By Andrew Osmond.
Gundam has been going over forty years, and in that time it’s had loads of little nods and references to make viewers go “Eh?” Granted, the franchise may not have as many pop-culture references as Cowboy Bebop or Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure. Even among mecha anime, it’s doubtful any individual Gundam series has been as promiscuously referential as Evangelion, which homaged everything from Ultraman to Gerry Anderson, or Eureka 7, where a boy named for Ewan McGregor’s character in Trainspotting has a dad named for “Ad-Rock” Horovitz of the Beastie Boys (more here). Still, some of Gundam’s references get very weird…
1: Char Aznable – Charles Aznavour. The best-known one. Char Aznable, undoubtedly the most iconic character in the entire Gundam franchise, was substantially inspired by a historic character, the “Red Baron” fighter ace of World War I, aka Manfred von Richtofen. (Tomino talked about him in my interview for this blog.) But Char’s name comes from someone entirely different – the name is based on Charles Aznavour, a superstar dubbed the “Frank Sinatra of France,” who wrote about 1,300 songs, sold a hundred million records and had a career lasting nearly eighty years.
It might seem comically inappropriate to have a space opera anti-hero named after a singer – at least until you think of the rival franchise Macross, after which anything goes. But Aznavour’s history was tied to human conflict. His parents were Armenians, fleeing persecution by the Turks in the 1920s. When Aznavour began his career as a teenager, it was in Nazi-occupied France, where he and his family risked their lives concealing Jews and Resistance members.
Aznavour died in 2018, aged 94. Just months earlier, he had received Japan’s Order of the Rising Sun for influencing the development of music in Japan and “for strengthening friendship between Japan and France.” Sadly, Aznavour’s impact on the field of mecha anime wasn’t mentioned. His final concerts were in Japan, in Tokyo and Osaka just days before his death.
Incidentally, Tomino’s novels based (loosely) on the original Gundam series were translated into English by Frederik L. Schodt. He noted that the anti-hero’s name in Japanese was pronounced Sha Azunaburu, which is exactly how “Charles Aznazour” is pronounced in Japanese. In the first translated edition, Schodt opted to render the name as “Sha Aznable,” partly to make it look less like the singer’s name. Unfortunately, anime fandom was wedded to the “Char” spelling, and Schodt received hate mail for his pains.
Another irony; Charles Aznavour’s own name was a linguistic corruption. His Armenian parents had wanted to call him Shahnourh, but a French maternity nurse couldn’t pronounce the name, hence he was dubbed “Charles.”
2: Quattro Bajeena (Zeta Gundam). Time to immediately lower the tone. Quattro Bejeena is the alias Char uses throughout the series Zeta Gundam – pretty pointlessly, as just about everyone knows who he really is. Perhaps it was Char’s worrying sense of humour, as Quattro Bajeena looks very like a smutty joke, when you remember that B’s and V’s in Japanese are interchangeable. It might have amused the late Honor Blackman; her character in the Bond film Goldfinger had an even less subtle name which I’m too shy to mention. Fans have noted the “Quattro” name seems to have its own Bond connection, as Zeta Gundam came out only two years after the 007 hit Octopussy. (Octo, Quattro… You’re ahead of us.)
3: Kamille – Camille Claudel. Kamille, the troubled teen hero of Zeta Gundam (who’s mentored by “Quattro” for dozens of episodes but who never thinks, ‘Hang on…’) had a name half-borrowed from Camille Claudel. She was a French sculptor (1864-1943) who had a tempestuous affair with Auguste Rodin. Actually, there’s a point to this reference – in later life, Camille suffered from mental health problems, and spent her last three decades in an asylum. Considering that Kamille in Zeta Gundam is a hive of teen hang-ups, long before Evangelion, that doesn’t seem coincidence. Kamille is forever complaining about his “girly” name, which has whole new levels of perversity given his association with Quattro.
4: Stardust Memory – Stardust Memories. Now here’s a left-field one. Stardust Memories was a 1980 comedy by Woody Allen, and its title certainly seems to have inspired the name of Stardust Memory, the 1991-2 Gundam video series. There’s seemingly no thematic connections – true, aliens pop up briefly in Allen’s Stardust Memories, but no warring giant robots. Presumably someone at Sunrise just liked the sound of the name.
There are more obvious resonances between the Gundam film Char’s Counter Attack and the similarly-named Empire Strikes Back. Outside Gundam, there’s Fullmetal Alchemist and Stanley Kubrick’s Vietnam film Full Metal Jacket, which do have thematic links if you think about it.
Woody Allen, incidentally, pops up as a space smuggler in the seventh episode of Cowboy Bebop (the trucker caper). It’s not a very flattering portrait, but that fits with the director’s reputation now. Funnily, when it first came out, Stardust Memories was described as Allen’s most controversial film. How times change…
5: Endless Waltz – Endless Waltz. This is another case when someone just seemed to like the sound of an existing title. For Gundam fans, Endless Waltz is the name of the last story in the Gundam Wing timeline, which asks if humans are doomed to fight forever. But in Japan, Endless Waltz was a controversial novel just a few years ealier.
