In the year UC 0079, tensions between the Earth Federation and the Principality of Zeon led to the One Year War, a battle motivated by Zeon’s desire to exist independently of the Federation. The war, detailed in the original Mobile Suit Gundam anime (and retold via the gorgeous Gundam: The Origin manga series) was the impetus for an ongoing series of conflicts spread across different Sides, space colonies stationed inside various Lagrange points orbiting Earth. This convenient plot device allows for the Mobile Suit Gundam franchise to easily tell self-contained stories under the One Year War umbrella without jeopardizing continuity. Out of the Gundam series I’ve seen, including Gundam Wing and The 08th MS Team, Thunderbolt December Sky is easily the most depressing. The events of December Sky are set in Side 4, one of the first colonies to be attacked at the start of Zeon’s war. As a result of the fighting, the sector has been reduced to a massive debris field that surrounds smaller pockets of colonies. Because of the frequent lightning storms, Side 4 earned the name “Thunderbolt Sector” and the unpredictable atmospheric condition is the perfect backdrop for the film’s dark, violent nature.
There are major players on both sides however it is up to the viewer who decides which is just. Unfortunately, that’s a difficult choice to make. There are too few to sympathize with as everyone involved in this film carries a black mark on their soul. On the side of the Earth Federation, Ensign Io Fleming is a hotshot, jazz-loving pilot with a vicious streak. His unit is tasked with taking out a nest of snipers that have all but decimated the Federation’s units in the sector. In a scene reminiscent of the Normandy invasion in World War II movies, Fleming’s unit is massacred as they attempt to cross a debris field, a maneuver that leaves too few survivors. Manning the massive, long range turrets on the other end of the debris field are the Living Dead Division’s sniper team lead by Chief Petty Officer Daryl Lorenz, whose skill as a marksman is unprecedented. When Fleming successfully infiltrates the Zeon sniper nest, he immediately develops a rivalry with Lorenz, a conflict that serves as a microcosm of the war for the Thunderbolt Sector. A series of escalations build up in such a way that a grueling final duel is all but inevitable.
December Sky is a difficult movie to watch because it is bleak and uncomfortable. There are no heroes in this film–a distinct change from The 08th Team. After their first encounter, Fleming and Lorenz harbor an intense bloodlust, screaming vows of each other’s destruction during every engagement. The one thing I loved about the direction of the film was how the personalities of these characters reflect the operational philosophy of the Earth Federation and Principality of Zeon. Fleming, who uses free jazz as battle music, is a ruthless and egotistical asshole that can back up his jive. This is apparent with the ease he pilots a new, prototype Gundam model earned after his successful infiltration of Lorenz’s sniper nest. He also has an inappropriate affair with the unit’s captain, a former lover constantly on the verge of breaking down from the pressures of combat. During one of the final engagements against the Zeon battalion, Fleming is given command of child soldiers that are predictably slaughtered when sent to the front lines.
Lorenz is an amputee, having lost his legs during a landfall battle in the One Year War. He’s not the only one to have lost limbs as nearly every soldier, in all echelons, wear prosthetic limbs. Field doctors graft all sorts of mechanical parts to ensure there are bodies to fill the ranks. So desperate are the Zeon forces stationed here that they have even redesigned their Zukas to accommodate artificial limbs. The increased reliance on artificial limbs has a connection to a Zeon’s research into a new Gundam equipped with a Reuse Pscyho Device that connects and responds to a pilot’s nervous system. Lorenz and his fellow soldiers frequently pay their pound of flesh for the war effort, which is an uncaring machine that demands the next big weapon to end the war. Karla Mitchum, a Zeon scientist, struggles with the ethical crisis of using soldiers to test the new Reuse Device and finds her existence beleaguered by those forcing her to act against her ethics. By the end of the film, she has witnessed such horrors which cause a psychotic break and regresses her to a child-like state. Like I said, there is no happiness here. No hope. Just death and abject misery.
The frequent and often savage battle scenes are underscored by an eclectic soundtrack that switches between jazz and somber ballads, two genres that develop into leitmotifs for the main characters. Fleming’s enjoyment of free jazz is indicative of his fighting style–it’s wild, unpredictable, and even a little orgasmic as the flurry of freestyle saxophone music attacks the listener with its profound defiance of the traditional melody. Conversely, Lorenz prefers slower and more painful ballads meant to celebrate the existence of life. However, when he and the other soldiers lose so much the music becomes a painful and somber reminder of what once was and what could have been. That pain and remembrance give the Zeon fighters the urge to carry on in battle.
Death conveys so much meaning in this film and I give it a lot of credit for making the loss (and spectacle of their loss) of background characters feel impactful. It’s easy to treat faceless, ancillary characters with little care when they die because they have no great weight on the larger narrative. Given the bleakness of the story, however, the death of Faceless Zuka Pilot #5 feels just as heavy and impressionable as if it were a major character. This is especially noticeable when the child soldiers, fresh out of training, are mercilessly killed as the struggle to remember their training. It is all because the film does a magnificent job of capturing the darker side of the conflict. When both sides of a war are desperate to exterminate each other, the gloves come off.
I made the mistake of watching Mobile Suit Gundam Thunderbolt: December Sky before going into work and as a result, I felt bummed out the whole day. It’s a bitter, almost nihilistic movie to sit through because nothing of significant import, not even the lives lost, comes from its conclusion. Fleming is a despicable person and Lorenz, and the rest of the Zion troops, are pathetic patchwork pieces of meat expected to fight to the death. Predictably, there are no winners in this fight and the final moments of the film are a bitter reminder that war is hell. In light of this, December Sky is an excellent film. Where The 08th Team presented its anti-war message through star-crossed lovers, December Sky uses barbarity to show that war is a terrible, bloodthirsty monster that cannot be satiated.
Title: Mobile Suit Gundam Thunderbolt: December Sky
Director: Kou Matsuo
Publisher: SUNRISE Inc
Media: Physical Blu-Ray
Genre: Science Fiction, Action, Drama
Runtime: 70 minutes
Release Date: 7/11/2017
Purchased Or Received For Review? Received For Review
Where to buy: Rightstuf