Mobile Suit Gundam: Char’s Counterattack is a defining anime for me. It cemented Gundam in my head as this incredible thing, and its aesthetics (especially its main mobile suits) remain among my favorite ever. That’s why, even though I’d seen the movie plenty of times in my youth and I own a physical copy, I still decided to attend the recent Fathom Events screening. It also didn’t hurt that there was an exclusive new interview with director Tomino Yoshiyuki.
There was one big mishap at my screening, which was that the theater played the wrong audio for about the first ten minutes or so. They eventually fixed it, but were not allowed to restart the movie because it was a Fathom Event. Thankfully, they gave us a free voucher for a future showing.
That mess-up aside, watching the film at my current age made for a significantly different experience compared to when I was a teen in the early 2000s. It wasn’t just that I was older, but that the current circumstances of the world make clear the failure of the story’s adults all around.
Char’s Counterattack is the finale to the ongoing rivalry between the original Mobile Suit Gundam protagonist, Amuro Ray, and his greatest rival, Char Aznable. Both older and in different positions after two different wars—the second of which they fought side by side—it’s a bookend to their ongoing personal, political, and philosophical differences.
One notorious character in the film is Quess Paraya, a young and talented Newtype (essentially a psychic) who willingly gets wrapped up in the conflict. She’s infamous in the fandom as a character nearly everyone hates because she gets in other characters’ ways and acts like a know-it-all despite her age. However, when I watched this time, I could only pity her.
It’s true that Quess can be infuriatingly impetuous and overconfident, but I realize now that her side plot is less about her screwing things up due to arrogance and more about the adults who fail her at every turn. She’s the classic case of a teenager with very real talent and insight but who doesn’t realize how her lack of experience and first-hand understanding of the world limits her. Quess thinks she’s figured it all out but she hasn’t, and when she interacts with Amuro, Char, and even her dad, they all brush her off in different ways or enable her in the worst ways possible. She’s someone who could be guided and mentored, but no one has the time or desire. Even those closer to her in age, who are romantically interested, lack the maturity to be good partners.
There’s a point at which Amuro and Char are fist-fighting while stub arguing, and Char says that humankind is ruining the Earth and something must be done about it, which prompts Quess to immediately join his side despite ostensibly being with the Earth Federation due to her dad. The way Quess thinks she’s on the same wavelength as Char despite knowing so little about him brings to mind a teen on YouTube watching an extreme political video and thinking, “Yeah, I get it!” without realizing how much they’re being manipulated.
But it’s not just Quess who suffers from being a half-broken machine—this is a recurring theme throughout the entire cast. Amuro is trying to be a mature adult who’s both a good soldier but also independent-minded, but can’t shake the ghosts of the past. Char is trying to be a real leader and successor to his dad’s legacy but also can’t come to terms with how things played out with Amuro all those years ago. Gyunei, a soldier under Char, is so close to figuring everything out, but actually thinks that scoring the figurative winning point in the big game will turn everyone to his side. They’re all in shambles, and the film takes away some of their mystique even as it showcases them in gorgeously animated space combat.
In the Tomino interview afterwards, the director described Char in Char’s Counterattack as someone whose star quickly rise in his youth as a pilot, but who finds himself inadequate as a leader partially because he still desires to settle things personally. It positions Char as not the enigmatic rival, and instead a man frustrated by his own limitations but refusing to directly them. It might be no wonder why my teenage self didn’t quite get it.