Mobile Suit Gundam: The Witch From Mercury Brings Politics, Queerness, and Giant Robots to a Classic Franchise

TV Features Anime
Mobile Suit Gundam: The Witch From Mercury Brings Politics, Queerness, and Giant Robots to a Classic Franchise

[Spoiler note: Minor spoilers for The Witch from Mercury and other Gundam series below.]

To say that Mobile Suit Gundam: The Witch from Mercury has been a breath of fresh air for the aging—but still iconic—Gundam franchise is an understatement. Some 40 years have passed since wide-eyed Japanese kids and sci-fi aficionados first turned on their televisions to watch Amuro Ray battle Char Aznable with the fate of humanity hanging in the balance. An Endless Waltz of iterations have followed in those footsteps since then, from Turn A to Double Zeta. Yet in all those years, it took the franchise until 2022 to feature a lead female protagonist and, in a surprising two-for-one, center a queer romance.

Throughout its history, the Gundam franchise has pitted humans against spacians, or humans against the moonrace, or ‘Naturals’ against ‘Coordinators,’ while sprinkling in a healthy dose of political intrigue and the horrors of war. The titular Mobile Suits are the chosen weapon of destruction; mecha robots (often) capable of flying through space, wielding beam cannons and laser swords to dispatch enemy forces that threaten galactic peace. Some riff on themes of othering, war, peace, and understanding is thrown into the mix, and you’ve got a Gundam series.

The setting for Witch from Mercury is the Asticassia School of Technology, a higher-education facility and space colony run by the Benerit Group, a giant business conglomerate with a number of power hungry, craven capitalists at its helm. While the Gundam franchise has almost always been about teenagers piloting war machines, choosing to set a Gundam series in a school has somehow become a lightning rod for all the worst takes to come out of the woodwork. But, this isn’t a high school hijinks romantic comedy, as some detractors would have you believe, this is a Gundam series, and the choice of setting is intentional.

Unlike many anime which are, by and large, still made for the Japanese market—despite anime’s increased international appeal and reach thanks to streaming services—Gundam is unique in that series creator Yoshiyuki Tomino and writers of the series through the years have always had an eye on the world. Political themes are seen as a key tenet of the series, and often reflect contemporary politics. “Fans” have been critical of Witch from Mercury because they want more tired World War II allegories, but we’ve already seen this in Gundam before. The original series from 1979 grappled with Japan’s role in World War II, and at the time, stood as a strong counter to the valorizing of the military done by the 1977 anime Space Battleship Yamato. 1995’s Gundam Wing can be read as an examination of the memory of World War II and how Japan views itself in the wake of atrocities committed during the war. More recently, the politics of a Gundam series have taken aim at issues of the day. 2007’s Gundam 00 is set against a world fighting for planetary resources, where fossil fuels have dried up, and with large united blocs showing open contempt for less developed nations. It critiques America’s reckless attempts at “democratizing” Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as Japan’s ineffectiveness on the world stage to act as a force for good. So it’s no surprise that, in 2023, Witch from Mercury has something to say about the world we live in. As all good science fiction does.

The series begins with an excellent prologue, setting the stage for what is to come later at Asticassia. We learn about the technology behind the Gundam mecha in this series, which was originally developed by an entity known as the Vanadis Institute. Their efforts produced GUND-ARM technology, which unfortunately had a propensity for maiming or killing its users. This doesn’t stop a number of other corporations from developing their own giant GUND-ARM robots, knowing full well the technology just isn’t there yet. The rush to be the first to market and climb up the Benerit Group hierarchy proved to be more valuable than human life.

The series proper kicks off at Asticassia, and introduces us to Suletta Mercury, the Gundam franchise’s first female protagonist in its 40+ year history. Voiced impeccably by the talented Kana Ichinose, Suletta, as the new kid at school, is both brimming with excitement and socially awkward as all get out, keen to make friends but painfully unaware of how this cliquey, classist society works. After a chance encounter with Miorine Rembran (voiced by Lynn), the daughter of Benerit Group CEO, Suletta soon finds herself caught up in the politics of Asticassia, where duels between students piloting GUND-ARM mecha settle all disputes. Miorine is set to succeed her father at Benerit, and while she is at Asticassia, she has been tasked with finding a fiancée.

This too is something that can be settled with a duel. The scions of powerful families battle for Miorine’s hand, at the urging of their parents, who want their company to climb the ladder within the Benerit umbrella. When Suletta shows up and takes a surprise win in a duel, she becomes the Holder, the title bestowed on the one who will be Miorine’s fiancée. Cue the entire fandom rushing to make connections between Witch from Mercury and the ’90s classic, Revolutionary Girl Utena. Not only do we get a lead female protagonist, but this is the first time the Gundam franchise has centered a queer relationship. This is a big deal.

LGBTQ+ representation has existed for decades in the medium of anime, with a number of series featuring queer characters in lead roles. Both anime and manga have been a haven for queer representation in oddly conservative Japan. At the end of the 19th century, the country adopted the Western view at the time that homosexuality was deviant, banning it in all forms. That backwards decision has stuck with the country, and attitudes towards LGBTQ+ people have been slow to change, even as the very same Western nations Japan once emulated have become much more inclusive (though that too is once again under attack, sadly). In a nation where conservatives run the show, anime and manga have been at the forefront of queer counterculture, and continue to wave the flag proudly for queer people in the country.

