Does Gundam Glamorize Terrorism?

As I watched the recent horrific events unfold both in the Boston area and on the world stage, I couldn’t help but think of… Gundam. Not just because it would be cool to have one, to get away from it all… but because of how the anime’s plot revolves around war, peace, and the infinite politics in between.

In any given Gundam series, we see young men, usually teenagers, employed as pilots of giant humanoid robots and thrust into war, often not of their own choosing. Plenty of animes depict teenagers as warriors. This is nothing new. In comics, cartoons, movies, anime and video games, it’s pretty standard fare.

Gundam Wing, in particular, depicts terrorism in a way America had experienced little of when the show debuted in 1995 (it originated in Japan, of course, and came to our shores in 2000). Young teenage boys, wreaking havoc, taking hostages, and more than willing to kill themselves if captured. Jihad-like warfare with nothing holy about it. [Note: The 2007 anime "Gundam 00" shows an even more literal account of terrorism, with the protagonist being brainwashed into conducting "holy war." The political events that play out in that series will probably hit closer to home for some, serving as a much more current allegory for what's going on in the world today.]

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Guerrilla warfare, Gundam style.

The five teenaged protagonists each represent a different culture: Chang Wufei, Chinese; Quatre Raberba-Winner, Arabic-Berber; Trowa Barton, Latin-European; Duo Maxwell, American; and the Japanese guy whose name literally translates to ‘the one and only,’ Heero Yuy.

Fangirls beware: the bishonen characters may look cute, but they are all trained mercenaries enacting guerilla-style warfare against the government. In other words, they’re terrorists.

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Just another teenage guy in a turtleneck.

Does Gundam Wing glorify terrorism? Not exactly. Let’s take a look at the guys’ side of the story. The Gundam pilots are all colonists, living in space in the not-so-distant future (one that looks like the 1940s crossed with the ’90s, by the way). The colonies were taken over by Earth’s oppressive, New World Order-style government, the Alliance, who tightly control the colonies with martial law under the guise of “keeping the peace.” A secret rebel organization recruits and trains the Gundam pilots when they’re still just kids. They are coerced into fighting – some of them brutally trained (looking at you, Heero). The boys, having suffered the loss of their friends, families, and childhoods because of the war, are happy to lend a hand to the plan to overthrow the Alliance’s tyranny once and for all.

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Something had to make this guy snap.

Unfortunately, part of the plan involves dropping a colony on earth. Which would be pretty messy. Heero decides to do things his own way, and descends to Earth in his Gundam after taking down a bunch of pilots from the elite military, Oz. Heero disguises himself as an average high school student and enrolls in a Catholic school, where he’s not exactly inconspicuous, but the girls all fawn over him nevertheless. Especially this one:

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You just couldn’t stay away, could ya?

Despite Heero’s (empty) threats to kill her, Relena persists in her pursuit, declaring, “I want to know who you are!” (She’s nosy— she oughta be a reporter.) Relena will soon find out she, too, has a role to play in the ever-changing political drama, and eventually breaks the news to Heero: “I’m on your side.” Say what? The good girl has fallen for the bad boy.

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You’re not really going to kill me, right?

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I dunno. Maybe. Thinking about it… I’ll get you in a little bit.

But before all that, we learn that Heero has a sordid, bloodied past. And at the tender age of 15, no less. A year before he came to Earth with his Gundam, Heero was doing a routine act of terrorism on the Alliance, blowing up some stuff of theirs. You know, simple kid stuff. But Heero’s explosion accidentally destroys an apartment complex, killing hundreds of civilians, including a cute little girl and her puppy. MAJOR clusterfuck.

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Sure botched this mission.

