The boys are back in town
Spoilers to follow…
Every couple of years, I return to wrestle with Yoshiyuki Tomino’s obtuse 1988 climactic sci-fi grudge match. Having first seen the film on DVD when it was released in the U.S. way back in 2002 with no Universal Century experience save for the PS2 game, Journey to Jaburo, under my belt, it wasn’t exactly the easiest going. Sure, the mobile suit battles looked amazing and the “bad guy wants to drop an asteroid on Earth” plot was pretty straightforward, but the character dynamics, history, and dense scripting were tough to ignore. Bandai Visual seemed very aware that no more than a handful of people picking up the DVD in North America at the time had any idea of what something like Gundam ZZ was and the included booklet helped a lot in fleshing out the jargon and complicated backstory that spanned a decade of television. And for the longest time, I thought this lack of proper exposure was the wall I needed to climb to fully embrace this oddball film. I was never foolish enough to think walking into the finale of a story would be enough to be able to grasp everything that was going on, but even years later, Char’s Counterattack remains a difficult experience. My love for Gundam persists, however—sometimes I think in spite of my actual enjoyment of many individual entries—and I continue to return with more shows on my shelf and, much more importantly, exposure to writer/director Tomino’s unique storytelling quirks and each time, I walk away with something new.
The presumed dead ace pilot and connoisseur of all things red Char Aznable is back on the scene with a new Neo Zeon behind him and he means business. Seeking to not only establish freedom for Earth’s space-based colonies as past Zeon movements have, he now wants to end all life on humanity’s home planet with a Gundam villain’s favorite means of solving their problems: dropping a large object into the atmosphere and hoping it all works out for the best. His reasoning is that if the Earth becomes uninhabitable, mankind will be forced into space and their souls will evolve into their next stage, called Newtypes. In his way stands old rival and former comrade-in-arms Amuro Ray and the Earth Federation’s Londo Bell task force.
Let’s be clear here: Char’s Counterattack has all of the hallmarks of a bumbling mess. It is positively littered with obstacles viewers have to overcome to extract what Yoshiyuki Tomino is attempting, in his decidedly clunky and frequently opaque way, to convey. There’s a laundry list of issues that no matter how many times I sit through it, never fail to trip up the experience. It is a film at odds with its own big-budget, baked-in, hyped-up battle-to-end-all-battles framing, absolutely suffocating under the weight of accumulated franchise lore, and breathlessly rushing through its limited runtime. Quite honestly, there is a lot expected of the viewer. I feel like the legacy of this film can be boiled down to a single word: exhaustion. I’ve only heard it ever spoken of with an air of worn-out resignation. Recommendations are full of half-hearted reservations that tend to trail off with damning praise and dismissals play out as if someone is finally taking out a particularly heavy bag of garbage. My feelings have run the gamut over the years.
The final product is, in fact, Tomino’s third stab at a conclusive battle between the two men, his first two attempts being the novels High Streamer (1987) and Beltorchika’s Children (1988), and it shows. While neither has been released in English, and my knowledge of their content comes from poorly kept fan wikis primarily interested in present mecha, the resulting film plainly suffers from an iterative build-up of ideas and nowhere near enough time or skillful use of economy to fully flesh them out. While Char’s Counterattack was always intended as a single movie, there is enough story to easily fill out a dozen or more episodes of television, giving it a similarly breakneck pace to the one seen in the later Tomino helmed F91 film, which was originally plotted out as a weekly serial before hitting production snags.
Simply put, there are too many threads, both continuing from previous Gundam entries and newly introduced, to be sufficiently covered in two hours. New characters Quess Paraya and Hathaway Noa (yes, while he did appear in Zeta as a child, he is functionally new here) provide new vectors to the legacy conflict but end up distracting from a narrative that should be centered on Char and Amuro. While never the most important part of a story, the mechanics of this world are set up as relevant enough to exposit about but out of focus just when critical clarification is needed that prompts more than a few exasperated “wait what?”s. The Federation government selling the Axis asteroid to a man who only 72 hours prior had dropped a smaller one on their capital city with the intent of causing a nuclear winter remains one of my all-time favorite silly Gundam moments. Tomino has always cast the Federation as a callously inept governing body that cares only for its ruling class, but this turn is one of many unintentionally hilarious moments that makes engaging with the film on serious terms incredibly difficult and pushes it deep into camp territory. Only adding to this is how the script bluntly has the cast more or less repeating Wikipedia entries on Newtypes, the One Year War, and Earth-Space relations verbatim to each other in the most robotic fashion. Natural character interaction has always been a stumbling point for Tomino but watching Amuro and long-time friend Bright Noa explain their shared history at each other for minutes on end, scene after scene not only fails to push their stories forward, it feels like watching people in a study group preparing for a test the next day.
