“You adults are always making up excuses! That’s why you’d destroy the Earth without a second thought!“
This is the kind of review that will make me unpopular with most Gundam fans who read it. Rather than cushion the blow, let’s just get the worst of it out of the way up front.
Char’s Counterattack is not a very good movie. Not even by Gundam standards.
There. That’s out of the way. Now I can think clearly.
By the time Gundam ZZ was into its run, Sunrise realized they had a hit franchise on their hands. It was time for a feature film. At that time, the only Gundam films in theaters were the partially reanimated compilation films that have been am inexplicable staple in the anime industry for a long time. (Side note: Could you imagine any American television show being compiled into 3 or 4 theatrically released films? Exactly.) So Tomino Yoshiyuki began work on Char’s Counterattack. More than just another entry into the Universal Century timeline, the film would both bring to an end the long-standing rivalry between Amuro Ray and Char Aznable as well as resolve the on-and-off war between Earth and Zeon. So, kind of a big deal.
My larger feelings for this film aside, getting to see a Gundam story with a feature animation budget is a pleasure. When you see a well animated television anime, it’s easy to forget what a difference the extra money can make. Zeta Gundam looked great when it came out, but it can’t hold a candle to the level of detail and craft on screen in this film. The characters look great and the mecha looks better. Real, honest to god anime films are rare enough that you have to appreciate them even when they’re a failure. Like when I managed to sit through all of Ghost in the Shell: Innocence without falling asleep.
Unfortunately, my praise for Char’s Counterattack stops there. It’s great to finally get a resolution to Char and Amuro’s relationship in theory. They’re the heart of the U.C. Gundam timeline and deserve a true finale. Their role in Zeta Gundam was interesting, but the time was never given to truly develop who these men had become after the One Year War. I liked that Amuro and Char became rival allies for the show, even if that relationship was never mined enough for my tastes. Giving them center stage again was a good idea. Just, perhaps, not this particular stage.
The sad fact is, Tomino never got a good handle on how to make a good film. His instincts seem geared toward episodic storytelling. Given a single, two-hour block with which to work, he loses his way. You see this not just in Char’s Counterattack, but also in the Zeta New Translation remakes. Though the latter were more successful, they share Counterattacks’ tendency to choose the wrong things to focus on at the wrong times. The opening of Char’s Counterattack just drops us into the middle of a situation that really, really needed set up.
For instance, Char is now the leader of Neo Zeon. How did this happen? Where was he during the whole war between Earth and Neo-Zeon that took place during ZZ? What caused him to change from a confused, reluctant leader into a man so focused on driving humanity into space that he’s willing to ruin the Earth to do it? Not only are these questions left mostly unanswered, they’re also poorly addressed. Everything just kind of starts, and the film feel shallow for its lack of context.
Char, you see, has decided Newtypes are the future, and that by staying tied to a dying homeworld, humanity is retarding its needed evolution. And so he has reformed Neo Zeon with the express purpose of dropping its massive asteroid-space station onto Earth. His plan is discovered by the single most oddly named organization in the history of Gundam: Londo Bell. Commanded by the perennially in-the-mix Noa Bright and supported by Amuro Ray, Londo Bell races to stop Axis – that’s the battleship asteroid thing – and end the Zeonic threat once and for all.
There’s a lot of plot jammed into Char’s Counterattack. So much that none of it has much impact, even when it should. for instance, just before the battle Amuro is given an unexpected mobile suit upgrade: The Nu Gundam. (Side Note: I don’t love this film, but Nu Gundam might be my favorite Gundam name ever). It’s equipped with an experimental psychoframe system that allows Newtypes unprecedented control over the suit. Somewhere along the line we learn that the technology was given to Londo Bell by none other than Char himself so that he can face Amuro one, final time on equal terms. It’s a cool idea, but the whole thing is so badly set up that it feels like an unnecessary complication on an already confused story.
We meet Bright’s son, Hathaway, who falls in love with a female Newtype named Quess. Unfortunately, Quess falls under Char’s spell, and the two are forced to face each other in battle. If this sound suspiciously like the story of Katz and Sarah from Zeta Gundam, you’ve just found another problem with Char’s Counterattack. I expect a certain amount of theme recycling in Gundam, but many aspects of this film feel almost lazy. I wasn’t a tremendous fan of the Katz/Sarah plot in Zeta, but at least there it was given time to develop. In this, Quess’s motivations are too murky to understand, and thus Hathaway is impossible to sympathize with.
With the exception of the ending fight between Amuro and Char, everything about Char’s Counterattack feels empty, overused and nihilistic. It’s as if the worst of Tomino’s storytelling ideas all got crammed into this script, from maudlin, doomed romances to unnecessarily character deaths to a victory so hollow that suicide seems the next logical choice for the surviving heroes. Do we want to see Hathaway Bright left so distraught that he’d attack and kill an ally? I don’t know, but better motivation would have helped either way.
As for the battle royale, it’s not a classic, but it is pretty good. It involves not just mobile suit acrobatics but some well planned trickery by Amuro. It was also the only time in the film I felt any real momentum. While the reversion of their relationship back to Lalah Sune-obsessed enemies is yet another unmotivated plot point, it does let the characters get out some things they probably should have dealt with back in Zeta. And the final moments, involving Amuro’s attempt to stop the fall of Axis, is thankfully almost as moving as it is confusing.
I know this film is a favorite for many people, but this film really didn’t work for me. There are problems with Tomino-era Gundam that people don’t like to address, and those problems are on proud display in Char’s Counterattack. Every writer brings their personal problems into their writing, but Tomino was rarely able to mine his own depression for compelling stories. Sadly, it only got worse from here.
If you’ve watched U.C. Gundam, Char’s Counterattack is a must to complete the story. Considering other people’s reactions, there’ s a good chance you’ll like it more than me, too.