Warning: the following review contains mild spoilers for Mobile Suit Gundam: The Witch from Mercury, which is now streaming on Crunchyroll.
The first new mainline Mobile Suit Gundam series in about seven years (not to mention the first TV series in the franchise to feature a female protagonist), Mobile Suit Gundam: The Witch from Mercury is a grand return that doesn’t miss a step. It feels boldly new while maintaining the long-running franchise’s pet themes and interests, when it’s not outright disguising them. From series director Hiroshi Kobayashi (most recently on Netflix’s Spriggan adaptation) plus series composer and screenwriter Ichirō Ōkouchi (Turn A Gundam, Sk8 the Infinity) it hits all of the classic Gundam touchstones from a compelling new perspective — for starters, with one of the most compelling twists on the formula in that the Aerial suit itself is quite probably a living thing.
The status quo of this Gundam series is set outside of the Universal Century continuity, instead taking place in “Ad Stella.” The fresh timeline, alongside the series structure, feels both pleasingly accessible to franchise newcomers and rewarding to older fans. As with previous shows, there’s a divide between space-dwelling colonists and Earth, but it’s a little different this time — as The Witch From Mercury’s conflict takes place across corporate lines as well, adding anti-capitalist themes alongside its expected depiction of the psychological tolls of war. The rule of corporations seemingly matters more than that of government in this setting — and crucially, the conglomerate of the Benerit Group has outlawed Gundams. A brutal prologue episode details how the Gundams of the show were borne from medical technology, the technopathic “GUND” format, a sort of melding of the human mind with machine limbs. The connection leads to pilots being called “witches,” and where there are witches there are witch hunts: the technology is outlawed, and its creators at the Earthian-founded Vanadis Institute are murdered by the Benerit Group.
The bloodshed in combo with the complex capitalist scheming is a lot to take in, but following that violent and upsetting prologue, the series eases into its web of character relationships and corporate intrigue with its introduction to the prestigious Asticassia School of Technology, where the mobile suit companies send their heirs and heiresses in preparation for the cutthroat world of business. It’s attended by Suletta Mercury – presumably the young Eri from the prologue, now under an alias (although fan theory, and a lot of textual evidence, including a pretty good short story, suggests otherwise). Crucially, Asticassia is run by the Benerit Group, its leader Delling Rembran being the decisive voice in the outlawing of Gundams and the exile of Suletta’s family to the “backwater” colony on Mercury. So far, so serious — but The Witch From Mercury unexpectedly carries a much lighter tone from this point, especially through Suletta’s charming naivety and can-do attitude, her positivity slowly changing the people around her.
Her journey is packed with clever riffs on the franchise’s habits — beginning with her own mother taking on the mandatory role of the masked Char Aznable stand-in, while Suletta’s spooky connection with Aerial, her actual conversations with the machine, feels like a new type of Newtype. There’s even a spin on Cyber Newtypes. But as with everything in The Witch From Mercury, it feels like just enough of a twist on the formula that these archetypes feel renewed, not just familiar.
Even with all its recollections of and references to past series, it keeps things feeling fresh by not beginning in the middle of conflict but showing the seeds of it being planted first, building intrigue around each faction. The chronology of its setting is left tantalizingly vague, instead slowly unspooling its anthropological and political history through incidental details: the abandonment of Earth and its place as an underclass, and the de facto rule of Spacians and how market dominance is a means to keep them poor. Split into different houses and branches, the school is a microcosm of the outside world, and the show uses its time there as a means to explore that sociology, while the older generation knowingly uses this fact to further their own means.
Ōkouchi’s writing, paired with excellent voice performances across the board, gives us time to appreciate the camaraderie within the underdog Earth House of the school. With its setting between the school and its connections with the Benerit Group, it feels more focused in its scope, exploring the psychology of the cast outside of combat in the relative peace of the school. One hilarious fistfight aside, most actual fights are contained to the duels, or verbal sparring matches. The Witch From Mercury is comfortable with investing plenty of time in the other internal battles of its characters’ lives, Suletta and her own anxiety for starters. Each personal problem is thoughtfully unpacked, and threaded into the larger scale conflicts brewing behind the scenes.
The grim prologue is a stark warning that the tense but relatively peaceful status quo cannot last, especially at a school for burgeoning war criminals. In the early episodes, the focus remains on building up these relationships through high school hijinks, though that doesn’t mean that it’s a slow burn nor that it skimps on the robot fights — in fact it introduces a fun new angle on them too. Asticassia comes with the unique quirk in that honor duels in mobile suits are used to settle any level of dispute — from petty grievances and apologies, to arranged marriages. More often than not, these moments make it most clear that the students are used as pawns in the schemes of their technocratic parents.
