Background: Long time anime fans have discussed the expansive Gundam Universe for decades now, the multitude of series often exploring alternative versions of similar stories in this futuristic franchise. The stories always center on the military exploits of a number of opposing factions that came about as Earth started to colonize the solar system. Like the planet bound colonies of the past, each side of the conflicts believe that they are right; fighting for survival if not dominance as their own needs suit them. As with any such drama, a number of lead characters emerge as the focal points in each saga, often over the top villains and youthful zealots that express their emotions quite liberally as they fight in mechanized mobile suits that mimic the human operators. The latest release in this Gundam universe is the subject of today's review, a title called Mobile Suit Gundam MS Igloo 1; the first of a two part OVA series rendered completely in CGI.
Shades of the Wave Motion Gun!!!
Series: Mobile Suit Gundam MS Igloo 1 is set in the Universal Century 0079, the calendar being reset when humans began colonizing space due to overpopulation and lack of resources. Earth is governed by the Earth Federation Government and some of the colonies on the outer rim of civilization have begun a struggle for independence from the control of the Federation. The colonies form a coalition calling themselves the Zeon, a group often referred to as being the aggressor (and evil) in previous releases that tended towards showing the Federation and allied forces in a sympathetic light. Igloo is a bit different in that it is less a soap opera style offering like the other series then it is a series of loosely related stand alone episodes, this first volume providing a trio of tales that are sequential but not highly connected.
This is my kind of a tank as seen in the second episode.
The show takes place in relation to a small military craft that was forced into military service called The Jotunheim and its crew. The ship is captained by Martin Prochnow, a salty cuss that was in charge of the vessel during its civilian service. He holds his ship and crew as more important than any military objective he is given; showing a very conservative style of leadership but a willingness to follow direct orders as given. Joining him is a specially assigned Lt. Commander from Headquarters, Monique Cadillac, who is a younger "go-getter" type looking to make a name for herself as head of testing for the 603 Technical Evaluations Unit. The majority of the back story is told via the eyes of her subordinate, Oliver May, a talented engineering Lt fresh out of college full of the idealism instilled in him. The other regular characters play smaller roles to these three but it is Oliver that seems most in place to tell the stories of the day; ending each episode with his summation of the testing results of the new weapon systems that comprise the episodes.
"Earth below us, drifting, falling..."
Episode 1, The Vanishing Serpent of Loum, sets the pace for the series as a whole as Chief Gunnery Officer Aleksandro Hemme's story is told in the first major operation of the two sides of the conflict. He is assigned to operate a huge plasma cannon of immense power called the Jormungand. His eagerness to test the weapon in combat and focused personality come into play as the major conflict provides a glimpse into the war dynamic where his sacrifices prove to be somewhat bittersweet as the higher authorities show their true colors. The test of the weapon is somewhat inconclusive but the story manages to set the stage nicely for the rest of the series as each character is a chess piece whose personal agenda is inconsequential to the people in charge.
Episode 2, Howls Stained in Dusk, is set some time after the last one with a test of a tank weapon on the planet Earth in the desert. The weapon was called the Hildolfr and was subject to testing long ago but dismissed as unable to compete against mobile suits that are all the rage. The man in charge of the tank, Lt. Commander Demeziere Sonnen, feels strongly that previous testing was rigged against him and he wants to prove himself. His body is racked by physical problems and he failed the Gundam training years prior so the tests seem to be a means of sweeping him under the rug until a group of enemy mobile suits attack and he is all that stands between them and a ship stranded along with him. Oliver and Monique are the crew and they have no weapons so if Sonnen fails, they die along with him; raising the stakes substantially for this particular test to succeed.
Episode 3, Dance of the Orbital Ghosts, follows the tale of Commander Jean Luc Duvall, a hero tagged by the propaganda bureau to test a new improved mobile suit called the EMS-10 Zudah. The suit had lost against the basic Zakus version for wide scale production due to a design flaw but the story follows to see if the Zudah and Jean are merely part of the propaganda machine or truly able to save the day; despite some troubles during testing and enemy counter propaganda charges leveled at them. The disposable nature of the rotating lead characters in each episode firmly established, I expected Jean to bite the bullet by the end and while I won't spoil it for you, I was hoping for a less formulaic approach by this time.
