Lately I’ve been thinking lot about the death of a famous authoritarian leader. I am, of course, speaking of Char Aznable – The Red Comet, Supreme Leader of Neo-Zeon, son, orphan, sociopath, lover, genocidal dictator. The history of the Universal Century, and of the Gundam franchise in general, is inescapably linked to this infamous figure. Char Aznable: the most beloved military tyrant in anime history.
Was Char Aznable’s evolution into a mass murdering spacenoid supremacist inevitable? Or was it the result of a series of heartbreaking tragedies? Is he a tyrant who rose out of a megalomaniacal sense of self-importance or a freedom fighter who would see his people freed by any means necessary? Like many real-life leaders Char’s legacy is complex; positive and profane, and the balance of those deeds is in the eye of the beholder.
He was born Casval Rem Daikun, son of the revolutionary founder of Zeon. His childhood ended with the death of his father and coup d’etat by the Zabi family. His mother dies in house arrest soon after, isolated, sick and heartbroken. He spends his formative years hiding and escaping assassination attempts. Along the way he watches nearly everyone who offered him aid or shelter die at the hands of the Zabis, now the undisputed rulers of a fascist state bearing his father’s name. These wounds leave Casval cultivating a thirst for vengeance which threatened to devour him. The only connection that kept him from completely succumbing to darkness in those early years was the love of his sister Artesia. But eventually, as time compounds his pain, even his bond with her fails to stop him from seeking revenge.
The Zabi family’s cruelty and manipulations were an education in how to claim power. By his late teens, Casval learned his first lesson: vengeance requires power, and the path to power comes at the expense of people. He becomes Char Aznable by guiding an idealistic young man into a death, a death meant for Casval. But in adopting this mask, he chooses another sort of death. His old life as Casval becomes the shadow of his new life as Char, the promising cadet and talented leader. The tension between these aspects of himself rises to the surface in his encounters with the women in his life.
Char meets Lalah Sune and helps her escape a life of abuse and slavery. He trains her in the use of Mobile Suits, recognizing her talent as a newtype. Despite leaving his sister years ago, he can’t stop being protective of younger women. When he finally reunites with Artesia, who has since become a Federation officer named Sayla Mass, he tries in vain to persuade her to leave the war effort to avoid facing her in combat and potentially killing her. In both cases, despite his love for Lalah and Sayla, his campaign against the Zabi family comes first. It’s a choice that has fatal consequences and offers Char his second lesson: love has no place in the quest for power.
Char ingratiates himself with the Zabi family over the course of the One Year War, a war between Zeon and the Federation that puts half of humanity in graves. Char adds more than his share to that body count, both directly in the case of nearly all of the Zabi family, and indirectly in the death of Lalah at the hands of his nemesis Amuro Ray. Her death shatters him and sets the groundwork for their fateful showdown years later.
In the years following the One Year War, Char feels devoid of purpose having finally claimed his vengeance. It would not be until the Gryps Conflict of Zeta Gundam that he would find a new role for himself: heir to his father’s political legacy and true leader of his people. Drawing upon his father’s beliefs, he announces that mankind must abandon gravity and embrace life among the stars. His battles with the brutal Titans anti-insurgency forces provide Char with his third and final lesson: those unwilling to escape Earth’s gravity aren’t worth saving.
When Char returns to the political stage at the head of Neo-Zeon’s armies in Char’s Counterattack, he does so with the intent of forcing the gravity-bound citizens of Earth to become spacenoids by destroying life on the planet. Now the absolute ruler of Zeon, he attempts to usher in his father’s utopia by way of apocalypse. He would have succeeded if not for Amuro Ray, who anime history remembers only for his ability to unceasingly foil Char at every turn. With the failure of his final gambit, Char exits life as its greatest hero or its most infamous villain, depending on which version of history one accepts. For citizens of Zeon, he’s a Charles De Gaulle-like figure. For the people of the Federation, he’s another Josef Stalin. Whether by circumstance or destiny, Char’s legacy remains a conundrum.
Char has become, arguably, the central protagonist of the Universal Century Gundam timeline and indisputably one of anime’s great characters. His mask motif and other characteristics have been emulated in countless mecha series, Gundam and otherwise. His image’s ability to sell merchandise transcends model kits and includes cars and even tea sets. Why? Why does a genocidal tyrant interest and excite fans for almost forty years?
Char’s uncanny valley reflection of the lives of real world revolutionaries makes him one of the most compelling characters in anime. We find Char compelling because of his humanity runs through his misdeeds like sunlight through storm clouds. His flaws, obsessions, and passions remind us of ourselves. Were I to visit the UC universe, I would not be surprised to find Char’s face on a poster in a trendy café or on a T-shirt like Che Guevara. His larger than life exploits have seemed to take on even larger scale in the fandom over the years, similar to the late Fidel Castro, whose long life spanned the 20th and 21st centuries in a way few world leaders will. Like Castro has in real life, Char became a fixture in the landscape of fandom. And unlike Castro, we know Char not only for his infamy, but also the loves and tragedies of his life.
A part of us wants to believe he’s a good person underneath it all. It’s the same part of us he uses time and again to convince people to die for his sins.