By Andrew Osmond.
The film Mobile Suit Gundam: Cucuruz Doan’s Island goes all the way back to the start of the Gundam franchise. Gundam is like Star Trek; it may have had umpteen different iterations over the decades, but the original has a mystique that’s never truly equalled.
In Gundam’s case, that’s the 1979 TV series directed by Yoshiyuki Tomino, with character designs and animation direction by an artist called Yoshikazu Yasuhiko. You may know Yasuhiko for such 1980s films as Arion, Crusher Joe and Venus Wars. More recently he oversaw the lavish Gundam: The Origin, based on his own manga, as Chief Director. I interviewed him about those titles in 2015. Now the 75 year-old has returned to full direction with Cucuruz Doan’s Island.
The film is targeted squarely at fans of the original series, to the extent that it doesn’t explain the backstory to newbies. Fortunately, there’s not much to explain. It’s the future and many humans live in space; however, that’s led to a terrible war between Earth and the spacefaring humans in the Zeon Empire. Gundam follows one Earth-aligned ship, called White Base, in its fights against the Zeons, and especially the fortunes of one teenage crewmember called Amuro Ray. (There’s much more on the original Gundam here.)
Ray’s no career soldier; he was an ordinary schoolboy when the war started. However, he has a miraculous affinity with a newly-invented combat robot, a Gundam. By the time the film begins, he’s seen many conflicts in space and on Earth, but he’s still very vulnerable. In particular – and this is something that’s important to the film – he’s haunted by a recent encounter with his mother, who was shocked to see him killing a Zeon soldier, and condemned who he’d become.
The film starts with a new mission for the White Base crew; to investigate a tiny island, Alegranza in the Canaries, where Earth soldiers have been killed, presumably by holdout Zeon soldiers. Amuro and a few other crewmembers go there, but Amuro’s Gundam is attacked and seemingly lost. While his comrades retreat, Amuro wakes to find himself still on the island, in a strange community of children and teenagers. They’re led by the imposing Cucuruz Doan, whom they adore as a father. It’s plain that Doan is responsible for Amuro’s predicament; the boy is allowed to roam free, but finds no sign of his machine.
While there’s a fair amount of fighting action in the film – including a particularly well-animated human scuffle between Amuro and another boy – it’s not what Cucuruz Doan is about. Actually, the film is the closest Gundam has ever come to the kind of anime that fans like to call “iyashikei”; that is mellow, slow anime with characters living good, unexciting lives, and appreciating those lives. Often they feature groups of girls, in TV series such as Aria (about gondoliers in a Martian Venice) or the self-explanatory Laid-Back Camp. In Cucuruz, though, the point is to give the boy hero, Amuro, a break, to give him time off from being a soldier, and let him feel some of the contentment he knew before he boarded the Gundam.
The film puts a lot of weight on characters living in a challenging environment. At first sight, the title island is just a barren rock, but we see Doan and the kids finding fertile soil, or fixing the pump of a well, or just taking care of each other. The fact that many of the characters are children makes parts of the film feel akin to the family World Masterpiece Theatre anime in the 1970s, which showed kids making homes in all kinds of places, and loomed large in anime when the first Gundam appeared.
A goat is a prominent character in the film, and that may be a nod to the family series that inspired the World Masterpiece Theatre anime, 1974’s Heidi, Girl of the Alps by Isao Takahata. And before you scoff at the idea that Gundam could have anything to do with Heidi, remember that the father of Gundam, Yoshiyuki Tomino, storyboarded eighteen episodes of the Heidi serial.
Of course, Cucuruz Doan’s Island has a far more obvious selling point. It’s the chance to see old friends who are as nostalgic for fans as Uhura, Scotty or McCoy. While the film is very much Amuro’s story, there are appearances from such “First Gundam” characters as Sleggar, Kai, Hayato, Mirai, Fraw Bow and Sayla (and no-one knows Sayla’s other name at this point in the larger story).
The redoubtable Captain Bright Noa is there too, of course, with a sweet private moment where he reveals his regrets about how he’s treated Amuro. The scene allows for a reconstruction of the famed “Even my father never hit me!” moment in the series – for an in-depth discussion of that, see my interview with Yoshiyuki Tomino.
The characters are shown much as fans will remember them. However, Yasuhiko mentioned in one interview that he took the opportunity to age Bright Noa up a little. The character was supposedly 19 in the original serial, but is presented as 25 in the film. The reason is that in 1979, when the TV Gundam was made, a character over 20 would have been designated an “uncle” figure, whereas Noa was always meant to be more of an older brother. “So rather than changing it,” Yasuhiko said, “we just gave him the age that should have been common sense from the beginning.”
Inevitably, most of these characters have different Japanese voices in the film than they had on TV. Bright Noa, for example, is voiced by Ken Narita, who took over the role from the late Hirotaka Suzuoki; Narita also played Noa in Gundam Unicorn and Gundam: The Origin. However, a couple of “original” voices have returned after 43 years. Toshio Furukawa (Piccolo in Dragon Ball, Shinohara in Patlabor, Ataru in the original Urusei Yatsura) is back as White Base crewmember Kai, who looks like a sneaky delinquent but has far more mettle than you’d think. And the hero Amuro keeps his original voice – Toru Furuya, who was also Yamcha in Dragon Ball and Tuxedo Mask in Sailor Moon.
The film’s peculiar origins are explored in an article by Lauren Orsini on Anime News Network. While the original 1978 Gundam is an established classic, there was one episode that the director Tomino was unhappy with – part 15 in the original Japanese run. This was the original version of “Cucuruz Doan’s Island,” with broadly similar story points to the new film, though no time for an iyashikei-style rest. When the first Gundam was licenced to America in 2001, Tomino requested the episode be deleted from the export run, and repeated the stipulation for all releases in English-speaking territories.
Why Tomino did this has never been explained. Many fans think the episode just has too many goofy action shots, combined with the fact that it could be cut. The episode extends the series’ themes of war, and people’s responses to war, but it’s skippable without affecting the main story. Still, as Orsini points out, Tomino’s cutting the episode only drew fan attention to it.
You might compare it to fans’ interest in far worse bits of famous franchises. There’s the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special that was made for TV in the wake of the first film, with nearly all the main cast roped in. It’s treasured by fans precisely because it’s so much of an embarrassment to everyone involved, and it’s ended up being referenced in the franchise ever since. Or if you think that’s mortifying, there’s a certain Sword Art Online prose story which its author, Reki Kawahara, would like to vanish into the darkness of history, if only fandom would let it.
As for Yasuhiko, who directs the new film of Cucuruz Doan’s Island, he referred to it as “one more Gundam story” that he was making because he couldn’t stop loving the original series. As for why he approached the film in the way he did, there are possible clues in some of his comments to me in 2015. Back then, he expressed dissatisfaction with his 1980s films Crusher Joe and Venus Wars – “I didn’t think (they) were good works.” He also talked of Japan’s “bubble” years in 1980s when, “I kind of had a difficult time to figure out what to express. Society was so materialistic, spirituality was ignored.”
While the approach in Yasuhiko’s Cucuruz Doan’s Island may puzzle some Gundam fans, it may reflect exactly the spirituality that Yasuhiko found missing in his earlier action films. It asks the audience to take a break from the conflict that mostly defines Gundam, to rest up like Amuro, and to think about what it means to be alive.
Andrew Osmond is the author of 100 Animated Feature Films. Mobile Suit Gundam: Cucuruz Doan’s Island is screening at selected UK cinemas from 21st September, and at this year’s Scotland Loves Anime.