The animation of Char’s Counterattack

This piece is dedicated to Fmod, my master in all things Gundam.

This article is a little special, as it is Animétudes’ first collaboration. It is conceived as a companion to season 4 of the wonderful podcast Mobile Suit Breakdown. Dedicated to analyzing each entry in the Gundam franchise, MSB is one of my favorite critical endeavours on the Internet. When this piece is published, its two hosts Thom and Nina will be covering the movie Char’s Counterattack; to accompany them in this task and provide some more perspective to all Gundam and animation fans, I have decided to take a look at the movie from a production and animation perspective. Though this is conceived as a companion piece, there will surely be overlaps with the podcast (especially the first part of this article retracing the production chronology). Many thanks to Thom and Nina for their excellent work, but also for the resources they shared with me for this article.

When asked what was the biggest anime event of the year 1988, most people would surely answer Akira. Ghibli fans may note Grave of the Fireflies or My Neighbour Totoro. Only few people would mention one of the most ambitious entries in the Gundam franchise: Char’s Counterattack. Yoshiyuki Tomino’s third feature film project, and the first non-recap one, put an end to a story that had been going on for almost 10 years, the so-called “early Universal Century”. It was a turning point, not just for the Gundam series, but for anime as a whole – though this is rarely known or framed as such, since the movie is mostly only accessible to already experienced Gundam watchers.

The goal of this article is to correct this state of affairs. It is therefore necessary to replace CCA in its context, which is a double one. First is, obviously, the context of the Gundam franchise: in terms of staff, CCA brought in a lot of new blood; but it was also one of the last moments in a certain period of mecha animation, just before the tidal change that would sweep the industry with another Gundam entry, Stardust Memory. Then, there’s also the wider industry context. 1988 was the year so-called “realist” animation triumphed in Japan, with movies such as Akira and Grave of the Fireflies; CCA also deserves its place in the history of realism. Indeed, it was a tremendous success not only in mecha animation, but also in regards to the way characters moved, and ushered in some of the wider changes that were in inception.

Char’s Counterattack, a tentative chronology

The first step in any research on a movie like CCA is the production itself: how it went, following what schedule. Although we don’t have any official, comprehensive chronicle of how CCA’s production went, we do have a lot of elements and testimonies that, put together, allow us to have a pretty good picture.

The project of a Gundam entry titled Char’s Counterattack dates back in Yoshiyuki Tomino’s mind, as it was included in the original proposal of Zeta Gundam, made in 1984. The title would pop up everywhere between 1984 and 1986, whether on TV series proposals or novelizations; in the end, it would be the conclusion to Char and Amuro’s storyline that would be named Char’s Counterattack – its movie version, at least. The most important element we don’t know is when Tomino submitted his proposal for the movie; but it was without any doubt during ZZ’s production, that is after March 1986.

What we do have, however, is elements regarding Mamoru Nagano’s involvement. One of the most original mecha designers in anime history, Nagano had been close to Tomino since their collaborations on Heavy Metal L-Gaim in 1984, and then Zeta Gundam. Nagano wasn’t always appreciated by fellow staff members, and he found it difficult to fit in the highly competitive and commercial field of mecha designs for TV. This is why he was taken off ZZ by Sunrise and Bandai producers, who looked disapprovingly at the low sales of L-Gaim’s models. Hoping that this wouldn’t happen again in a movie, Tomino nominated Nagano for mecha design on the CCA project, and entrusted him with designing all mechanical objects that would appear – Mobile Suits, spaceships, cockpits and normal suits…  However, Bandai once again vetoed Nagano’s presence, and all of his designs were either thrown away or heavily redrawn, notably by Yutaka Izubuchi who was the new MS designer.

Dating Nagano’s involvement is central because it also allows us to date the storyboarding process: Tomino’s storyboard was drawn while Nagano was still on the film, and therefore includes Nagano’s designs. And the lucky thing is, we do have some of Nagano’s settei sketches. Not all of them are precisely dated: most just include the year. But some do mention a month: the earliest is from December 1986, and the latest from February 1987. Actual pre-production, that is designing and storyboarding, must have started in winter 1986. Then, in January 1987, when ZZ stopped airing, many of its animators should have been transferred to CCA.

