I love the long running Japanese science fiction series Gundam– the whole width and breadth of it.
I love the bleak, hard science fiction of Iron-Blooded Orphans, where child soldiers fight to claw out a place they can call home. I love the unapologetic eccentricity and romanticism of Mobile Fighter G Gundam, a show where the robot devil is slain by the power of love. I love the Universal Century (UC)—Gundam’s primary setting, introduced in the original Mobile Suit Gundam (hereafter First Gundam, for brevity and clarity’s sake) and built from there to last year’s thoughtful, thrilling feature film Mobile Suit Gundam: Hathaway.
But loving Gundam means acknowledging that Gundam is A LOT. It’s a vast, expansive body of work that can, to quote culture writer Ian Gregory’s essential Gundam essay “Towards a Historiography of Gundam’s One Year War”, seem actively “reader-hostile, considering the lengths it makes fans go to reach its stories.” There are oodles of work set during the conflict depicted in First Gundam alone, and they don’t always line up with each other. It can be intimidating, even alienating—like introducing someone to spy fiction by assigning them Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy for a fourth-grade summer book report. With that said, Gundam’s history—its triumphs, its failures, and all of its assorted idiosyncrasies—are the source of the fascinating conversation the series carries on with itself.
In summation, Gundam is a media franchise comprised of multiple anime series stretching back to 1979’s First Gundam and a host of ancillary projects (novels, video games, models ranging from kid-friendly builds to 1:1 scale statues capable of mimicking some of their fictional counterparts’ most famous actions, and a rather famously despised Canadian live action film among other projects). In short form, the series can be described overall as a war story with an abiding interest in the consequences of ruthless politicking, ecology, humanity’s relationship to conflict and our self-destructive impulses, and Mobile Suits—giant humanoid robots that are cool, horrifying, some combination thereof or something else entirely.
Over the decades that it has run, Gundam has taken a wide variety of forms, from the harrowingly bleak to the bombastically romantic to the low key to the downright adorable. It has shaped, and been shaped, by the greater world of science fiction, by the popularity of hobby model kits, by what the kids of the moment and the folks working on the show dig. Each new Gundam story, in its own way, reflects the wider world in which it was made and on a narrower level the state of Gundam at the time. It’s a project that exists in a constant conversation with itself, as is particularly clear in the case of Mobile Suit Gundam: The Origin, a manga by First Gundam’s character designer and chief animation director Yoshikazu Yasuhiko (available in English in hardback from Kodansha and serialized in color at ComicWalker)—in which the great artist retells First Gundam’s story with a focus on what most interests him about the series, shifting its feel and tone into something that is both of a piece with and decidedly distinct from its source material.
One of the best – and easiest ways to join the larger conversation of Gundam is to track the history of its iconic antagonist—Char Aznable. Char was a major recurring foe in First Gundam— a brilliant mobile suit pilot with a stylish mask and a mysterious agenda (revenge), one that pitted him against his ostensible employers in the nefarious Principality of Zeon as often as it did his rival Amuro Ray—the pilot of the RX-78-2 Gundam. In the sequel series Zeta Gundam, Char—his vengeance attained—took a new name (Quattro Bajeena) and opposed the Titans, a tyrannical military organization, while serving as a mentor to Zeta’s protagonist. Finally, in the theatrical feature Char’s Counterattack, an embittered Char stepped into the role of final boss—driven as much by a desire to settle the score with Amuro as any commitment to an ideology.
Char is an iconic part of Gundam as a whole—so much so that alternate universe Gundam and even UC Gundam stories play with and riff on his character.
G Gundam’s Schwarz Bruder combined early Char’s masked enigma and rivalry with the protagonist with the mentor aspect of his time as Quattro while working in a novel familial connection to his rival/student—G Gundam protagonist Domon Kasshu. After War Gundam X’s Jamil Neate combined the feel and history of Char the Mentor/Quattro with those of Amuro Ray to create a jaded former hero trying to guide the next generation as best he could. Mobile Suit Gundam SEED’s Rau le Creuset pushed the bitterness, viciousness, and possible madness of Char circa his Counterattack into full-blown omnicidal nihilism. *
Iron-Blooded Orphans’ McGillis Fareed, by contrast, wove a thread of Counterattack-era Char’s commitment to civilization-scale societal transformation and warped romanticism with First Gundam-era Char’s enigmatic moving and shaking, resulting in a man whose genuine desire to build a better world is undercut by his clinging to ruthless scheming and treachery as the best tools he has. The UC-set Gundam Unicorn’s Full Frontal was aesthetically (and perhaps mentally) a clone of Char himself—or rather a clone of the image he presented to the public—created by Zeon remnants in an attempt to recapture his spark.
Each subsequent riff on Char has reinforced the strengths of the original character and expanded the space succeeding Gundam creative teams will have to play in with regards to the archetype. On a larger scale, this is equally true for the vast body of work that makes up Gundam as a whole. Through success and failure, through homage and riff and deconstruction and reconstruction, Gundam’s creative teams have continually built more space within the metaseries for each other to work in—as seen with Yasuhiko and his manga series The Origin.
In a lengthy 2015 interview with Animage magazine’s Yuuichiro Oguro, translated by Hyun Park at Wave Motion Cannon, Yasuhiko discussed, amongst other things, his return to Gundam after decades away from the franchise and the evolution of his feelings on the project:
“Frankly, before I drew the work, I had a heavy feeling and thought ‘Oh boy, have I taken on a big task!’ …Still, as I drew it out, I was surprised that I got back into it. Perhaps my affection has come back to life again. There are various things known about Gundam, and I thought that those things were different from what I knew. It’s a joy to express those differences. Not only can I say it with words, but I can also tell the story with pictures. I’m telling it in terms of ‘It was like this. Now you get it?’
