Christmas means a lot of different things for different people. For me and other mecha fans it signals the yearly rewatch of Gundam 0080: War in the Pocket. Why celebrate Christmas this way? Well, I’ve watched 0080 over Christmas and New Years for the past two years and I plan to do so again this year because it’s by far my favourite Gundam series and since the last episode is set on Christmas Eve it seems appropriate. It also never hurts to have a little heartbreak and some tears to go along with the happy times that the holiday season brings.
0080 has often been called the “Gundam for people who aren’t Gundam fans”. I can see where this comes from because it is different in the scope of the story and isn’t a packed with the usual narrative clichés used in Gundam. It isn’t about a protagonist who is special and gets to pilot a giant robot and change history. Instead of the usual protagonist we have Alfred Izuruha, who is an ordinary 11-year-old who likes giant robots and because war hasn’t effected his pocket of space he thinks it is the cool stuff of movies (Basically, he is the perfect audience avatar). The extreme ordinariness of all the characters, not just Al, is pretty a huge difference from Gundam-as-usual. There isn’t a single ace in the whole show and, while I don’t want every mecha show to go this way, it is refreshing.
At the same time, 0080 is still very much a Gundam show in theme because war is still hell and the way to show that is through children or teenagers suffering and coping with it. Al doesn’t just around doodling Zakus and dreaming about piloting, through a series of coincidences fueled by his eagerness to be a “hero” he manages to meet a Zeon soldier, Bernie, and play out his dream. Of course, he ends up realizing that war isn’t a game he gets to play with no consequences in the worst possible way.
The ending is pretty brutal and heartbreaking in part due to the way Al comes to learn about the real cost of war. However, the full brutality — and also what makes the entire show for me — is the shear pointlessness of Bernie’s death. The moment I realized that Bernie will die trying to save a colony that doesn’t need saving went beyond simply tragic irony to making me feel the a touch of absurdity. Everything Al and Bernie did is futile, despite all heroism and sacrifice we see that the world really is out of the control of the protagonists. There isn’t inherent meaning in Bernie’s death and all the meaning is in what Al and ultimately the audience take from the story.