One of Nagano’s initial designs, dated from January 27, 1987, and a page from Tomino’s initial storyboard

However, the animation work couldn’t start immediately. Nagano was taken off the project in February or March 1987, after which multiple designers submitted their own replacement proposals. For the Nu Gundam, some of the initial designs were submitted by Masahisa Suzuki, members from the in-house Sunrise planning and design team Viscial Design, Kazunori Nakazawa (who would end up assistant animation director on the movie) and Hideaki Anno. The latest sketch from those preparatory sessions is one by Nakazawa, dated May 6, 1987, while the fin funnel concept was finalized in early April. Izubuchi had already gotten to work on other mobile suits by then, and the latest of his settei sheets for the Nu Gundam is dated to June 20.

On characters, Hiroyuki Kitazume hadn’t started much earlier: he seems to have joined the production in February 1987. Quess’ rough design was completed on March 28, while Char’s final reference sheet is dated as late as August. Designs were basically completed in that time frame.

At the same time, Tomino’s original script was also undergoing modifications: multiple characters that were supposed to appear in the original movie (Beltorchika, replaced by Chen, and Glarbe, replaced by Gyunei) still figure in Kitazume’s design drafts in March and disappear in April. Accordingly, the storyboards must have gone through changes. Certainly animation work had been initiated as early as possible; but if it could only start in earnest in July or August, that’s an incredibly tight schedule – 8 months at best – to animate a movie that was probably completed by the end of February 1988 at the latest.

Looking at the staff, many elements confirm that the production was a rough one. As mentioned earlier, all the mechanical designs were initially supposed to be in the hands of just one person, Nagano. However, on the final movie, we see 4 people credited – 3 on mechanical design, and one on MS design. Producers probably realized that they wouldn’t make it in time with just one designer and went looking for help. They even went outside Sunrise and asked help from studio Gainax, which sent its two best mecha and effects artists to design the movie’s spaceships and some other miscellaneous objects: Hideaki Anno was on the Neo-Zeon side, and Shôichi Masuo on the Federation one. Similarly, the number of animation directors is rather high, especially compared to other productions. Akira had just one animation director, Takashi Nakamura, and his assistant, Kôji Morimoto; CCA had 7 animation directors and 4 assistants. It is among the highest counts in the entire decade, and animation critic Yûichi Oguro described that number as “unthinkable” for the time.

Hideaki Anno’s designs on the movie; credit to Petsu-chan for the image and research

Besides the animation, largely behind schedule, things must have been incredibly difficult as well for the photography staff. The movie was certainly pioneering in the photography aspect, using 3DCG sequences of a space colony composited with the cel animation, or a real, 3D, hand-painted model of the Earth for the final scene. All this could only increase the pressure on the team. Photography director Atsushi Okui reported that they were organized in 2 shifts, one for the day and one the night, so that the shooting could go on 24 hours a day.

Char’s Counterattack in anime history: Sunrise and the realists

Beyond its inscription in the specific context of 1988, CCA is a turning point in the longer development of anime aesthetics and studio Sunrise’s animation. In terms of mecha, it represents one of the last great examples of a certain way of animating robots, that would come to an end in the next 2 Gundam OVAs, War in the Pocket and Stardust Memories. In terms of character animation, it is the result of a development spanning multiple decades that made Sunrise works pioneers in the “realist” aesthetic. These works are seldom cited by the animators of the “realist school” that worked on Akira, since most of them situate themselves in another lineage, that of studio Telecom and of animator Yasuo Otsuka. However, in the 1970’s and early 1980’s, Sunrise could boast of the contributions of two of the greatest character animators of all time: Yoshikazu Yasuhiko and Tomonori Kogawa. Each one of them had the opportunity to deliver his own theatrical masterpiece: Yasuhiko’s was Mobile Suit Gundam: Encounters in Space, while Kogawa’s was The Ideon: Be Invoked.

Yasuhiko and Kogawa had different origins – Yasuhiko was from studio Mushi and Kogawa from Tatsunoko – and styles. But their approaches to animation were similar in at least 2 aspects, two which are among the most important in defining animated “realism”: a precise awareness of human anatomy, and the capacity to give characters a sense of volume which allowed them to occupy a three-dimensional space. After these two groundbreaking movies, both artists went in their own, even more distinct directions. As series like Xabungle illustrate, Kogawa increasingly favored looser, cartoony movement, while Yasuhiko kept pushing the limits of character animation in an effort that would culminate in Venus Wars and F91.

