Let's be honest, everything this month has been building up to this review. Part of that is because this manga itself is a retelling of the story that started it all. The other part is that this manga truly is the gold standard for not just Gundam manga, but for mecha manga as a whole.
MOBILE SUIT GUNDAM: THE ORIGIN (Kido Senshi Gandamu The Origin), by Yoshikazu Yasuhiko, based on the original story by Yoshiyuki Tomino & Hajime Yatate and mechanical designs by Kunio Okawara. First published in 2001 and first published in North America in 2002.
In UC 0079, the Earth Federation forces are locked in battle with the Principality of Zeon, a rogue space colony that yearns for both independence and conquest. The other colonies are caught in the middle of this conflict, and it is during one of these battles that young Amuro Ray finds himself piloting the Earth's latest mobile suit: the Gundam. Now he's stuck on a ship full of junior officers and civilians, forced to fight in a war he never volunteered for, and facing down ace mobile suit pilot Char Aznable and the forces of Zeon in an effort to make it back to Earth.
I pondered for a bit how to approach this review because for the most part, the story of Gundam: The Origin isn't all that different from that of the original TV show. If you've seen the first few episodes (or the first half of the first recap movie), you basically know what happens in this book. A few events are switched up here and there, but by and large it's pretty much the same. What makes the difference here is thus not how Yasuhiko changes things, but how he expands upon what was already there.
There's one big difference between this and the original: Yasuhiko gives the story, the players, and the conflicts within it plenty of breathing room. Unlike Tomino, he doesn't have to worry about fitting into standard episode or season lengths. Thus he can take his time to establish backstories, to let battles and similar action sequences play out to their fullest, and lay out all the hints he needs for future events and relationships. Manga gives him a luxury that the original show writers could have never dreamed of. It's also one of the qualities that distinguishes Gundam: The Origin from other mecha manga. Too many of them feel the need to rush through the story or stop it entirely to unload piles of exposition upon their readers. Even those held in high esteem, such as Yoshiyuki Sadamoto's take on Evangelion, are not entirely innocent of this. Yasuhiko, on the other hand, knows how to explain the important details without getting bogged down in them and he's clearly planning both story and character arcs out in the long term sense.
He also brings some welcome bits of nuance to the characters. Tomino deserves all the credit he can get for the story, but he's not always the most subtle when it comes to his characters and not always kind towards the women in his stories. Yasuhiko is far more deft with his character writing and he's not afraid to let even our heroes show shades of gray (or at least less pleasant sides of themselves). He's also a lot more fair to the women in the story. Be it Amuro's childhood friend/substitute mom Fraw Bow, the skillful yet mysterious Sayla, or the gentle and supportive Mirai, they all get a lot more screen time than before. That gives them a lot more time to establish themselves as characters in their own right, just as much as anyone on the crew. Indeed, the only major player who's still a mystery at this point is Char, and even then it's clear that this is not due to poor writing but by Char's own design.
In short, Gundam: The Origin takes what already worked about the original story and makes it better. He not only makes things clear enough that a Gundam newcomer can understand it all, but also humanizes it, which in turn makes it easier to get invested in these characters. In many ways, it's the ideal version of the story.
The writing may be good, but the artwork here is downright masterful. I guess I really shouldn't be surprised considering Yasuhiko's career as a whole. He's not just the character designer for the original series, but an accomplished animator, director and mangaka in his own right. That experience with animation and director are all too evident in his paneling and page layouts. The fights play out like movie storyboards and there are some sequences that are downright breathtaking to behold. Thanks to this, every battle is easy to follow and their twists and turns are captured in a way that genuinely feels cinematic.
He doesn't mess too much with the original character and mobile suit designs, but they benefit from Yasuhiko's own evolution as an artist over the decades. The people don't necessarily look all that different from their animated counterparts, but there's a naturalism to their bodies and subtlety in their expression that adds so much to every scene, even the comedic ones. The backgrounds capture both the vastness of scale of the space colonies and ship along with the cramped industrial mendacity of the interiors of White Base. Then to top that all off, there are the color pages.
Yasuhiko's color pages aren't done in traditional paint or marker, but in ink and watercolor. This is unusual in comics, as watercolors in particular require a lot of skill and control to make them look good. Mercifully, Yasuhiko is more than up to the task. He uses broad washes of brilliant color to convey both mood and setting. The colonies are awash in golden yellows, Earth's atmosphere in calm aquatic blues, and battles are soaked in brilliant shades of red, pink, and orange. Despite that, the fine details are never lost in the panels and the result is striking. It's doubly remarkable when you learn that Yasuhiko does not work from pencil sketches. He freehands everything in brush!
Visually, this manga is on a level that few could hope to reach in their entire careers. The artistry and composition on display here are indescribable in their elegance and beauty. This is truly a top-tier work from a top-tier artist.
Sadly, I can't tell you what the original Viz volumes were like. The series sold poorly initially and these days those volumes are exceedingly rare. Thankfully, that doesn't matter because there's no way it could hold a candle to Vertical's treatment. They released the series in hardbound 2-in-1 omnibuses that highlight some of Yasuhiko's brilliant color artwork. They preserved all of the color art sequences in the book. It's not just limited to a few color pages at the beginning of the first chapter; there are multiple sequences where the art shifts to full-color, usually to punctuate some of the more dramatic moments.
There are also not one, not two, but three separate essays on the work. The first comes from Hideaki Anno, who reflects on how the story of Gundam has gotten lost as it became a franchise (a tale all too familiar for him) and how this manga serves as a reminder of the story that started it all. Then there's the comments from Shinichiro Inoue, head of the publisher Kadokawa Shoten. He notes that Gundam: The Origin was created as part of Sunrise's attempts to bring Gundam to the western masses in the early 2000s (a now sadly ironic statement, considering the series was cancelled in its initial run here) and how its quality and chapter size led to the creation of Gundam Ace magazine. Then there's an outright analytical essay from Japanese anime critic Ryusuke Hikawa.
All in all, it's a lavish presentation and one that came with no small amount of risk for the publisher. The initial printings were meant to be limited to 5000, and at the time of its release Vertical's staff were honest about the fact that if this release failed, Vertical's future would be very much in doubt. Thankfully, the high quality of the work, the good word of mouth and concentrated effort from manga fans and Gundam fans alike turned this big risk into one of Vertical's biggest hits. I can't think of a work more worthy of such a success story.
If you've ever had even the slightest curiosity about Gundam as a whole, Gundam: The Origin is the place you should start. It captures all that is good about the original while refining and updating what was not, all on top of some of the best manga art I've seen in my life. It is no less than a masterpiece.
This series is published by Vertical, and previously by Viz. The series is complete in Japan with 23 volumes available. Viz published 12 volumes and are currently out of print. Vertical published all 23 volumes in omnibus form and are currently in print.