Wednesday, 18 July 2018

Anime Review: Mobile Suit Gundam Thunderbolt (機動戦士ガンダム サンダーボルト Kidō Senshi Gandamu Sandāboruto)

Regardless of whether you're a fan of giant robots/mecha or not, it's inconceivable that you haven't heard of Gundam (ガンダム) before. And if you're a scale modeller, you would almost certainly have come across a Bandai Gundam kit in your local hobby store. Truth be told though, I was never a fan of this anime series. Sure I had watched the original Mobile Suit Gundam series (first shown in 1979). But I had never felt the urge to watch subsequent follow ups to the main narrative arc i.e. Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam (1985) and Mobile Suit Gundam ZZ (1986) although I did catch the conclusion to the said arc in the movie Mobile Suit Gundam: Char's Counterattack (1988).

Mobile Suit Gundam Thunderbolt occurs in the Universal Century timeline, concurrently with the original 1979 series

So what's changed? Well, it took an unrelated movie to get me to revisit the Gundam franchise again. In Steven Spielberg's science fiction film Ready Player One, there was a cool cameo appearance by the RX-78-2 Gundam - the first ever to grace anime or 'Grandpa Gundam' if you will. It got me thinking to give the franchise another chance. As I wanted to stay in the original 1979 series's story timeline namely the One Year War of Universal Century (U.C.) 0079, yet view an anime with updated animation, I soon settled upon Mobile Suit Gundam Thunderbolt (released in 2015).

Spanning two seasons so far, Mobile Suit Gundam Thunderbolt actually only comprises four episodes per season with each episode running between 18 to 20 minutes. A theatrical compilation of the first season was released in June 2016 as Mobile Suit Gundam Thunderbolt: December Sky while the second season saw its own movie released in November of last year as Mobile Suit Gundam Thunderbolt: Bandit Flower. While the manga of this series is still running, there has been no news of a third season being planned - none that I'm aware of anyway.

MS-06 Zaku II sniper ...
... slowly scans the Thunderbolt Sector for prey ...
... and spots an enemy RGM-79 GM in flight

So what is Mobile Suit Gundam Thunderbolt all about? Let's start at the very beginning. In the futuristic period of U.C.0079 there is war between the Earth Federation (the faction that utilizes Gundams) and the Principality of Zeon (a space colony seeking independence). The anime series in question takes place in a specific theater of war namely the Thunderbolt Sector, a zone of space littered with debris from destroyed space colonies and in which electrical discharges frequently occur. And in this sector, two military units - Earth Federation's Moore Brotherhood and the Principality of Zeon's Living Dead Division - are engaged in combat for strategic control of the area.

Principality of Zeon sniper fires a shot off
And with the MS-06 Zaku II's aim being true ...
... yet another Earth Federation mobile suit bites the dust

At it's core the plot of Mobile Suit Gundam Thunderbolt revolves around an intense rivalry between Federation Ensign Io Fleming and Zeon Ace Sniper Daryl Lorenz. Rather than a run-of-the-mill good vs evil story structure, the characters inhabiting this little corner of the Gundam universe face many grey areas of ethical behavior that are part and parcel of being at war. In a well executed show, don't tell technique, the director managed to portray the horrors of war without being preachy about it.       

Io Fleming of the Earth Federation vs Daryl Lorenz of the Principality of Zeon

But what really attracted me to the series was how music forms a critical component of the story. One scene depicts Io Fleming furiously air drumming to the chaotic beats of an original jazz number while in another scene a pop oldie is playing soothingly from Daryl Lorenz's radio. Acoustically, it's a stark contrast between the two main characters. In addition, it serves as a clever story telling tool to distinguish between the personalities of Io Fleming and his arch-rival Daryl Lorenz. 

