and never lets anyone get genuinely close to him, attempts suicide on-screen and is thwarted by a friend, and also spends several episodes with trauma-induced amnesia. Quatre watches his father die, watches Trowa die, gets stabbed by Dorothy Catalonia, and lives the rest of his days finding the balance point between his boundless kindness and his need to fight. Wufei is tormented by the loss of his entire colony, one person he loved at a time, until he has nothing left but battle. Heero torments himself with the memory of a little girl and her puppy that he accidentally killed on his first mission, before he even became a Gundam pilot, and is a deeply unsettling superhuman stoic for most of the series because of the horrific training he endured from his Barton Foundation masters, and also spends several episodes inviting the family members of the Alliance pacifists he murdered to kill him in retaliation, personally putting his gun in their hands to do it. All five of them, as well as Zechs Merquise, are further tormented by the “Zero System,” a device installed on two of the Gundams that increases reaction time and combat aptitudes but also induces terrifying hallucinations and psychotic breaks in the unprepared, leading to several Gundam pilots attacking targets they meant to spare and changing a number of their personalities after their first encounters with it. One is tempted to forgive Heero, Wufei, and Trowa for their frequent misogyny under circumstances like these.
To some degree, that’s what makes this show so riveting. Heero, Duo, Trowa, Quatre, Wufei, and Zechs deteriorate as endless battle wears them down, but they also rise, growing into themselves and finding their own, sometimes-wrong, sometimes-right places in the world. Each of them (as well as Treize) builds a special relationship, usually not quite romantic, with a specific woman they meet over the course of Gundam Wing, who serves as a foil for their worst tendencies and is frankly more than most of them deserve, but these characters, too, add depth to a story whose core narrative is fatalistically not about them.
It’s particularly interesting rewatching in this era, because in our world, the battle between negative peace—what Treize and Relena pursue with all their might—and a positive peace that flows from genuine justice is reaching a fever pitch, with entirely too many people willing to equivocate between them in the name of quiet. In our world, provocateurs far less subtle and less genteel than Treize Khushrenada try to engineer battles between different subsets of the world’s wounded, and thinkpiece-writers far less savvy and less inspiring than Relena Peacecraft try to convince us all that stopping where we are right now means all the problems go away. Gundam Wing has no ready analogue for a monster like the current US president, unhallowed be his most orange of names, because it presumes competence on the part of all of its participants, but it shines a harsh light on the divisions among those who look ahead to the peace that comes after the war we will soon have to fight.
And it is impossible not to see, in this xenophobic age, that the heart and soul of the Gundam team, the individual who pleads with the other four to work together, guides their moves when they finally trust each other, gets recognized by the team’s enemies as the core of their dynamic, and helps talk Dorothy down from her proverbial ledge even after she stabs him with a rapier on a plummeting battleship …is an apparent Muslim from Future Arabia named Quatre Raberba Winner.