Sunday, April 13, 2014

Mobile Suit Gundam: Char's Counterattack - The Final* Chapter

*(Until Bandai and Sunrise decide they can get away with otherwise, that is.)

It's that time of the month again, folks.
Seeing as I have something lined up for Holy Week next week (that's actually not blasphemous) this week seemed as good a time as any for this month's entry for Gundam's 35th anniversary.

This one is something of a major milestone in the franchise's history on a couple of levels. For starters, this was the first completely original Gundam movie ever made, as opposed to the earlier films being a recut compilation. This was also the first big effort by creator Yoshiyuki Tomino to close the book on several big story elements once and for all.

Before we get into the movie itself, though, it's history time (again. Sorry, a lot of time passed between the last movie and this.)

When we last left things, Gundam had gotten big- Very big. It was a breakout hit for Sunrise, and there was an interest in continuing the story. However, Tomino wanted to move on. In the years following the original series, he in fact went on to try his hand at several other shows to distance himself from Gundam, including Aura Battler Dunbine, Space Runaway Ideon, and Combat Mecha Xabungle. Each of these went in different directions in terms of ideas and tone, and really carved out unique identities for themselves that have allowed them to endure to this day. Yet nothing was quite as big as Gundam. Eventually (and this is one of those areas where a combination of lack of much behind the scenes info getting out combined with a language barrier makes the story hazy for English-speaking fans) he finally came back to give his hit series a sequel.

Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam was designed to be a darker look at the follow-up to the original series. After the devastation of the One Year War, the Federation's more corrupt elements were able to seize power via a special operative branch known as the Titans. Rather than being a retread 'Earth vs Space' concept, the show played as an internal civil war in the Federation, with the protagonists being in the splinter organization known as the AEUG (Anti-Earth United's Engrish folks, this could have been a LOT worse.) Without saying too much to give things away, the show stuck to its darker guns to the very end- which ended on a cliffhanger with many characters dead and the threat of a new Zeonic revival on the rise.

Literally the week after Zeta ended, its sequel series ZZ Gundam began. After the bleak finale of its predecessor, this show opted to try for a lighter tone. Depending who you ask, this decision was either a much needed dose of levity after an overly depressing ending or a rather clumsily added element of forced humor that really didn't fit. Suffice it to say, to this day, ZZ remains something of a divisive title within the fandom. As the show went on, it regained some more serious elements, but kind of hit some snags in the final arc.

This is where Char's Counterattack comes into play. Again, the information here is fuzzy thanks to cultural and language barriers, but as the stories have gone, ZZ originally was being set up with a much different finale than what it has now. As the stories have gone, ZZ WAS going to be the big finale, with Char (who was last established as MIA at the end of Zeta) coming back, taking control of his organization back from its established leadership, and leading one last push against the Earth in a big 'winner take all' ending. How much of that was meant to come to pass is a subject that's up for debate, but the show certainly shows signs it was being rewritten as they went, and this movie is the big reason why. It was greenlit mid-way into the series, and so any and all plans involving bringing Char back were reworked to free up elements and set the stage for the movie.

There, that's about as spoiler-free as I can get that for you.

Onto the movie.

Char's Counterattack opened in March of 1988, and was being advertised as the big finale. Fun fact regarding that - if you can get access to the old R1 Bandai Entertainment release, the bonuses do include the old Japanese promotions for the movie. It's not an exaggeration to say the movie was hyped up this way. This was the huge final chapter that was going to settle everything once and for all.

Suffice it to say, a lot got promised. How much got delivered? That's a matter of some debate.

Char's Counterattack is one of those movies that I find has a lot both going for it and against it. If I had to pick the single biggest problem with it, it's probably in the fact that it's ultimately trying to do a lot more than the time allows for. Unfortunately, unlike the earlier trilogy, there isn't really an alternative series version to check out, which has the breathing room to expand on these ideas. Unless someone takes it on themselves to translate the novels Tomino also wrote based on the story (and even those you take with a grain of salt, since he treated his novels as a separate continuity from his animated works) this is the only version we have to go on. Part of the problem with that is the fact that this movie hits the 'in media res' button pretty hard. More to the point, it smashes it with a full fist. As a general rule, Tomino as a storyteller tends to be big on in media res anyway, and when he's doing it with a series, that's one thing. In a series, it's a solid hook that you have the time to then unfold all the events of your narrative. Trying to do it in a movie that's only slightly longer than two hours becomes problematic. This is especially true in the first fifteen minutes where you're inundated with a lot of information that even those familiar with the previous series will find a bit confusing. The only thing we really get close to a handout as the audience is a single line in the opening scene, when Londo Bell officer Chan Agi (Mitsuki Yayoi) explains the situation - Char's back (and still voiced by Shuichi Ikeda,) he's leading Neo-Zeon, and as this is going on, he's getting ready to pull a Bond Villain and drop an asteroid onto Earth. That's the closest thing you're going to get to a lifeline this entire movie, kids. Hope you can swim.

