He misses his target. It was a simple accident; the kind of thing you would do, too. The oceans part and you have incontrovertibly become an adult, for better or for worse. Soon you too will be able to control time but for now it will become like a torrential sea, surrounding you, suffocating you, and consuming you. By the time you’ve freed yourself from it--if you’re ever able--it will already be too late. The only thing you can do is sink or swim. Things like this just happen, no rhyme or reason, and at times it feels like they only happen to you. The sadness is endless, and it will do nothing but continue.
A year later I was staying with a friend in Philadelphia. It was the tail end of a long trek through America in an attempt to feel anything at all during the pandemic. The thing came at a terrible time: I had returned from the year I spent in Tokyo, and had become a completely new person. I wanted to keep the stride going, and even if I was in the not-so-interesting Toronto I would pretend it had all the same doors into excitement as Tokyo did. Then the world ended.
I’m talking to my friend about that year in Japan. I’ve come all the way to Philadelphia and most of my time has been spent watching Curb Your Enthusiasm and playing video games because it’s too hot to go see the Liberty Bell or whatever. At night it’s just cool enough to go to the corner store and drink ourselves to sleep. I’ve mixed the world’s strongest White Russian while we get into it.
“Harsh--that’s the word I heard said about me the most.”
“I kinda get it.”
“It’s like, it’s not that you’re rude or judgmental, it’s just that you hold people to a standard.”
“Isn’t that the same thing?”
“Not really, because I can tell you only do it for people you care about--do you know what I mean? Like if you didn’t care, you wouldn’t bother opening your mouth.”
“I didn’t care about a lot of the people in that dormitory, though. In fact that was what made it special. No one wants to live with insufferable British guys, but I had to.”
We both take a sip, and the vodka burns.
“It kind of reminds me of Gundam,” my friend says with a cough.
“It’s like you’re all surviving together in that dorm, like you’re all floating through the space called ‘Japan.’ Those British guys are like your Sleggar.”
“Sure, you could say so. I think that’s why the friendships I made that year ended up being a lot deeper than any that came before it. We were all these pathetic foreigners trying to make sense of Japan, so it’s like we survived it together.”
“That’s it, man. That’s your White Base.”
I’ve seen Mobile Suit Gundam once. I didn’t watch it again before deciding to write this post because I wanted to capture exactly what it is I feel about Gundam now, not what I would looking back on it as a kind of post-mortem. Mostly I want to communicate exactly why you should also watch Mobile Suit Gundam.
I was the kind of person who was perfectly fine living my whole life without seeing any Gundam, as I’m sure plenty are. My perception of it was skewed: my first encounter was a random episode of SEED I saw on TV as a kid, and then snippets of Wing and Iron-Blooded Orphans that would show up as GIFs on my Tumblr dashboard in high school. None of it was enough to bring me to care--it seemed like all those Evangelion analysts who talk about the show as a kind of “deconstruction” (LOL) meant to say Evangelion deconstructed the “average” robot show, in other words: Gundam.
Then I met my friend in Philadelphia who asked me to read The Invisibles, a western comic--something I would never do otherwise, but I did it for my friend. I loved that comic, and I’d say it shaped a lot of my politics since becoming an adult--for that same reason I decided to watch Mobile Suit Gundam, because it meant as much to her as something like .hack did to me. What I didn’t know then: there is an original timeline of Gundam that none of the shows I just listed follow. All the Gundam I knew was completely unrelated to the actual thing called Gundam, so I decided I would give the real thing a go.
I watched it for the first time in December of 2019. This was still only a few months after returning from my year abroad in Japan. I had just turned 21 years old.
The basic thing of Gundam is this: it’s about a bunch of 20-and-belows living on a ship called the White Base, and for whatever reason one of them can pilot the newest military weapon with little to no issue. All of the adults in their lives are killed within the first three episodes, and the Earth Federation, the governing organization the White Base is supposed to answer to, wants mostly nothing to do with them. Thus you have a bunch of kids suddenly playing adults on this ship hurtling through space, dealing with an enemy that sees them no differently from any other soldiers.
I often hear people tell me they don’t want to watch Gundam for largely the same reasons and misunderstandings I avoided it for for so long: it’s old, it’s long, it’s “generic,” it’s “misogynistic,” it’s a “commercial,” it’s just boring. I know how you feel, I really do, because I was one of those people too.
But there must be a reason it became such a cultural phenomenon, spawned so many other franchises, became a kind of shared cultural lexicon in Japan, and is continued to be adored to this day, right? It can’t just be a ploy to sell model kits, there has to be something more to it than mindless consumerism.
I’m here to tell you: Gundam really is that good.
If you are over 20 years old, chances are you have worked a shitty job, lived in a shitty dorm and/or apartment, had shitty circumstantial friends and/or roommates, drank in a shitty bar, played video games with shitty people, and found yourself sitting on a bus bench wondering what you’re doing it all for. You are Amuro Ray, pilot of the RX-78 Gundam. Your determination to keep going through all that goddamn shit is proof alone that you will like Gundam, because you too have survived your own White Base.
