The year turns, and as the prophecy foretold, another Gundam show is upon us. If you’re not familiar, it’s a giant-robot anime franchise, and each new entry comes with a minigame of figuring out what a “Gundam” is this time. Sometimes it’s the generic term for elite mecha in the setting, or it might refer to a special metal that only certain individual robots are made of. In The Witch From Mercury, Gundams are a special kind of mecha that hurt their pilots to gain superior performance. Gundam pilots are called witches, and at least one of them is from the planet Mercury.
While the franchise hasn’t always been my cup of tea, I really enjoyed The Witch From Mercury’s first season. It’s got compelling politics, three-dimensional characters, beautiful animation, a cute romance, and all the Tempest references you could ask for. But something odd occurred to me as I burned through the episodes: the giant-robot fights were really boring. Not something you expect from a giant-robot anime.
Instead of moving on like a normal person, I had no choice but to dig into each of the main character’s fights and figure out what was wrong. Believe it or not, there are only four of them, since a lot of the first season is devoted to politics and relationship arcs. There are also a couple more fights that the protagonist isn’t involved in, but those aren’t as important. With luck, we can solve the mystery of why it’s not fun to watch giant robots hit each other with beam sabers.
Spoiler Notice: Mobile Suit Gundam: The Witch From Mercury, season one.
1. Suletta vs. Guel
As protagonist Suletta and her robot, Aerial, arrive at giant-robot training school, we quickly learn two of the show’s key concepts:
- Important disputes are solved via (usually) nonlethal robot duels.
- The highest-ranked pilot is automatically engaged to marry Miorine, daughter of a super-rich space guy.
Both of these conceits would feel more at home in a feudal setting where all the nobles were expected to also be warriors and property was inherited through patriarchal primogeniture,* but we’ll let it slide for the story’s sake.
Info dump out of the way, Suletta witnesses a conflict in which she must intervene: The currently highest-ranked pilot, a guy named Guel, is being super mean to Miorine, destroying her precious greenhouse* and demanding she come live with him. Also possibly demanding she have sex with him. At least, that’s what “give yourself over to me” sounds like, though maybe it’s less rapey in Japanese.
Suletta distracts Guel by giving him a firm slap, which means it’s time for a duel.* Officially, the stakes are that if Suletta loses, she has to leave the school for being so rude, plus the unofficial stakes of Miorine’s freedom. Right away, there’s a problem, but it’s an unusual one: these stakes are too high. If Suletta loses, she can’t be in the show anymore, and it’s only the second episode!* It’s difficult to take stakes like that seriously so early, which erodes tension. This also means future duels can’t raise the stakes unless they want to involve physical danger, since being expelled is about the worst thing that can happen in a school story.
The fight itself is remarkably short. The majority of it is spent on a false start where Miorine tries to pilot Aerial herself, but this is just character work. It lets Miorine demonstrate how tired she is of other people making decisions for her, and it lets Suletta show how territorial she is about Aerial, which she considers part of her family. Normally, I wouldn’t recommend pausing a fight for this kind of development, but it’s a formal duel, so it’s believable that Guel would wait for them to figure things out among themselves.
Once Suletta takes over, she immediately ends the fight by unleashing a swarm of drones that shoot lasers. Guel has no defense and is defeated just like that. Yay? This is unsatisfying for several reasons. Most obviously, it feels like cheating. This is supposed to be a fight between giant robots, and Suletta also gets a drone swarm? Theoretically, they’re a part of Aerial that Suletta controls with her mind, but in practice they seem like independent vehicles.
More fundamentally, the victory is completely unearned. Not only does it lack a turning point, but it’s not even down to Suletta’s piloting skills. That would still be unsatisfying, but this is worse: she wins because she inherited a better robot. As a side problem, she’s now utterly annihilated the best pilot in the school, so who’s going to present a challenge to her in the future? Not only is this fight unsatisfying, but it manages to sabotage future fights as well. Amazing!
The only upside is that by defeating Guel, Suletta inadvertently becomes engaged to Miorine in his stead. Thus begins the “arranged marriage leads to real love” plot, which is very cute. Keep hold of that romance, because it’s the only thing we’ll have to sustain us for a while.
2. Suletta vs. Guel (Again)
As a side effect of winning the first fight, Suletta is accused of using illegal Gundam technology. I’ve watched the season several times now, and I still don’t understand why the technology is illegal, so we’ll just have to accept it. The point is that Suletta could get expelled, oh no!
