Mobile Suit Gundam: Hathaway Shines Brightest Away From Its Mecha Stars

Mobile Suit Gundam: Hathaway Shines Brightest Away From Its Mecha Stars
The Xi Gundam takes flight in its battle against a familiar foe. (Screenshot: Netflix/Sunrise)

Mobile Suit Gundam as a franchise might be most widely known for its titular mechanical warriors, their designs as iconic as they have become toyetic in the decades since the original show began its rocky road to international renown. But the latest cinematic entry in the franchise, premiering on Netflix this month, seeks to downplay its titular mecha to ask some big questions about Gundam’s wider world.

The animated feature, Mobile Suit Gundam: Hathaway, is directed by Shūkō Murase and written by Yasuyuki Muto. It’s the first in a planned trilogy of movies set in the year U.C. 0105 — the “Universal Century” timeline that plays host to a majority of the Gundam franchise’s works, including the original 1979 animated series — and 12 years after the events of the beloved animated movie Char’s Counterattack.

In a world where the globalised Earth Federation is no longer actively at war with its interstellar colonies, the movie follows the titular Hathaway Noa (Kensho Ono), a former Federation mobile suit pilot and the son of famous commander Bright Noa as he returns to Earth on a new mission.

No longer a Federation soldier but instead disillusioned with its increasingly totalitarian policies against “spacenoid” citizens (humans who have become accustomed to, or were born, living in space colonies), Hathaway has taken on the identity Mafty Navue Erin as the head of the self-titled dissident group Mafty, seeking to violently silence Federation ministers and advocate for the colonies’ right to self-govern.

But when confronted on his trip by a mysterious young woman named Gigi Andalucia (Reina Ueda), and brought face to face with the Federation commander tasked with hunting Mafty down, Kenneth Sleg (Junichi Suwabe), Hathaway is forced to re-examine his own past traumas as well as his current ideological beliefs as Mafty’s actions against the Federation continue to escalate.

Screenshot: Netflix/Sunrise Screenshot: Netflix/Sunrise

It is that wider astropolitical picture that makes Hathaway a fascinating thing to witness over its roughly 90-minute runtime, more so than any particular moments of mecha action it may contain. If anything, it intentionally downplays some of its bigger action setpieces to put its worldbuilding at the forefront. Outside of the opening scene, where terrorists claiming to be part of Mafty attack the ship Hathaway and prominent Federation ministers are travelling to Earth on, action plays second fiddle to quieter scenes of conversation and interrogation. Hathaway is a gorgeously animated film, but its action is not the focus of that detail.

There are only really two major conflicts in the film: an eventual Gundam vs. Gundam duel between Hathaway and Federation forces at the film’s climax, and a breakout highlight scene depicting an on-the-ground Mobile Suit attack that cleverly subverts our typical perspective of Gundam’s action to give it the feel of something more out of a disaster movie than a sci-fi mecha action film, accentuating its critiques of the powers at play in its world.

If giant robots are not Hathaway’s primary interest — outside of reminding us just how petrifying giant mechanised soldiers really are — its focus, then, is on the quieter moments and details of Gundam’s “Universal Century” setting. Taking place in an important period of that established timeline, Hathaway’s return to Earth asks him to navigate what humanity’s crucible, and the people in control of it, have become in peacetime since his traumatic experiences in Char’s Counterattack.

The devil is in its details, contrasting beautiful, lavish shots of tropical locales with the encroaching, technologically advanced cityscapes hosting the Federation’s elite members — Hathaway walking among them in “disguise” as his father’s son, rather than as Mafty’s leader. But it twists the thematic knife further still, contrasting those decadent cityscapes with the rundown, crowded streets where the normal, put-upon people of the Federation rise and grind in systems of capital — scraping by to maintain their statuses as Earth-living citizens while Federation “Manhunter” squads stalk the streets for dissident activity, militaristically policing who stays on Earth and who is forcefully emigrated to the colonies.

