By Tom Speelman
There are few science fiction franchises more iconic than Mobile Suit Gundam. From the pioneering original anime to the billion-dollar industry that is Gunpla, Yoshiyuki Tomino and Sunrise’s pioneering work of the Real Robot genre is so beloved that a real-world, 59-foot replica of the original RX-78-2 Gundam is currently active and walking in Yokohama!
How has Gundam persisted so long? By sticking to its main franchise themes—mainly, war is hell and it will pull all into its orbit and change them—but constantly innovating and coming up with new, eye-catching ways to get that point across.
What’s the history of Mobile Suit Gundam SEED?
Directed by Mitsuo Fukuda and written by his late wife, Chiaki Morosawa, Mobile Suit Gundam SEED first aired in Japan from 2002–2003, then broadcast on Toonami in the United States from 2004–2005.
The 50-episode series wasn’t quite as radical a reinvention of the Gundam mythos as G Gundam, but it took the best parts of Gundam Wing, the show that introduced Gundam to the West—namely, the well-written, fully developed characters and the soap operatics they got into and the emphasis on mobile suit battles as an extension of the characters who pilot them—and amped them up to 11, combining them with then-cutting-edge CGI.
This resulted in a mecha anime that was immensely popular in its day and even now still has a hold on people. A 2018 NHK poll to determine the best Gundam series saw Mobile Suit Gundam SEED place third, only behind 1985’s Zeta Gundam and the original series. Weirdly fitting as, in some ways, it’s a stealthy update of the original show!
What is Mobile Suit Gundam SEED about?
Set in what’s known as the Cosmic Era, as opposed to the original series’ Universal Century timeline, the story picks up 11 months into a war.
Specifically, war between the Earth Alliance, mainly composed of normal “Natural” humans, and ZAFT (the Zodiac Alliance of Freedom Treaty), composed mainly of Coordinators: genetically engineered humans whose altered genes give them superhuman abilities.
Almost all Coordinators, facing discrimination and hate crimes, have abandoned Earth to live in space colonies called PLANTs (Productive Location Ally on Nexus Technology), but war breaks out nonetheless when Naturals establish space colonies as well.
Despite this, some factions, like the Orb Union and its colony Heliopolis, stay staunchly neutral, providing a space for Naturals and Coordinators to live in peace.
Who are the characters of Mobile Suit Gundam SEED?
The story follows Kira Yamato, a first-generation Coordinator (meaning his parents chose to have his genes altered, rather than passing on their own) who blissfully toils as a college student and assistant programmer to a professor.
Of course, all hell then breaks loose when a squadron of ZAFT troops, led by the sinister, masked Rau Le Creuset, invades Heliopolis to steal the Gundams the Earth Alliance has been developing secretly there. Catching the colony’s defenses by surprise, they manage to blow through them and steal three of the five.
Meanwhile, Kira, reeling from this conflict, begins to lose touch with reality and his closest relationships. This leads him to Earth Alliance Lt. Murrue Ramius, who’s been charged with escorting the last two Gundams onto the Alliance’s state-of-the-art flagship, the Archangel.
But a lone ZAFT trooper winds up killing Ramius’ fellow trooper and steals one of the Gundams. With no choice, Ramius and Kira board the last Gundam, GAT-X105 Strike Gundam. But not before they come face-to-face with the ZAFT trooper and Kira realizes that it’s his childhood friend, Athrun Zala!
Is Mobile Suit Gundam SEED a good intro to the franchise?
While this is just the tip of the iceberg, and we barely mentioned the loads of characters this series has, SEED is a useful intro into Gundam as it does what good sci-fi does best: use its setting as dressing to tell a story about characters.
Fukuda and Morosawa took cues from the franchise’s earlier incarnations by showing that war is shaped and experienced by people. The Natural/Coordinator enmity is an expansion of the concept of Newtypes from the original Mobile Suit Gundam.
However, Coordinators have more physical abilities than mental—although when initially piloting the Strike Gundam, Kira rewrites its operating system on the fly to be able to control it more efficiently—whereas Newtypes, like original Gundam protagonist Amuro Ray, just have heightened awareness of their surroundings.
SEED makes this idea of prejudice for advanced humans its core concept, while for all their importance, Newtypes are treated very abstractly in the Universal Century timeline.
Like Amuro Ray and his rival Char, and Heero Yuy and Zechs Merquise from Gundam Wing, the relationship between Kira and Athrun is deeply complex and full of tragedy and pathos. The events they lead each other down, and the wider scope of their struggle, lead to a grand experience indeed.
While very much the 21st century shot-in-the-arm the franchise needed, SEED is a great mecha anime ready to hit your watch list. If you’ve ever been curious about Gundam but too intimidated to start, Mobile Suit Gundam SEED is a perfect place to set off on your journey.