A year later I am in Oslo, sleeping on the floor of a friend from my White Base. He is in the middle of moving to a bigger nicer place but was more than happy to welcome me to the last few weeks of his apartment and its inflatable mattress that is about as wide as a stick of gum (free lodging is free lodging, though!). Norway is one of those countries I never thought I would have any reason to go to, and yet here we are.
“It’s kind of crazy,” says my friend.
“That you’re here, in my house, in Norway.”
“Is it any different than visiting a friend who lives in another country?”
“Yes, because you’re not just ‘any friend,’” he says, and by this he means we have the special quality unique to friendships made on a study abroad exclusive to white girls in Paris and insufferable freaks in Japan.
Suddenly I am reminded of the quiet conversations between former White Base members in the sequel series Zeta Gundam, because this conversation takes on that same atmosphere. That’s probably the exact moment I thought about writing something like this, because it suddenly made sense to me then exactly what it was about Gundam that I identified so intimately with.
If you grew up on the internet the same way I did, you’ve probably encountered these kinds of powerful life-changing stories: Evangelion, Oyasumi Punpun, Aku no Hana, maybe even Homestuck if you were one of the cool kids. The older I got the more I started to feel like I had run out of those stories, the kinds that held up such a clear mirror to myself, singular journeys of protagonists who I could point at the screen and scream “he’s just like me” about. It was about six beers and many culturally important Norwegian liqueurs deep that I realized there was one last story that made me feel that way, my final doorway into adulthood, the story that perfectly reflected that feeling of giving up the absolute self-importance you need to make it through your teenage years to the compromise that defines living as an adult, whatever that means. What I mean is: Gundam was the last anime I watched as a child.
When I was in that dormitory there were plenty of people I immediately decided I didn’t like, but I had to live with them every day for a year. My shoebox-sized room was private, sure, but you can only sit in it for so long before you start going insane. The shared kitchens, the hallways, the common rooms and smoking pits, most of my time was spent in these communal spaces rather than my own private cell. Naturally this meant I ran into those people I immediately decided I didn’t like, and had to have conversations with them.
Until this point in my life if there was someone I didn’t like I could just not speak to them and go home, but now they were in my home. Some days you could go through the most earth-shattering life-changing shit, I’m talking ego death and be reborn in some kind of perverse ritual of tears and alcohol, and you still have to come home and be face-to-face with some guy who accosts you about why you don’t like Bakemonogatari.
This is exactly what Gundam captured for me: living in a space where it’s impossible to be alone, but you can’t be with people you necessarily like either.
The White Base is the entrance into your 20s. It hangs over Japanese coming-of-age stories like a necessary archetype: in the tense lounge of Iwatodai Dormitory, the deepest recesses of NERV, under the spinning fan of the Bebop, even twenty thousand leagues under the sea in the Nautilus. It stands as a stark contrast to the shiny battleships of the 1970s, the ideological unity that could overcome even the most mutinous of crewmembers’ rebellion--all they had to do was remind their wayward comrade of their common cause, and it would be fine. If you can’t think of a White Base in your life, stop reading this post and go back to school, apply for that scholarship, go to your local used game store and ask if they’re hiring--you have some growing up to do. But if the White Base rings true to you, then so will Gundam.
You go into the White Base on necessity, while being a very specific kind of person you’ve believed yourself to be your whole life. Through your experiences on the ship you will come to find out that person was an illusion, and you feel silly for ever thinking you were that former self. Then it comes to an end and you go “home,” wherever that is, and you sit in the same bedroom you left, you go to the same places, you talk to the same people, but you are not the same. How do you reconcile this new self with the place that made the old you?
Plenty of us went back to Japan (I did), and others felt it was enough for them. Going back home only reiterated just how much they liked who they were before, and they were glad to settle back into it. It’s not like those ties just disappear, though. I wasn’t the only one trekking across couches in Europe, and whenever I would see others post a photo of two familiar faces, sometimes people I hadn’t spoken to in years it would just feel, I don’t know, right. Even the people I didn’t like--I’m happy when they find each other again. I could not see some of them for years and when we finally do speak, even if it was just over the phone, it would be like we were still there in that charmingly run-down Heisei-era dorm trying its best to justify its cost in rent.
I am stuck, not on that memory, but on the feeling of purpose, just as I think Char Aznable was. This is a name I haven’t written until now because the second I do it risks this entire post becoming about him; this is just how powerful a presence he is in Gundam. Char does not live on the White Base and is its main enemy. They call him the Red Comet, the ace pilot of the Principality of Zeon, and the only person Amuro Ray really has to fear. He’s vying for rank and influence in their royal family for his own reasons all while taking out everything in his path, both friend and foe.
