A glossy production of obvious quality, December Sky is set to bring the ubiquitous Gundam brand to this year’s Scotland Loves Anime, in the form of an unusual film whose considerable strengths will appeal to far more than just the hardened fans.
Taking place during the all-conquering ‘One Year War’ depicted in the original Mobile Suit Gundam, Thunderbolt shuns the wider conflict to tell a bleak, yet highly personal tale of two pilots on opposite sides of the battle, whose intense, hate-fuelled rivalry threatens to consume everyone around them.
Set in an empty but strategically important sector of space, filled only with the debris of a destroyed colony, the story finds a battalion of Earth Federation mech pilots struggling to break through entrenched sniper positions set up by the off-world Principality of Zeon. After one of their snipers is killed in a sneak attack, the Zeons’ best sharpshooter, Daryl Lorenz, promises the dead man’s lover that he will get revenge on the one responsible – Io Fleming, a Federation pilot who plays loud jazz music across his radio and boasts that anyone who hears it is about to die.
Adapting the 2012 manga of the same name, Thunderbolt boasts the kind of lean, focused narrative not often found in the Gundam franchise; it’s brief, intense and requires virtually no prior knowledge of the show. Originally released as a four-part series on internet streaming services, December Sky is a compilation film of all four episodes with a few additional scenes, but still clocks in at just 70 minutes. While some of the more subtle points of the story did go over my head initially, for someone like me, often put off by the length of Gundam series and the need to absorb vast amounts of lore before they can be appreciated, it’s a win-win situation.
While the film boasts all the spectacular space combat you would expect from the Gundam brand, to my surprise, it was the characterisation I found the most outstanding thing here. Despite the short running time, the film makes all its main players seem believable and human with remarkable efficiency, although arguably, we are asked to empathise most with the quiet, meditative Daryl. A young soldier who has already lost both his legs to the war, yet continues to fight with the use of prosthetics, his increasingly harrowing circumstances are in marked contrast with the vivid flashbacks and fantasies he imagines himself in as the film wears on, perhaps even echoing cult classic anti-war film Johnny Got His Gun. His nemesis Io comes across as cruel and callous, yet the film treats the two men very even-handedly, showing Io to be likeable and charismatic in a way that the increasingly withdrawn Daryl is not, and with the possibility of redemption in his love for put-upon commanding officer Claudia.
The artwork itself is offbeat, preserving the distinctive look of Yasuo Ohtagaki’s manga down to the letter. Appropriately for a film set in a vision of the future coined nearly 40 years ago, there’s a sort of non-specifically retro feel to the character designs, perhaps closer to the expressive style of Kouta Hirano’s work on Hellsing than the older Gundam entries. It may not be to everyone’s taste, but it fits the material perfectly, as does the music. Despite much being made of the film’s jazzy interludes, the soundtrack is largely dominated by corny, old-fashioned pop music, whose safety and familiarity creates such a sharp contrast with the narrative, that the escalating onscreen horrors can only feel even more tragic.
Unfortunately, as the film approaches its climax, I did feel it might be pushing its grimdark credentials a little too far. As we get into the final act, it seems as though both sides have done such awful things to survive that there is no-one left to care about, and little hope for the future. My knowledge of the franchise is not extensive, but this film, more than any other Gundam entry I’ve seen, wants you to know in no uncertain terms, that war has no winners, and this feels like a stark departure from their usual tales of valiant individual heroism amid complicated political manoeuvring.
The conclusion is also a bit of a non-event. It’s no big secret that Thunderbolt continues on well beyond the end of this film, but the final epilogue seems uncertain as to what we should take away from all this for now. The message may be that everything these people have sacrificed will amount to very little – a footnote in a war they have no influence over – but the movie ends so politely, with neither a bang nor a whimper, that it threatens to undermine the gravity of what’s come before.
December Sky takes Gundam on a journey into some very dark territory that may alienate fans of the franchise’s typically more adventurous spirit, and its anticlimactic ending does mar the overall experience. Yet, there’s no denying that this is an exciting and emotionally powerful war film, whose pacey story and grittier take on the universe is sure to please both fans in search of more mature storytelling, and casual viewers looking for a quick hit without any long term commitments.
This review refers to the Japanese home release of December Sky, which includes both English subtitles and (a very good) English-language dub track, but the film will play subtitled at Scotland Loves Anime in both Glasgow on October 12th and Edinburgh on October 21st.
A previous version of this review originally appeared on the Big Glasgow Comic Page.