To celebrate the tenth anniversary of Mobile Suit Gundam, Sunrise Inc. released the six-part OVA series Mobile Suit Gundam 0080: War in the Pocket in 1989. A side-story set during the original series’ One Year War, War in the Pocket is one of the most beloved series among the Gundam fandom, and frequently recommended as a perfect place to start for newcomers thanks to its standalone nature and its short length -- at two-and-a-half hours, War in the Pocket can easily be watched in a single sitting.
It’s also a perfect addition for anime fans looking to add to their Christmas watchlist. War in the Pocket takes place during the festive season, on the neutral space colony Side 6. The OVA centers around 11-year old war enthusiast Alfred Izuruha, the type of boy who casually debates which side has the cooler Mobile Suits with his classmates. Al’s life is upended when the Earth Federation smuggles the prototype Gundam ALEX to their base on Side 6 in an attempt to hide it from the opposing Zeon forces.
A small Zeon squad is sent to destroy the Gundam, including rookie pilot Bernie Wiseman. Wanting to take part in the war effort, Al helps Bernie with his mission, and the two strike up a friendship with Al’s next-door neighbor Christina MacKenzie -- both unaware that she is the Gundam’s pilot. Things take a turn for the worse when Bernie discovers that Zeon Colonel Killing plans to nuke Side 6 by Christmas Day if the squad are unsuccessful in their mission, driving Al and Bernie to destroy the Gundam once and for all.
At a cursory glance, the Christmas setting might seem to just be set dressing. Other than the ticking clock of Killing’s impending nuke, Christmas doesn’t really factor into the plot at all. Aesthetically, it only crops up intermittently -- the commercial prefectures of Side 6 are adorned by Santa and snowman balloons as Jingle Bells blares and the citizens go about their Christmas shopping, but the festivities aren’t really at the forefront of the OVA.
Nonetheless, the Christmas motif isn’t just for show, and War in the Pocket is undoubtedly a Christmas story. It encompasses many of the common themes of Yuletide fables -- for instance, materialism vs altruism. Al starts the story as a boy who struggles to relate to others, and his interest in war is solely through the lens of finding the weapons cool.
It’s this facile interest that leads him to Bernie and the Zeon squad, an interest fueled solely by the fact that he considers Zeon suits cooler, which Bernie uses to manipulate Al. Over time, however, the two form a genuine bond, and it’s through this bond that Al finally starts to learn to empathize with others, thus comprehending the real cost of war beyond the shiny cool toys that fight in them. When the threat of the nuke rears its head, Al starts helping Bernie not because he thinks Zakus are cool, but because it’s the right thing to do.
The bond between the two, as well as the one they share with Chris, speaks to another seasonal theme -- found family. Al's parents, while not abusive, are shown to be distant, caring about his grades above all else. It's a stark contrast to the genuine affection Bernie and Chris show him, with the three of them forming a quasi-family unit of their own.
War in the Pocket above all else, though, is the story of Al learning to appreciate what he already has. At the beginning of the series he seems disgruntled with his lot in life, bored both at home and at school -- to the extent that he sees the promise of war as an excuse to get out of the latter.
Yet over the course of the OVA, after seeing the damage that the Side 6 conflict wreaks upon his neighborhood, with his school levelled in the bombardment, Al learns to value the life he took for granted. It's a motif found in countless Christmas stories from A Christmas Carol to It's A Wonderful Life, and Al's journey of self discovery would slot in perfectly next to Scrooge's or George Bailey's in a Christmas movie marathon.
Yet the path Al takes to get there is a devastating one. All of his character development comes at the cost of his own innocence, all of his epiphanies the product of seeing the horrors of war up close and personal. That this conflict should arise during the jolliest time of year is no coincidence on the part of War in the Pocket. Its most succinct visual metaphor comes during the final battle, where those aforementioned Santa balloons get torn apart by hailstorms of bullets, with Al trying desperately not to get caught in the crossfire. The Christmas season is often the epitome of childhood, and as the Gundam symbolically destroys Christmas itself, it destroys with it Al's youthful innocence.
Christmas is often thought of as a time of safety and comfort, but Gundam has never been one for easy truths. War in the Pocket lays bare the fact that it's just a time of year, same as any other, and during war all the merriment and carols in the world can't stop the sky from crashing down. For those willing to add some heavier viewing to their Christmas watchlist this year, War in the Pocket comes highly recommended.