Io Fleming in the cockpit of his mobile suit
Music is an important part of Io Fleming's battle ritual
And jazz is music of choice playing on Io Fleming's radio receiver
Daryl Lorenz also has his own music related battle ritual
And that involves listening to pop oldies ...
... on a retro-style radio that he owns

While animation throughout the series was of the highest quality, there was one minor issue which kind of spoilt things for me. Animated characters here had 'fairly regular-sized' eyes which dovetails nicely with stories of this nature (as opposed to big-eyed characters in Sailor Moon). All characters, that is, save one in particular i.e. Claudia Peer whose eyes were so disproportionately big to the point it became an unwelcome distraction to any immersive experience the show might have offered.    

First glimpse of the Mobile Suit FA-78 Full Armor Gundam, a prototype piloted by Io Fleming
EFSF symbol on the Gundam's head stands for Earth Federation Space Force
Superb animation sees the digital displays on the cockpit reflect off Io Fleming's helmet

As is the case of any Gundam series, the mechas will eventually take center stage. In this respect Mobile Suit Gundam Thunderbolt doesn't disappoint. This series has some of the most bad-ass mechas I've ever seen namely the Living Dead Division's High Mobility Type Zaku II "Pyscho Zaku" and the Moore Brotherhood's Mobile Suit FA-78 Full Armor Gundam. The former has this insanely huge rocket booster attached to its back while the latter is armored with not one but four shields.

An experimental High Mobility Type Zaku II "Pyscho Zaku" prepares for launch
Closeup of the Psycho Zaku's head and its mono-eye camera system
Daryl Lorenz in a contemplative mood inside the Pyscho Zaku's cockpit

Personally for me, the highlight of this series so far occurs towards the end of Season One (or the theatrical compilation December Sky) when both the High Mobility Type Zaku II "Pyscho Zaku" and the Mobile Suit FA-78 Full Armor Gundam clash in a final epic battle.  

Principality of Zeon's High Mobility Type Zaku II "Pyscho Zaku"
Earth Federation Space Force's Mobile Suit FA-78 Full Armor Gundam

In the second half (or season) of Mobile Suit Gundam Thunderbolt, a new faction is introduced into the mix, i.e. The South Seas Alliance. A radical cult that emerges in the aftermath of the One Year War, this third faction capitalizes on people's post war need for guidance and religious faith. But as history shows, this is not necessarily a good thing. So cue more mayhem in the Gundam universe.

What's Gundam if not the introduction of yet another new mobile suit variant i.e. the RX-78AL Atlas
Second season of Mobile Suit Gundam Thunderbolt sees the entry of a third faction i.e. South Seas Alliance
Pyscho Zaku makes a comeback in the Mobile Suit Gundam Thunderbolt: Bandit Flower

As an interesting side note, not only is Mobile Suit Gundam Thunderbolt and arguably my all-time favourite anime Cowboy Beebop developed by Japanese animation studio Sunrise Inc. but they both contain main characters with more than a passing resemblance. Of course I'm referring to Cowboy Bebop's protagonist Spike Spiegel and Gundam Thunderbolt's deuteragonist Daryl Lorenz. Add that to the fact that music in both anime series are dominated by jazz, I couldn't help but wonder if someone in Sunrise had decided to do a Cowboy Beebop version of a Gundam story.      

Daryl Lorenz from Thunderbolt (above) and Spike Spiegel (below) from Cowboy Bebop

My rating for Mobile Suit Gundam Thunderbolt is inevitably going to be influenced by the fact it bears thematic similarities to my all-time favourite anime, Cowboy Bebop. But more than that, it's the combination of cool jazz music, great animation as well as an intelligent and mature storyline which makes for a must-see anime. As for ratings Mobile Suit Gundam Thunderbolt: December Sky gets a 9/10 while Mobile Suit Gundam Thunderbolt: Bandit Flower gets an 8/10. So overall, the series in its entirety as it stands today, after eight episodes and two theatrical releases, gets an 8.5/10.

