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Mobile Suit Gundam Thunderbolt: December Sky Blu-ray Anime Review

9 min read

Gundam Thunderbolt December Sky CoverFighting to the rhythm of the beat…

What They Say:
It is Universal Century 0079, at the end of the One Year War between the Earth Federation and the Principality of Zeon. The space colonies of Side 4, or Moore, were previously destroyed by a Zeon attack, and many colonists lost their lives. Side 4 became a shoal zone filled with the wreckage of destroyed colonies and warships, lit by constant flashes of lightning due to collisions between electrified debris. It soon came to be known as the “Thunderbolt Sector.”

The Moore Brotherhood, an Earth Federation Forces unit made up of surviving citizens from Moore, set out to exterminate the Zeon forces in the Thunderbolt Sector in order to reclaim their homeland. To halt the Federation advance, the Zeon forces deployed their own Living Dead Division, which was established to collect combat data on soldiers with prosthetic limbs.

Io Fleming, though part of the Moore Brotherhood, hates being tied down by his homeland and family history. Daryl Lorenz, having lost his legs in earlier battles, is now an ace sniper of the Living Dead Division. When they confront each other on the battlefield, they will reach a mutual realization. These two are destined to kill each other.

The Review:
Audio:
The audio presentation for this release brings us the original Japanese language track in stereo as well as the English language dub that was produced for it. Both tracks are in uncompressed format which means the score, which is a huge part of the draw here, comes across very well. The action effects are great with some real richness and depth, but for those that have a love of music getting some uncompressed jazz like this is a real treat. There’s a great smoothness and richness to it that delivers wonderfully and really does make that a standout component for a lot of fans. Beyond that it’s a strong mix elsewhere as the action is tight and expressive while the dialogue has some great placement and depth where needed that keeps the action moving. It’s a strong mix overall that just left me wishing for a full 5.1 design to really take it up a notch.

Video:
Originally in theaters in the summer of 2016, the transfer for this film is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.78:1 in 1080p using the AVC codec. Animated by Sunrise, the show originally started as a four-part ONA series that was designed to be theatrical with high-quality animation. The film has some additional material inserted into it to smooth out the pieces as a single viewing and that helps to sand down the rough edges of it. What we get here is a strikingly beautiful film that has me wishing we had a lot more like it, especially the shorter running time. The mecha designs are fantastic, the mechanical animation strong, and the color depth and quality is amazing throughout with such rich blacks and vibrant colors. The encoding brings all of this with its very high motion action sequences to life in a clean and problem free presentation that delivers on what a Gundam fan wants. This is just a beautiful looking release through and through, especially on a larger screen.

Packaging:
The packaging design for this release brings us a standard sized Blu-ray case with the familiar key visual that has the mobile suits in the background with lots of action effects while the cast are kept to almost headshots along the bottom. It’s not a great piece and hasn’t been a favorite of mine as it doesn’t work the real main characters well and the mobile suits are too shadowed and difficult to discern, especially on a paper insert like this. The back cover has some small shots from the show that aren’t really discernible while it does provide for a good summary of the premise that breaks it all down cleanly and clearly. The technical grid along the bottom covers a minimal but important amount of information and we get the usual round of production credits and a breakdown of what extras are included.

Menu:
The menu for this release uses the same artwork as the front cover but there’s a significant difference in the lighting of it so that you can actually see the red mobile suit in the background while the details of the one in the foreground are also now visible. While I still don’t care for the artwork overall as it’s just too busy and overcolored, it’s definitely better in this form than the cover. The navigation is kept to the left with a nice bit of thematic elements to it where we get the basic setup that’s easy to access and navigate. With the logo along the top it sets the mood right for the show while being easy to access and move around in with no problems.

Extras:
The only extras included are several minutes worth of promos and commercials as well as the theatrical trailers.

Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
Based on the manga series by Yasuo Ohtagaki that’s running in Big Comic Superior, Mobile Suit Gundam Thunderbolt: December Sky is an expanded theatrical version of the ONA that was released starting in December 2015. The original manga has been going since 2012 and is licensed and released in North America by Viz Media where the original run is up to nine volumes so far and more anime is coming. The use of the series as an ONA where episodes clocked in around eighteen minutes each with initially limited availability was interesting as it allowed them to work with a different structure (no commercials) and could run with a shorter episode count, something I’ve long been in favor of when it comes to some sprawling Gundam franchise. The result is a show that when taken together in this form works in a very smooth and tight manner, making for a fun and exhilarating experience without a lot of fluff or sidetracking to slow things down.