And yet, in spite of all of the completely understandable issues above, I can’t write Char’s Counterattack off. There’s something approaching affecting going on. Under all the clutter, there’s an art house quality struggling to find its way out. Tomino’s send-off for these characters, and fruitlessly I suspect, in the long run, for Gundam itself, is bathed in angst and at its core is a malaise that threatens to drag the entire world down with it. Gone are the days of the Red Comet, slickly swooping in and out of the story with an air of collected cool to contrast Amuro’s messy demeanor. The Quattro Bajeena of Zeta, with his calculating eyes hidden behind black shades, has also faded away. What is left in the end is a man in the spotlight, juggling the masks of his multiple identities and their histories and struggling under the weight of each of their unique expectations. The son of revolutionary Zeon Zum Deikun, destined to carry on his father’s beliefs and shepherd mankind into its next stage of existence. The charismatic ace pilot who carved out a name for himself on the battlefield with cunning and skill. The reluctant leader of the anti-fascist AEUG.
Char’s character arc is known for being famously difficult to trace over the years. Attempts typically see a lot of guesswork on the part of fans filling in the blanks but I think that Tomino here jumps right to the endpoint of this man’s winding road, concluding he could only ever end up as a broken mess. Yes, Char’s journey could have used more connective tissue, but the movie attempts to prioritize articulating his spiritual state as a black hole of pessimism rather than explain the exact hows and whys of his rise as leader of yet another Neo Zeon movement. And in his swan song, we spend two hours not watching Char being the ultimate badass like one would expect from the somewhat disingenuous framing or the odd revisionist legacy the film has picked up over the years among fans but seeing the heat of that spotlight melt off the veneer of one of anime’s most iconic characters. It is a story of a small man trying to induct himself into mythology to fill the void within.
It is a shame the hurried screenplay doesn’t have time to depict Amuro’s life when not reacting to Char’s schemes because from what little is shown, he has finally found some semblance of a life and place. The boy who once could barely look up from his computer screen has found a romantic relationship with mechanic Chan Agi, comfortably sits in a place of leadership with his Londo Bell comrades, and confidently confronts oncoming threats. He is still haunted, quite literally, but has managed to not be consumed by the past. Char, on the other hand, is all facade over a destructive abyss. His self-styled exterior is that of the savior and a beacon for mankind’s bright future, meanwhile, just below the surface is a petty, scornful man who has not only failed to grow from his experiences but has actually regressed to the state of an overgrown child. Embracing his worse tendencies, Char endlessly circles back to the loss of his apprentice and love interest Lalah Sune during a tangled encounter with Amuro near the end of the One Year War. He cannot move past the tragedy and even with his final words, he refuses to acknowledge his own role in her death. Blaming Amuro and the world at large, he remains committed to the end in his reductive and childish belief that if things don’t go his way, it’s best to tear down instead of addressing the underlying issues. And in doing so, he only recreates the circumstances that led to Lalah’s death.
Tomino’s Gundam work has always been concerned with the divide between adulthood and childhood and the failure of the older generation to better the world for the younger. Through inaction at best and outright greed and maliciousness at worst, Gundam‘s adults routinely drop the ball in passing along a better world than they were born into. For the first decade or so Gundam, audiences were firmly planted in the shoes of teenagers and young adults growing up in a world on fire, and the only tools their parents passed down to them were war machines. Char’s Counterattack ages up its perspective for us to not only see how these kids grew up, but how, as adults, they interact with the next generation. And it’s a strained affair.