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Before that I was all…

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And now I’m all…

This turns the smiling young boy into a reluctant killer in one fell swoop, altering his demeanor. However, he is still the kindhearted boy inside, and after the war, vows to never kill again (but not before he blows up a shuttle carrying several pacifist diplomats in what turns out to be a sick setup). In the end, after fighting all the various governments and armies and activists and splinter groups, Heero Yuy is basically the last man standing, and saves all the colonies, and the world, triumphantly proclaiming, “I WILL SURVIVE!” as he blasts his Gundam’s buster rifle at the giant battleship Libra that is about to crash into the Earth.

“I will survive,” from the guy that previously wanted to die for his cause. Terrorist redeemed?

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This is what “winning” looks like.

Kind of makes you take pause, doesn’t it?

When a certain teenaged boy was on the lam from law enforcement authorities, I couldn’t help but think how the floppy-haired kid reminded me of an anime character. I’m not glamorizing him, or what he might have done. But, looking at quotes from his classmates and Twitter followers, they all doubted the friendly, laid-back boy was capable of committing heinous acts of terrorism. I have my own theories about the why and how behind these attacks, and can’t help but hope that this kid just got mixed up in something much bigger than him and didn’t actually want to commit these horrific acts; that someone else put him up to it. That he was part of something beyond his control.

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Roger that, mission.

We may never know. So why bring this up, and link real-world events to a nineties-era anime? Perhaps because watching the news often feels just like watching a movie, except without close-ups or dialogue. Because we’ve seen the same plot and players before, except the Hollywood version almost always supplies a neat and tidy ending. Anime also does this, with the terrorist-turned-hero who saves the day.

Heero Yuy is a complex character, no doubt. And humans are complex, too. We don’t yet know the story behind the violence that captured the nation – and the world – this month. The tragedy and suspense that kept many of us up all night. Unfortunately, we may never know the whole story. And so we can go back to our lives, having been made aware of one more atrocity in the world; one that unfolded in our own backyards. We will go back to our every day, perhaps a little wiser, a little more vigilant, a little more world-weary.

One thing is for certain: terrorists don’t kill people and then go save the world. At least not outside of anime.

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Yes and no, I'd argue. It depends on what the definition of "terrorism" is, the stricter, historic definition or the (unfortunate, imo) modern usage where it gets thrown around a lot. As someone who studied/works in international affairs, I always preferred the precise, classic definition that terrorists are individuals and organizations that intentionally attack civilians and civilian targets for a political goal. Granted, it's been a long time since I watched Gundam Wing, but I don't think the Wing or 00 characters would fit this definition. They exclusively target military installations and the Oz command structure, even if Heero was involved in causing collateral civilian casualties. And in 00 Celestial Being even throws around the word "terrorist" if I recall correctly, but only target military and armed non-state actors (like the LTTE in Sri Lanka and Afghan poppy production in the first few episodes.) The choice of targets is what I believe should be the defining line between terrorists and guerrillas/resistance fighters/rebels/etc. Now, if we're playing fast and loose with the "terrorist" label like popular culture and much of the media has been since 9/11, then characters from both shows could fit the definition from the points of view of the status quo powers. And in this sense, I think both shows can glorify this definition of "terrorism" in the edgy sort of "one man's freedom fighter is another man's terrorist" way. Wing seemed to have done this a bit less intentionally since terrorism wasn't as large in the international consciousness when it was made, but 00 definitely did try to play this up. It glamorized the mushy definition of terrorism by associating the label with Celestial Being, sort of like the word "outlaw" or "rebel" might have been used before those terms became overused and lost their power to shock. Though in both cases, the redemption aspect of Heero's story (and Setsuna's) kind of puts a nice ending to the anti-hero personality type that both characters have (or attempt to have, depending on your opinion of the quality of the writing in each show.) So the shows can have their edgy glorification of soft-definition terrorism but still turn their characters around to a more just or peaceful purpose. Which seems like a classic 'bad boy finds peace/a cause and turns his life around' sort of scenario. So, my opinion in the end is that the two shows glamorize terrorism if a loose definition of terrorism is used, though that in my opinion says more about (what I'd argue is) the misuse of the word "terrorist" in the last 12 years than anything dealing with the shows' messages.