- The Shock of the Newtype:The Mobile Suit Gundam Novels of Tomino Yoshiyuki
In the West, print and animated cartoons are usually consigned to a "children only" ghetto, peopled by little beyond superheroes and Scooby-Doo. "Serious" writing is reserved for novels. However, manga and anime range far beyond the children's playground, which is part of their attraction for Westerners.
Modern manga date from Tezuka Osamu's Shin Takarajima (New Treasure Island, 1947), which ran 250 pages in draft, and countless manga since then have reached for the scope of story and complex characterization found in novels. Anime based on novels range from Hotaru no haka (Grave of the Fireflies) to A Dog of Flanders. But novels can also be based on anime. In this postmodern environment, novels aren't necessarily excluded from a discussion of Japanese popular culture.
The trilogy of novels by Tomino Yoshiyuki (Awakening, Escalation, and Confrontation) is based on the TV series Mobile Suit Gundam and represents a unique kind of crossover. Tomino had already directed Tezuka's televised anime series Tetsuwan Atomu (Astro Boy) and Ribon no kishi (Knight of the Ribbon) and the giant robot series Brave Raideen and Zambot 3 when Mobile Suit Gundam premiered in 1979. The series departed from the giant robot formula with its ambiguous and conflicted heroes and villains who were not caricatures.
Initially the TV series had relatively low ratings, and the producers decided that it would end two months earlier than originally planned, requiring much rewriting. However, when rebroadcast later that year, the series proved much more successful, begetting several successful sequels (and model kits) as well as this trilogy of novels. Its director and creator, Tomino, radically rethought and expanded the series for the novels, the first appearing in 1979 just as the television series was ending. All three novels were republished in 1987 in Japan.
In 1988 a Del Rey Ballantine editor approached Frederik Schodt, on the strength of his Inside the Robot Kingdom, and asked if he would translate the Gundam trilogy. Schodt's translation appeared in 1991 and, like the original broadcast of the series in Japan, confused fans whose expectations were based on more conventional anime. After spending a dozen years out of print, the trilogy has now been reissued by Stone Bridge Press.
Schodt's translation works both as a novel and as a genre piece of science fiction writing, more Heinlein-style hard core than cyberpunk. Combining the three books into one makes organic sense and allows the reader to follow the story of Amuro Ray, Char Aznable, and both sides of the war that brings them together while forcing them to confront their Newtype abilities.
The novels also provided a Western standard for the character, place, and device names in Mobile Suit Gundam, which had varied widely in Japanese transliterations. For example, Lalah Sune also appeared as Laura Soon, and the character Tomino had named Shah Azunaburu was variously renamed Char Aznable, Shaw Aznable, and even Charles Aznavour (a real French pop singer!).
An interesting facet of the novels—and possibly a reason why Tomino wrote them—is the expanded view of just what constitutes a "New-type," a key concept of the tale. The original story was driven in part by a prophetic statement from Zeon Zum Deikun, monarch of the space colonists and founder of the Republic of Zeon. His successor, Degwin Sodo Zabi, says, "Zeon Zum Deikun once prophetized [sic] that someday mankind would undergo a transformation. Should that come to pass, mankind may give birth to a new race of men who by themselves will rule the universe. . . . What he called a 'new type' of human" (93).
Like many prophecies, this one was short on details and allowed for many interpretations, most of them managing to turn up in the novels. Humankind's worst impulses had first try at defining a Newtype; as Tomino put it, perhaps reflecting on earthly civilization, "because the military authorities . . . were so embroiled [End Page 175] in war, they were the first to interpret it their own way...