Once again, I wish more time could have been found to truly dig into the different ways Amuro and Char impact Quess and Hathaway’s lives, because like so many of the ideas in the film, there are interesting pieces of a not quite there theme. Bright, who like many Gundam fathers before him, is wholly consumed with his work and keeps Hathaway at a distance, placing him in Amuro’s care and indirectly setting him on the familiar path of a child soldier. Quess initially tries to push her way into Amuro’s affections but jumps ship to Char’s side pretty quickly after learning about the Gundam pilot’s relationship with Chan. It bears mention that Tomino’s female characters, especially around this time in Gundam, were all too often reduced to treacherous backstabbers ruled by unknowable emotions, which are somehow different from the extremely charged feelings the male characters are awash in. Unlike Amuro’s distant almost non-connection, Char immediately ushers Quess into his inner circle, whispering sweet validation in her ears, and using her budding Newtype abilities to further his plans. Before the movie reaches its final act, both teenagers find themselves in mobile suits, navigating a battlefield they can barely understand, facing down death. Once again, the cycle repeats, and the adults have failed.
More than anything, Tomino creates an overarching mood of deep unease. War with the lives of billions on the line has become routine, a single company supplies cutting edge weaponry to both sides, the nominally in charge world government disregards obvious threats in the name of deescalating already out of control tensions, and the concept of Newtypes has been around long enough to be a part of casual conversation between kids but society at large is no closer to truly embracing what they represent. The world has been on brink of death half a dozen times over the last decade and change and while I don’t think the script ever finds the right words to say it, the feeling is in the marrow of the film. Enhancing this is the overall presentation, Sunrise forgoing the conventional child-friendly style of TV entries for a more subtle, adult affectation to the characters. While the very broad emotional spectrum worked well for the various TV series, in Char’s Counterattack, Tomino and Sunrise at least make the attempt at a film aimed at an older audience’s sensibilities. Subtle facial changes and body language replace the big reaction shots and speed lines of the past to create a much more lived-in, natural-appearing world and cast.
Tomino’s work, particularly his Gundam entries are all deeply anchored by the supreme value of communication and the repeated tragedies rooted in the failure to do so. The Newtype concept, a pillar of Gundam and a signature of his body of work, has always been a direct appeal to the audience for the need to keep working together so that one day, humanity as a whole can improve. This is deeply ironic, as so much of his work is widely known for being difficult to understand, even when aimed at younger audiences. I’ve always found the unique ways Tomino tries to communicate complex moods of societal depression and existential crisis to be fascinating. They’re almost always lacking in getting the message across in any digestible way, but I can’t knock them for a lack of ambition.
In the end, Amuro defeats Char in combat, but his worldview isn’t rejected until the collective will of humanity focuses on the falling piece of Axis the Londo Bell failed to stop and pushes it away. The two men spend their final moments becoming overt symbols for the battle between angry defeatism and empathy. With a sparkly light show that rings around the entire planet, Tomino soundly states that mankind is capable of a miracle and that there is hope for the future. It’s a nearly wordless ending, placing its full weight on bold emotive imagery over technical explanation and it very much comes off as the last word on this saga.
Of course, Gundam would continue. In fact, Char’s Counterattack sits in a transitional period for the franchise. The SD spinoffs would begin that same year and the first major animated side story, 0080, would follow soon after in 1989, notably without Tomino’s direct involvement, another first. His follow-ups, the F91 film and the deeply bitter Victory series, ran into infamous production troubles, causing Tomino to distance himself from the franchise for much of the 90s. Gundam expanded beyond Tomino’s hand, it became a full-fledged pop-culture staple, exiting the Universal Century timeline (though making many returns since) after Victory‘s cold reception to a wider collection of different tones and styles. But in many ways, it has never been the same. The period that began with the original series through Char’s Counterattack is inexorably tied to Tomino’s voice, in a way the few of the now dozens of works have been. Building on ideas of transhumanism and humanity’s relationship with itself and its environment in his now signature, if clumsy style. And Char’s Counterattack is a send-off that under an exhausting pile of exposition and obtuse characterization, is legitimately trying to reach out to its audience with a message. Far too much of Gundam feels like a neatly packaged product but Char’s Counterattack stands as a piece of singular art in a franchise that increasingly stepped away from difficult messages and defaulted to an iterative approach. I may walk away from the film with a confused swirl of strong feelings, but at least some of that is by design and more than I can say about many Gundam entries.
Char’s Counterattack remains a fascinating and frustrating experience, even after 17 years of back and forth with it. There’s so much, too much, going on. Its ideas are all over the place. The execution leaves a lot to be desired. But for all of its many shortcomings, I continue to be drawn to it. Char and Amuro’s battle ended as they have become one with the cosmos, but my struggle with this movie continues and each time through, I make a little more progress towards understanding. And if that isn’t the Tomino Experience™, I don’t know what is.