Fortunately, this is when we meet her mother, Prospera. It’s also when I noticed that I’d been tricked into watching The Tempest With Giant Robots. Prospera teams up with Miorine to pull some political shenanigans: instead of being expelled outright, Suletta can stay if she wins another duel. Who is her opponent? Why, the (second) best pilot at the school: our good friend Guel, of course.
So… Suletta is facing the same opponent with the same stakes as last time. The duel so nice, they fought it twice! Even Suletta comments that she’s already beaten Guel and probably can again, but, as with many other stories, lampshading the problem isn’t the same as fixing it. Tension is at rock bottom, and the fight hasn’t even started yet.
In the show’s defense, there are two differences in this fight. First, Guel’s robot has a brand-new AI installed that’s supposed to make him fight better, but it actually seems to make him worse. So that’s a dud. More interestingly, two of Guel’s friends sabotage the environmental controls to make it rain in the arena. This reduces the range of Aerial’s energy weapons, giving Suletta her first real challenge.
I like this twist, as it gives Miorine something to do during the duel: hunt down the saboteurs and turn the rain off. This requires a bit of cleverness on her part, and it’s the closest the fight comes to having a turning point. Unfortunately, it’s not nearly enough to save the fight as a whole.
For one thing, even with the rain, it seems like Suletta could win at any time by deploying her laser drones. She doesn’t use them this time, though. Maybe their cooldown timer isn’t up yet, I don’t know. Beyond that, there’s still no turning point. Once the rain is turned off, the fight continues for a while until Suletta rather unceremoniously wins, which is exactly the result we’d expect.
The main purpose of this fight is to move Guel along on his downfall arc, which will eventually see him leave the school in disgrace. While it’s not a problem for the antagonist to have their own character arc, the hero still needs to have an exciting story, and that isn’t the case here. It’s also weird that Guel’s downfall arc starts so quickly. He looked like a major rival, and this is only his second appearance!
3. Suletta vs. Elan
A couple episodes later, Suletta tries to befriend Elan, who is a sad boy. He’s got a tragic backstory, you see: he’s a clone* specifically created to pilot giant robots. To make matters worse, his robot is secretly a Gundam, so it’s slowly killing him.
When Elan hears that Aerial is also a Gundam, he thinks Suletta might be a clone too. When he learns Suletta isn’t a clone and that Aerial somehow doesn’t hurt her despite being a Gundam, he gets angry and challenges her to a duel. If Elan wins, Aerial will be his. Suletta’s only condition is if she wins, Elan has to tell her his backstory. She’s a bit too pure for this world.
You might notice that in real terms, these stakes are identical to the previous fights. If Suletta loses Aerial, then she can’t participate in the giant-robot plots, which would effectively take her out of the show. Again. This is what happens when you start with the stakes as high as they can go!
Fortunately, this fight does have a few things going for it. First, we’ve already seen Elan beat Guel without much difficulty, so he’s at least better than Suletta’s previous opponent.* Second, Elan’s robot is a Gundam too, which helps put him at least close to Suletta’s level. Finally, the duel is in space, and Aerial has only a jury-rigged thruster pack for maneuvering, with the ever-present threat that it might break down.
That’s all well and good, but it’s not enough. Suletta wins her first two fights with such ease that all of Elan’s supposed advantages are little more than throwing pebbles at a train. Going into the fight, we have little reason to think that our hero won’t chalk up a third easy win.
Once the fight begins, things go back and forth for a while. Elan is at least good enough to give Suletta a bit of sport, and the dialogue does its best to raise tension over Aerial’s thrusters breaking down. But then it’s time for Elan to unleash his big attack: a swarm of drones similar to Suletta’s own. This is it, the big moment, and our hero wins by… spontaneously manifesting a new power?
I couldn’t believe this when I first watched the episode. Aerial is getting swarmed, when it suddenly glows and sends out a shockwave that disables not only all of Elan’s drones but his main robot as well. How this works or where the ability came from isn’t touched on. I can’t even tell if Suletta knew about it or if she was surprised too. What I do know is that, once again, Suletta wins her duel by nature of having a better robot.
We don’t even get a character arc for Elan out of it like we did with Guel. Instead, the episode ends with him seemingly getting tossed in an incinerator and replaced with a new clone. Just a bit of salt to rub in the wound, I guess. There’s still a possibility he’ll return in season two, but even if he does, I’ll still be very annoyed.
4. Team Battle
After her third duel, Suletta is fully outed as piloting a Gundam, something even she didn’t know. This would be bad news for her, except that Miorine convinces everyone that laws aren’t important when there’s money to be made, so they naturally invest in her new Gundam company. First time I’ve ever seen a major scifi storyline resolved via an IPO.