Okay, the CGI animation was a bit creepy at times and the story elements were so similar in each episode (test a weapon that no one really cared to work with disposable test pilots) that I wondered if director Takashi Imanishi or the others involved in the show considered how two dimensional the results would be. Still, despite the thematic limitations of the OVA volume and the gimmicky nature of the computer generated images used, I found the expensive title to be worth checking out as a Rent It or maybe even more if you're a fanboy for the rest of the Gundam Universe but it was definitely a different kind of title for the franchise and may take some getting used to. If you're looking for something different in the anime world, Mobile Suit Gundam MS Igloo 1 might be just the change of pace you're looking for but if you prefer the anime style of most Gundam shows, you might find the CGI disserting so check it out first.
Picture: Mobile Suit Gundam MS Igloo 1 was presented in the same 1.78:1 ratio widescreen anamorphic color it was shot in by director Takashi Imanishi and his staff for release by Bandai Visual USA (domestically at least). It looked interesting for a CGI release but the graphics were substantially dated compared to most contemporary video and computer games that show the same kind of rendering, textures, and shadowing that have been done in the past several years. There were few issues with compression artifacts and the bitrate was usually in the 8 Mbps range, give or take as is usually the case. The faces of the characters did not look much like traditional anime nor did they look particularly human, perhaps only a few steps removed from the cartoonish versions of Mr. Stain in Junk Alley (if you were fortunate enough to see that series awhile back). There were some propaganda releases deployed in this one that gave the appearance of the old news reels from WWII (they were some of the most creative aspects of the OVA even though they were purposely not shown to look very high in resolution) and limited background movement as is standard in this kind of CGI world in most scenes but take a few looks at it and it might grow on you.
Sound: The audio was presented with a choice of the Japanese audio track in a 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround or a mere 2.0 version, both at the bitrate of 448 Kbps. The surround selection was my track of choice and it did manage to show some minor use of the rear speakers and subwoofer but hardly on the same level as some of the best series currently on the market at this writing. The separation was largely focused on the sound effects and score though, the battle scenes in each episode showing the most expansive use of all channels but not nearly enough for my tastes. The audio kept in synchronization with the CGI most of the time (it slipped a little too) and the voice actors appeared to be suitable for the roles they played, the optional English language subtitles sometimes appearing to use stilted translations but at least better than those you'll find on HK versions of movies I've seen.
Extras: My favorite extra was the slick paper booklet with 24 pages of information, drawings, and interesting director interview. He explained a great deal and I only wish his ideas could have been more effectively used in the episodes at hand. There were also some clean openings and closings but the extensive character and mech picture galleries on the disc were the next best offering. There were so many of them that I wondered if this was going to be a full season series but alas, that was not the case. The last extra was some trailers for the show that some of you like included.
Final Thoughts: Mobile Suit Gundam MS Igloo 1 was a nice selection of three whole episodes of the OVA that completists are going to want to pick up regardless of the cost that impacts the rest of us so much. The emphasis on a small weapons testing unit on the Zeon side of the conflict was an interesting choice and displaying each CGI rendered episode as a single weapons platform being tested with a mini-drama surrounding it a unique choice that could have been greatly expanded upon compared to the often limited depth of the various series that have come out of late. The realism was better established in many ways this time too though it also weakened the overall effort due to the similar dynamic making it kind of redundant (changing the particulars doesn't alter this fact). In short, Mobile Suit Gundam MS Igloo 1 may not have lived up to its complete potential but as a Gundam fan, I found it to have a lto going for it all the same so try it out and see why I think this might be a great way to continue with future projects if the CGI can be improved.
If you enjoy anime, take a look at some of the recommendations by DVD Talk's twisted cast of reviewers in their Best Of Anime 2003, Best Of Anime 2004, Best of Anime 2005, and Best of Anime 2006 articles or their regular column Anime Talk.