Tonally, The Origin, as a prestigious retelling and celebration of Gundam, has the space to be a bit heavier (and in places raunchier) than the original TV series was—in part because the series had been successful enough that there was commercial and narrative space for just such a celebratory work. Narratively, Yasuhiko cranks up the focus on the cause and logistics of the One-Year War—three of The Origin’s twelve volumes are dedicated to a flashback arc which traces the origins of Zeon and how those events shaped Char Aznable and his estranged sister Sayla Mass’ characters—while toning down the amount of focus given to Newtypes—UC Gundam’s recurring space psychics, possessed of cryptic, trippy abilities (Yasuhiko isn’t wild about Newtypes, saying in the interview: “They’re not really that great.”).
Per Animage, Yasuhiko’s personal interpretation of Gundam—and thus ultimately of The Origin—is this: for all their Mobile Suits and space battles, the show and manga were fundamentally about “depicting humanity as it is.” The Origin’s cast are shaped by the actions and ideologies of those who came before them, and in turn they shape the worlds of others. Actions have echoes, both anticipated and unexpected.
Take, for instance, the character for whom The Principality of Zeon was named for—the philosopher and activist Zeon Zum Deikun. Though long dead by the time of The Origin’s main story, the book’s flashback arc covers the last days of his life. Yasuhiko uses Deikun’s brief appearance masterfully, laying out the aspects of his character and his philosophies that will echo far beyond his death.
Deikun’s courageous—he publicly and accurately challenges the Earth Federation’s heavy-handed, often corrupt, and frequently cruel governance of the space colonies. He’s capable of being deeply loving—he adores his mistress Astraia and their daughter Artesia (who will ultimately take the name Sayla Mass and aim to end the war). And while eccentric, his prediction that life in space might lead to the appearance of Newtypes is indeed correct.
Simultaneously, Deikun has a planet-sized messiah complex—he outright compares the birth of his son Casval (who will become Char) to the birth of Jesus, and in a low moment compares his own doubts and fears to Christ’s at Gethsemane. He can be incredibly selfish with his love—he implicitly neglects Casval and does not divorce the cruel financial backer whom he’s legally married to—leaving Astraia at her mercy after his death. And while the exact circumstances are ambiguous, he might have been reckless enough to declare war on the Federation with nothing but rhetoric and his certainty in his own righteousness as weapons.
Throughout The Origin’s flashback and main story, Yasuhiko tracks the legacy of Deikun’s teachings and the consequences of his actions. The scramble for power after his death sees the cunning Zabi family seize control of the Zeon movement by declaring Deikun a martyr and twisting his call for the independence of the space colonies into a call for the authoritarian rule of the colonies AND Earth by the Zabi family. Individual Zabis twist Deikun’s teachings further still, with the worst of them hawking the notion that those born in space are superior beings possessed of an inherent right to dominate their earth-born inferiors.
Likewise, Deikun’s neglect of Casval, failure to consider Astraia’s future, and messianic zealotism paved the way for Casval to grow up into the ruthless Char Aznable. Indoctrinated by one of Deikun’s followers with the belief that the Zabis murdered him (they might have, but it’s just as possible that the cause of Deikun’s death really was a stress-induced heart attack), Casval swore vengeance on the Zabi family. That indoctrination, coupled with repeated attempts on his and his sister’s lives by Zabi assassins while in hiding, hardened Casval. The opportunity to become Char Aznable, infiltrate the Zeon military, and insinuate himself into Zabi social circles so that he’d be able to strike at them saw Casval/Char turn full on vicious.
And while Yasuhiko confined The Origin’s story to the original Mobile Suit Gundam plus the original-to-the-manga flashback arc and three one-shot side-stories, there is an echo of Char’s Counterattack in how he depicts Amuro and Char’s final battle in The Origin—an echo that builds on both his depiction in that film and his depiction in The Origin up to that point.
With both Amuro’s Gundam and Char’s Zeong destroyed and very bad blood between them due to the death of Lalah Sune—a Newtype pilot both cared for—the two rivals begin a sword fight in the crumbling Zeon fortress A Boa Qu’s weapons museum. Char is badly shaken despite how close he is to completing his revenge. He rants about the superiority of Newtypes, clinging to a twisted version of his late father’s ideals for fuel. He quotes his Counterattack-era self, years in his future and decades in Gundam’s past, about just who Lalah Sune was to him. He begins to hallucinate, and sees Amuro as himself years before, when he fought off a Zabi assassin clad in full medieval plate armor.
In the end, The Origin’s Char is left a haunted, ragged-run man by all that he’s seen, all that he’s done, and all that has been done to him—a man who clings to his revenge because it’s the last thing he has left that makes sense to him. Thanks to Yasuhiko’s stupendous craft, his arc is clear, pointed, and packs a hell of a wallop. Part of the reason it does so? The ways in which it responds to previous Gundam works, UC and otherwise and the ways it uses the space that Gundam’s ongoing conversation has built to maximum effect. The Origin’s Char owes a debt to his past selves and his counterparts, just as those Char-types who’ve come after him owe a debt to him.
It should also be said that Mobile Suit Gundam: The Origin is just a phenomenal comic. Yasuhiko’s character work is expressive, his action kinetic. His streamlining of First Gundam’s story is elegant and wise in its understanding of humanity. I am so damn glad it exists, that it’s part of Gundam’s conversations, and that Gundam has been built on and will continue to converse with it in its own works, just as Yasuhiko intended.