As well as derailing such schemes, the moment when Suletta unwittingly wins fellow student Miorine Rembran’s hand in marriage for many contained deliberate echoes of Revolutionary Girl Utena, the novelization of which Ōkouchi worked on. But The Witch From Mercury isn’t only constrained to this homage, and has since shown that it has a lot more going on behind the scenes through its depictions of backroom intrigue and subterfuge, and elegantly tying the machinations of the ruling corporate parties back into the social castes of the school.
The duels themselves show off some delightful, traditionally animated mech battles, as The Witch From Mercury delivers intense,impactful robot gore (and later, human gore) in the midst of its dramatic and often intensely personal bouts, some of which smartly tie back in to both the students’ personal motivations as well as corporate sponsors, as they jockey for industry power via the school. The storytelling extends into the design of the mobile suits themselves. The mechanical designers – Ippei Gyōbu, JNTHED, Kanetake Ebikawa, Kenji Teraoka, Takayuki Yanase, and Wataru Inada – gives each a distinctive look emblematic of its respective owner as well as the story around them. The prideful plume of Guel’s Dilanza, for example, stands out as much as the sleek, gentler lines of Suletta’s Aerial (in its first iteration anyway). Even beyond the signature suits, each suit built with character and satisfying heft. It’s all coupled with killer sound design, all crunching metal and the deep bass of beam weapons as well as a bombastic score from Takashi Ohmama underlining the spectacle of every fight.
It takes care in the smaller moments as well — pulling in names like Hiroyuki Okiura (best known for directing Jin-Roh and the remarkable opening of the Cowboy Bebop movie) for a sequence where Suletta and Miorine wrestle with a door in a small squabble, a precursor to one of their few genuine heart to hearts. More often than not, the show’s direction does away with subtlety entirely – it’s all but screaming its subtext at you – but it makes for incredibly striking imagery. One image that comes to mind is the backlighting highlighting the dubious morals of Prospera with her arms outstretched in a kind of mocking emulation of sainthood. It’s capable of being flashy and overwrought just as often as being delicate in its character interactions, and it finds a fine balance between those modes both in its writing and in its direction. Its character animation contains just as much personality, coupled with mogmo’s distinctive original character designs, all as memorable as those crazy Gundam names (take for example: Chuatury “Chuchu” Panlunch, a charmingly brash Earthian with large pink pom-poms for hair).
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As well as evoking religion in its corporate structures (the anti-Gundam organization is called Catherdra), Ōkouchi also wields Shakespeare in the building of The Witch From Mercury’s story. This occurs in forms both amusingly obvious – Suletta’s mother goes by Lady Prospera, their mobile suit is called Aerial, there’s a random guy offscreen called Hamlet – as well as tragic, such as in the season’s end point for poor Guel Jeterk’s paternal angst and continual humiliation.
Such familial drama is at the core of the series, the kids dealing with emotionally distant parents, or parents interfering in their children’s lives in manners that begin to affect their very social order. At the same time, Suletta is blissfully unaware of her own mother’s quickly rising ranking in the list of All-Time Worst Gundam Parents. Prospera’s blatant and increasingly vile manipulations of her are all masked (so to speak) by their appearance as real motherly advice in the moment (and Mamiko Noto’s voice acting, all faux-friendliness laced with menace). Each is so awfully but compellingly two-faced, the depths of Prospera’s conditioning of Suletta eventually coming to a head in a manner as shocking as it was inevitable.
For all of the joy and drama of hanging out with Asticassia’s students, it’s the most recent episode that may become most ingrained in the memory. Gory and jaw-dropping, it delivers on the ominous promise of the prologue, exploding both mechs, bodies, and its carefully established character relationships all in one crushing, awe-inspiring 20 minutes that reminds just how easy the show’s mobile suits make it to take a life, after a whole season of bloodless combat. Even Suletta’s clumsy charm ends up weaponized.
Compelling, mirroring imagery appears throughout that episode, as characters fall further than previously thought possible (poor, poor Guel Jeterk) and the questions posed by Prospera and Suletta’s relationship only intensify with a post-credits sting that, in one swift motion, might actually be the most viscerally bloody that Gundam has ever been. As a whole, the episode recalls the violence of its prologue and imagery from the first episode — the kneeling Gundam now bathed in shadow rather than glowing sunlight and feathers, bringing the first season full circle in the most nightmarish way possible. To borrow some critical parlance, it slaps.