At the same time, Char is intimately tied to the White Base for reasons I can’t write here (and I’ll save actual discussion of him for later, maybe). In his interactions with the residents of the White Base, he’s also changed forever. The only other thing I’ll say about him is this: if the words “Principality of Zeon,” “Earth Federation,” “RX-78,” and so on sound too 1970s science fiction-y for your liking, forget them right now, and view Gundam only as a clash between the White Base and Char Aznable--those who made the compromise to live with others and a child pretending to be an adult warped by his own self-importance.
I mean, I was also ready to die without ever seeing this show, it was just of no importance to me. Now I can’t imagine my life without it, how important an anime it was to watch, and how absolutely integral it feels to my understanding of what it means to be an adult. So forget about the robots, about the political intrigue, about the 1970s animation you love to hate, about all of that, and watch this show with only this in mind: these are kids forced to grow up, the same way any of us are. Opposed to them is Char, 20 years old, who refuses to make the compromises necessary to become an adult and ends up living as a child forever. This is the anime that shows you how to reconcile your teenage self-importance with the unforgiving impersonal adult world, how to weaponize it and make it a light that never goes out rather than a burning engine that hurts to come near. Forget all your random baseless prejudices about science fiction, about Yoshiyuki Tomino, about what mecha anime is or isn’t, and what Gundam “means” to anime at large, because let’s face it: you probably don’t know anything about that if you think 1970s animation looks bad. Forget every other show with “Mobile Suit Gundam” in its title and judge this anime as its own singular work, a drama in its own rite, one that continues to endure and find its way into the hearts of every subsequent generation of young people since, and you too will be able to see the same eternal thing it has to say about growing up that no other story can articulate quite as well as this.
And then I am in Amsterdam, staying with the friend who lived next door to me in my White Base. We met in a weird way:
There was a bus from the airport to the dormitories leaving once every two hours. I got on the one after my flight and sat next to him by chance, then I asked him which dorm he was staying in. He said mine. Very cool, I tell him, and then ask which room. He says: 3-083. Hold on, I say, I’m also staying in 3-083. That’s not possible, he says, they’re single rooms. I know, I say, that’s why I’m paying 80000 yen a month, fuck. What?
We get to the dorm, and it’s raining--a great way to bring in the new year that will change us forever. The dorm administration tells us it's their mistake, they accidentally assigned us to the same room on paper when we’ll actually be neighbours. They send us to our rooms and he lends me a towel, because I didn’t even pack that. Thanks, I tell him, and nice to meet you.
A couple weeks later I went to Tokyo Game Show and had the time of my life. I slept in an internet cafe in Chiba, and made the embarrassing hungover trek home. The Chuo-Sobu line carries me from the sea back into Tokyo, and I walk back to the dorm, the first time I’m able to find it without Google Maps. I ride the elevator up to floor 8 and I am ready to toss myself into bed after a restless night in a recliner chair set to a soundtrack of the guy in the stall next to me furiously masturbating. Finally, my own bed, my own private chamber, my own White Base. Then I smell something nice from the kitchen.
I slide the door open. There is my neighbour, making breakfast; that special Dutch category of pancake that’s neither too sweet nor too savoury. He starts to laugh and says you’re wearing the same clothes as yesterday. And not for the reason you think, I say, and I sit down. He puts a pancake on a plate, puts it down in front of me, and I tell him about the night before. In the middle of our conversation a third resident of floor 8 walks in and says hello, and we all have breakfast together. The coffee tastes so, so, good, better than any coffee I’ve ever had in my life and better than any coffee I’ve had since. The sun comes through the window, hits me straight between the eyes, and when they readjust they’re still sitting right there, this kind little moment is real and I don’t know what I did to deserve it. There’s still a year ahead of me and I can’t wait.
In Amsterdam we sit on his balcony and smoke perfectly legal substances recognized by the Dutch government. The conversations we have are mine alone, and I won’t summarize them here. I think back on the child reading Yugioh in his school library not even able to picture the country called Japan, let alone the Netherlands. His world and mine are completely different, because now I can fill in the blanks. On this balcony I understand I have become an adult, whether I like it or not.
Just like Amuro Ray who missed his target.
Just like Char Aznable, forced to live with its consequences.
The White Base stays with you forever. Gundam will stay with you forever.
You will miss your target. You will be changed forever. The world will never be the same, but there will always be these people waiting for you, the people who survived with you and changed alongside you, too. The version of yourself you’ve become, and the you you’ve parted ways with--both are strangers to these people who only knew you in that most intimately transitionary period when the person you wake up as and the person who crawls into bed are completely different from each other, and the intensity of it makes it feel like time is standing still while you equally understand it’s slipping away from beneath you. This is the mood, this is the moment, this is the exact feeling I had while watching Mobile Suit Gundam, and maybe you will too. Or you can say it's too "slow" and move on with your life, I guess.
November 21st, 2023