Gundam is one of the cornerstones of the anime world, with the three series and brace of films available in the UK representing just a small part of the massive franchise. Unlike many anime titles, Gundam did not start life as a manga, but it has become so big that there are a fair few manga series available in Japan.
Of the many manga series there are only two available in the UK, and École du Ciel is a bit of a strange one to release here. Set in the original Gundam universe (Universal Century date 0085, fact fans) the story follows Asuna Elmarit, a below-average student at the titular École du Ciel. The school trains students as mobile suit pilots and logistics officers, but Asuna is struggling with not only her schooling but her past. Asuna is the daughter of the brilliant Professor Elmarit, and was expected from birth to be a gifted child. Her failure to be what her father wanted her to be weighs heavily on her, but through the support of her friends she begins to how signs of some potential. However, the school isn't just an average training facility. With war fast approaching the instructors are searching not for talented pilots, but for Newtypes - evolved humans with exceptional abilities and intelligence. But the powers that be are getting impatient, the school's simulated exercises are not producing the required results, so maybe real dangers are required instead. Asuna is oblivious, but her life is going to get a whole lot harder if she can't improve...
École du Ciel is a missing link series that fills a gap in the Gundam timeline, and despite what it says on the back cover of the book it is not a good place to start when it comes to Gundam.
Here's a tip, if you don't know what a Zaku is, know nothing about Zeon, have never heard of the Universal Calendar and don't know your beam sabres from your Minovsky Particles then this probably isn't for you. École du Ciel makes few concessions to those new to Gundam, to really get to grips with it you will have to know the original Mobile Suit Gundam series and how the subsequent films fit into the Gundam timeline. It frequently references events that aren't actually featured (such as the One Year War), and makes no attempt to explain what many terms mean, or who certain characters are.
From an objective point of view this makes it very hard to get into, despite the fact that the underlying premise is pretty simple. Asuna Elmarit is the traditional clumsy schoolgirl who in true anime fashion will discover power she didn't know she had, and will probably end up going out with the dashing student who inspires her to work hard. It's a familiar story that runs through many manga and anime series, but this time it's been planted in the Gundam universe. The characters are likeable enough and the action, when it comes, is pretty good, but the sketchy art style does let it down somewhat. Panels seem too cluttered and it's sometimes hard to pick out what's going on and which character is talking, something that isn't helped by a narrative that jumps from past to present to space to earth without much of a pause.
The thing is that École du Ciel is obviously made for
fans, and the Gundam faithful will no doubt love it. There is a big
plot that the poor students don't have any idea of running in the background,
and it's great to see mobile suits scrapping no matter what the format! If
you can follow the plot and know the terminology then there is some depth to be
found here and some interesting new training suits and ideas to sink your teeth
into. It does bridge a gap in the timeline, and those who have been buying
the Gundam films released by Beez will probably understand most of
it. However, to really get to grips with it you need to have seen the
original series (which isn't available in the UK) or at least know a lot about
Gundam history. Even then it may not be your cup of tea, it's still
finding its feet and a lot of the big plot has yet to come together. It
has potential but is let down by inaccessibility and some over-complicated,
sketchy artwork. One for hardened Gundam fans only.
The usual adverts and author biography are joined by a host of excellent bonuses. As well as a number of beautiful one page sketches (which suit Mikimoto's art far better than the manga itself), we are also treated to production sketches, creation notes, a lengthy interview with mechanical designer Yoshinori Sayama and a couple of comedy manga shorts. Great stuff!