It’s time to rehabilitate this chap.
So I was watching Char’s Counter Attack the other night (well, early morning) and considering Char. Why do I find him so compelling? It was then that it struck me: Char is not so very different from everyone’s favourite sketchily-drawn (and for once I mean that literally rather than figuratively) villain, the Anti-Spiral. I’ll grant that this isn’t the most obvious point of Gundam comparison for Tengen Toppa Gurren-Lagann (‘This drill of mine whirs with an awesome POWER’ et cetera, et cetera), but I think the connection is fruitful. As you might expect, this post is laden with spoilers; enter at your own risk.
Neither Char nor the Anti-Spiral is particularly villainous. Now, please note that I’m not breaking out the age-old, tired comment that ‘Show X played with moral grey areas': I’m not directly interested in the ethics of the situation. Rather, I’m interested in these antagonists’ resolve and integrity.
It’s been widely noted that the Anti-Spiral and Simon are essentially proposing conflicting answers to the same problem. The Anti-Spirals were Spirals (it is implied, humans) who discovered that the ‘Spiral Energy’ (the meaning of which shouldn’t be too hard to discern) of humanity would eventually – well – spiral out of control and cause the destruction of the universe. Their response to this discovery was to use Ultimate Power (or whatever, the mechanics don’t matter) to restrict the population of Spirals in the galaxy and to send themselves into a kind of race-wide, eternal suspended animation.
By contrast, Simon and his Spiral followers have an essentially optimistic approach, which thankfully doesn’t involve the death of many innocents. Although initially his rebellion is driven by a desire for freedom and revenge, when Simon is in possession of the whole picture he decides to continue on the grounds that the galaxy will be better off free, even at the risk of the end of the universe. Simon is essentially gambling on the ability of the Spirals to find a solution and avoid the Spiral Nemesis.
While the Anti-Spirals’ solution is more morally problematic, both the Anti-Spirals’ and the Spirals’ answers to the problem are internally coherent and logically viable. The Anti-Spirals don’t use their power for their own gain, or lord it over the universe in luxury. In fact, the Anti-Spirals inflicted a far more restrictive imprisonment upon themselves – permanent, lifeless suspended animation, occupied with the continual and thankless task of protecting the universe – than anything the humans suffer even in the underground village of the series’ first episode.
The Anti-Spirals are not villainous; they are a dedicated and hard-working group who have sacrificed pretty much anything a human can sacrifice in order to protect the universe from destruction. Their resolve and integrity are unquestionable, which is why it takes an equally resolved set of heroes to defeat them. The Anti-Spirals are a pretty admirable bunch, in a funny kind of way. I term their unswerving (and wierdly selfless) integrity purity of purpose; they may be wrong, but you can’t call them hypocrites or simple powermongers.
One thing I can’t explain is why his face is shaped like a shield.
Char Aznable, by the time of his Counter Attack, shares the Anti-Spirals’ pessimistic picture of human nature. He and Amuro agree that humanity has to colonise space in order to further their evolution into something less prone to war,¹ but Char feels that humans need some encouragement. Encouragement in the form of a giant rock crashing into the Earth and rendering it uninhabitable (this is anime, after all).² Amuro is prepared to, as he puts it, ‘wait for humanity to learn and grow’ and – just like the Anti Spirals puzzling over Simon’s continuing resistance – Char can’t understand Amuro’s faith in humanity
But Char, who (as I read him) has always operated on the basis that the ends justify the means, proceeds unwaveringly towards his goal. Again, not a self-interested antagonist, grasping for power, but a man marching onwards with the absolute conviction that he is correct. Neither Char nor the Anti-Spiral represent some dramatic revolution in storytelling, but they are both very well-executed examples of the villain who can oppose the hero while keeping his own integrity intact. I, for one, find this kind of opponent builds up the hero, too: it’s one thing to physically defeat your opponent, and quite another to challenge their whole view of the situation – and perhaps it’s most satisfying for the hero to do both.
In both the Counter Attack and Gurren-Lagann, we witness a problem with two proposed and conflicting solutions, and in both the antagonist’s solution is a paternalistic use of force while the protagonist’s solution is less of a solution in itself, more a gamble on the arrival of a solution in the future. We are rehearsing here familiar discussions about how much a government should meddle in its citizens’ affairs, and (more explosively) about how much a government should meddle in the affairs of other countries’ citizens.
[Interestingly, the question is never actually put to the mass of people involved in either case. Simon and Amuro simply decide that they will take this optimistic gamble on humanity, and then proceed to defeat their paternalist antagonists. And in Gurren-Lagann the people - The People - are portrayed as easily persuaded plebians ('and they say Simon is an honourable man') - οἱ πολλοί, if you will. But I digress.]
Flustered by the fuss about Kyonko? This won’t help.
This also explains the closing scenes involving images of young people in both Char’s Counter Attack and Tengen Toppa Gurren-Lagann. Subscribing to the laissez-faire gamble frequently leads us to place hope in the young; the young, after all, are the ones who will have to emigrate to space or solve the Spiral Energy problem, now that the current generation are heroically dead / heroically aged / unheroically corrupt. Children Are Our Future, even if they are also A Bloody Nuisance on trains and in supermarkets.
1. So if Char existed in the TTGL universe he’d definitely be a Spiral Knight, right?
2. Gurren-Lagann loves homage, and the Anti-Spirals’ plan to drop the Moon onto the Earth may be an intentional nod to this and other, similar plans to end the world.
- There’s a frankly criminal lack of blog entries out there about old anime. In the absence of traditional blog coverage, you can find some reviews of Char’s Counter Attack from AUKN and ANN.
- There’s a frankly insane amount of blog entries out there about Tengen Toppa Gurren-Lagann, but one you won’t find on an aggregator is this examination of the series’ qualified endorsement of instinct.
- Finally, allow me to remind you that Char is fighting for our prayers.