Even if you weren’t aware of it, chances are you’ve seen something out of Cucuruz Doan’s Island, the lost episode of the original Mobile Suit Gundam. The episode was dropped from repeat broadcasts, and the self-contained nature of the episode made no viewer the wiser for years.
Well, it’s back with a thirst for vengeance in the form of Cucuruz Doan’s Island, this time as a full-on theatrical release. Considering how much Gundam fans loved the Gundam The Origin series, the adventures of Amuro Ray on Cucuruz Doan’s island was the perfect fit for a re-release. Considering the core of the episode was written as part of the original series, it surely wouldn’t run into any of the pitfalls modern Gundam runs into.
Just as how I watched Gundam Hathaway as a two-parter with Char’s Counter-Attack, it should be noted that thanks to morally gray YouTube accounts, I have *actually* seen the original series too. Watching the original after the movie really recontextualizes just what the movie was trying to do- and unlike Hathaway, actually puts it in a way more favorable light.
Cucuruz Doan Re:Make
As anyone who noticed the movie wasn’t half an hour long might have guessed, Cucuruz Doan’s Island was not, in fact, a 1:1 remake of the infamous lost episode. Instead, it very much feels like what remakes should be- a new director was given the same brief the old one was, and then left to do their own spin on it. While some may see this as sacrilege, I quite liked it- the chance to go back to an episode that no one liked back in the day and actually fix it is a rare chance, and the changes are actually substantial rather than some weird George Lucas-ing of the originals.
Like, there’s not even a fork in the road- the start of Doan is just straight up not the start of the anime. The first thing they did was remove the bizarre B-plot of the original- Amuro trying to do a cool Super Robot trope of docking his Gundam in the air. Instead of being to the island by chance, the White Base crew are sent to the island by the biggest Gundam villain of all time- beurocracy. Admittedly I hadn’t seen the episode until after the movie, which I think was the optimal way to enjoy this since the fact Bright was being pushed around by terrible bosses made me not bat an eye and assume this was just how the episode was.
Admittedly, the story does run into some problems if you’re not a Gundam die-hard. The episode is the 15th of the original series, taking place after recent events such as the mass production of the GM mobile suit- the movie never really explains this outside of throwaway dialogue, and simply starts with Amuro pouting and Bright telling him to get over himself.
I feel like some sort of exposition at the start would have been great, since ideally you would expect some new fans in the audience. After all, Gundam is cool, right? If you wanted to check out the cool giant robot everyone’s talking about, wouldn’t you start with the new movie that’s in cinemas right now? The addition of the incompetent bosses also makes for a weird sense of film logic- in the movie, a ship with two GMs are suddenly destroyed on an island, and White Base are sent to go investigate Zeon remnants living there. Considering how much heavier later Gundam stuff treats any potential Zeon threat, it felt downright jarring to even hear it implied “There might be a guy who is ideologically pro-colony-drop on this island, but I don’t care how it gets resolved”.
Still, Gundam is as Gundam does, and the plot does move forward into one of my favorite Gundam tropes- in which our young hero is forced to live with “the enemy” and learns a lesson about how individual people have a lot of capacity for good, even if they did technically contribute by association to the canon eradication of Australia. These are Gundam’s strongest episodes by far, enough that Unicorn does it twice and I’m glad that the movie keeps pace with the message- Cucuruz Doan himself is a good guy. That’s why he’s on the island, looking after kids.
We also get a bit more characterization of Amuro that anyone who hadn’t seen 0079 might be surprised to see- he’s not the overly cynical ace pilot from Char’s Counterattack, he’s Shinji from Evangelion if girls actually liked him. Theres’ a great sequence where Amuro has a nightmare that serves as his real character introduction, where you see the world from his view. While the movie never dwells on it (can’t upstage Doan, after all), it’s nice to see that Amuro does actually have internal conflict about the fact that he’s just another cog in the great space war machine.
The fact that I have this much to say about it is a good thing- a lot of mecha anime will try to be deep for the sake of being deep but actually turn up with nothing to say, like a girl who thinks saying “looking for banter” but having no conversational skills is a winning Tinder combination. You could actually slot Cucuruz Doan’s Island as just a super long replacement episode and it would feel tonally consistent with the rest of the original series, although the jump in visual quality would be laughable.
A Desert Island Never Looked So Good
One thing I have to applaud about Cucuruz Doan’s Island is that it looks amazing. It’s no surprise, since it uses the Origin-style 3D mobile suits with 2D drawings for the characters. The art style can be best described as fun- characters are still made of identifiable shapes, and are almost more cartoony than anime in a lot of cases.
As for the action, what’s to say? Gundam’s action sequences have always been top notch. Thankfully, even though a key plot element involves Cucuruz Doan refusing to turn the lights on, the series avoids the pitch-black of Gundam Hathaway. Admittedly there aren’t that many eye-catching scenes- the desert island nature of the setting means there aren’t that many chances to do something cool with the cinematography. That being said, it’s a good looking movie, as it should be.
I’m especially a big fan of the Southern Cross- as an elite team of Zeon soldiers, their action sequences are a total delight. You’re treated to a few scenes of them earning their deadly reputation, and the choreography of them dashing around in their special Zakus always makes me giddy.
Of course, the star of the movie is one Mr Doan himself. His sequences are great because his Zaku moves in a really unique way due to how old it is- it can’t do hover manouvers, but he’s enough of a slugger that it will fight like a freaking savage.
While it obviously lacks the flair of the zero gravity combat you’d see in the space battles, the fights you get in the movie are definitely worth the price of admission in their own right. Just don’t expect anything too long and drawn out. It’s Gundam, after all, and the roots of the story are still its character drama.
Listen, Bandai’s Got Bills, Too
Of course, just like how Gundam The Origin added weirdly way too many specialized mobile suits at the supposed start of their service, the same can be said for Cucuruz Doan’s Island. You can literally spot which characters are probably going to get a P-Bandai kit, be it Doan’s own Zaku (which, to its credit, looks more like the off-model Zakus from the original episode and actually makes it feel visually unique) or the special weapons GMs that appear only to job, as GMs are want to do.
I mean, credit where credit’s due- some of these mobile suits are really cool-looking. I’m especially a fan of the Zakus of the Southern Cross- who sport unique weapons such as glowing heat daggers and a sword. I’m just hoping that they’re not all P-Bandai, since I think the HG Origin Zaku has pretty much been done to death at this point, and it would be a great show of good faith.
And while there are a lot of P-Bandai-Bait, I have to applaud the incredible restraint it must have took to keep things feeling consistent with the timeline- no matter how many variants you see, the mobile suits are all ultimately just Zakus, GMs and, regrettably, the Guncannon. Considering the absolute lack of restraint titles like Gundam Hathaway or Unicorn had with chucking every mobile suit under the sun and just being shy of having a QR code to buy them on the website, I’m glad that effort was taken to actually keep things looking in-universe.
All in all, I really enjoyed Cucuruz Doan’s Island. Admittedly it’s a hard sell for new Gundam fans thanks to its place in the continuity- but I feel like “It’s a hard sell because of the continuity” might as well be the slogan for anything UC-branded at this point.
As far as remakes go, it’s a master class in how to adapt an old story- it’s not pointlessly obsessed with making things 1:1 because, well, the old thing sucked. Instead what you have is a much more complete-feeling retelling of the story- Amuro still learns that not every Zeon soldier is an Australia-hating colony dropper, but you also have the chance to make beloved characters like Sayla Mass and Lieutenant Slegger more charming in the little screentime they get.
Admittedly it’s got pacing issues- the story cuts very weirdly between the “Amuro lives on a farm” and “Need I remind you there is a space war currently happening” portions of the movie in really weird ways, but I’m sure some nerd will chalk it up to “The core of Gundam was telling you that people can have normal mundane lives while horrible war crimes are happening”. But they’re almost forgivable because the movie has no real flaws that haven’t always been endemic to the Gundam series despite hitting new highs.
Also, this movie should be praised for giving us an updated, remastered version of Bright Noa’s iconic slap. I’ll buy a Zaku just for that.