In any case, throughout the 80s, Kogawa and Yasuhiko’s legacies were largely pursued by Sunrise’s top two character designers. The first is Tsukasa Dokite, famous for being the character designer of Dirty Pair: he was a Yasuhiko student who had started working under him on Giant Gorg. The other, of special interest to us here, is Hiroyuki Kitazume, a student of Kogawa from the latter’s studio Beebow. He slowly took on Yasuhiko’s role on the Gundam franchise starting from Zeta, on which he was one of the most recurring animation directors. He then did the designs for ZZ and CCA, which was his occasion to completely rework Yasuhiko’s original designs.Kitazume’s Beebow and, further down, Tatsunoko lineage, is very visible in his design work, especially the way it tends to stress anatomy and body structure. For instance, the jawlines are always distinctly outlined, a remnant of the famous “Kogawa chin”, a drawing quirk of Kogawa’s which consists of always clearly delineating characters’ chin, especially when they raise their heads.

In any case, such designs can be hard to animate properly, not so much because of how detailed they are (which is the case for Yasuhiko’s characters), but because they require in the animators a sense for anatomy at least equal to that of the character designer. If this requirement isn’t met, or simply if the working conditions make it impossible for the animator to meet it, the animation risks becoming overly stiff, thus destroying any sense of immersion

Taking a step away from Sunrise, there is one other work that must be mentioned to understand CCA’s origin: that is the anthology Robot Carnival. If we go back over the development of realism in anime throughout the 80s, there were basically three main lineages. The first one, evoked just above, centered around Sunrise and Beebow. Another one came from studios Telecom and An Apple, in the wake of animators Yasuo Otsuka and Akio Sugino, and mostly developed in Ghibli. Finally, the last one grew around Madhouse and animator Takashi Nakamura. Akira was the moment when the Ghibli and Madhouse lineages truly met for the first time; Robot Carnival was the same, for the Sunrise and Madhouse groups.

Although Robot Carnival was produced by studio APPP and coordinated by Hiroyuki Kitakubo, it was largely dominated by figures who had in the previous years been mostly working with studio Madhouse: director Katsuhiro Otomo, animators Takashi Nakamura, Kôji Morimoto and Manabu Ohashi. Alongside those were three people, two of which were ex-Beebow, now members of Atelier Giga, who would be animation directors on CCA: Hidetoshi Omori on the third short, Deprive, and Hiroyuki Kitazume on the fifth, Starlight Angel. Without going into too much detail about those shorts, they both stood out a lot from the Madhouse shorts, being more oriented towards action and adventure. They also formed a cohesive duo, since Omori’s designs were extremely close to Kitazume’s, to the point that the protagonist of Deprive looks like a more badass version of Judeau – even though Omori didn’t work on ZZ. Tomonori Kogawa also made an appearance, since he designed Deprive’s antagonist.

Aside from their similarities, these two shorts are also very instructive in their differences. Deprive puts a lot of focus on colorful, dense effects animation of the kind that Omori could have played with on L-Gaim 3 years prior. In terms of character animation, it favors a distinctly pose-to-pose approach, with very visible slow-in/slow-outs and a strong feeling of tension in every motion. In other words, Omori represented a certain tendency followed by some Beebow animators in the second half of the 80s to integrate some of the most expressive aspects of Kanada-style animation, the style that had been dominant since the beginning of the decade. On the other hand, Kitazume’s work is much closer to what CCA’s animation would look like: while it has its fair share of cartoony expressions and motion, the focus is rather on fluidity and the overall movement of the body, accompanied by some impressive instances of camera movement. In terms of design, both remained true to their Beebow roots, but for animation proper, Kitazume was closer to what one may call “realism”.

A year before CCA, Robot Carnival ensured that Beebow and, more generally, Sunrise’s presence in the developing realist circles would not be ignored. It also partly explains why CCA’s actual animation started so late: in early 1987, Kitazume, Omori and their teams were probably too busy on their shorts to do much work on the movie. Moreover, besides these, Robot Carnival featured one other artist who would make significant contributions to CCA: that was Yasuomi Umetsu.

The veterans: Yasuomi Umetsu and Yoshinobu Inano

Yasuomi Umetsu was one of the most original and radical artists in the developing realist movement. He was also one of the most important, not in terms of influence, but in terms of presence: from very early on, this independant freelancer was on the works of the Madhouse lineage (Genma Taisen, Robot Carnival, Akira), the Ghibli one (Grave of the Fireflies) and Sunrise: he was the one behind Zeta’s two openings and endings. Along with Megazone 23: Part II on which he was character designer and animation director, it was the work that made him famous. It was also on those two that he first had the opportunity to collaborate with Kitazume.