In recent years, representation has gotten stronger and more true-to-queer-life, with a number of sterling examples of queer representation in anime making headlines. With that said, major franchises that bring in big money tend to lean towards a more conservative ideology, as Japan as a whole still lags behind a number of countries on LGBTQ+ issues, holding the dubious distinction of being the only G-7 nation that doesn’t yet recognize same sex marriage. The production committee system that greenlights anime projects is made up of a number of media players, and if one objects to queer content, changes have to be made, and that often means marginalizing or flat-out nixing LGBTQ+ characters.

Gundam has always had a little bit of queerness in its DNA—a flair for the dramatic, characters that don’t quite fit a standard mold, themes around understanding one another despite differences, but never loud and proud enough to make that queerness front and center in the narrative. The last main entry in the franchise, 2017’s Iron-Blooded Orphans, featured the first unequivocally gay character in Yamagi Gilmerton, a sweet boy who falls for his close friend, Norba Shino. As side characters, the boys never get an abundance of screen time, but they’re never fully on the sidelines. But unfortunately, Yamagi never gets a chance to let Shino know about his feelings, as Shino is killed in action during the series, making it a tragic bury your gays (or, bury your gay crush) situation.

Gundam has used innuendo and vague context to imply some characters throughout the franchise may have been queer, and there are even interviews with franchise creator Tomino where he has reflected on potentially queer-coded characters, but here in Iron-Blooded Orphans, Yamagi is who he is, even as he is nervous about letting his friends know his orientation.

Now, with Witch from Mercury, there is no denying that the relationship between Suletta and Miorine is what director Hiroshi Kobayashi and scriptwriter Ichiro Okouchi want viewers to be invested in. They are brought together, torn apart, protect each other, and are turned against one another—and the fandom has rallied behind them every step of the way. Witch from Mercury’s Twitter account is the most followed official Gundam account by a significant number, and fanart of Suletta and Miorine has flooded online spaces since the series premiered.

While Suletta must continue to fight off challengers threatening to take her Holder status, the adults in the Benerit Group C-suite reveal themselves to be petty, short-sighted, greedy, and often quite incompetent. As we’ve seen recently, and really should have always known, the rich and powerful are not better or smarter than the rest of us, and often, are much worse people. Witch from Mercury uses its school setting to underscore how childish corporate leadership is.

Asticassia is split up into houses that each represent a faction of the Benerit Group, save for the plucky Earth House made up of Earthians who befriend Suletta and Miorine, and duels between houses serve to broker business deals between the Benerit Group companies. The CEOs of these companies toss their children into mobile suit combat to settle squabbles and drum up funding from venture capital outfits, and, in doing so, reveal their business acumen to be on the same intellectual level as a schoolyard fight. As teenagers bicker about who has a crush on who, executives bicker about who will take control of the Benerit Group when Delling Rembran retires. It almost feels like it could be a plotline in Succession. The series is screaming “the emperor has no clothes!” to any and all who will listen, no doubt inspired by our current wave of glorious tech leaders.

When Asticassia comes under attack later on in the series, it is the students who show true compassion and humanity, immediately springing to the aid of their fellow students, whilst the C-Suite scrambles to make deals, abandon Asticassia completely, and look utterly foolish in the shattered remains of their once impenetrable hubris. When the system falls apart, they become meaningless.

It is a common theme in a Gundam series to never trust the adults, but in this case, this unwritten rule is more pointed than usual, as the only adults we see are these crooked, corporate types (more or less). The critique is clear that capitalism is a destructive force that marginalizes and oppresses, and those at the top of the pyramid aren’t smarter, better, or worthy of our adulation. They’re just greedier.

Mobile Suit Gundam: Witch from Mercury offers viewers all the space politics and mecha fights that franchise regulars should enjoy, while welcoming in new viewers with strong characters to get invested in, thanks to inspired designs by character artist Mogumo and stellar voice acting performances from Kana Ichinose (Suletta Mercury), Lynn (Miorine Rembran), and Mamiko Noto (Prospera Mercury, Suletta’s mother). The series features a tremendous score composed by Takashi Ohmama, with intimate themes for heartfelt character moments, and bold orchestral pieces for intense action sequences; it hits all the right notes.

The only downsides here are that Witch from Mercury was dogged by production issues throughout its run, leading to some episodes that lack a bit of polish, and the pacing in the second half of the show suffers in its attempt to close up a number of hanging plot threads. If it had been given about five or six more episodes to let some of the interesting narrative pieces breathe, the series could have been something truly special. That said, we have to take what we’re given in these 24 episodes, and the central narrative of the show does reach a conclusion that should satisfy most viewers.

What cannot be understated is how amazing it is that Witch from Mercury centers a queer romance, and sticks to it. This is still a rarity in anime, even as the medium has done increasingly more work to elevate queer stories in recent years. For a big studio like Sunrise to take their flagship series and fly a pride flag from it without backing down, or pulling a queer-bait and switch, is awesome.

Michael Lee is a writer who might take anime and video games a little too seriously. For more musings on animation, fandom, and game worlds, follow him on Twitter @kousatender.

For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin