By Andrew Osmond.
That the first “original” cinema film in the Gundam franchise contains the word “counterattack” suggests two things. First, that someone at the Sunrise studio was thinking of a certain other 1980s film with spaceships and epic duels; and second, that it’s warning the audience that the film is a sequel. Which Char’s Counter Attack is, but it doesn’t require you to have seen that much Gundam before.
Char’s Counterattack is actually a sequel to the original 1979 Gundam serial, available in two Blu-ray volumes from Anime Limited. In Japan, the serial was also re-edited in the early 1980s as three cinema films; many viewers may have thought of the story as a cinema adventure, not a TV serial. There were also two TV sequels, Zeta Gundam and Gundam ZZ. Chronologically speaking, Char’s Counter Attack follows on from them, but there’s almost no reference to them in the new film, except for an acknowledgement that Char fought on more than one side in the franchise.
Char’s Counter Attack is set five years after Gundam ZZ, and fourteen years after the original Gundam. Char, as the film’s title implies, is still alive and kicking (he vanished at the end of Zeta Gundam). Having killed his way through the elite of the Zeon empire, he’s now the feted leader of Neo Zeon – Counter Attack has a scene where Char is recognized using public transport, and the adoring passengers regale him with a stirring anthem. Char’s temporary alliance with factions from Earth, as seen in Zeta Gundam, is over. Char is now convinced that Earth civilisation itself is the problem, holding back humans from their destiny in the stars; therefore, it must be wiped out.
In the film’s opening minutes, Char crashes an asteroid into Tibet, with obvious echoes of the “colony drops” in previous Gundams. However, Char still needs to drop a second asteroid to cause the extinction-level event he seeks. While Earth’s authorities foolishly think Char’s still open to negotiation, a defence force assembles, led by two very familiar Gundam faces. One is hero pilot Amuro Ray, Char’s greatest rival. The other is commander Bright Noa, who’s the only character to have played major roles in all the preceding Gundams, back to when he jaw-socked Ray in series one (“Even my father never hit me!”).
By now, the Char-Amuro conflict has parallels with a duel in a Western franchise: Magneto versus Professor X in X-Men. In both cases, the combatants have deep respect for each other; the director Yoshiyuki Tomino told me he was inspired by the chivalrous codes that persisted in battle until the fighter-pilots of World War I. (Late in Char’s Counter Attack, we learn how far Char will go to ensure he doesn’t have an unfair advantage over Amuro.) Like Magneto, Char is determined to “evolve” humanity by any means necessary, while Amuro is driven by compassion.
One of the pivotal events in the first Gundam series was the transformation of a woman, Char’s protégé Lalah Sune, into a death-dealing space goddess – not unlike Jean Grey in the original “Dark Phoenix” storyline in the X-Men comic, which was published around the time that the first Gundam series aired. I’m not suggesting that’s more than an interesting coincidence, but just as “Dark Phoenix” reverberates down the X-Men franchise – including two failed film versions! – so Lalah’s fate still obsesses Char and Amuro in Counter Attack, and may even motivate Char’s lethal new strategy.
However, while there’s lots of Char-fighting-Amuro in the film, Tomino characteristically chooses to foreground some of his newly-created characters, and two youngsters in particular. One is Bright Noa’s teenage son, Hathaway. (Technically he’s not quite a “new” character as he was glimpsed as a child in Zeta Gundam.) His mother is Mirai Yashima, a prominent member of the White Base crew in the first series, who married Bright afterwards. In Counter Attack, Hathaway is bundled into space by his mun, who figures that Earth is even less safe than space now that Char’s chucking asteroids! Mirai and her daughter have to stay on Earth, and appear in scenes throughout the film to remind us of the ongoing crisis.
In space, Hathaway reunites with his father, but he soon gets involved with a girl. This is the green-haired Quess Paraway, daughter of a rep of a Earth Federation minister. Quess is infamous in the Gundam franchise, thanks to her general obnoxiousness; she’s brattish, demanding, whiney, ungrateful and self-obsessed. She’s also rebelliously infatuated with Neo Zeon and its rhetoric of liberating humanity from its Earthbound shackles; and she’s specifically infatuated with Char. Unfortunately for everyone else, Quess runs into Char quite early in the story; it won’t end well.
As a troubled, rebellious, emphatically immature teen, Quess bears comparison to the boy Kamille at the start of Zeta Gundam, who similarly can’t wait to join the “other” side and become Char’s new protégé. In her frightening adoration for Char, Quess also anticipates Misa Amane in Death Note (though in fairness, Misa had more excuse for her behaviour, given her parents’ murder). Quess and Char become the centre of an emotional snarl-up, which makes parts of Counter Attack weirdly like a high-school drama. Numerous other characters fight for and over Quess and Char – though Char, of course, is still obsessed with the unattainably-dead Lalah.
Actually, if there’s one character who counterbalances the angst by acting like a mature, responsible adult, it’s the negotiator Cameron Bloom. He’s another returnee from the original series – you may remember that he was once Mirai’s fiancé, but ended up “losing” her to Bright. He only has a small role in Counter Attack, but his unselfish behaviour is in contrast to many of the other characters in the film. Indeed, one of the young-love plotlines comes to a denouement which is cruelly ironic even by the standards of “Kill’em all” Tomino.
Char’s Counterattack was released in cinemas in 1988, the year of Akira, Totoro and Grave of the Fireflies (and Roger Rabbit in the West). Tomino directed, wrote and storyboarded the film, but there were new collaborators – including Hideaki Anno as a mecha designer, who’d worked for “the enemy” himself on the rival space/mecha franchise Macross. (1988 was also the year Anno directed a girls-in-mecha-in-space series whose name surely annoyed Tomino, Gunbuster.) Another of Counter Attack’s mecha designers was Yutaka Izubuchi, a prolific artist across anime from Patlabor to Silent Mobius, who’d later direct the key mecha series RahXephon for the Bones studio.
Within the Gundam franchise, Counter Attack was a watershed. Although the ending has some (arguable) ambiguity, like Cowboy Bebop and many other anime, it did seem to be an end-point for the continuing Gundam story after nine years. Following the film, several later Gundams were side-stories following parts of the conflicts before Counter Attack: for example, War in the Pocket, Stardust Memory and later Gundam Thunderbolt. Other series were set in different continuities; Gundam Wing, for instance, rebooted many elements of the older Gundam universe, down to cloning Char with a new name.
While other directors made these Gundams, Tomino took a “next-generation” approach to his universe. His film Gundam F91 and series Victory Gundam are set decades after Counter Attack, with new characters. More recently, though, there have been much more direct sequels to Counter Attack, set in the same time frame. These bring back some of the old characters and tease the possible returns of others – though Tomino didn’t direct these newer works.
The first such continuation was the lavish Gundam Unicorn series from 2010, which takes up the story three years after Counter Attack. Another such sequel is now in production; Hathaway’s Flash, which will be released as a film trilogy from winter this year. The director, from books written by Tomino just after Counter Attack, will be Shukou Murase, who made the horrifically nihilist Genocidal Organ.
Gundam: Char’s Counter Attack is released in the UK by Anime Limited.