In terms of style, Umetsu’s work had two distinct characteristics. His designs are extremely unique: they certainly are idealized, but not prettified in the way that most anime designs tend to be, or not as statue-like as Kogawa’s, even though they’re just as anatomically accurate. Extremely stylized and detailed, especially around the hair, eyes and skin, Umetsu’s characters can have ugly traits even though they’re beautifully drawn: the main character from Presence is the best example of it. In terms of motion, Umetsu radicalized the realists’ aspiration to fluidity by animating almost systematically on 1s and 2s, with close spacings and very little distinct posing work – which means, basically, using as many drawings as is mathematically possible. These experiments culminated in Presence, where the movement feels so fluid that it is, at best, uncanny, and at worst, completely mechanical. Although it ended up corresponding to the theme of the short, Umetsu himself admitted he was unsatisfied with the way his work turned out.

On CCA, Umetsu was one of the most prolific animators: he was in charge of all sequences taking place in Sweetwater colony, possibly including Char’s speech until the departure of the fake Neo-Zeon fleet (which makes for 4 minutes without the speech, and 9 with it). He also designed the background characters of his sequences, and possibly Quess’ father, Adenauer Paraya (or that was Kitazume’s nod to the main character of Presence). Except for the subway scene, where the background characters are clearly different from Kitazume’s sensibilities, Umetsu’s drawings aren’t as off-model as in, say, Zeta’s openings. In that subway scene especially, it was Tomino himself who went to Kitazume so that Umetsu would not be corrected, and asked the animator to include as many different ethnicities as he could. In other scenes, his style is still visible in elements such as the shading, that Umetsu used in a specific way to emphasize the texture of the skin.

Umetsu’s characteristic shading on the second Zeta OP (left), a scene he is confirmed to have animated (middle) and just after his speech on which he is presumed (right)

Entrusting this specific part of the movie to Umetsu was one of the best choices that could have been made: it is the one with most dialogue and the least action, that is the best fit for such an expert in detailed movement and subtle expression. It also contained one of the longest interactions between Char and Nanai – and once again, Umetsu was a perfect choice for the moments where the sexual tension is at its highest. Without being as radical as in Presence, the animation is remarkably fluid and the motion slower than in the rest of the movie. In that, it already differs from Kitazume’s style. It is also less dramatic or theatrical: the acting contains less of those slightly exaggerated movements of the hands or head that are used to create expression, sometimes a bit artificially.

However, my personal favorite scene by Umetsu is Char’s flashback, a reinterpretation of the original Gundam series with 1988’s sensibilities and from a different point of view. Just as it was the case with the Nanai scene, having Umetsu there was the perfect choice: he was even better than Kitazume to reinterpret Yasuhiko’s original designs and give them another, sort of idealized twist – which is precisely what this scene is about. The same happens with the Mobile Suits: Umetsu’s peculiar way of creating texture and incredibly clean linework manage to make us completely rediscover Kunio Okawara’s designs.

More generally, this sequence illustrates how well Umetsu’s style could work in certain contexts. In his almost complete immobility, Char has a sort of illustrative quality, in stark contrast against the extreme fluidity of Amuro and Lalah’s (and their Mobile Suits’) motion. Moreover, there is some very complex camera movement here, as the Mobile Suits move in various directions and the camera rotates around Char; once again, the fluidity of Umetsu’s animation, and his mastery of body structures and movements, are just what’s necessary to pull off such moments.

Besides Umetsu, another one of the important character animators on the movie was Yoshinobu Inano, one of the two character animation directors of the movie. Indeed, although the distinction was not stated in the credits, animation direction work was divided as follows: Kitazume almost exclusively supervised the animators’ layouts; the character animation was supervised by the Kogawa students that were Inano and Shin’ichirô Minami, the effects by Hidetoshi Omori and Mitsuo Iso (under the pseudo of Mikio Odagawa), and the mechas by Takatsuna Senba and Kisaraka Yamada.

Inano wasn’t from Beebow, but from the smaller studio Bird, which he had created with Hiroshi Oikawa in 1975. From there, they mostly worked on Tôei productions, but Inano admired the works of studio Tatsunoko; he had a first opportunity to work under one of their ex-animators, Tomonori Kogawa, on Farewell Space Battleship Yamato, in 1978. Just a year after that, Inano would make one of his first masterpieces: the final scene of Galaxy Express 999, when Maetel and Tetsurô separate on the station’s platform. The elasticity and personality in Tetsurô’s gait illustrated that Inano had become a master animator.In the years that followed, Inano would become one of Kogawa’s most trusted collaborators, to the degree that, at some point, Kogawa himself almost stopped correcting his drawings. On Ideon: Be Invoked, Inano animated at least parts of the spectacular final scene, and on Dunbine, he solo key-animated the ending, a beautiful and remarkably fluid walk cycle which illustrated Inano’s definitive mastery of human anatomy and movement. He had never worked on the Gundam franchise before, but just before CCA he also began to collaborate with Yasuhiko on the movie Arion and the OVA Kaze to Ki no Uta.

On CCA, besides his corrections, Inano is known to have animated a decisive scene: Char and Amuro’s fistfight in Londenion. We don’t know precisely when Inano’s animation starts – he may also have done the encounter and chase between Char’s horse and Amuro’s Jeep, which are masterful. In any case, in the fistfight proper, we can notice Inano had two priorities. The first one is character expression: the fighters’ faces are always detailed, and we can see just what they are thinking – something essential in such a dialogue-heavy scene. The other is not so much detail in the movement itself – although there’s certainly a lot – than its slowness. When Amuro and Char roll over the grass, or during the POV shot from Amuro’s perspective, things seem to move very slowly, sometimes almost too much: in that POV shot, Char’s acting looks very exaggerated. But in other instances, it works perfectly: when Amuro sends Char flying with a judo throw, you can feel the effort and weight he puts in, or when Quess starts running and interrupts the fight, her intervention seems surreal and unexpected, as if it were in slow-motion.

The animators of Char’s Counterattack

Inano and Umetsu were two veterans, some of the “star animators”, as it were, of CCA. But as an incredibly ambitious and terribly out-of-schedule production, the movie brought in many people, a large number of which weren’t regulars on the Gundam franchise. It would be far too long to present every one of the 58 credited key animators of the movie, but some of the most notable warrant a few words. It should be noted, however, that the exact parts most of them animated haven’t been identified; but given the high quality and consistency of the movie, what they have done is by all means remarkable.

The group of artists I’ve decided to highlight can be broken down in categories, mostly by studio of origin. The first among them is therefore the animators that were, at some point in their careers, members of studio Beebow. Beebow dissolved in 1989 due to a lack of members. By the time of CCA’s production, many of its animators had transferred either to Kitazume’s Studio Pack (created in 1984) or its successor Atelier Giga (created in 1987) . Some had gone through both, such as assistant animation director Naoyuki Onda, a regular on Gundam since Zeta. After going to studio AIC throughout most of the 90s, he came back on the franchise as the character animation director of the Zeta movies, animator on Unicorn, and even more recently character designer and animation director on the first Hathaway’s Flash movie.

Another notable artist was Hiroyuki Ochi, Onda’s younger rival in Beebow, Pack and AIC who was animator on ZZ’s two openings, and notably handled the ZZ’s gattai sequence. He is also famous for being the one who slipped in Kamille and Fa in the Fight! Iczer One OVA.

Besides the ex-Beebow members, on ZZ and CCA we also find multiple artists from studio MAX, created just like Beebow in the early 80s. One of them was Yorihisa Uchida, who was animation director on the ZZ OP and ED, and the other was Toshimitsu Kobayashi. It was on Xabungle that they met and created MAX, and then worked on various Sunrise shows such as L-Gaim, Giant Gorg and then Zeta. Having worked on Plawres Sanshirô and Birth, Uchida was closer to the Kanada-style, which is sometimes visible in his stylized effects and beams work. Kobayashi was more of a character animator, and was especially close to Toshifumi Kawase, a regular episode director on Z and ZZ who was promoted to assistant direction on CCA.

So far, most of the animators mentioned had worked with Tomino before: from wherever they came, they subcontracted for Sunrise’s studio 2. But what’s notable with CCA’s animators is that many had instead worked with Sunrise’s studio 3, which had most notably produced Blue Comet SPT Layzner. One of the most important to have worked on Layzner was Tôru Yoshida. Originally from Osaka, he had lent a hand on Daicon III before joining the Osaka-based studio Anime R, which had started working with Sunrise on Ideon and then did animation on most of the works of director Ryunosuke Takahashi in Sunrise’s studios 1 and then 3. The presence of an Anime R artist on CCA is remarkable given the studio’s place in anime history. In the mid-80s, the “Anime R style” represented one of the most original and compelling takes on Kanada-style effects animation; but its artists were also under heavy influence from Akira‘s animation director Takashi Nakamura (see the Nakamura-style floating debris on this sequence by Yoshida) and one of them, Hiroyuki Okiura, would become one of the most important artists in the realist school in the 1990s thanks to his collaboration with Mamoru Oshii on Patlabor, Ghost in the Shell and Jin-Roh.