I’ve long loved the One Year War period of the Universal Century timeline and putting this amid the 0079 year definitely tickled my fancy in a big way. There are so many stories to tell in this period where it’s across the solar system with so many facets of society that can be involved, essentially the scope of what we see with World War II movies in many ways. Here, we’re introduced to a shoal zone in the Thunderbolt Sector where it’s just filled with debris and wreckage from ships and colonies. Because of all that’s there and the reactions the various pieces have with each other, it’s almost like a lightning field because of all of the discharges. This gives it a unique space for the show to operate and requires some pilots with exceptional skill. The challenges are harder and fiercer and it’s almost the kind of place where you have to suspect that even Amuro would struggle with it because of the sheer unpredictability.

The film focuses on two characters as the primary with some solid supporting cast moments along the way, building a richer narrative and arc for almost all of them in the space of seventy minutes than a lot of Gundam shows do in twenty-five episodes. On the Federation side as part of the Moore Brotherhood that lost a lot in the war so far, we have Io Fleming, the son of the mayor of the lost Side 4. He and the others are intent on inflicting great pain upon Zeon for what was done and there’s a passion to it. Fleming is interesting in how he’s a gifted pilot and gets to work a really great mobile suit here as it progresses. His gift is brought out thanks to the pirate radio station he listens to with its jazz and that adds greatly to the battles with something that feels freshed in this particular franchise. He shows us how he uses it to pilot better in some ways but it doesn’t need much explaining as many people work better with music. His arc here shows his skill, the kind of ferocity and drive that he has to punish the Zeon forces, and what and who he’ll use along the way to achieve his goals. He’s a hotshot pilot and bad boy to be sure, but not the kind that makes you all doe-eyed.

His opposite within this battlefield is the Zeon pilot Daryl Lorenz, a highly regarded sniper that’s struggling after some of his time in the war ended up with him losing his legs. His artificial limbs aren’t the best but they serve well enough for him to be able to work as a sniper in this particularly brutal battlefield. His story is one that plays out harshly as he and his are hunted down by the intense Moore Brotherhood group and it becomes a personal battle between him and Fleming. There are some good insights into the mindset of the Zeon soldiers along the way but for Lorenz we see how he loses more and more of himself and becomes more connected with his mobile suit in disturbing ways. We’ve seen plenty of stories of wartime experimentation with weapons and people and it’s easy to imagine a range of things having been done to people here in this kind of war. So seeing some of that play out and how far they push Lorenz, and how much it twists him to the point where Fleming can easily call him out on it, is a really strong arc for the character.

Within the short running time we get a lot of great battles and some very fun subplot material that I imagine could be easily expanded (or is, in the manga) that would flesh it out more. The focus on the lead pilots makes sense with the running time originally set and that makes it a more personal connection. I particularly liked Karla on the Zeon side as she’s an interesting personality and in a difficult position that’s made worse by growing feelings for Lorenz. Similarly, I really wanted to see more of Claudia, the captain of the ship that Fleming is on where she’s also his lover. She didn’t quite earn her position as captain and comes across as a real mess in a lot of ways, struggling with the role of command through drugs and dangerous acts. There’s a lot hinted at here and a little bit shown but you can easily see that expanded in a great way to really give us a different kind of character than we usually get. We also have one scene that stood out for me going into the final act where the new slate of pilots show up on the Federation side, replenishing the mobile suits as well. They’re all so young as the war is churning through people left and right and we’re basically getting kids. Some of this ties into the bigger picture of the NewTypes and the changes in the species, but just seeing these fresh faced kids coming on board, laughing and taking pictures with each other, after seeing what Fleming and the rest have been through is a hugely distinctive moment.

In Summary:
Mobile Suit Gundam Thunderbolt: December Sky delivered the kind of old school OVA material that I crave from this franchise and this timeline but wasn’t able to get for the longest time. Done up in all the modern animation techniques with a really strong slickness about it mixed with great character material and intense battles, it’s the kind of work that stands out in the best of ways. I love its shorter running time with a strong focus on just a few characters with a good supporting cast to flesh it out. This release looks and sounds great and will make fans of the timeline and this show very, very happy. Very recommended.

Features:
Japanese 2.0 PCM Language, English 2.0 PCM Language, English Subtitles, Promos, Commercials, Trailers

Content Grade: A
Audio Grade: A-
Video Grade: A
Packaging Grade: B+
Menu Grade: B
Extras Grade: B-

Released By: Sunrise
Release Date: July 11th, 2017
MSRP: $34.99
Running Time: 70 Minutes
Video Encoding: 1080p AVC
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1 Widescreen

Review Equipment:
Sony KDL70R550A 70″ LED 1080P HDTV, Sony PlayStation3 Blu-ray player via HDMI set to 1080p, Onkyo TX-SR605 Receiver and Panasonic SB-TP20S Multi-Channel Speaker System With 100-Watt Subwoofer.

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