Bandai MG 1/100 scale Mobile Suit FA-78 Full Armor Gundam [Gundam Thunderbolt] Ver.ka
Bandai MG 1/100 scale High Mobility Type Zaku II "Pyscho Zaku" [Gundam Thunderbolt] Ver.ka

Inevitably for me though, it's always about the creative art projects a show can inspire, be it in the form of portrait drawing or miniature/scale model kit painting. In this regard, Mobile Suit Gundam Thuderbolt doesn't disappoint. Bandai has two 1/100 scale model kits from this series namely the Mobile Suit FA-78 Full Armor Gundam and the High Mobility Type Zaku II Pyscho Zaku. While I plan to kickoff my mecha projects with the RX-78-2, I must admit to being sorely tempted to start with the Pyscho Zaku instead, which is technically harder to built but relatively easier to paint. But regardless of which mecha takes center stage it's exciting times for me hobby-wise. On that note, here's wishing you a work table full of projects and the health to see them to completion!

Saturday, 14 July 2018

MENG Model Sd.Kfz.182 King Tiger with Henschel Turret [WIP - Zimmerit Decals]

For a supposedly straight forward step in the MENG King Tiger assembly process, the application of zimmerit water slide decals proved to be more difficult than I anticipated. This was largely due to the a slight difference in the property of MENG Model decals versus ones that I'm used to. It turned out the zimmerit decals, at least the ones I got, didn't need to be soaked in water for long (just seconds in fact) before it started to detach from the decal sheet. Previously with Bandai and Tamiya water slide decals, I had tended to soak the decals in the water just a bit longer.     

MENG Model King Tiger work-in-progress: Application of zimmerit decals

So why did this seemingly innocuous characteristic of MENG Model's water slide decals cause me problems? Well, one thing that happens when you soak a decal too long in water is that it becomes too soft to manipulate properly. This issue is further complicated when the decal itself is extremely small in size. It makes for hair-pulling moments especially when the said tiny decal folds in on itself. Initially, this happened to me a few times cuasing fairly disastrous results. Needless to say, some decals were badly torn. Thankfully though, I can attribute their condition to being battle-damaged!     

Custom Sd.Kfz.182 King Tiger Zimmerit Decals by MENG Model
MENG Model's zimmerit decals are of the water slide variety

To compound the problem, it become near impossible to place an over-softened tiny decal onto small surface areas such as the edges of the rear turret hatch (see second picture below). That I had even managed to salvage parts of the tiny decal is already in itself a small miracle. 

Zimmerit decals were applied around all four sides of the King Tiger turret
Small surface areas made it difficult for the zimmerit decals to adhere to the sides of the rear hatch
Square-shaped hole in the zimmerit decal on the turret's side was cut out using a hobby knife
Another decal i.e. the 'charging knight' emblem will be placed within the square-shaped hole

After learning from my initial experiences I then made sure I didn't soak any of the decals in the water for too long. But it's highly likely I overcompensated. It turns out that I didn't soak for long enough, a particular decal meant for the machine gun port on a rounded surface area on the King Tiger's front glacis (see below). Essentially this made it very difficult for the flat decal to conform to the machine gun port's curved surface area. As such I damaged the decal quite significantly, again. And similar to this first incident, I will be passing off the torn decal as being battle-damaged. 

Putting the zimmerit decal on the rounded surface of the glacis machine gun port proved challenging ...
... thus causing minor damage to the decal around the machine gun port aka 'battle damage'

Meanwhile, there is also a tendency for the edges of the zimmerit decals to peel after it has dried. I noticed this tends to happen at edges that, through normal handling, came under constant friction e.g. palm of your hand brushing against a particular corner of the hull. One way of mitigating this problem is was to apply a very thin layer superglue underneath the decal on the said corner. 

Large and flat surface areas proved easiest on which to apply the zimmerit decals
Closeup of zimmerit decal on the King Tiger's lower glacis
Zimmerit decals have to be aligned carefully with indentations onto which the pioneer tools will attach

So would I recommend the use of these zimmerit water slide decals? Despite all the issues I had encountered, the answer is a qualified yes. Custom ready-to-use decals are rather pricey, costing up to one third of the model kit's price. But they can be a time-saver especially on larger surface areas. An alternative would be to apply a thin coat of putty and sculpt the zimmerit yourself. This is arguably a more cost effective albeit time consuming method. What I plan to do in the next project that requires a zimmerit coating is to try sculpting it in order to determine which method suits me best.