Another artist related to the realists was Hideki Nimura. Far less famous than Okiura, Toshiyuki Inoue or Satoru Utsunomiya, he was a student of Yasuomi Umetsu present on many of the key works in the development of realism: assistant animation director on Megazone 23: Part II and key animator on Presence and Akira. He also played a part in some of the most important works of the post-Akira landscape, notably The Hakkenden, Kujira no Peek and Junkers Come Here. If it wasn’t Umetsu who handled Char’s speech, it may have been Nimura since their styles were probably similar. On CCA, we also find Hiroyuki Kitakubo, the one who had coordinated the Robot Carnival anthology and did animation on Akira. Kitakubo’s presence on CCA was something special, since he had made his first work as animator on the original series, at just 15 years old. The scene he handled, the final briefing before Londo Bell’s attack on Axis, was a rather quiet one; but Tomino himself asked him to make corrections on the salute because it wasn’t realistic enough. You can also see that, just like it had been the case for Umetsu, Kitakubo possibly designed the background characters of the scene himself. Although it’s just a pan over a still frame, this is great work, as the characters’ poses feel both varied and natural – it actually feels like a photo that could have been taken on the scene.

Finally, one of the most important animators on the movie was Kôji Koizumi. A young prodigy of 27 at the time, he died the year after in a traffic accident; CCA was his penultimate work, before Nagano’s Five Star Stories. Koizumi was the lead animator of studio Dub Iwaki, an inspiration for all who worked there, and one of the best artists that subcontracted for Sunrise between 1983 and 1989. It is him who animated the rooftop scene of Kamille and Four in Zeta, as well as some remarkable MS fight scenes. In his final work, Five Star Stories, he was partly in charge of the fight with Night of Gold, in which he showcased an impressive ability to convey scale, but also for effects and debris animation.

On CCA, Koizumi was the most prolific animator, handling the final 10 minutes-or-so of the movie: the final duel between the Nu Gundam and Sazabi, Amuro stopping Axis, the mystical light spread by the psycho-frame and the people on Earth looking up to it.

Taking the last moments of the duel between Char and Amuro gives a good measure of Koizumi’s skill. The first seconds of that sequence illustrate one of the things that made him such a great mecha animator: his sense of rhythm. As the two mobile suits exchange blows, we get a lot of slow-in/slow-outs: in the first shot, when the Nu Gundam lowers its beam saber, the movement starts off rather slow, but just before it hits, the spacings suddenly get wider and the action seems to accelerate. The same happens when the Sazabi gives a kick: the close-up on its leg is rather slow, giving the viewer time to appreciate the detailed workings of the mechanical elements and to brace for the impact; and when we cut and the Nu Gundam is disarmed, everything gets faster before slowing back down. This contrast is reinforced by the storyboarding which alternates between close-ups and wider shots: as we get close to the action, it slows down so that we can take it in, and when we get farther, it accelerates and ramps up the tension and anticipation.

The other remarkable element (one of the highlights of the movie’s animation in general) is how Koizumi manages to keep up with Tomino’s storyboarding and complex layouts. One of the things that makes mecha animation so hard to handle is the amount of lines. But Tomino, in his storyboards, often seems to disregard this, favoring complex choreographies and camera movements, which implies perspective changes. Here, it all seems perfectly mastered, without any mistake of any kind: the animation retains fluidity and the mobile suits’ shapes remain consistent even though the camera moves around them in all directions. It’s pushed even further by the fact that the characters too are subjected to such complex motion: there are 4 impressive bits of camera movement, at 0:22-0:23, 0:38-0:39, 0:46-0:47, and 0:54-0:59. All of these are quite short, lasting no more than a mere seconds, but they’re always complex: rotations or large zoom-ins, which imply changing the perspective and proportions not just on the characters, but also the backgrounds. Considering that most of the sequence is on 1s or 2s, that is uses a considerable amount of drawings, makes all this even more impressive.