Like Stardust Memories above, the Endless Waltz book was nothing to do with space wars. Rather, it was based on a real-life ill-fated relationship between Suzuki Izumi, an actress and writer, and Kaoru Abe, a jazz musician. Abe died of a drug overdose in 1978. Subsequently, Izumi wrote acclaimed SF stories with gender themes, but killed herself in 1986. When the Endless Waltz novel, written by Mayumi Inabe, was published six years later, Izumi’s daughter sued the writer for invasion of privacy. It didn’t stop the novel becoming a live-action film in 1995, directed by Koji Wakamatsu. According to the online Encyclopedia of Science-Fiction, it “presented the couple as punk-era bohemians in an abusive, co-dependent relationship.”
6: Io Fleming – Ian Fleming. We’re back to Bond. Io Fleming is one of the two main combatants in Gundam Thunderbolt, a manga by Yasuo Ohtakagi adapted into two anime films. He’s the one on the Federation side, who loves jazz and hates his Zeon nemesis, the sniper Daryl Lorenz. His name seems taken from Ian Fleming, the original creator of James Bond in book form in the 1950s.
There’s no obvious link here at all, except for possibly Io’s cocky masculinity, which is quickly undermined in the story. Io may play the part of a pulp space ace with echoes of Bond, but the reality is much grimmer.
7: Relena – Audrey Hepburn. (The following has spoilers for Gundam Wing.) The girl Relena is one of the central characters in Wing, going through a major transformation. Eventually she dons a regal dress that, fans noted, looks very like the dress that Audrey Hepburn’s Princess wears at the start of the 1953 classic Roman Holiday. (One irony is that Relena turns into a Princess, whereas Hepburn’s character longs to turn out of one.)
According to Japan Today, Hepburn is still beloved in Japan. Partly it was because Japanese viewers found her “slim, understated” figure more relatable than, say, Marilyn Monroe. But it was partly due to a specific scene in Roman Holiday where Hepburn’s character has a memorable haircut to stay incognito. Her cropped cut became the Japanese sensation of the year. (Satoshi Kon fans may spot a reference to Roman Holiday in the opening minutes of Paprika, while that film’s characters rush through a montage of movies.)
Incidentally, Hepburn came close to playing a Japanese woman in the Hollywood film Sayonara. However, she turned it down, arguing no-one would believe her character was Japanese. The part eventually went to Japanese American actress Miiko Taka, appearing opposite Marlon Brando; soon after, Taka was in the English dub cast for Hakujaden, the first colour Japanese animation feature. Perhaps Hepburn was ahead of her time in refusing to play a Japanese character. However, she would surely have been light years more convincing in the role than Mickey Rooney’s infamous performance in a later Hepburn vehicle, Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
8: Elpeo Pie – Lemon People. And let’s lower the tone again. The middle episodes of Gundam ZZ, one of the more eccentric Gundams, featured a girl pilot character called Elpeo Ple. She was a bundle of “little sister” mannerisms before they were mandatory in anime – you can get an idea of her here if you dare. Reportedly, Elpeo was actually named ‘after” a Japanese hentai magazine, Lemon People (“L People” for short), which had a reputation for Lolicon material. Moving swiftly along…
9: Gundam ZZ – Akira. When I covered Gundam ZZ for this blog, I noted that the show’s main character Judau Ashta gave off Akira vibes; he’s part of a delinquent teenage gang, and sports a red jacket. That wouldn’t be so surprising, except that Gundam ZZ was broadcast two years before the Akira film opened, suggesting someone was already a fan of the manga by Katsuhiro Otomo.
Actually, as some sharp-eyed fans have pointed out, Akira characters Kaneda and Tetsuo both seemingly cameo as extras in Gundam ZZ. The evidence is here.
10: Minovsky Particles – Yoshiyuki Tomino. This last reference is less weird, more staring-us-in-the-face, and it’s rather delightful. Minovsky Particles have been a fixture of Gundam from the start; they’re radar-jamming particles that were introduced to explain why space wars are fought by robot suits at close quarters, not by people thousands of miles apart lobbing missiles.
According to a story on the comicbook.com website, sourced from an NHK documentary, the particles’ name comes from the name of Gundam’s creator, Yoshiyuki Tomino himself. On this account, scriptwriter Kenichi Matsuzaki originally dubbed them “Tominovsky” particles, which would have been far more obvious – but the ‘to’ was cut off to make them sound more Russian. And as the article notes, in the prequel anime series Gundam: The Origin, the scientist who discovered the particles is called Torinov Y. Minovsky…