"The next one we'll be hitting the Earth with will be THIIIIIIIIIIS big!"

Now, one of the other big drawbacks here is, in media res can still be relatively well-navigated with the right protagonist -- someone who's as inexperienced as the audience is and is learning as they go is a great fit for this sort of role.  The problem is, CCA's protagonist is NOT the man for the job - with Char's revival, it all comes to Amuro Ray (Tohru Furuya,) back in the pilot seat again and now a good deal more level headed and skilled, to finish the fight. It's a nice growth for the character, and proof he's come a long way from that wet-behind-the-ears fifteen-year-old who fell into a robot by chance, but he's already so immersed in what's going on that there's no opening to give the audience a learning curve. He certainly tries to explain parts of it while discussing strategy, but that context can only take things just so far.

Fortunately, parts of the story can at least be relatively easily inferred as you go along, but it doesn't wash all of the situation, and it's rather telling that the R1 release of this came with a booklet just to help make sense of the setting for the era (granted, it also didn't help that the English release jumped straight past the two follow-up series so we went straight from Mobile Suit Gundam to CCA with Zeta only being released much later and ZZ only seeing an official release via streams last year.) Of course, even when you get past parsing out the jumbled setting, the movie still has its problems. Once you get your bearings on the setting (again, that feeling should diminish after the first fifteen minutes or so) the fact is, the movie feels very rushed in terms of how it all progresses. It's technically a complete narrative, but the number of jumps it makes to keep the action flowing really get awkward at times. The overall story feels like it might have been better served as a short OVA series as opposed to fitting it all into a single movie. As it is, it feels like watching a compilation feature for a show that never happened - you can imagine where other scenes would have been, but they're just gone.

Suffice it to say, with a story like this, the characters get hit hard. Most of the returning characters make out alright. Like I said before, Amuro's arc is actually a pretty good development for him after the shell-shocked young man we last saw in Zeta, seeing him turn into a capable veteran who has still managed to hold on to some faith in humanity is actually a pretty satisfactory end point for him. Likewise, Bright (Hirotaka Suzuoki) continues to hold up as the closest thing the franchise had to this point for a recurring focal character. It feels a bit strange to not see him in any sort of mentor role this time out, but he's still holding his own as a soldier who, despite working for a fairly crooked government, is doing his best to keep the general citizens from having to pay for the failings of their leaders. The one recurring character who takes the hardest hit in this is none other than our titular antagonist. Char's depiction in this movie has been the source of all manner of essays and arguments in the fandom for years and sparking a LOT of different opinions. To some people, his turn from being patient with humanity in Zeta to going "Nuts to this! I'm gonna force humanity off the Earth!" is a regression from the arc the character had been set on over the course of two series. To others, it's a sign of how the events of ZZ (which he was largely absent for) embittered the man on any sort of hope for the future. Which isn't a bad reading, but it's one the movie never even seems to entertain. In fact, almost nothing is said for what prompted his change of gears, even though Amuro has several times in the film where he essentially does ask Char "What the Hell, man?" Further, Char's suddenly deciding after all this time he's not actually over Lalah Sune (Keiko Han returning in a brief role) feels like a considerable step back to a lot of people. It's kind of a shame that, while Amuro actually had a pretty natural growth from the insecure kid he was into a pretty reasonable adult, Char's descent instead feels like a massive derailment due to lack of explanation. I'm not saying they even needed to do a lot to explain it, but the fact is, it isn't even one that inference helps.

"Son, what did I just get finished telling you? As a little kid, you were essentially a non-character. We'll get back to you later!"

As for the new cast, due to little time they get, most of them never really get beyond their archetypes. A large chunk of time in the film is devoted to new (well, semi-new in Hathaway's case, but seeing how little he did in Zeta, he may as well be new) characters Hathaway Noah and Quess Paraya (Nozomu Sasaki and Maria Kawamura) but they never really seem to benefit from the extra focus. In the end, they amount to little more than a naïve kid in over his head, and a stubborn kid who thinks she knows more about the world than she actually does (a personality that has made Quess a pretty heavily disliked character in the fandom. Then again, Hathaway's not much more popular.) This is kind of a shame, since the two present an interesting sort of counterbalance to Tomino's running theme in the two prior series about how adults don't understand and the future should be trusted to the children. By comparison, Quess and Hathaway seem to be his way of going "...although sometimes, children are just plain wrong, too."

When your own mobile suit doesn't even want you, THAT should tell you something!

Alongside them, the support pilots on both sides are incredibly one-note characters: Kayra (Shinobu Adachi) is brought into the film with a crosshairs on her forehead, Rezin (Kazue Ikura) is just obnoxious, and Gyunei (Kouichi Yamadera) is just a walking heap on inadequacy complexes that eventually leads to a completely underwhelming fate. About the only other character even worth mentioning for much here is Quess's father, Adenauer (Shunsuke Shima) and that's mostly just cause, on this rewatch, I've kind of realized just how played out the self-serving Earth politician character type is in this franchise. At the point this was made, it was still somewhat flexible, but nowadays, it really does feel like an easy out for writers to avoid having to actually write a character.