The young prodigies: Mitsuo Iso and Shin’ya Ohira

Alongside all the experienced animators and younger figures like Koizumi were two other promising figures who warrant a section of their own, because of how important they became in the post-CCA and post-Akira landscape: these are Mitsuo Iso and Shin’ya Ohira. After 1988, they would both become leading figures in the realist movement, and have since been acknowledged as some of the most important animators in Japan.

Let’s begin with Mitsuo Iso, the most important of the two on the movie. Born in 1966, Iso had participated on Z and ZZ as in-betweener and then key animator, as a student of Atsushi Shigeta in studio Zaendô. Mostly an effects animator, Shigeta was a great influence on Iso, especially in the way his explosions form circular shapes that develop organically, sometimes like bubbles – something quite distinct from the Kanada style, and a sort of return to Yasuhiko’s original effects animation. As it evolved, this style would become dominant in Tomino’s next series, especially Victory and Turn A. Shigeta was present on CCA as an assistant animation director, but he wasn’t the one who invited Iso: it was producer Kôji Takamori, who had met him on Zeta. Since Iso was busy on Gegege no Kitarô at the moment, he agreed to become animation director under the pen name Mikio Odagawa (for the record, this would date Iso’s arrival on CCA around October or November 1987 – that is remarkably late). When studio Zaendô was asked to provide animation on the movie, Iso also worked from there and ended up being credited twice: once under a pseudo as animation director, and once under his real name as key animator.

Until then, Iso had done very little noteworthy work. CCA was therefore a turning point in his career. Alongside Hidetoshi Omori, he was in charge of designing and supervising the effects work of the movie. In that regard, CCA was clearly a major change. With Zeta, the effects work on Gundam shows made a shift towards the Kanada style, which culminated in ZZ: beam shapes were incredibly varied, often angular with very irregular motion and poses. Iso himself, although he favored Shigeta-like round explosions, accentuated the shadings and shape variations in a Kanada-inspired fashion.

One of the elements by which CCA discarded this Kanada influence was by setting aside all smoke effects: this decision was taken at Tomino’s demand, as a way to favor realism since smoke behaves differently in space. As we could see in Koizumi’s sequence above, the explosions in CCA kept a simple color pattern, between shades of white, pink and red. Although the outlines remained angular, the shapes were often round and sometimes bubbled up in the way that Iso and Shigeta favored. As for the beams, they kept straight, regular shapes, with a sort of dissolving effect on the outlines to create a sense of dynamism. This was reinforced by some animators who had the coloring staff add sprays of white or slightly colored paint on explosions to figure debris – a technique initiated on the original Gundam series, subsequently popularized by Ichirô Itano on Encounters in Space and then Macross.

As for animation, Iso animated around 100 cuts which make up the fight between the Nu Gundam and the Jagd Doga, most probably including the preceding duel between the Re GZ and the Jagd Doga. At this point, what set Iso apart was less the quality of his motion (which remains great, but doesn’t stand out that much given the overall level of the movie) than his drawings. Since he was largely an effects animator until then, it is these that warrant the most attention. On missiles and beams, Iso maintained angular shapes, very close to what Yoshinori Kanada himself had done on a movie like Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind – but these shapes still had little to do with the way the Kanada style had previously been used on the Gundam series.

Kanada’s influence is also visible in the comparatively stark shading Iso used, and the impact-frames like flicker effect when Amuro gets electrified. What’s special here is that Iso smears the outlines of Amuro’s face to represent the shock. This is capital, as Iso would popularize the technique of outline smears in character animation in later years.

However, he also stood out for his ability to switch between these and a much rounder kind of explosion, in the complete continuity of Shigeta’s work. This is especially visible in the sequence above: between 0:22 and 0:24, when the Jadg Doga shoots the funnels, the explosion begins in a triangular form, as if it adopted the motion and energy of the beam, before this energy vanishes and the explosion proper happens, forming thick, circular bubbles. This illustrates that Iso wasn’t just a Kanada clone and perfectly fit into CCA’s aesthetic. He wasn’t a Shigeta clone either: although the sequence above is short, we can still see Iso’s complete mastery of the volume and mechanics of the Mobile Suits, especially when funnels fly around or when Gyunei kills Kayra. 