Our heroes have big plans for Gundam technology, which they think might be useful in medical tech for some reason, but then a new villain named Shaddiq makes his move. Through his own political shenanigans, he arranges for the new Gundam company to come under his ownership, where he’ll probably do something nefarious with it. He seems like that kind of guy. The only thing that can stop him is a duel.
That makes the stakes for this duel lower than the previous ones, as it’s just Miorine’s new company that’s at risk.* Normally, this would be a problem, but this time it’s the opposite. Now, our heroes have something on the line that they can lose without getting booted from the show. This raises the possibility that they might lose, increasing tension.
The duel itself will be a six-on-six team battle, though I’m not sure how they decided that. This also raises tension, because while Suletta herself might be invincible, her teammates aren’t. In fact, only one of them is an experienced pilot. The rest are a motley assortment of students that Miorine roped into her new business, or as I lovingly call them: the Scrub Team. In contrast, Shaddiq has a team of elite lady pilots, presumably because he stars in a harem anime while offscreen.
When the battle begins, Scrub Team does its best, but each of them is quickly dealt with, leaving Suletta to face six-to-one odds. This is the first and only time Suletta and Aerial have legitimately felt threatened. On the one hand, that speaks to how ridiculously overpowered they are. On the other hand, the giant-robot fight is finally exciting, and I’ll take what I can get!
Even here, the writers can’t help themselves, as Aerial demonstrates yet another new power. This time, it’s being immune to special anti-Gundam weapons. Sure, why not? But in the upset of the century, the deus ex robot isn’t enough! Shaddiq’s team is still going to win, and all seems lost.
That’s when the Scrub Team returns with a vengeance! Working together, they’ve cobbled parts from their disabled robots into a single working weapon that they use for a surprise attack, taking out Shaddiq’s robot and ending the fight. Hell yeah!
This turning point is satisfying for a few reasons. First, Suletta has to demonstrate persistence when she holds out against overwhelming numbers, similar to Aragorn and friends defending Helm’s Deep until Gandalf arrives with reinforcements. Second, the Scrub Team has to be clever with their bodged-together weapon. Third, it punishes Shaddiq for his arrogance. He discounts Scrub Team as a threat, and he pays the price. This is by far the best of Suletta’s battles, even if a few of the writers’ bad habits are still on display.
5. Me vs. the Writers
Despite the improvements in the previous entry, we’re at one out of four when it comes to exciting giant-robot fights, in an anime about giant-robot fights. Why did this happen? From the outside, it looks like a few factors are to blame.
First, there’s the show’s basic premise: Miorine is engaged to the highest-ranked pilot. If Suletta ever loses a fight, she’s not the highest-ranking pilot anymore, and thus not engaged either. That would disrupt the main romance, which we can’t have. This one’s an easy fix, though: just make it so only certain fights can transfer Miorine’s engagement status. Maybe they only happen once a year or something.
Second, the writers just love Aerial too much. Note that I said Aerial and not Suletta. Suletta only gets an average amount of candy. She’s described as a good pilot, but her robot mostly wins fights for her. Maybe the writers thought it had to work that way because the Tempest character Ariel was effectively all-powerful, but that’s no excuse.
A better option would be for Aerial to actually be weaker than most giant robots when Suletta first arrives at school but still have a unique ability that makes it special. That way, Suletta and the other characters can upgrade and strengthen their robots as they gain more funds, until Aerial is finally the near-invincible badass we see in the show.
It would also help if the writers understood turning points better. Based on the fourth fight, I think they know what turning points are – either that or they got extremely lucky – but they don’t consider turning points a priority. They just have Suletta win fights by dint of Aerial being overpowered and then call it a day. The good news is that there are lots of great turning points they could have used for more satisfying endings. We even have lists of them!
A more difficult problem is the small number of episodes: just 13 for the first season, and one of them is entirely prologue. Quite a few sections feel squeezed by the time constraints, like Guel’s arc happening so fast. You also see it in the final episode, where we build up to Suletta finally fighting some bad guys for real, only for the bad guys to run away because the episode is over.
The writers also want Suletta to go from fresh-faced newbie to the top pilot at her school, something that should probably take a while to accomplish. But they have a bunch of plots that can’t start until she’s the top pilot, so that also has to happen right away. Fixing this would require prioritizing what’s most important and possibly cutting some storylines. The only other option would be to snap my fingers and grant the show more episodes, an editing power I haven’t quite unlocked yet.
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