...okay, there's Chan also. But there's not a whole lot I can say for a character who was mainly written in because the backers didn't like Amuro's girlfriend from Zeta.

To the movie's credit, however, where it fumbles on storytelling, it succeeds on several technical levels.
While the film's story doesn't fully come together, there are several individual sequences that are well written and directed. Sequences like Char's rallying speech at Sweetwater and the opening battle over the asteroid Fifth Luna, even if the latter is somewhat steeped in awkward information-dump, are strongly put together sequences; the former for capturing the element of Char as a statesman as well as helping convey just the full spread of Neo-Zeon and its standing, both in the speech and just how the crowds are depicted, and the latter for establishing the two-fold nature of Amuro and Char's conflict, exchanging words as they exchange blows- a storytelling element that is, admittedly, somewhat played out in the franchise overall, but played well here.

In general,  the combat in this movie is very well arranged. The above-mentioned Fifth Luna battle captures the kind of chaotic disarray Tomino had previously achieved with the climax of the original Gundam. Further, the entire final battle over Axis- in particular the final duel between Amuro and Char is up there with some of the best combat sequences Tomino has put together- rivaling some of his work on Victory Gundam as some of the best fight sequences in the franchise. That last duel is honestly one of the highlights of the movie ñ as Amuro and Char lock in their final battle in which every weapon is used, till they finally just go at each other slugging it out in (giant robotic) hand to hand combat. know what, why pick just? Insert a Rock 'Em' Sock 'Em Robots joke of your choice here.

Further adding to those fights, the movie's mobile suits are all well designed by Yutaka Izubuchi. After the varied (but admittedly still pretty damn nice) designs over the course of Z and ZZ, the majority of the mobile suit designs in this film actually feel more like a thought out design progression, with the Jegan and the Geara Doga as the next evolutionary jumping off points for the GM and Zaku. Further, the two main designs of the movie, the Nu Gundam and the Sazabi, also carry that evolution of design, evoking callbacks to the two suits that started it all ñ the original RX-78 Gundam and Char's own custom Zaku. They are also very unique designs on their own, but one can see the stylistic call back in them.

"Who's failing to hit NOW?"

On top of all of this, the film's soundtrack, by Shigeaki Saegusa, is probably one of the strongest parts of the movie. For a movie that was being advertised as the big showstopping finale of the original Gundam storyline, Saegusa's soundtrack gives the movie a suitable send-off. With tracks that range from the symphonic and bombastic (the main titles, Nu Gundam's theme) to the quieter, but still emotional ('Quess Paraya', 'Sacrifice') the film's score helps the film maintain the necessary sense of grandeur that it was trying for, even if the rest of the film doesn't always hit it. Further, in continuing the franchise's good track record with vocal insert tracks, the movie's end theme, 'Beyond the Time' by TM Network is up with 'Ai Senshi' from the second MSG movie in terms of the franchise's memorable theme songs.

In all, for the movie that was supposed to be the big finish to the original Gundam trilogy, it's a pretty uneven closer. The  strong visual eye and the fact that it has one of the best scores of the  the franchise make it a very impressive spectacle if nothing else. Unfortunately, for as many interesting ideas and strong individual sequences as it brings to the table, it's still got many problems with its pace and a feeling that large chunks of story got left out. The result is still an interesting experience, but one that feels like it could have benefited from having much more time to tell its story than it had to work with.

That brings us to the end of this month's entry. As fun facts go, this month also actually marked the official birthday of the franchise, with the first episode of the original series debuting on April 7th. Also, as I said before, despite Tomino's best efforts to close the book, Sunrise and Bandai weren't inclined to just let a good thing die, as we'll be learning again next month.

In the meantime, as promised, next week will see the plan for Holy Week, which should prove an interesting discussion.

Till then!

Okay, some might question why I'm spoiler-screening this, but...better safe than bitched out later.

One other thing I feel is worth bringing up, but wasn't really something that could get discussed in the main review, but  as another fun bit of trivia on this movie and relating to Bandai's unwillingness to let a good thing die. When I say Tomino wanted this to close the book, I mean he REALLY wanted to settle all the major strands-particularly Federation vs Zeon and Amuro vs Char. In the case of the latter, Tomino felt the best way to settle things was actually to kill them both in order to keep them from just being brought back time and again. The novel versions reportedly make their deaths even more explicit, but when he floated the idea of killing them both off - so the story goes - they objected. As a result, while the film (for all intents and purposes) does kill them, it leaves their deaths rather ambiguous.

As far as the actual depiction goes, the scene is handled fairly well (though the conversation leading up to it IS a little awkwardly worded at points - God love him, Tomino's writing really doesn't convert too well to English sometimes) but the fact is, the ambiguity is a bit of an odd choice. Especially since, despite Bandai's wanting to keep it vague, the way Tomino directed the sequence VERY heavily implies their deaths did happen.

Just as a last fun fact note that I left out of the main review for those who've not seen it.

Till next time!

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