As mentioned earlier, the other rising figure on CCA was Shin’ya Ohira. He was born in 1966, the very same year as Iso, but in 1988, he had already become someone impossible to ignore. Originally from studio Pierrot, he was one of the most radical animators in the Kanada-style lineage and pushed even further what had been done by the Anime R artists with heavily stylized shadings and effects. While he only worked on 2 episodes of ZZ, his presence was very noticeable: he was one of the animators who pushed the show’s Kanada-style aesthetic the furthest. By CCA, however, Ohira had started his shift to realism, and the movie would be his farewell to mecha animation.

Ohira’s sequence is the second fight between the Nu Gundam and the Jagd Doga, and also between the Nu Gundam and the Alpha Azieru. He was in charge of one of the most complex objects for any Gundam animator to handle: funnels. These psychically-manipulated weapons are always multiple, and moving in a lot of directions at once. The first challenge for the animator is therefore to keep track of every individual funnel and keep the action readable. The other lies in the layouts: especially with Tomino pushing the limits of storyboarding, the three-dimensional movement of the funnels and mobile-suits in space is always difficult to pull off well.

The one thing we can say about Ohira’s animation here is that it brushes off both those challenges as if they didn’t exist at all. Unlike Koizumi, Ohira doesn’t slow down his action, and the motion is incredibly fluid, even when compared to other animators like Iso. All of the sequence (except the bits of character acting) is animated on 1s. In a way, Ohira followed and furthered what Umetsu had done with characters – but with even more success. Both the Mobile Suits and funnels move with ease, in a completely natural manner, as if they were really imbued with a life and will of their own. And yet the choreography is complex: the funnels move from one direction to another, turn around and are shot… there is simply not one quiet or still moment in this scene.

All of this is said without mentioning Ohira’s effect work, which still manages to stand out. Both the funnels’ beams and jets irradiate straight lines of pure energy, a sort of variation on the speedlines of the Kanada style. The shield of the Nu Gundam is also remarkable, as it maintains a unique sense of texture thanks to its pyramidal shape and the color work.

Char’s Counterattack was a monumental movie. The conclusion to the original Gundam saga, it was incredibly ambitious in every aspect – perhaps too much, in some cases – and ended up being one of the most impressive animated spectacles ever made. It is not surprising that it was overshadowed by non-franchise movies such as Akira or Grave of the Fireflies, but it was nevertheless just as important as them. It was a complete masterpiece in every field of animation – characters, mechas, effects – but also a stepping stone in the history of the realist school. 

In terms of mechanical animation, the animators of CCA not only explored the option of fluidity as much as they could. They also, for the most part, sought to bring mecha and character animation as close as possible by giving the movement of the robots a spontaneous, natural quality. This certainly fit the in-universe development of Mobile Suits, increasingly psychically enhanced, and their original purpose, that is to give war an individual dimension through duels. Under the hands of people like Yasuomi Umetsu, Koji Koizumi, Mitsuo Iso and Shin’ya Ohira, robots were essentially mechanical bodies. It would not be until War in the Pocket and more importantly Stardust Memory than animated Mobile Suits would truly become machines once again.

It is therefore no surprise if many of CCA’s artists were already accomplished character animators or would become such. The cases of Mitsuo Iso and Shin’ya Ohira are by far the most instructive. Before CCA they were both essentially effects animators, and the movie allowed them to stretch their muscles on mecha – something Iso would do once more just after that, but in a completely different style, on War in the Pocket. However, after that, both men would start specializing in character animation, beginning with the revolutionary Mamoru Oshii OVA Gosenzosama Banbanzai. It, too, was related to CCA thanks to Kôichi Hashimoto, animator on CCA, Akira, and assistant director on Gosenzosama. By the end of 1988, the long period that saw realism develop had finally come to an end: a new generation of ambitious animators were ready to take the industry by storm, and CCA was a major step in their rise.

2 thoughts on “The animation of Char’s Counterattack

  1. Thank you for your brilliant criticism and comprehensive research on CCA, while I beg to point out a tiny factual mistake about Kitakubo in the introduction of animators, especially when it comes to Hiroyuki Kitakubo. Kitakubo was born in 1963 and he was most probably 25 but not 15 during the production of CCA. CCA was also most probably not his first original work as an animator, if you have considered some other works that he had participated in, such as Urusei TV series and Pop Chaser in Cream Lemon.


    1. Hello, thank you very much for your comment!
      However, I think you misunderstood what I meant about Kitakubo – maybe I wasn’t clear enough myself. He debuted as an animator on the original Gundam series, that is in 1979, and not CCA, as you correctly point out.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s