The Gundam franchise is an excellent source for strong male characters and it’s no accident so many of them are fathers or surrogate fathers. Even if we’re unaware of it, as men, most things we do in life are measured and compared against the lives of our fathers if only by ourselves. As I looked at the two current flagship shows of Gundam, AGE & Unicorn, I see two very different perspectives on the same idea. Spoilers ahead!
In Unicorn, the father/son relationship is arguably the defining theme. Cardeas Vist is estranged from his illegitimate son Banagher but has been watching over him from afar, providing him a place in the world to call his own. When they finally meet again he performs an act of kindness disguised as cruelty, threatening to remove that place in an attempt to disentangle his son from the Sleeves and the Zabi princess. Being more worldly than the boy trying to force out a hasty confession, she aids Cardeas by shutting Banagher down hard. This is the toughest role a dad must play, to be harsh and uncompromising because he sees further than his child. But when all has fallen apart it’s not the traitorous legitimate son Alberto that receives the father’s legacy but Banagher, who has now seen his dad’s true intent. It’s after his death that Cardeas’s role as father the protector is made most clear, because instead of giving in to rage, despair, and loss, Banagher’s first act upon being anointed in his blood and taking up his father’s mantle is to force the fight outside the colony, defending countless innocents just as he believes his father would have wanted.
From this point on Banagher meets several men that can be taken as father figures, each filling a specific role from Full Frontal as the false father, to Captain Otto Midas as the wise counselor. But the two most interesting of these relationships are with Daguza Mackle and Suberoa Zinnerman due to their adversarial nature. Daguza and Banagher spend most of their time together clashing over differing ideas of honor. However, Daguza never sees Banagher as a tool and does another thing that is extremely difficult for a father figure: admits, even if indirectly, he was wrong. This leads to their reconciliation tragically just moments before Daguza’s death at the hands of Full Frontal. Daguza’s death causes Banagher to lose control, killing Gilboa, a man he knows. This takes a good father from Tikava, a boy not much younger than himself. It’s this act that presages Banagher’s figurative and literal fall from grace as he plunges to earth and into the hands of the second of these complex men, Captain Zinnerman.
Zinnerman helps a broken boy put himself back together at his lowest moment with the rough and threadbare love of a father who has lost everything. In return, Banagher saves Suberoa’s heart from falling into darkness and losing himself to vengeance at the battle of Torrington. Sometimes a son’s role is to fight their father when they are wrong. We spend so much time trying to catch up to our dad’s backs that we forget that they are fallible men as well. I don’t believe we become men until we have learned to stand up to our fathers when we must, and still love them as we fight, just as they do for us. Fists, sometimes, are a man’s romance.
In the side characters we’re given two men that are mirror images of one another: a bad man with a good father, Alberto Vist; and Riddhe Marcenas, a good young man with a morally compromised father. Alberto Vist becomes visibly more uncomfortable with the repercussions of his and his colleagues’ actions as the show goes on. It’s subtle, but at several points you can almost hear him thinking: “I was raised better than this.” And then Riddhe Marcenas, that moral and ethical failure on his father’s part steadily colors the son’s actions as the series goes on. From the simple entitlement he displays by stealing the Delta Plus and trying to make himself seem important, to murder on the battlefield to avoid being seen as “naive”.
In contrast to Unicorn’s complex view of male relationships, AGE presents a simpler view as befits its younger target audience, but there are a few things worth noting. Flit’s adoptive father, Mr. Bruzar, tells him as soon as they first meet that he isn’t taking him in out of pity but to see the Asuno talent at mobile suit engineering. The only moments of bonding we see between them before Bruzar’s self sacrifice are during the construction of the AGE-1. Then there’s Grodek Ainoa who makes no secret of the fact that he is using Flit as a tool to enact his revenge against the UE. When he has gotten it, he turns himself over for his prison sentence leaving the temporary family he made aboard the Diva to fend for themselves.
These examples combined with Flit’s marriage to a woman he loves but was not in love with, goes some way toward explaining his actions at the start of Asemu’s story. The only way Flit knows how to be a dad is not to be there.
I think it’s no accident that the more mature of these two works paints a more complex, and frankly sentimental, view of fatherhood and male relationships in general. As we get older, many of our friendships with other men fall by the wayside and our dads’ influence in our lives diminishes or passes out of reckoning altogether. When that happens, we have a yearning to regain the safety and companionship those relationships once offered. But for a young man, a father’s motivations are often seen as mysterious and inscrutable if not outright in the way of making their choices. And that is a good impulse as well, it encourages us to grow and expand our horizons beyond what childhood offers.
Both shows crouch the idea of fatherhood as being inextricably bound up with sacrifice, which may be true to a degree, but it’s not a sacrifice without recompense. Every child will remember their father, for good or ill, as a hero or villain on par with the great figures of their times. What else is immortality?