By Yasuo Ohtagaki
Gundam’s central theme is that war is bad for everyone. With few exceptions, that message is restated in almost every incarnation of the franchise. Thunderbolt is no different. Both the Federation and Zeon soldiers are used as expendable resources by their superior officers, who are only concerned about the bottom line, whether that’s winning the war, lining their pockets, or advancing their careers. Zeon soldier Daryl Lorenz is made to fight even after he loses his legs, and his father dies despite the medical payments he was working to pay for. Federation soldier Io Flemming was drafted into the war because of his noble lineage and continues to fight even though his home has been reduced to nothing but debris in space. Neither protagonist has anything to gain from this war because they’ve already lost what they were fighting for, yet find themselves forced to continue fighting. A morally ambivalent depiction of both warring factions as sympathetic has been par for the course for Gundam as far back as the original 0079. What makes Thunderbolt stand out is not what it says about war but how it says it, specifically through its appropriation of jazz music as a motif.
In an interview with Forbes, creator Yasuo Ohtagaki explains he incorporated jazz music into Gundam Thunderbolt as a means to communicate the emotions of his characters through song lyrics. Although he doesn’t explicitly state it, there’s more significance behind why jazz is used in Thunderbolt thematically. Ohtagaki cites his inspiration for using music as a motif comes from how soldiers have historically used music, “to take away their fear and pump up the troops,” and both Io and Daryl definitely use jazz as a way to unburden themselves on the battlefield. Yet why use jazz instead of rock or another adrenaline-pumping musical genre? It has to do with what jazz music historically represents. Modern Jazz music has been transformed from counterculture to a mainstream genre. Originally it vocalized the frustrations of African Americans, and it became disseminated so widely in popular culture that it has been transformed from the tune of a minority to the theme of a majority. While Thunderbolt isn’t about a cultural revolution, its characters still use jazz to make their voices heard the same way the jazz musicians of old had done.
The jazz in Thunderbolt represents an ideological rebellion against the One Year War, and the idea of war in general. Both Io and Daryl listen to jazz through an unauthorized third-party radio station not associated with the Federation or Zeon. The hosts of the station proudly proclaim that their jazz has “no borders, no war;” the jazz music doesn’t represent any political faction, but the voice of those disenfranchised by the war who want to see it end. Both Io and Daryl were forced into the war either out of social or familial obligation, and have lost their friends, homes, and families thanks to it. They couldn’t care less about whether the Federation or Zeon wins or loses, but they can’t leave their teams behind. So they mentally escape from their bad situation the only way they know how: listening to whatever the hell kind of music they like regardless of whether its permitted or contraband. They let themselves be swept away by the rhythm to make the unpleasantness of war easier to engage with. The retro-futuristic sensibilities of Thunderbolt reflect this. Despite taking place long into the future where physical media like tapes and CDs have long been irrelevant, Io and Daryl both use cassette players to listen to music from over a hundred years ago. They’ve escaped into the past to reject the present. They refuse to acknowledge their present as more worth fighting for than the past. Embracing their idyllic vision of the past as envisioned through jazz is how they’ve chosen to forge their futures.
Thunderbolt’s greatest asset is Ohtagaki’s art and presentation of these themes. Though a soundless medium, how Ohtagaki intersperses scenes of a Jazz band playing a soulful tune as Daryl and Io sortie masterfully creates a rhythm to the battle scenes that communicates the musicality at play. His panel layouts are excellent, making use of overlays and interesting sequencing to control the pacing of each scene. The way he diverts attention to the most important focal point of an image is an integral part of what makes the manga easy to follow in spite of its busy, detailed artwork. The rhythmic nature of Ohtagaki’s paneling is as raw and free as the jazz music the protagonists listen to, making the experience of reading just as lucid. Listen to some classic jazz while reading Thunderbolt makes for quite a transcendent experience, and I highly recommend doing so.
Mobile Suit Gundam Thunderbolt doesn’t say anything new about war, but the way it says it is undeniably irresistible. The sympathetic characters on both sides of the conflict help make for a mature look at how war is equally damaging to everyone involved: its protagonists as kindred rebellious spirits made bitter enemies only because of where they were born. How the series uses jazz to connect both sides as equally disenfranchised and contrast Io and Daryl’s appropriation of jazz as an escapist coping mechanism provides the thematic through-line that’ll carry the series in future volumes. Perhaps the only thing that could make Thunderbolt a better experience would be listening to the jazz itself, which thankfully the anime makes that possible. Yet, there’s a soulful rhythm to Ohtagaki’s manga that can’t be replicated, and I believe any Gundam aficionados or fans of war stories will be able to enjoy it as an incomparable, one-of-a-kind experience within the Gundam canon.