#1 A romance across factions
Set in the Universal Century timeline, The 08th MS Team tells the story of a young commander called Shiro Amada. As he is transferred to the jungles of Odessa to aid the federation in repelling the Zeon invasion, Shiro ends up in a minor skirmish where he meets Zeon officer Aina Sahalin and the two are forced to cooperate for a while.
Despite only working together for a brief while, Shiro keeps thinking back to their encounter and hangs unto a memento of hers that he has to one day return. While he hopes to somehow meet her again, he also realizes that she is an enemy and their love may be doomed by the realities of warfare.
Shiro & Aina are a typical Romeo & Juliet couple and their romance is an endearing one that lends some personal drama to the UC timeline. It’s a novel idea to zoom so far in and tell a story about the regular infantry and pilots fighting this war. 1989’s War in the Pocket had a similar appeal, but still a very political bend, whereas this series focuses more on the characters and their romance.
#2 Jungle warfare
The war brings Shiro Amada to the hot jungles of Odessa where the former space colonist is faced with sweltering heat, unwelcoming terrain, and a type of warfare never seen on the tightly-maintained colonies.
As he takes command of the 08th Mobile Suit Team, Shiro must lead his comrades into battles where guerilla tactics meet high-tech machinery. Powerful mobile suits fighting it out between the trees and laying ambushes for each other, supported by infantry and actual guerillas. A guy in a pool of mud with a good gun can take a giant machine by surprise and down it no problem, meaning every encounter feels tense and full of risk. Shiro himself must utilize the terrain and negotiate with uncooperative civilians if he hopes to leave the jungles alive.
#3 A short Gundam story
With just 12 TV-size episodes, The 08th MS Team is significantly shorter than regular Gundam series, which frequently get around 50 episodes supported by movies and specials. The alternative is seeing the cut-down movie versions of those series or OVA releases that are generally quite short, such as War in the Pocket or MS Igloo.
The 08th MS Team finds a nice balance by being a regular 12 episodes. It tells a Gundam-worthy story and never feels rushed or padded out to make that happen. If you’re interested in getting into Gundam, I would actually recommend this one because it gives a great impression of what it can be like, without having to commit to a massive show like Seed or even the original 43-episode classic. While it does carry some references to the lore and leaves a lot of details unexplained, it’s not hard to follow and more concerned with the immediate story instead of that of the greater conflict.
#4 War drama
While I love the giant robot on giant robot action that Gundam shows reliably offer, an important aspect of any war story is the drama. While kick ass to see in fiction, war is a messy business and has an unimaginable impact on those caught up in it. The 08th MS Team scores points by depicting this.
I won’t spoil what happens, but several of the show’s best scenes managed to tuck at the heartstrings or were suitably disturbing. In particular, it was tough to swallow how easily some of the violence could have been avoided. The show is great at depicting how war can cloud people’s judgment or morals, how they can butcher a fellow person just for being on the other side of a conflict or even act against their best interest’s for the sake of vengeance.
There is a lot of tragedy in the story and the reactions these get from the characters make them well-rounded and interesting individuals. Tonally, it also fits in very well with the troubled nature of Shiro and Aina’s romance.
#5 A diverse team
Shiro is not a one-man team. His unit consists of the struggling musician Eledore, the ass-kicking warrior Karen, a timid young man called Michel, and veteran soldier Terry Sanders. All of them are immediately fun characters, but there is always more to them than immediately apparent.
Terry’s arc is perhaps the most interesting one. A veteran of many battles, Terry has developed a bad reputation because all his former teams were wiped out in combat with only him surviving. Shiro’s unit is his latest deployment and, as he finds himself gaining respect for his new commander, he begins to grow fearful that it might happen again. Terry is a big, strong dude, yet you see him constantly getting bullied. Soldiers spread rumors of him being a team-killer or taunt him to his face that he’ll get more people killed and should resign. And as ridiculous as it is, Terry really has started believing that he is cursed.
The personalities and individual stories are constantly progressing, so you keep learning new things about these characters. Michel is writing letters to some unseen girlfriend back home, Eledore’s goofball antics hide a very real and passionate ambition, and Karen is just an awesome character that I constantly wanted to see more of. Again, these are wonderful characters that feel like Gundam protagonists, and it delights me that we didn’t need 50+ episodes to tell their stories.