Screenshot: Netflix/Sunrise Screenshot: Netflix/Sunrise

This is far from the first time Gundam has engaged with the idea that the “heroes” of its original series, the Earth Federation, are anything but heroic. The original show cast a doubtful eye over its intentions plenty of times, and successor series like Zeta Gundam and Gundam Unicorn more explicitly tackled the evil the Federation was capable of. But bringing it back to the forefront in Hathaway, over the potential spectacle of the mechanised action the franchise is beloved for, is a powerfully promising idea that this first part of the trilogy delivers on.

It’s a move that feels truthful in a world rocked by climate crises, rising totalitarian and fascist governments, and real questions over what our evolving society, and the people who hold power in it, are doing to the planet. That it is also an adaptation of one of Gundam’s most famous non-anime works — the 1989 trilogy of novels Hathaway’s Flash, penned by Gundam creator Yoshiyuki Tomino — feels like even further grim commentary. The themes Tomino was writing about over 30 years ago still feel ripped-from-the-headlines as timely and resonant for today.

What doesn’t quite work in Hathaway’s favour as it engages with these critiques is how little it does to onboard newcomers to the franchise — who, say, happened upon a title card of a giant robot thanks to a splashy Netflix deal to bring the film outside of Japan after a year of pandemic-induced delays. It’s a peculiar release scenario that could never have been predicted and is not entirely fair to the film itself.

But while Netflix did its best to provide the option for audiences to get some preparation for Hathaway’s release — the streamer acquired rights to the film compilation trilogy of the original Mobile Suit Gundam, as well as Char’s Counterattack, in mid-June — so much of what makes Hathaway interesting, both the movie and its titular characters, is built on prior experience with the franchise that the film itself coasts by on.

Screenshot: Netflix/Sunrise Screenshot: Netflix/Sunrise

We’re never given the setup as to why it’s interesting that the Earth Federation has become so openly totalitarian, nor are we given the reasons why Hathaway’s moral crises throughout the movie are drawn from his past, fleeting relationship with Quess Paraya in Char’s Counterattack — and how he begins to imprint that relationship onto Gigi in this movie as she pokes and prods at his decision to become the head of a violent terrorist group like Mafty.

These are things that, as the audience is primarily intended to be Gundam fans invested in the Universal Century setting, are just meant to be framing the film inherently. But in making that choice, it serves to undercut moments Hathaway wants to hit hardest without providing even a little context — too busy patting itself on the back for a throwaway flashback shot evoking a famous scene from Char’s Counterattack, for example, rather than making its place in the wider Gundam world more explicit to anyone but its most invested fans.

But for those already invested in that world, Hathaway serves as a fascinating primer for future exploration. Gundam as an entity, as it sprawls out across different mediums and continuities, has become increasingly reflective of its roots as of late — whether through the nostalgic embrace of mobile suit merchandise, or through re-litigating the setup of its world in adaptations like The Origin and other early-UC projects like Thunderbolt.

To get a film that honours those roots then, not just in a faithful adaptation of an older, highly-regarded work in Tomino’s novels (which have still yet to be officially translated into English), but in re-visiting critiques of its worldview and worldbuilding that the franchise has played with from almost its very beginning, is much more fascinating than the idle exploration of familiar imagery and designs.

Hathaway’s evocation of some of Gundam’s most interesting themes provides much more to chew on than a splashy mecha fight with designs we’re familiar with from decades of anime, manga, and model kits — even if it sacrifices a little accessibility to a wider audience to begin engaging with it.

Screenshot: Netflix/Sunrise Screenshot: Netflix/Sunrise

It’s clear that Hathaway is more about setup than it is payoff. There’s still much more for Murase and Muto to explore as they dive deeper, not just into Hathaway’s character, but the world around him, in the remaining two entries, whenever they may come. But while this first entry in the series might not capture the flash that Gundam fans looking for an all-out mecha royale may want, it sets the stage to re-examine some of the franchise’s most enduring themes in a compelling new light.

Mobile Suit Gundam: Hathaway is now streaming on Netflix.