Zimmerit decal on the rear hull armor before external parts are glued onto it

Having applied zimmerit decals on the King Tiger's hull, the assembly process can now resume. And it's the next few steps that are most daunting to me. I'm not talking about attaching the rear hull armor parts, which should be easy enough to do. What vexes me, and the main inertial force resisting quick progress on this project, is the assembly of the link and length tracks. I'm not a fan of such tracks because they've to be glued to the road wheels before painting. Personally I prefer painting the tracks separately before attaching them to the wheels. So I've that to (not) look forward to. Well, that's it from me for this week. Thanks for checking out the post. Do stay well, and be happy!

Thursday, 5 July 2018

Star Wars Imperial AT-ST Walker - Bandai 1/48 Scale Plastic Model Kit [Completed]

It's done! Yet another iconic sci-fi vehicle checked off my ever expanding list of must-do hobby projects. Even as this little vignette of Imperial presence in the land of Ewoks sees completion, more then one new project is rushing to fill what is already an extremely cluttered worktable. Akin to a magpie (read hobbyist) who's attracted to that new shiny thing (an erroneous folklore ... for the bird, not the hobbyist and his new kit), I'm adding more stuff onto the worktable than I can get off it. But I digress. Here then are photos of the recently completed Imperial All Terrain Scout Transport Walker.

Bandai 1/48 scale Star Wars Imperial AT-ST Walker [Completed]
Pilots and cockpit interior are fully painted; just not visible from here
Opened entry hatch improves lighting hence visibility of the cockpit interior  

This version of the Imperial AT-ST Walker actually has a fully painted cockpit interior as well as pilots. One of the reasons I glued the entry hatch and both command view ports in a permanently open position was to allow more light inside hence increasing visibility of the interior and pilots. To a certain extent this works, especially when the AT-ST is viewed with the naked eye. But neither the interior nor pilots are visible under diffused photography lighting as you can see in the shots here.

AT-ST hull has subtle chromatic variations created using oil dot filters
Every edge on the AT-ST is defined via panel lining and washes
Back view of the Imperial AT-ST walker

Weathering has been central to this project and it was applied onto a hull that had received a light grey basecoat as well as panel lining on its nook and crannies. Techniques used in the weathering process include oil dot filters, washes and micro paint chipping. For a better appreciation of the resulting subtle chromatic variations in predominantly light grey hues, please check out work-in-progress closeup shots in a previous post. In addition, mud weathering with enamel paints was carried out on the Imperial scout walker's footpads and the base it stands on. 

Footpads on the base have been 'muddied' with enamel paint
Plain vanilla version on show here; variants will come in the future
Imperial AT-ST Walker on a clearing in the Forest Moon of Endor

Color scheme is largely influenced by (but not an exact copy of) a version of the AT-ST found in the Star Wars Battlefront video game (see below), specifically the first iteration of that franchise's recent rebirth in eighth generation consoles such as the PS4. Personally I don't believe there should be a 'one true color' for the AT-ST. This is because the light grey hull will inevitably reflect the color of the surrounding environment that the scout walker is operating in. This in turn allows the artist creative freedom to add chromatic variations to the hull, within reasonable parameters of course. 

As I was saying at the beginning of this post, the fact that my existing project pipeline is already close to bursting doesn't seem to be deterring me from adding more complex builds to the worktable (i.e. paint many individual parts separately before assembling kind of project - suffice to say it will be Gundams other than grandpa RX-78-2). But as I'm already at the early stages of assembling the King Tiger and still working up the nerve to airbrush flesh paint on the Race Queen, I'm in need of a quick-to-build and little-to-paint project. A sort of calm before the storm if you will. That will come in the form of my to-be-revealed next Star Wars project. Until then, be happy and be well.

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