Mobile Suit Gundam: Cucuruz Doan’s Island – Review

The existence of this film is an oddity, being a retelling of the 15th episode of the original Mobile Suit Gundam series. Apparently, that episode had some issues on the visual production side, prompting its omission from the English-language releases, so you can interpret this film as an attempt to finally do justice to a maligned chapter of Gundam history. Having never watched the original Cucuruz Doan episode, I can’t compare the plot to this movie, but it was immediately clear that this was an expanded telling in the spirit of the Mobile Suit Gundam: The Origin OVAs—a polished blend of old and new.

For those of you wondering, “Is this a good place to jump into Universal Century?” I wouldn’t recommend it, but it’s also not the worst idea. Although it takes place in the middle of the original series, it’s during an episodic stretch where not many things of actual consequence happen, so the plot is mostly self-contained: the White Base crew are in the middle of circumnavigating Earth when they get orders to inspect the titular island, where intrigue inevitably ensues. More than anything, this feels like one of those franchise anime films where they come up with a throwaway original plot that’s mainly just an excuse to get the gang together and indulge in some cool action setpieces.

It’s not as if “throwaway” automatically equates to “bad,” of course. Even if the status quo is maintained at the end of the film, Cucuruz Doan still tells a satisfying adventure that fits seamlessly within the larger narrative of Mobile Suit Gundam. Continuity-wise, this story takes place during a volatile period of Amuro’s coming-of-age, when he is stretched thin by his myriad, contradicting responsibilities. The film directly references his uncomfortable reunion with his mother two episodes prior (“You used to be so gentle! What happened to you, my wretched son?!”) and his strained relationship with Bright Noa (a flashback to when Amuro nursed his cheek, shattered in shock. “You hit me twice! Not even my father hit me!”). His awkward sullenness and quiet attempts at kindness throughout this film make complete sense within this narrative context. Before he became the legendary Newtype, Amuro Ray was just a boy.

The orphans who live on Cucuruz Doan’s island make the perfect foil for Amuro, as does the eponymous Cucuruz Doan himself. The film takes great care to draw out the vibrant personalities of each child through the character animation—their unrestrained laughter, tantrums, and tears. They never fail to act believably like children, which makes their unassuming acceptance of the war raging around them heartbreaking. The film doesn’t go for cheap drama by having soldiers point guns at children or taking them hostage; it’s enough that they simply exist. Both Amuro and Doan, burdened by the knowledge of their own sins, are motivated to protect the children in ways that make them act against their line of duty.

The best parts of the film revolve around Amuro’s faltering interactions with the island residents, so much so that the interpersonal conflicts far outweigh the impact of the eventual external conflict. The villas are ultimately what make this film feel like “filler” in the derogatory sense. Their motivations are shallow at best, and they are quickly dispatched before any of the good guys feel like they’re in danger. The anticlimactic feeling is reinforced by the lack of variety in the action. As much as I know it would break continuity for the enemies to pilot anything but Zakus at this point in the overarching story, it does make for a relatively thin climax within the context of a feature film. There are some attempts to ramp up tension and introduce subplots around the White Base crew, but they don’t actually get that much to do when push comes to shove.

All of these points to the problem of trying to flesh out an episodic adventure into a film experience. The story was always going to be a relatively quiet, introspective affair compared to the grandiosity of other Gundam theatrical installments. Cucuruz Doan is a solid effort for what it is, but one can’t help notice the small credits list and the scale of reused 3D assets from Gundam: The Origin. This was never meant to blow your mind or reinvent the story in a drastic way; it feels like an in-between project for a talented crew, designed for a manageable scope. If you’re up for some UC nostalgia, this is a good watch, but for all the cult status of the original episode, in practice it really is just a solid, middle-of-the-road Gundam storyline. For better or worse.

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